The Shame of the Catholic Workplace
By Jim Smith
The list keeps getting longer.
A teacher in New York City. An organist near Atlanta. A teacher in Chicago. A music director in Charlotte. A teacher in Columbus.
At an accelerating rate, Catholic schools and churches around the country are firing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees who have decided that they can no longer deny who they are and whom they love.
No school better exemplifies this unhappy trend than Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn. Late last month, Kristen Ostendorf, an English and religion teacher, was fired after telling colleagues at a workshop: “I’m gay, I’m in a relationship with a woman, and I’m happy.” Just one month earlier, William Hudson, the school’s president, had resigned after a rumor about his sexuality prompted him to reveal that he was in a committed 18-year relationship with another man.
At a time when even Pope Francis himself is urging the church to move beyond what he calls its “obsession” with sexual issues, Catholic schools and parishes are intensifying the judgmental behavior that the pope urged Catholics to eschew in a recent interview with Jesuit publications.
These incidents, like others around the country, cost Catholic institutions the services of dedicated and talented individuals who, in most instances, have served the church and community effectively for years. Catholic prelates like Archbishop John Nienstedt say that the church must enforce its employment policies in order to defend its teachings on marriage and the family.
But if this is the case, why does the hierarchy not defend these teachings more consistently?
Catholic parishes don’t fire heterosexual musicians who choose to get married at City Hall rather than in a Catholic Church. Catholic schools don’t check up on heterosexual teachers to determine whether they might have remarried without having their previous marriages annulled, or whether they are using artificial contraception. If the hierarchy were defending what it defines as Catholic principles, it would have to fire individuals in marriages that the church does not recognize as sacramental. But it does not.
When gay, lesbian or transgender people attempt to live openly as the individuals that God created them to be, however, the hierarchy is suddenly zealous to defend its doctrine. This double standard is increasingly obvious both to lay Catholics (almost three-quarters of whom support laws that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace, according to a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute) and the general public.
Schools and parishes that force LGBT people out of work believe that the U.S. Supreme Court gave them legal cover in January 2012 when it ruled that certain employees at religiously affiliated institutions were not protected by antidiscrimination laws. As a faithful Catholic, however, I am less interested in whether firing LGBT employees is legal than in whether it is true to what the church teaches about the nature of God.
In an interview with MinnPost, Ostendorf said: “God made me, God made all of us, and I don’t think that I’m some abnormal person, or an aberration, or that there was something missing in the making part, or something extra in the making part.” It is difficult, she notes, to square the hierarchy’s teaching that we are all created in the image and likeness of God but that some of us should be punished for loving as God made us to love.
Most Catholics, and most Minnesotans appreciate this dissonance. The longer religious institutions continue to discriminate against LGBT people in the name of an inconsistently applied doctrinal litmus test, the greater damage they will suffer.
There are signs that certain church leaders understand this as well. Responding in August to questions about gay priests, Pope Francis said: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” The pope, in other words, has no plans to discriminate against the gay men who, in secular terms, might be thought of as his employees.
Catholics and Minnesotans who benefit from strong Catholic institutions would be better served if people like Archbishop Nienstedt and the other religious institutions were similarly enlightened.
Jim Smith of Minneapolis is program director for DignityUSA, a member of the Equally Blessed coalition, which works for justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Roman Catholic Church and the wider society.
StarTribune, September 30, 2013.