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A correct, if unusual, ruling provoked incorrect, if typical, responses

June 21, 2019

The canon law under which Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson has prohibited Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School from holding itself out as “Catholic” is relatively straight-forward. More interesting, if wholly predictable, were the Jesuits’ attempt to redefine the dispute and CNN’s choice simply to lie about it.

Long story made short, BJPS has in its employ a teacher who entered a civil ‘same-sex marriage’ about two years ago. That teacher’s contract expired recently and the archdiocese requested that BJPS not offer him a new one. The Jesuits refused this request, which refusal triggered a broader discussion about whether BJPS wished to retain its identity as a Catholic school at all and, if so, whether it would take the administrative steps deemed necessary by Thompson to help assure the integrity of the Catholic witness offered by it faculty. Upon the Jesuits’ refusal to bring their personnel policies into line with archdiocesan expectations for employees/ministers (such as their not living in open contradiction to fundamental Church teaching on marriage and indeed of natural law) and specifically their renewal, it seems, of the contract of the teacher in a ‘same-sex marriage’, Thompson issued his decree revoking the status of the BJPS as a Catholic school.

In his decree Thompson invoked Canon 803 of the 1983 Code which states, among other things, that Catholic school “teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life” and that “no school is to bear the name Catholic school without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority”. Other provisions of Church law augment Thompson’s authority here (Canons 300 and 806 come to mind).

The Jesuits, meanwhile, through their Midwest Provincial Rev. Brian Paulson, vacillate between casting the archdiocesan request as being one for “dismissal” of the teacher in a ‘same-sex marriage’ (which, I think, the archdiocese could have, but did not, request) or one to decline offering a new a contract to the teacher (which is what the archdiocese did request and, in my view, would have been canonically negligent not to have requested).

Paulson repeatedly describes Thompson’s ruling as being one of prudence (convenient, for on prudential matters reasonable men may disagree) instead of recognizing Thompson’s ruling for what it is, an authoritative, binding ruling by the ecclesiastical officer responsible for such matters. Paulson regards the Jesuits’ stance here as an exercise of “conscience” (a claim that can be made by anyone intent on acting as he pleases, of course) and expresses concerns about “future interference in the school’s operations and other matters that have historically been the right and privilege of Brebeuf Jesuit officials” (as if, one supposes, hiring high school teachers who live in open contradiction to Church teaching has long been a right and privilege of Brebeuf Jesuit officials).

Paulson’s observation that “the direct insertion by a diocese into an employment matter of a school governed by a religious order is rare, with few, if any, precedents” is plausible enough, but one wonders whether, historically, there have been all that many Catholic high school teachers living in a ‘same-sex marriage’ to begin with and, in any case, whether there have been all that many bishops who cared much about stark contradictions between Catholic teaching and the witness to that teaching being given in Catholic schools. But however one assess those questions they are irrelevant to Thompson’s ecclesiastical authority to act as he did in this case at this time.

Most crucially, though, Paulson regards this matter as essentially turning on the unfortunate fact that “at times some people who are associated with our mission make personal moral decisions at variance with Church doctrine”. What balderdash. Everybody associated with the mission of the Church at times makes “moral decisions at variance with Church doctrine”. It’s called sin, and the response to others’ sin is, as Paulson notes, “to help them grow in holiness”. But the BJPS matter goes far beyond a ‘personal moral decision at variance with Church doctrine’. Here the Jesuits are, among other things, defending a teacher’s public act of defiance against fundamental Church teaching on the nature of marriage, an act taken in the face of the entire faith community and especially before its young boys and their families seeking to receive a Catholic education in word and deed. That is not just personal sin, that is classical scandal (CCC 2284), itself always a grave offense against the common good, and an even graver one when it is perpetrated before youth (CCC 2285).

Thus, if Paulson and the directors of BJPS want to hold themselves out as “Jesuit” (as regrettable as I find such a representation) that is their prerogative; but, as of now, while their canonical recourse against the archbishop’s ruling proceeds, they cannot hold themselves out as “Catholic” except in defiance of the lawful determination of the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Finally, CNN, in contrast to the Jesuits’ attempt to rationalize their decision, simply blared a double-barreled lie: “An Archbishop told a Jesuit school to fire [false: his contract had expired, the question was whether a new one should be offered] a gay [false: sexual orientation was not the issue, entering a civilly-recognized ‘same-sex marriage’ was] teacher”. And CNN wasn’t alone, of course. Lying, I suppose, saves time.

PS: I am seeing some social media speculation as to whether BJPS is in “schism” or at least has broken communion with the Church. I do not see either on these facts but, in any case, one issue at a time, okay?

Update (22 June): The above post has prompted a number of follow-up questions, most being reasonable, but with a few implying that I overlooked this key point or that in my remarks. So far, though, all the points mentioned are in fact matters I am aware of but simply can’t deal with in a blog post, as opposed to say, in a canonical brief. Let me say, many of you will find your answer in Canon 803.3, which admittedly requires some unpacking. For the rest, let me just say: If canon law does not support a bishop in declaring as non-Catholic a school run by religious that does not require its personnel to adhere to Church doctrine and that knowingly engages some as teachers who live in open contradiction to Church teaching, then — [fill in your own things-are-even-worse-than-we-thought conclusion here].

I, for my part, think canon law handily supports the bishop here.

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