A recently filed lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Newark is the latest legal challenge to the religious mission of Catholic schools and their First Amendment freedom to protect that mission. While portrayed in the media as a question of discrimination, the issue is whether or not a Catholic school has the right to expect employees to adhere to the Church’s moral expectations — expectations that ought to be clear and acceptable to anyone who teaches in a Catholic school.
According to news reports, Kate Drumgoole, a former guidance counselor and coach at Paramus Catholic High School, was terminated after the school learned she entered into a legal same-sex union. It was also reported that she signed the archdiocese’s “Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct,” which obligate school personnel to conduct themselves according to “the discipline, norms and teachings of the Catholic Church.” But Drumgoole insists she wasn’t acting as a “minister” of the Church, so the obligations to present an authentic witness to students shouldn’t apply.
She’s wrong. It might be possible to claim that certain administrative and service employees of a school rarely interact with students in the same ways that teachers do, but in this case, that distinction is impossible to make. A guidance counselor, coach or teacher should be held to the same standards of personal conduct, modeling virtuous behavior for students to observe and emulate, and relating to students in a way that helps them embrace Catholic morality and beliefs. Catholic schools are committed to Catholic teaching and the full development of the person in mind, body and spirit — and we shouldn’t be forced to do otherwise.
That’s what the Vatican meant in its declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis, when it said that the Catholic school “depends chiefly on [teachers] whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose.” It is essential to Catholic education that employees “by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher.” Over many decades, and especially since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has called upon educators to fulfill an essential role as witnesses to the Catholic faith in both word and deed.
The ministerial function of Catholic school teachers has been described so many times in Vatican documents that I documented them in The Call to Teach: Expectations for the Catholic Educator in Magisterial Teaching, a publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. It provides clear evidence that Catholic moral expectations for teachers is nothing new, and they are certainly not a sudden response to employees who disagree with Catholic teachings on sexuality and gender. The Vatican has long expected teachers to be authentic Christian role models for students.
Those who work in the ministry of Catholic education, and those who may be interested in doing so, should understand and accept their school’s guidelines and policies to ensure its Catholic mission. They should not expect a Catholic school to amend the teachings of the Church to suit special interests.
Expecting employee behavior to be rooted in Gospel values — a witness that helps prepare students for a life of moral and Christian living — is not an injustice. It is not discriminatory. It is necessary for Catholic education.
Throughout the history of the United States, respect for religious liberty has ensured that Catholic schools can remain instruments to form students in the Catholic faith, preparing them to become leaders in our society and our Church. Recent shifts in cultural attitudes — which will, no doubt, shift again and again in future decades — should not be used as an excuse to infringe on the Catholic Church’s religious liberty and force her to compromise the mission of Catholic schools.
Either Americans figure out how to uphold the First Amendment’s protection for religious education, even when society’s changing norms conflict with religious beliefs, or one of the most fundamental principles of American freedom will be lost, perhaps forever.
Reprinted with permission from The Cardinal Newman Society.