It’s back to school time, which means getting back into the swing of things for teachers, students, and parents. It’s a time to reset schedules, restart routines, and relearn the rules, policies, and procedures that will guide the next ten months. As a teacher at a new school learning the policies in the handbook, I am reminded of the New York Times article about a Catholic school teacher, Victoria Crisitello, who was fired “because she was pregnant and unmarried” - and who has been in a seven-year long legal battle over the firing.
This is one case of many that have made news in recent years in which a Catholic school employee was fired for extramarital sex and pregnancy or for same-sex marriage. These situations raise questions regarding religious liberty and workplace discrimination, which then play out on the national stage.
However, a more relevant question for everyday conversation over these cases may be this: Where is the line between the culture and behavioral standards of an institution and its lived experience by its members?
When thinking about these particular cases involving the relationship between maintaining a Catholic moral code and the visibility of the sinfulness of its employees, here are a few ideas to consider.
Pro-life in Name Only?
A question that came to mind as I followed Victoria Crisitello’s case was this: What does it mean to live in an authentically pro-life way? As Catholics, we believe that life begins at conception, no matter how that conception occurred. Is it a pro-life move to fire a teacher and remove her only source of income to care for her unborn child? Where was the support for this woman who chose to keep her baby? As we discuss policies and moral codes, we cannot forget the woman and what she needs in order to care for the child that we believe deserves life within her.
Visible and Invisible Sin
A line that stood out to me in the New York Times piece was from Ms. Crisitello’s attorney: “Because the school’s only proof of a violation of its morals code was the pregnancy itself, ‘only a woman could be punished, not a man.” A male teacher could be equally in violation of a school’s moral code that upholds the importance of reserving sex for marriage, but the school would never know, even if a pregnancy resulted.
How can an institution hold fair expectations based on certain values when the measure of those values is not always visible? Maybe the line is the possibility of repentance from a mistake in moral judgement versus a sustained and persistent lifestyle. In the case of Ms. Crisitello, what if this was a one-time mistake? It’s possible that she could be truly penitential and have already received absolution through the sacrament of Confession.
Another thing to consider with these cases, and what is often at the heart of the decisions made by Church institutions, is the possibility of scandal. Within a Catholic context, scandal is when one’s actions lead others to wrongdoing or sinful behavior. Oftentimes, the thought is that if Catholics schools or parishes appear to condone what is considered a sinful behavior or lifestyle, then this may lead others to believe that behavior or lifestyle to be okay within the Church and, therefore, possibly lead others into sinful behavior. Distancing oneself from the possibility of scandal due to a member’s actions should, however, never cross the line to judging the state of that person’s soul.
In any case, these distinctions still leave open the question of how we respond to sinful action that can be seen, and therefore judged, and how we respond to sin that remains hidden from human eyes.
A Church of Mercy
Pope Francis often reminds us that the Church is called to bring God’s mercy into the world. When these policies lead to immediate termination, little room may be left for mercy or forgiveness between the institution and the employee. While there are certain actions that warrant immediate termination (such as any confirmed abuse of a minor) other actions like a one-time breaking of a policy might call for more reflection.
How should Catholic institutions balance serving as models of Christian living with the call to mercy and reconciliation? The answer is probably left to be determined on a case-to-case basis, as the opportunities for repentance may look differently depending on the variables involved. However, the call remains to be good models of Christ’s own mercy in the world. Pope Francis’ invitation is often one of erring on the side of mercy, of remembering that we are all sinners, and of encouraging dialogue with those who have failed us. This call goes beyond that of employees in Catholic institutions and can apply to all workplaces and relationships. Pope Francis advises that “situations can change; people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good. Do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it with good.”
May we be encouraged in all aspects of life to move towards a posture of mercy in our interactions with others. Let this also serve as a reminder that we too must examine what in our own lives may be invisible, but still harmful, so that we are moved to seek repentance.