At the Service of the Truth and Love of Jesus Christ
Recently you may have heard stories in the news about how the employment of a person in public ministry at a local parish was no longer possible when he indicated that he would continue to openly live in contradiction to what the Church proclaims as true, specifically a civil “same-sex marriage.” Since mercy is at the heart of our Catholic faith, this outcome is unfortunate and I would like here to discuss the principles involved in this and other similar situations.
First, any person who struggles in trying to live according to the revealed truth of Catholic teaching should know the Church recognizes his or her dignity as created by God and that the person need not face life’s challenges apart from the grace of the Lord and his Church, which seeks only the highest good for everyone.
The Church recognizes that we all need to grow in faith and in closeness to the Lord. Simply acting contrary to Church teaching on occasion would not preclude serving as a ministerial employee or volunteer. For us to acknowledge that we are sinners, as we do, is to admit that occasionally we too have at times not lived up to the truth. On those occasions, we are expected to acknowledge our failings and seek to amend our lives in Christ.
However, if one persists or effectively insists that they are right and the Church is wrong, in the face of such irreconcilable differences it is not discrimination or punishment to say that continued ministerial service is not possible. It is not a question of personal private activity, but the social consequences of conduct which undermines the Church’s ability to fulfill her mission. When there is the potential for scandal that might lead people astray regarding the Catholic faith, continued service becomes untenable.
The purpose of our parishes, schools, ministries and other Catholic entities – “and the task of those who work for them – is to lead people to Jesus,” as I wrote last spring in my pastoral letter Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge (13). That purpose and task is challenged by a secular culture that is in contradiction to traditional concepts of marriage, family, the common good and objective right and wrong.
“Those who agree to assist the Church in her mission and ministries represent the public face of the Church,” and thus they have a special responsibility to “respect our Catholic identity and avoid behavior that contradicts the very mission of the Catholic institution” (14). The Catholic faithful, and the other people that our ministries serve, have a right to the Gospel and to receive authentic Church teaching (Redemptoris Missio, 44; Evangelii Gaudium, 14). Conversely, people are denied that right, and our mission and Catholic identity can be compromised “either through explicit dissent, miscatechesis or personal conduct that tends to draw people away from the communion of the Church” (Being Catholic Today, 22). “When people are faithful and give good witness, they lead people to Christ. But when we give bad witness, we can lead people away from Christ” (16).
“We all are at the service of the mission of Christ,” and particularly for those in ministerial positions, “no one can claim a right simultaneously to work for the Church and to work against her belief” (23). When a person involved in ministerial activity offers a counter-witness to Catholic teaching by words or public conduct, however earnest they may be, experience shows that it can lead people away from the truth and otherwise have an adverse effect on our mission. The Church not only must be free to then take corrective steps, it has an obligation in charity and truth to do so.
In this, the Church claims no special privilege. Every entity, religious or secular, has the right to its own identity, mission and message, including the freedom of association to retain only people who will faithfully serve those interests and not act in ways that prejudice what the entity stands for. It is not unusual for companies to part ways with employees who do something in their personal lives that puts the companies in an unfavorable light. And no official would ever continue to employ someone who in his off-hours publicly demonstrated that he was opposed to the official’s policies or campaigned for the official’s opponent.
Beyond these common freedoms, the Church also enjoys freedom of religion to decide who will carry out Catholic ministry. This includes the right to determine when conduct is otherwise adverse to the Church’s ability to fully pursue its mission and interests.
The Church we serve is not ours, but Christ’s. The greatest mercy of the Church is to be faithful witnesses of his truth and love. It is precisely through the witness of authentic Catholic teaching, which is the revealed truth of the Gospel, that the parishioners in the pews, the young people in our schools, the people served in our charitable ministries, and the world at large will find salvation.