Archbishop Attacked for Defending Mission of Catholic Schools

In an attempt to undermine the right of Catholic K-12 schools to “hire (and fire) for mission” the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle recently claimed that while the paper will not “quarrel with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s determination to ensure that his rigid interpretation of Church doctrine is taught at four Catholic high schools,” they suggest that the Archbishop “could not be more out of touch with the community he has been assigned to serve.”

Responding to what the archbishop called a “clarification of Catholic issues in our Catholic schools” for San Francisco’s Catholic school teachers, which clearly identifies the obligation of all K-12 employees to support Catholic teachings on faith and morals, the Chronicle claimed that the archbishop’s intent is to “silence teachers and other school employees.” Asserting that the archbishop’s actions are “an affront to the many practicing Catholics—especially in this region—who have issues with doctrine that would deny same sex couples the right to marry or prevent families from employing modern medicine to experience the joy of parenthood or to prevent or terminate pregnancy,” the Chronicle is just the latest attack on the religious freedom of Catholic education.

Crisis readers will recall similar kinds of controversies in Seattle, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Massachusetts in which Catholic K-12 faculty and administrators have disputed Catholic teachings on same sex marriage. In several of these cases faculty members and administrators have sued for the right to marry their same sex partners—and still keep their Catholic K-12 school jobs.

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San Francisco is just the latest example of yet another new front in the war over Church teachings on same sex behavior, reproductive rights, and women’s ordination now on Catholic K-12 battlegrounds. The clarification of expectations of faculty, administrators and staff members by Archbishop Cordileone was—as he said in his letter for high school teachers in his archdiocese—simply an attempt to “clarify Catholic issues in our Catholic schools…not to target for dismissal from our schools any teachers, singly or collectively, nor does it introduce anything essentially new into the contract or the faculty handbook.”

Indeed, that is the heart of this controversy. Employees of Catholic K-12 schools in San Francisco—and elsewhere—have always been expected to support Catholic teachings on faith and morals. It is a condition of employment—and nothing new. The archbishop is simply reminding employees of this by explicitly stating that administrators, faculty and staff members are not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny Catholic teachings on the Truth of the evil of abortion and euthanasia, and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. This should be uncontroversial.

But, in an era when the authority of the Church is being undermined by the federal government through the HHS mandate that religious schools, hospitals and organizations provide free contraceptive care to all employees, it should not surprise anyone that Catholic schools’ ability to hire for mission would be contested. Archbishop Cordileone has described all school employees as participating in the religious mission because they are. Every day that faculty members, administrators, or support staff members are interacting with children entrusted to them by their parents, those employees are representing the Catholic mission of the school. They are always and in every way acting as “ministers engaged in a religious mission.”  And, this “mission-driven” behavior is protected under a 2012 U. S. Supreme court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church vs. EEOC which ruled that Churches and religious schools are protected by a “ministerial exception” giving them greater latitude in hiring and firing employees.

Of course this ministerial exception is contingent on the fact that Catholic schools are actually promoting the Truth of Catholic teachings. Earlier this week, after decades of dissent on many Catholic college campuses, the federal government—through the NLRB—has stepped in to assess whether the employees of Catholic colleges and universities are actually contributing to the religious mission of these institutions by “performing religious functions.” This is a new standard for evaluating religious objections to federal board oversight that was implemented in a unionization decision in December at Pacific Lutheran University. The NLRB knows that if the faculty actually uphold and advance Catholic teachings, these colleges may be viewed by the Courts as performing a religious function. But, it is likely that the labor board knew otherwise—and on January 6, 2015, the NLRB issued a “Certification of Representation” allowing adjunct professors and lecturers at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, California, to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This ruling by the NLRB that employees of Catholic colleges are not expected to uphold Catholic values and doctrine and advance the college’s Catholic mission is an important development in Catholic higher education. In the Manhattan College decision, the NLRB claimed that “public representations of Manhattan College clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a religious educational environment.” Ruling that Manhattan College did not qualify as religious institution deserving of an exemption, the NLRB pointed out that although Manhattan frequently cites its Lasallian tradition in describing itself in its public documents, these references are made in “purely secular terms.”  Noting that Manhattan College’s own admission brochure does not even include any reference to the Catholic Church or Catholicism, the NLRB issued a 26-page report which concluded that the college cannot claim a religious affiliation in an effort to prevent the unionization of its employees.

A similar NLRB ruling at Seattle University, led Seattle’s provost, Isiaah Crawford, to argue that the labor board acted inappropriately in concluding that Seattle “lacked substantial religious character.” As in the Manhattan College case, the NLRB regional director, Ronald Hooks, responded that Seattle does not deserve a religious exemption because it receives no funding from the Catholic Church, and “only a minority of its students are Catholic.” Hooks also pointed to the lack of a religious requirement for faculty as evidence of the school’s lack of religious character. Hooks knows—as many faithful Catholics know—that many faculty members employed on Catholic colleges do not support Catholic teachings on faith and morals. This makes it difficult to claim a religious exemption. Posting a response to the NLRB ruling on his college website, Manhattan College president, Brennan O’Donnell, decried the labor board’s conclusions, claiming that “the analysis clearly demonstrates the NLRB’s lack of understanding of the identity of Manhattan College as a twenty-first century Catholic college whose mission requires engagement with the broader culture of American society and higher education.”

But, too much “engagement” with a degraded culture is what has happened on many Catholic college campuses. While many of these colleges would have a difficult time demonstrating the “religious function” performed by their faculty members—especially those faculty members who are lobbying Congress for a woman’s right to choose abortion and a same sex couple’s right to be married—Catholic K-12 schools can still argue that they are indeed supporting the religious mission they have been entrusted to fulfill. Archbishop Cordileone should be applauded for having the courage to make that religious mission explicit for those who teach in his archdiocese.

(Photo credit: CNA)


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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