Catholic schools have a right to self-defense

This past June, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis opened a huge can of worms when it asked two Catholic schools within the diocese—Cathedral High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School—not to renew the contracts of two male teachers who had, in flagrant violation of the Church’s teachings, been married in 2017.

This should have been a simple matter. In the United States, an organization may legitimately expect employees to uphold its mission and guiding principles. Extensive precedent interprets the First Amendment guarantee of the right to free association to include the right for religious organizations to restrict employment to individuals who will respect the organization’s beliefs. In fact, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed this issue specifically in regard to the Catholic Church when it said, “No power save that of the church can rightfully declare who is a Catholic.” In the case of a Catholic school, those guiding principles are nothing less than the teachings of the Catholic Church—including the teachings on marriage and sexuality.

But it wasn’t that simple. The situation exploded. When the archdiocese instructed Cathedral and Brebeuf not to renew the contracts of the two teachers, Cathedral acquiesced; Brebuef refused. As a result, the archdiocese has cut ties with the Jesuit institution. Earlier this month, Archbishop Thompson refused to let the school celebrate its traditional Holy Spirit Mass because it has been stripped (or, rather, stripped itself) of its Catholic identity.

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And it didn’t stop there. In July, Payne-Elliot filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese, claiming that it had violated his rights as an employee by asking the school not to renew his contract.

The coverage of this story is about what you would expect. Take this subheadline from the Huffington Post: “Joshua Payne-Elliott, a social studies teacher, worked at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis for 13 years. He was fired for getting married.” It’s the usual narrative: repressive Catholic organization discriminates against upstanding gay man.

That narrative misses the point. The reality is that organizations like Catholic schools must be allowed to make hiring decisions based on a moral code, even if that moral code is currently unpopular. And what is less popular today than the social teachings of the Catholic Church about sexuality and marriage?

Though the nuance has been lost on many both within and outside of the Church, the Catholic teachings about marriage go far beyond the simple binary of heterosexual and homosexual. To look at a situation like the one in Indianapolis and summarize it as, “This man was fired because he is homosexual,” is to misunderstand the Church’s views on marriage and sexuality. The Catholic Church teaches that there is only one appropriate setting for sexual activity: a lifelong, marriage between one man and one woman. That definition necessarily excludes homosexual activity, yes. But it also excludes the vast majority of heterosexual activity. Premarital sex, adultery, polygamy and polyamory, no-fault divorce and remarriage… all of them are impermissible under Catholic teaching, and a Catholic school would have the right to fire a teacher who was engaged in these activities.

Things get murkier when there are homosexual individuals involved because the concept of homosexuality has become inextricably intertwined with what is known as “identity theory.” Identity theory is the most recent attempt by the culture to explain what it means to be a person and to live a fulfilled life—and it’s no surprise that it has nothing to do with trying to imitate Our Lady’s humble fiat.

Under identity theory, a person’s self is a compilation of various influences and impulses, all of which must be fully expressed and indulged in order for the person to participate fully in the human experience—or, to use Aristotelian language, for that person to be happy. For identity theorists, the pinnacle of human existence is expression of one’s self. The caveat is, of course, that this expression of identity must be absolutely authentic; it cannot be constrained either by external “judgment” or internal shame.

Homosexuality (as well as the gender dysphoria that manifests as transgenderism) is not, in the modern imagination, a choice. It is not an inclination or a predisposition. It is an identity. That’s why it’s rapidly becoming taboo to advocate for traditional conceptions of marriage and sexuality.

Faithful Catholics know that, when we uphold the definition of marriage as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman, we are emphasizing the appropriate expression of sexuality. We are not trying to dehumanize people who are involved in other sexual relationships; we are simply saying what we believe to be true, based on God’s revelation through the Scriptures, nature, and the Church’s teachings. But to individuals who have embraced identity theory and believe that they can only be fully human if they are allowed to express themselves sexually however they choose, it feels like a condemnation of their entire being

It’s crucial that faithful Catholics understand why our culture so fiercely rejects the Church’s teachings. What our Church teaches about marriage and sexuality is not merely a more restrictive version of what society says; it is a complete reimagining of our culture’s claims about identity, personhood, value, happiness, and human dignity. That is why when a school in Indianapolis chooses not to renew a contract with a teacher, it becomes a national issue.

When we look at the consequences of the archdiocese’s decision to stand up for the truth—cutting ties with a Jesuit school and getting embroiled in a lawsuit—it is tempting to wonder if it’s all worth it.

It is worth it. It is worth it on a constitutional level: religious organizations have the right to making hiring decisions in accordance with their convictions, full-stop. And that right needs to be protected. Without it, Catholic organizations across the country will find themselves attacked both from within and without.

It’s also worth it on a pastoral level. It’s not “charitable” to let people live a lie. It’s not charitable to stand by and permit someone to call himself a Catholic while blatantly ignoring the Church’s teaching. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has a responsibility as a pastoral institution to uphold the teachings of the Church with consistency and love. It’s is heartening to see it fulfilling that responsibility with such courage.


  • Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a senior contributor at Crisis. Her work has previously appeared in National Review, The American Conservative, and The Intercollegiate Review.

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