What sins constitute a firing offense for Church Employees?

Our nation’s Catholic parishes, diocesan offices, K-12 schools and related organizations employ hundreds of thousands of lay men and women. Since none of us is without sin, this puts a difficult charge on the bishop, pastor, principal or other administrator: which sins disqualify one from employment? The editors at America magazine recently took a swing at this daunting topic. In “Unjust Discrimination,” they write:

The church in the United States is living in a complex and challenging time. Regrettably, on a variety of subjects—from views on the death penalty to support for contraception and same-sex marriage—the teachings of the church and the practices of its members often do not match. Meanwhile, the church relies on a large number of lay employees to help administer parishes, schools and hospitals across the country. Very few of them subscribe to the totality of Catholic teaching. How can the church continue to sustain its ministries while bearing witness to the timeless truths of its teaching when its own employees do not accept them all?

The editors’ immediate concern is a wave of high-profile firings of employees in same-sex unions. While defending church teaching on marriage, the editors also remind readers that the catechism forbids “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals persons, including in employment. They suspect that employees entering gay marriages are being singled out, while the same administrators turn a blind eye to other violations – for instance, divorced Catholics who remarry outside of the Church. The editors fully support Church teaching on the nature of marriage, but fear that a personnel policy focusing on this violation to the exclusion of others creates an impression of hypocrisy.

Catholics are called to preach difficult truths about a range of subjects, including but not limited to marriage and sexuality. But what is the best way to do that? It is true that sometimes an employee of a Catholic institution can cause scandal by his or her public words or deeds. But it is also true that treating employees unfairly, by holding them to different standards or dismissing them abruptly or without consultation, can itself cause scandal.

Although employees in same-sex unions are this year’s flashpoint, the real issue is more fundamental. We are sinners all: if Church institutions fire everyone who violates Church teaching in some fashion, they will have no employees. At the same time, Catholic institutions must demonstrate their fidelity to the faith, or they are no longer Catholic. Administrators must make difficult decisions about what violations are severe enough to justify dismissal. Should people be dismissed for violating Catholic social teaching as well as teaching on marriage and family? What about doctrinal issues? Or should we reserve enforcement on those who publicly challenge any element of the faith? There are no easy answers to these issues, but they call for careful reasoning followed by consistent practices.