By Charles J. Reid, Jr.
Note: This commentary was first published May 14, 2014 at HuffPost Religion.
Let's begin with a basic premise: The culture war is bad for the life of the mind. And let us consider why: If education is the life of the mind, then the food upon which the mind feasts is the asking of questions.
"Why?" That single word is the most important question in the universe. It is the asking and the answering of that question which has allowed the human mind to understand the physical and the social sciences. Because we know how to respond to the "why?" questions, we are able to grasp the vastness of the cosmos and appreciate the tiniest subatomic particles. Because we know how to deal with "why?" questions, we are can organize our lives in dense and complex patterns. Human society works, in other words, because we know how to address "why?" questions.
Catholic schools were once places where such questions could be openly pursued. But a culture war is ravaging the Catholic primary and secondary school systems of the United States, and as I survey the scene I am increasingly convinced that these skirmishes represent an actual threat to the health and integrity of Catholic schools.
In saying this, I have in mind particularly the schools of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. For what has happened in Cincinnati is absolutely tragic.
Let's begin with some background. Dennis Schnurr, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, only arrived in that city in 2008 when he was appointed coadjutor ("assistant") bishop. He was elevated to Archbishop the following year. A born-and-raised mid-westerner, he has been content to remain behind the scenes where he built the reputation of a sensible, hard-headed administrator. One wishes that he might now show some of his famous pragmatism at a time that is looking like a tragic, needless, preventable descent into irrelevance for the Catholic Church in Cincinnati.
Matters began to unravel in Cincinnati in February, 2013, when Mike Moroski, the assistant principal of Purcell Marian High School was terminated from his position for declaring that as a matter of civil law same-sex couples should be permitted to marry.
Moroski did not challenge Catholic doctrine. He did not say that the Catholic Church must begin the practice of marrying gay couples. All he said was that secular society should permit gay marriage. Two gay non-Catholics should be free to go to the courthouse, take out a marriage license, and marry one another.
In truth, the State authorizes all sorts of marriages that the Catholic Church's canon law forbids — most especially, the State permits divorced couples to remarry. Catholic bishops do not insist that the State must deny the right of re-marriage to divorced non-Catholics. To do so would be ridiculous. And from the standpoint of Catholic Church law, the marriages of gays and divorced persons are both considered invalid.
The Archdiocese should have left Moroski undisturbed in his political views. Instead, however, officials took the extraordinary step of terminating him from his position. This overreaction led to the predictable petition drives and cries of outrage.
And now the Cincinnati Archdiocese has compounded the original error. The new employment contracts teachers are being asked to sign are designed to chill free inquiry. They can only be said to be aimed at shutting down the freedom to ask questions that must be the heart of education.
Consider the language of the contract: Teachers are forbidden from showing "public support of ... the homosexual lifestyle." What does that mean, precisely? Pretty obviously, it is directed at the Mike Moroski situation. Catholic school teachers will have to be much more circumspect in their politics if they want to remain employed. And they had better be careful where their gay friends and relatives are concerned. Show up to your gay son's or daughter's wedding and you could face termination.
But the broad, open-ended contractual language reaches beyond politics or displays of friendship and support. It attacks the essence of what it means to be a teacher. Teachers must live the life of the mind. They must be free to ask questions. "Why are some people gay?" Teachers must be free to ask this question. It goes with the territory of being a teacher.
But Cincinnati Catholic school teachers dare not ask that question under the onerous terms to which they being asked to assent. Because the truth is, they don't know what that word "support" means. If it means asking questions that could point in a direction other than back to "intrinsically disordered" language of the Catholic Catechism, then they may find themselves in breach of their contract and subject to termination or discipline.
What makes the situation in Cincinnati so sad is that the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is beginning to display signs of flexibility on the question of gay relationships. In Argentina, Pope Francis' home country, the daughter of a lesbian couple was baptized by an Argentinian bishop. Talk about support! And Pope Francis has sent signals that he might accept "civil unions." And, of course, he said famously with respect to gays, "Who am I to judge?"
Just as sadly, the health of the Catholic Church in Cincinnati has been in a downward spiral since Archbishop Schnurr assumed office. Consider some statistics: In 2008, the year he became coadjutor, there were 6,362 infant baptisms. In 2013, there were 5,523 such baptisms, a decline of 13.20 percent. In 2008, there were 7,534 First Holy Communicants in the Cincinnati Archdiocese. And in 2013, there were 6,686, a decline of 11.25 percent. At the same time, overall population in the Archdiocese inched upward from around 2,988,000 to around 3,000,000. And these numbers do not yet reflect the impact of the recent, entirely unnecessary struggle over the future of Catholic education in the Archdiocese. One hopes it is not too late revise that contractual language.
Charles J. Reid, Jr., has degrees in canon law and civil law from the Catholic University of America; and a Ph.D. in medieval history from Cornell University. He was raised in a union household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Milwaukee with degrees in classical languages and history.