The facts are slightly different from those in similar situations. The employment of a teacher in a Catholic school ends because of a violation of a condition of employment in his or her contract.
A condition of employment clause is typical. That employment clause might request that an employee drive his or her own automobile for work purposes. In the case of Catholic schools, it says that teachers must teach and live according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church supports the human dignity of gay people. Catholic doctrine defines as sinful the sexual relations of same-sex persons. Catholic doctrine states that marriage is between one man and one woman.
So, when the administration of Eastside Catholic High School in a suburb of Seattle became aware that Mark Zmuda, the school’s vice principal and swim coach, married his male partner last summer, his position was vacated. Whether he resigned, was asked to resign or was terminated is still in dispute.
Not in contention is that Zmuda married his partner in the summer of 2013 and as of December 2013, he was no longer employed by Eastside Catholic High School.
What was a contractual issue lost all context and became a vehicle for charges of bigotry and prejudice. It was a lost opportunity for evangelization.
Same-sex marriage became legal in the state of Washington in December 2012. The church, of course, opposed that action and was subject to charges of bigotry.
The day after Zmuda’s dismissal was announced, many students held a sit-in at the school commons and later took the protest outside of school.
Then, in early January, a group of students and adults rallied in front of the Archdiocese of Seattle chancery calling for a change in the church’s position on same-sex marriage.
The situation was hijacked by the large gay population in Seattle seemingly strengthened by the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage.
Zmuda, in a videotaped interview with a student, said the school president offered reinstatement if he divorced his partner and entered a commitment ceremony rather than marriage.
Not so, said the school’s attorney; divorce was raised only as a hypothetical question.
When an attorney is the public face of the church, you know it is not going to be a pastoral moment.
The students are no doubt sincere in their support of a popular educator, but at the same time, they show embarrassingly little knowledge about the basic elements of their faith.
In the protest, there was a sign supposedly quoting Pope Francis. “If someone is gay … who am I to judge?” What the pope actually said during an informal news conference is this: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Leaving out the conditional clause distorts the meaning, as if the pope is not in accord with church teachings.
The controversy has been kept alive as fuel for those who delight in portraying the church as a bigoted, prejudiced, hypocritical, rule-obsessed bureaucracy. This certainly is not the image or reality wanted when working to spread the joy of the Gospel.
This is a lost teaching moment.
A negative could have been made into a positive if church officials had shifted the focus from the rules to the reasons for them.
Proudly proclaiming the joy of the Gospel, of human dignity for all, gay or straight, proclaiming the true nature of marriage, are the marks of a joyful church.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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