Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
This week, the protracted teacher contract battle that has roiled the Archdiocese of San Francisco will reach a turning point. By Aug. 20, the 300-plus teachers at the four Catholic high schools under the direct jurisdiction of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco will have registered their support or opposition to the contract hammered out over the past seven months, amid sidewalk protests, petition campaigns and a full-page newspaper ad that called on Pope Francis to remove the archbishop.
Negotiations between the local church and representatives of an American Federation of Teachers local have resulted in a slew of concessions won by the union.
It secured the removal of contract language that described teachers as "ministers," and softened language that directed teachers to avoid public statements and actions that oppose Church teaching. Meanwhile, new language in the 2015-2016 faculty handbook, which once directed teachers to affirm Church teaching that identifies specific sexual acts as "gravely evil," has been removed or sharply modified. Though not formally subject to contract negotiations, the handbook is still under review.
Critics successfully argued that the contract's initial designation of teachers as "ministers" and the strong "morality clauses" would bolster the archdiocese's power to fire teachers and unjustly target those in same-sex relationships.
At the end of July, Lisa Dole, a leader of the local union, wrote the teachers at the four Catholic high schools to ask them to carefully review the final contract language.
She emphasized that union members must grapple with the fact that the "ministerial exception," affirmed in the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous 2012 Hosanna Tabor decision, was still in force. In that landmark religious liberty case, the high court found that that faith-based schools had the right to hire and fire teachers without interference from the courts.
“The reality of the situation is that teachers are considered role models whether they are in a public, private, or religious school,” wrote Dole. “As such, if personal conduct becomes public and is viewed as adversely impacting the school, the teacher can be disciplined or terminated. That is established case law.”
Archbishop Cordileone has made concessions, and vowed that he has no plans to conduct a "witch hunt." But as Dole's comments made clear, many of his strongest opponents are not appeased.
Now his supporters in the city have quietly told me that they fear activists will use the contract to make an example of him, either by refusing to approve it and calling a strike, or by publicly challenging his leadership during the upcoming school year.
Yet whatever the result of this week's contract vote, the dispute has set in motion two parallel movements that will continue to play out in the city and across the nation.
First, a growing number of local Catholics have begun to ask probing questions about the deeper purpose of Catholic education: Are the four Catholic high schools producing graduates who strive to be virtuous, who are able to buck the secular values of a "throwaway" culture, and still practice their faith into adulthood?
Second, some of the archbishop's opponents will back the efforts of organizations like the Gill Foundation, which views the ministerial exception as a threat to the hard-won victories of the gay rights movement, and wants to overturn it. And while the archbishop's opponents may fume that the Supreme Court secured the religious liberty of schools in Hosanna Tabor, the court's even more important 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the land will provide ammunition for activists, who want to challenge the right of Catholic schools to resist a new definition of marriage and family life.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, August 19, teachers at the four archdiocesan Catholic high schools voted in favor of the contract that incorporated the concessions won from Archbishop Cordileone during months of talks. The contract, which passed with a close vote, also featured his message that the schools must serve the evangelizing mission of the Church.
The contract preamble states that “teachers are expected to support the purpose of our Catholic schools in such a way that their personal conduct will not adversely impact their ability to teach in our Catholic High Schools.” Teachers who might face disciplinary action or termination would be “subject to the grievance procedure.” The Register will post further coverage of this breaking story as details emerge.