SAN FRANCISCO — Forcefully rebutting press reports to the contrary, the Archdiocese of San Francisco affirmed Feb. 24 that its shepherd, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, remains committed to adding new provisions to archdiocesan teacher contracts.

The proposed contract language calls on teachers to avoid public statements or actions that oppose Catholic teaching on a range of issues.

“The archbishop has not repealed anything,” Jesuit Father John Piderit, the moderator of the Curia and the vicar for administration for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said in a statement posted Feb. 24 on the archdiocesan website.  “He is adding explanations, clarifications and material on Catholic social teaching, via a committee of religion teachers he is establishing. … Nothing already planned to go in is being removed or retracted or withdrawn.”

The archdiocesan statement was issued as a specific repudiation of news articles published earlier in the day, suggesting that Archbishop Cordileone had decided to “backtrack” in the face of strident opposition from teachers, parents and students, as well as criticisms expressed by eight state lawmakers the previous week in a public letter to the archbishop.

“Under pressure from parents, students and staffers at the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese’s schools, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said [Feb. 24] that he is re-examining strict guidelines he proposed for teachers that would require them to reject homosexuality, use of contraception and other ‘evil’ behavior,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in a Feb. 24 news story filed just hours after the archbishop met with the newspaper’s editorial board.

The Chronicle’s story was picked up by other news outlets, including the CBS local affiliate, which promptly announced: “Archbishop ‘Backtracks.’”

The existing teachers’ contract for faculty in the four high schools under Archbishop Cordileone’s jurisdiction expires on July 31, and the new one is under negotiation with the local Catholic teachers’ union, the San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers, Local 2240.

As teachers continued to express anxiety about the changes, Archbishop Cordileone issued a letter to them that announced some modifications to his plan in order both to engage their concerns and to clarify Church teaching.

“[A]fter speaking with your union negotiators, I have decided to form a committee consisting of theology teachers from the four archdiocesan high schools to recommend to me a draft which, while retaining what is already there, expands on these statements and adjusts the language to make the statements more readily understandable to a wider readership,” read the Feb. 24 letter.

 

‘Ministerial’ Responsibilities

But speaking with the Register, Father Piderit — who was with the archbishop when he met with the Chronicle staff — stressed that “none of this is ‘backtracking.’ It is trying to make the contract language more intelligible.”

And Father Piderit’s Feb. 24 statement addressed a specific change in the proposed contract language that was cited in media reports as evidence of archdiocesan softening. The Church official clarified that while the archbishop is no longer considering the use of the word “ministers” to describe the Catholic teachers, he is now using the word “ministry” instead to define their work.

Father Piderit’s statement noted that Archbishop Cordileone “did say that he would work hard to find language that satisfies two needs. One is the need to protect the rights of the teachers in the Catholic high schools to have complaints fairly treated. The other is the right of the archdiocese to run Catholic schools that are faithful to their mission.”

The statement cautioned, however, that even “if a substitute for ‘ministry’ is found, the substitute must guarantee that the teachers in the Catholic archdiocesan high schools promote the Catholic mission of the institutions.”

The reference to “ministry” is legally significant. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2012 landmark ruling in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, found that the Lutheran school had the right to dismiss a teacher, rejecting her claim that the school had violated anti-discrimination statutes when it barred her return to the classroom.

The high court “unanimously gave its blessing — for the first time — to a ‘ministerial exception’ to federal, state and local laws against virtually all forms of discrimination on the job,” concluded Lyle Denniston in an opinion summarized on SCOTUS blog, the primary website for experts monitoring the Supreme Court.

Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney who represents religious institutions, told the Register that the Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC decision “recognizes that the church-minister relationship is intrinsically religious, and the state’s laws must stand down in deference to that constitutionally protected relationship. In other words, religious organizations have freedom to decide who ministers for them.”

Added Nussbaum, “So the issue becomes: Who ministers for a religious employer? While this depends on the particular facts, there are plenty of decisions — like Hosanna-Tabor itself — holding that teachers in religious schools are often ministers. This is because they are expected to model the faith, to lead their students in prayer and to discover the wonders of art, reason and creation, whether in Scripture, poetry, literature, science, history or the ordered elegance of mathematics or physics.”

 

The Lawmakers’ Letter

The language designating all teachers as “ministers” was clearly a key concern for the three state senators and five members of the state Assembly, all Democrats, who wrote to Archbishop Cordileone on Feb. 17. “[W]e question the purpose of reclassifying all employees as ‘ministers’ … because it effectively removes civil-rights protections guaranteed to all Californians,” they said.

The state lawmakers also asked the archbishop to remove “morality clauses” from the proposed handbook for teachers, arguing that these provisions “conflict with settled areas of law and foment a discriminatory environment in the communities we serve.”

“Although your position wields discretion over working conditions at schools affiliated with the Catholic Church, the standards within the morality clauses would be illegal for any other employer,” the legislators asserted.

Archbishop Cordileone quickly pushed back. In a Feb. 19 reply, he encouraged the eight lawmakers to review documents and videos posted on the archdiocesan website relating to “this contentious issue” because, he said, “they will help to clear up a lot of misinformation being circulated about it (such as, for example, the falsehood that the morality clauses apply to the teachers’ private lives).”

“The next thing I would like to mention is actually a question: Would you hire a campaign manager who advocates policies contrary to those that you stand for and who shows disrespect toward you and the Democratic Party in general?” Archbishop Cordileone’s letter continued.

At the conclusion of the letter, the archbishop advised his political critics, “My point is: I respect your right to employ or not employ whomever you wish to advance your mission. I simply ask the same respect from you.”

 

Bishop Vasa

As the gap widens between Catholic teaching and mainstream mores, Archbishop Cordileone is not the first Church leader in northern California to confront a barrage of criticism over the issue of teacher contracts.

In 2013, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa provoked a similar furor when he asked teachers in his diocese to sign a contract that included an addendum with a faith-and-morals clause. Headlines focused on contract language that dealt with hot-button issues like abortion and contraception.

Bishop Vasa later dropped the language and announced plans to launch a “Catechetical Enterprise” that would highlight key elements of Catholic teaching. Since then, Bishop Vasa himself has conducted a series of presentations on the nature of sin, the fall of Adam and Eve, the nature of the human person and the proper formation of conscience, among other topics.

During those scheduled presentations before his teachers, he explained the truths of the faith, but also offered a collaborative vision of Catholic education that united the diocese’s 225 teachers with the mission of the local Church.

This February, almost two years later, he introduced new contract language that was designed to downplay — but not dismiss — those same hot-button issues that had stirred up his critics in 2013.

In a statement marking the new code of conduct, Bishop Vasa explained that local pastors had suggested he link the contract with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, rather than detail all the contested moral teachings.

“This prudently avoids specific identification of polarizing issues, albeit without, at the same time, eliminating them,” read Bishop Vasa’s statement explaining his thinking about the new contract language.

Asked what he had learned since his first attempt to make changes to the teacher contracts, Bishop Vasa told the Register that he had concluded, “We have a poorly catechized Catholic population, and we are much more permeated by our secular culture than we even realize.”

Added Bishop Vasa, “The secular culture almost trumps Catholic doctrine.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.