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Bishop Michael Barber: A ‘Career Classroom Teacher’ (7550)

The Jesuit bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., discusses Catholic identity in education and his reason to contractually require diocesan teachers to behave in accord with Church teaching.

06/02/2014 Comments (31)
OakDiocese.org

Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, Calif.

– OakDiocese.org

In May, almost a full year after his installation as the fifth bishop of Oakland, Calif., Bishop Michael Barber sparked headlines when he made changes to the 2014-15 teachers’ contract for schools in his diocese that required faculty to “model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals” in their personal and professional lives.

Three teachers have refused to sign the contracts, and one likened it to a “loyalty oath.” In media interviews, teachers and parents criticized Bishop Barber for altering the contracts and subjecting teachers to unacceptable scrutiny of their private conduct.

The Oakland Diocese has since provided clarification outlining the reasons for the changes in the contract language, and Bishop Barber has met with faculty at two diocesan high schools to calm fears that the private lives of teachers will be under scrutiny.

Bishop Barber is a self-described “career classroom teacher.” Last May, when Pope Francis appointed his fellow Jesuit the bishop of Oakland, then-Father Barber was serving as the director of spiritual formation at St. John’s Seminary in Boston and as a U.S. Navy chaplain. Previously, he served as the spiritual director and assistant professor of systematic and moral theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.

On May 29, he spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the mission of Catholic education, his reasons for the teacher contract changes and emerging challenges to Catholic education in a “self-referential” age.

 

When you were appointed the bishop of Oakland, you had been serving as a seminary professor and a Navy chaplain, but never as an auxiliary bishop, and so you were sent to “bishop school” at the Vatican. Did military service help you take on your new responsibilities as the bishop of Oakland?

For 22 years, I have served under strong, fatherly, authority figures captains and admirals. I watched how they delegated and organized and how they articulated a vision and motivated sailors and marines.

I learned how to run a staff meeting and how to direct colleagues, how to establish a high moral standard and how to be accountable for adhering to that standard.

My experience as a Navy chaplain also helped me to work side by side with chaplains of other denominations and faiths.

Even though we didn’t have the same beliefs, we had the same mission and worked together. That has been one of the best things about being a military chaplain.

I have kept my commission active and use my vacation days to fulfill my commitment two weeks every summer and two days every month.

 

What does it mean to be a Jesuit bishop? How does your religious formation guide your decisions for advancing the evangelization in your diocese?

What helps me most is St. Ignatius’ discernment of spirits. It helps me make a decision in the light of the Holy Spirit and with the help of my spiritual director and in collaboration with colleagues in the diocese.

My Jesuit formation has also taught me cura personalis (care of the person). I try to take care of my priests in the same way that my Jesuit father provincials have taken care of me.

They are concerned with my spiritual life, health, happiness in the ministry I am working in and trying to develop my talents for the greater good of the Church.

 

You have described Pope Francis’ vision for evangelization in this way: “Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love.” Can you explain how you hope to implement this vision? 

That vision will be fulfilled, in my view, when the bishop takes care of his priests and the priests take care of their people and bring their concerns to us. Further, all of us must pay attention to people on the periphery: immigrants, those at the bottom of the economy and those we take care of through St. Vincent de Paul.

These challenges call us to a different standard: We can’t be a “self-referential” community, a problem that Pope Francis condemned in an address to his fellow cardinals before he was elected pope. He said, “When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick.” He said, “There are two images of the Church: the Church which evangelizes and comes out of herself … and the worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself.”

 

Why is Pope Francis concerned about the problem of “self-referential” Catholics?

When I have to make changes at a parish, some people oppose the changes and say, “Everything is perfect here.” They don’t realize there may be a whole group of people who are not receiving pastoral care and attention, and that needs to be addressed.

 

So Pope Francis is asking us to be humble about the limits of our own experience and judgment, especially as he calls for the deep reform of Church institution. What are your own plans for engaging Catholics in your diocese?

My first step was to appoint a seminary professor, Margaret Turek, to direct our plans for faith formation and evangelization.

I want Dr. Turek to help our people grow in holiness. As defined by my predecessor, then-Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, holiness means “to know Christ better and to make him better known to others.”

A true Catholic spirituality is not self-referential. Rather, it leads you out of yourself to share with others.

People are starving spiritually, and they need to know how they can grow in their experience of faith. Their deep needs must inspire our evangelization and catechesis.

A related problem is finding a way to make Catholic education more accessible. We have a large Hispanic population, and there is a half-empty Catholic school in the middle of this community. But children are going to the public school; their families can’t afford the tuition. We are applying for grants from foundations and contacting donors to increase funding to help more students attend Catholic schools.

 

This May, a controversy erupted in your diocese over changes in your teacher employee contracts. You explained that the new language, which clarifies the responsibility of teachers to model Catholic values in and out of the classroom underscores a basic truth: “Each of our Catholic elementary and secondary schools is an integral part of the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church.” Would you explain what that means?

By the fact that “Catholic” is on the masthead of your school, it means you stand for certain ideals. The school is part of the Church, and the Church is part of Christ.

We have to faithfully represent what Christ and the Church stand for. Every teacher is a role model for the students, whether they are teaching P.E. or math. The classroom is their pulpit, and they will help form their students as young adults.

As an employer, my approach to teacher contracts was not to make a list of prohibitive behavior, but, rather, to set an expectation.

That begins by posing the question: What is the mission and goal of education in a Catholic school?

The next step is to describe the role of Catholic education and then invite our laypeople to accept that mission and vision. If they can’t accept that invitation, than a Catholic school will not be a good fit for them, and a public school might be better.

Unfortunately, some Catholic schools haven’t paid attention to Catholic identity. When things drift, alternative visions replace Catholic identity.

When I articulated my vision, one teacher wrote to say, “Who are you to change the mission of the school?” She said the mission of the school was to create an “inclusive and diverse” community, and, according to how those terms are understood today, that usually means all opinions are welcome at the table, except for Christ’s.

The controversy has been spurred by a few teachers and some parents who are not in agreement with most teachings of the Church.

On May 27, when I met with the faculty of Bishop O’Dowd High School, we went around the table, and most agreed that Christ should be the point of reference and that the new language in the contracts did not need to be changed.

I left the meeting relieved and happy that the faculty and I are in agreement. Without common agreement on what it means to be a teacher in a Catholic school, each person becomes the sole arbiter for what is acceptable. That is an untenable situation that creates tensions and confusion across the school community.

When Christ and Church teaching set the standard for Catholic education, we are challenged to look outside ourselves. As the bishop of the diocese, I am called to follow that same standard I don’t make up my own rules.

 

You were criticized in the press for including language in the teacher contracts that requires faculty to model Catholic teaching in and out of the classroom. You said there were no plans to “examine teachers’ private life.” Rather, the contract language is concerned with “the public manifestation of a practice or a belief contrary to Catholic morals or beliefs,” perhaps on social media, in a way that could undermine a “teacher's ability to fulfill [his or her] ministry as a role model in a Catholic school.” Would you explain the dispute?

Some people in the press say that when I ask teachers to model Catholic standards in their personal lives, I am violating their freedom of conscience.

I don’t think so. What you do in your private life is between you and God. But what you do in your private life that becomes public either because you put something on Facebook or let all the kids know about it in class becomes a source of scandal, and it directly affects your responsibilities as a teacher. That is what I am concerned about.

 

The boundary between private and public communications has been blurred. Recently, the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, was forced to step down after he was recorded allegedly making racist remarks. Team members and the National Basketball Association took action to disassociate themselves from his statements. Are Catholic schools facing similar scenarios that need to be addressed in employee contracts?

Sterling did something in his private life that became public and then became a scandal and an embarrassment to his team and the NBA. He was held accountable.

If a sports league can have ethics rules and standards, should a school that purports to represent the Son of God also be allowed to have standards and employ teachers that pledge to uphold those standards?

Some teachers said, “You are going to be spying on our private lives.” Not true.

Further, I also believe there’s a difference between moral stumbles, where we acknowledge a wrong and ask for forgiveness, and instances where we insist our behavior is okay.

 

You have said, “We need to educate our students to the beauty of the faith: through icons, art, architecture and sacred music. These, in addition to Scripture and Tradition, are also vehicles of Revelation.” Is this another measure that will deepen the faith experience of students in Catholic schools and youth programs?

I am encouraging classroom teachers, youth ministers and CCD teachers to use icons, sacred music, literature, drama and nature [in lessons].

When I retire in 15 years, I will be happy if I have instilled a sense of the sacred in our parishes and schools.

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