INDIANAPOLIS — Shortly after national headlines confirmed that Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson had stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its right to call itself “Catholic,” canonists began weighing in on the dispute, which came to a head with the release of a formal archdiocesan decree June 20.

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that “canon law was pretty clear” about the handling of such cases, and the archbishop’s decision reflected that.

“Religious orders are subject to the authority of bishops when exercising an external apostolate, like running a Catholic school,” said Father Fox.

“The Jesuit provincial can feel free to form Jesuits the way Jesuits form Jesuits. But this is not about Jesuit formation. It is about Jesuits offering an educational service, and [in that context] they are subject to the archbishop.”

The confrontation between the Jesuit high school and Archbishop Thompson had been brewing for almost two years, after social-media posts about the Brebeuf Jesuit teacher’s legal same-sex union drew public attention, and the superintendent of Catholic education directed the school not to renew the faculty member’s contract.

The archbishop’s June 20 statement and decree outlined Brebeuf Jesuit’s violation of local Church policies governing Catholic school teacher contracts and issued a formal judgment.

“In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, every archdiocesan Catholic school and private Catholic school has been instructed to clearly state in its contracts and ministerial job descriptions that all ministers must convey and be supportive of all teachings of the Catholic Church,” read the statement preceding his decree. 

“Regrettably, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School has freely chosen not to enter into such agreements that protect the important ministry of communicating the fullness of Catholic teaching to students. Therefore, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School will no longer be recognized as a Catholic institution by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.”

Archbishop Thompson’s directive cited Canon 803 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states that “a Catholic school must be grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine; teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life.” The canon also states that “no school is to bear the name Catholic school without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.”

Brebeuf Jesuit’s president, board leadership and the regional Jesuit provincial issued statements that acknowledged the school’s defiance of the archbishop’s directive. The provincial contended that the interference of the archbishop in the school’s internal affairs was unwarranted and “unprecedented” and vowed to appeal the case to the Vatican, if necessary.

The news made national headlines and lit up social media, sparking a now-predictable pattern in the digital age, with sharp criticism of the archbishop’s decree, as well as an online petition supporting him.

U.S. media seemed to downplay or confuse the precise concerns of Church authorities in the matter. CNN’s June 21 story headline proclaimed, “An Archbishop Told a Jesuit School to Fire a Gay Teacher. They Said No,” when the actual issue was the teacher’s public marriage with a member of the same sex.

Jesuit Father James Martin, a prominent advocate for “LGBT” Catholics, attacked the archbishop’s directive as further evidence of the “relentless targeting of LGBT people. Other employees do not conform to, or agree with, Church teaching: straight couples living together before marriage, practicing birth control, etc. ...”

However, Ed Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, stepped up to defend the archbishop’s actions in a June 21-22 post on his blog, “In the Light of the Law.”

Canon law “handily supports the bishop here,” wrote Peters. “More interesting, if wholly predictable, were the Jesuits’ attempt to redefine the dispute.”

 

Employment Contract Requirements

Catholic diocesan school employment contracts generally require teachers to adhere to Church teaching in word and deed, in and out of the classroom. Faculty have been removed for supporting abortion rights, seeking to have a child through in vitro fertilization, and entering into civil same-sex unions, usually after their actions have become public.

On June 23, Cathedral High School in Indianapolis announced with apparent reluctance that a teacher in a “public same-sex marriage” would leave the school, after its administration was told that retention of the teacher would “result in our forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage.”

Over the years, Church-affiliated schools have also been criticized for penalizing teachers who strongly defend Catholic moral doctrine. In 2017, for example, prominent alumni of St. Ignatius Prep, a Jesuit high school in Cleveland, accused the school administration of forcing out two longtime theology teachers known for their orthodoxy.

Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told the Register that the archbishop’s emphasis on strong teacher contracts helped explain his decision to take action against the Jesuit school.

“While the issue of this teacher may have been the initial impetus of the archbishop’s action, I think the more proximate cause was the refusal by the Jesuits to incorporate a ‘morality clause’ into their contracts,” said Father Pietrzyk. 

“Despite what the mainstream press is saying, the archbishop’s actions were not because of their failure to fire this employee, but their failure to observe his legitimate authority to issue general regulations for Catholic schools in his diocese — even ones by religious.” 

The Register reached out to the archdiocese and school for comment, but they did not respond as of press time.

In a video interview with The Indianapolis Star, the school’s principal, Greg VanSlambrook, hinted at the standoff over contract language, but did not address the matter in detail.

“We feel that people from many walks of life, both Catholic and non-Catholic … a diverse set of people, can come and carry out our mission,” VanSlambrook told the Star. “That is where the disagreement does lie.”

But Jesuit Midwest provincial Father Brian Paulson sought to frame the archbishop’s objections as an unprecedented intrusion into the school’s internal administration, as well as a matter of “prudential judgment” on which people of goodwill could disagree.

“After long and prayerful consideration, we determined that following the archdiocese’s directive would not only violate our informed conscience on this particular matter, but also set a concerning precedent for future interference in the school’s operations and other governance matters that Brebeuf Jesuit leadership has historically had the sole right and privilege to address and decide,” read the June 20 statement from Father Paulson.

Still, Father Paulson also expressed relief that even if the school would no longer be listed as a Catholic institution, “a representative of the archdiocese has orally assured Brebeuf that it will continue to allow Jesuit priests to serve in leadership at Brebeuf Jesuit and retain their ability to celebrate Mass on campus.”

Thus he sought to reassure the school community that “Brebeuf Jesuit still affirms its identity and mission as a Catholic Jesuit school.”

Father Pietrzyk noted that Church “law tries to balance the legitimate rights of the school to its autonomy in its internal administration with the bishop’s duty to oversee and ensure an authentically Catholic education for all children in the diocese.”

But he questioned the argument employed by the Jesuit provincial and his supporters. “In … their focus on the school’s autonomy, they are saying essentially that Jesuit schools have no obligation to obey the legitimate precepts of the bishop. Whatever this ecclesiology, it is not Catholic,” said the Dominican priest.

In his statement, Father Paulson also noted that the individual in question did not serve as a religion teacher, and so his same-sex marital status was not a significant concern.

Father Fox suggested that this argument ignored both the U.S. bishops’ policy governing Catholic school administration and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

The justices’ unanimous decision affirmed the right of religious schools to retain control of employment decisions, without the interference of the courts. The decision accepted the Lutheran school’s position that every faculty member was a “minister,” whether or not they taught religion.

The high court’s ruling in Hosanna Tabor also reflected “the position of the U.S. bishops: They do consider all of those involved in a [Catholic educational] enterprise to be ministers,” said Father Fox, echoing language from Archbishop Thompson’s statement.

Ed Peters, for his part, reserved his sharpest criticism for Father Paulson’s effort to downplay the faculty member’s actions. The provincial described the teacher’s civil marriage as “a personal moral decision[ ] at variance with Church doctrine.”

But Peters said the teacher’s decision to enter into a same-sex “marriage” was a “public act of defiance against fundamental Church teaching on the nature of marriage, an act taken … before … young boys and their families seeking to receive a Catholic education in word and deed.”

This open defiance, he concluded, is a “classical scandal (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2284), itself always a grave offense against the common good, and an even graver one when it is perpetrated before youth (Catechism, 2285).”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

This story was updated after posting.