Are Parochial Schools as Catholic as the Supreme Court?
It remains to be seen whether Catholic schools can fully live up to the opportunity the Supreme Court has given them.
Catholics won a big victory earlier this year when the Supreme Court, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, agreed that the “ministerial exception” applies to parochial school employees. One hopes Catholics are worthy of that victory.
Why ask if they are worthy of the victory? Because the Supreme Court affirmed a vision of Catholic education that, in some ways, might be more theoretical than real. Don’t get me wrong: I am happy with the outcome of the case. I just wonder if the court was more Catholic than some Catholic schools.
The case revolved around the application of federal employment laws to Catholic schools. Agnes Morrissey-Berru was a lay teacher in Our Lady of Guadalupe School, who was moved from a full- to a part-time position and, eventually, did not have her contract renewed. She sued under federal employment statutes. The school invoked a “ministerial exception,” i.e., a judicially-created carve-out that says that, when a job is integrally associated with an institution’s religious mission, employment decisions fall within the purview of that religiously-controlled institution and not the state.
The logic is simple. The first right listed in the First Amendment relates to religion: Americans are guaranteed “free exercise” of religion. But religion would not be “free” nor religion if its content, teaching, and identity was subject to state supervision. Justice Thomas recognized this in his separate concurrence in the case: he would treat an assertion of “ministerial exception” by a religious entity as self-validated.
The school’s opponents (and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) claimed that such a position would license discrimination. According to their logic, Morrissey-Berru was just a “teacher.” She taught religion one period: all the rest of the school day, she was simply a teacher, teaching “secular” subjects, and thus no “minister.”
The Supreme Court ruled otherwise.
The Supreme Court, in fact, embraced a Catholic philosophy of education. At the same time, it refused to embrace the philosophy of America’s elites in putting “public education” front and center.
America’s elites would tell us that the desirable model (and thus, the only one worthy of public support) is the “public school.” That’s why these avatars of “choice” suddenly abandon their Pole Star when it comes to school choice.
And it’s why they insisted Morrissey-Berru was “just” another teacher.
“Diversity” claims notwithstanding, they embrace one model of education. For them, a Catholic school is just a school that acquires a religious flavor at certain times. Our Lady of Guadalupe is “Catholic” when Morrissey-Berru teaches religion or takes the kids to Mass or helps them earn corporal works of mercy credits. Otherwise, she and her school are just a plain old school.
Our Lady of Guadalupe didn’t agree, and neither did the United States Supreme Court.
A genuine Catholic school is not like a fake Catholic politician, who dons and doffs his or her Catholicism in the course of the day. A Catholic school, as the Supreme Court saw it, is a comprehensive institution imbued with a certain ethos. It is Catholic all day long. It is Catholic when Morrissey-Berru teaches religion and when she teaches history, commenting on historical events from the perspective of faith. It’s Catholic when she teaches sex education, which ought to be fundamentally different from the Planned Parenthood curriculum. It’s Catholic when she counsels a student after class about a broken heart or falling grades. It’s Catholic when she picks classroom texts for reading class. It’s Catholic. Period.
As with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the compartmentalizers of the elite cannot grasp that an institution had an ethos or a moral code (especially when it’s not theirs). How can institutions have consciences? (Just don’t ask that question when your company is being asked for an endorsement of the latest cause du jour). Is it all just a bad faith ploy to evade employment laws and engage in “discriminatory” and “retrograde” practices? (After all, they’re Catholics).
So, we should be grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Catholic schools can be guided by Catholic visions, a Catholic ethos and a Catholic philosophy.
But that brings me back to the question: are we worthy of this victory? Is the Supreme Court treating Catholic schools more Catholic than they really are?
The institutional ethos of a Catholic school means that it should be suffused with a Catholic vision. After the many decades of dumbed down Catholic religious education and the desire not to “offend,” to be “inclusive” and “welcoming,” are those schools in fact as Catholic as the Supreme Court has given them warrant to be?
Obviously, today’s Catholic school is different from its counterpart 50 years ago, in part because of the loss of Catholic (especially female) religious vocations and the domination of these institutions by laypeople. As a layperson myself, I do not have an issue with that: I’ve seen the laity defend Catholic identity where priests and religious were ready to compromise. So, being lay-dominated does not necessarily say anything about an institution’s religious identity.
That said, we do know that Catholic parochial and high schools have compromised their identities, whether out of appealing to an increasingly non-Catholic student body, in pursuit of state aid (especially in Blaine Amendment states before last week’s welcome Supreme Court ruling), and through catechetical instruction driven by dissidents.
Most American Catholic colleges and universities long ago decided that, in the choice of serving God or mammon, let’s call ourselves “in the Catholic tradition” and pass the bucks. “Intellectual freedom” presupposed theology faculties in which authentic Catholic teaching was a minority position. That vision has certainly seeped into Catholic grade schools and high schools, especially when diocesan centralization helped insulate such institutions from the occasional watchful pastor who might otherwise call practices into account.
There are those who might lament these criticisms, noting that many Catholic schools in the post-COVID environment are on the verge of collapse, so optimism is the need of the day. I don’t necessarily buy that. Guadalupe gives us an opportunity to ask just how suffused with Catholicism our schools are. If we are to continue the status quo, if we are to accept “Catholic-Lite” in Catholic schools, if we are to allow green-eyeshades chancery types to make personnel decisions on grounds other than Catholicism (like saving money on senior teachers), then we will squander the chance the Supreme Court provided. Remember: there are going to be a lot of entrenched interests intent on narrowing, if not reversing, these outcomes, and they play for the long term.
The Supreme Court has given Catholic grade schools and high schools wide berth to actually be Catholic. The reverse outcome (see Justices Ginsburg’s and Sotomayor’s dissents) would have been disastrous for Catholic institutional religious freedom: it’s encouraging that Guadalupe was a 7-2, not a 5-4 split. That said, whether Catholic schools actually fully live up to the opportunity the court has given them remains to be seen.
- u.s. supreme court