Bishop Vasa Proposes New Plan to Improve Schools’ Catholic Identity

The California bishop announces a two-year program to help Catholic educators become closer collaborators in promoting the New Evangelization.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Catholic educators in the Diocese of Santa Rosa’s schools will not find in this year’s teacher’s contract what detractors called a “loyalty oath” to Church teaching.

Changing tactics in his quest to bolster the schools’ Catholic identity, Bishop Robert Vasa has dropped plans for a beefed-up teacher’s contract in favor of a two-year program to renew Catholic educators and make them closer collaborators with him in the New Evangelization.

“I recognize that I do have a duty to be vigilant, but I recognize that this can be done better through teaching than it can by way of decree,” Bishop Vasa said in a letter to pastors, principals and teachers dated March 19.

Bishop Vasa stated in the letter that he would not go through with his decision to add controversial language to the "faith and morals" clause in the standard teacher’s contract signed by more than 200 educators at 11 diocesan schools. That now-scrapped addendum stipulated that teachers had entered into a covenant with the bishop to form the souls of their students. It stated the bishop expected teachers to live by the Ten Commandments and reject “modern errors” on the dignity of life, marriage and the family, both inside and outside the classroom.

One unnamed teacher, unhappy with the contract’s expectation that he live according to Church teaching outside the classroom door, leaked the addendum to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, sparking a local furor and fueling confusion over Bishop Vasa’s intentions for Catholic schools.

Bishop Vasa is postponing further clarifications to the teacher’s contract to at least 2015 in order to re-educate teachers, principals and even parents about the truth and beauty of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. Discussions with pastors on March 19, he revealed in his letter, convinced him that “a couple of meetings and a mandate” would not have accomplished his vision of Catholic education for the diocese.

“We have a most serious duty to give to our youth a joyful and enthusiastic appreciation of all of the teachings of our Catholic faith,” Bishop Vasa said. “This cannot fully be done unless we work together to help assure that we all arrive at a personal appreciation of the faith fully consistent with the mind of the Church.”

The bishop now plans to launch a “Catechetical Enterprise” over the next 21 months. Although he revealed no details, Bishop Vasa said he would be working with other theology teachers to make presentations for Catholic educators that would engage them with the beauty of the Church’s teachings and address “a number of significant misunderstandings.”



Bishop Vasa’s new direction has earned kudos from U.S. experts in Catholic education, who say the approach highlights the need for teachers and principals to undergo continuing education in the faith.

“I’m delighted to see Bishop Vasa doing this, because people have been asking to see the voice of the Church in relation to Catholic education and catechetics,” said Dominican Sister Mary John Fleming, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education.

Sister Mary John said that Catholic schools are “community centers of the New Evangelization” that must not only evangelize children, but also continue to engage Catholic educators themselves.

“Bishop Vasa is creating a seedbed by which teachers can participate in the New Evangelization in a really special way,” she said. “I hope others pick up on it, because it’s an extremely important way to go.”

Father Ron Nuzzi, director of Catholic leadership programs at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), described evangelization as “a process, not an event.” He pointed out that the spiritual needs and disposition of a young teacher fresh out of college is much different than those of a teacher with 20-plus years' experience.

“This work of faith formation, the evangelization and re-evangelization of adults is never done,” Father Nuzzi said. “It’s much like your education degree. It doesn’t mean your education is concluded, only that you’ve reached a milestone.”

Father Nuzzi said Bishop Vasa’s new course of action also avoids the pitfall that a teacher might consider his evangelization a done deal, not requiring his ongoing formation.


Principal’s Perspective

Graham Rutherford, principal of Cardinal Newman High School, welcomed Bishop Vasa’s decision and said a number of concerned faculty have told him they are encouraged by the bishop’s desire to include them in the process.

“They appreciate there is going to be more time and involvement on what the future addendum might look like,” Rutherford said. “I think this new process will lead to a more shared common vision.”

Rutherford said that most teachers did not express a serious problem with signing the original addendum, but he said it did generate some “misunderstandings and uncertainties.”   

“The bishop never said to me that he thought we were doing things that were wrong or opposed to Church teaching,” Rutherford said. “But I think the way the addendum came out was how some people took it.”

Bishop Vasa had previously told the Register that he was inspired by Benedict XVI’s proclamation of the Year of Faith to clarify for teachers how he sees their role in evangelization. “If the purpose [of a Catholic school] is evangelization, introducing people to the message of Christ and the Church, then those people in some way are ministers of evangelization and apostles,” he said.

Rutherford said he did not know yet what shape Bishop Vasa’s Catechetical Enterprise might take. He said John Collins, the diocesan superintendent of schools, had been exploring the possibility of utilizing the School of Faith formation program developed by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., as a common learning experience.

“With Holy Week and Easter, things are a little busy,” Rutherford said, “but by April I think we’ll have a clearer sense of direction.”

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.