Longtime Catholic Schools Leader to Head Seattle Archdiocese Task Force

In a statement from the archdiocese, Father Nuzzi described Catholic schools as a “vital part” of the Church’s mission.

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DENVER, Colo. — Leading education expert Father Ronald Nuzzi will head a task force for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle, with a special focus on the “ministerial covenant” that helps Catholic teachers witness to and pass on the Catholic faith.

“Catholic schools are rooted in the Catholic faith. It’s what makes them different from other private schools,” Father Nuzzi told CNA. “Therefore, our educators are asked to teach from this faith-based foundation.”

“At the core of the faith are the great mysteries, which root both parishes and schools in the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Paschal Mystery, and the Eucharist,” he said.

Father Nuzzi is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown in Ohio and professor emeritus of the University of Notre Dame. He is senior director emeritus at the university’s Alliance for Catholic Education, which aims to support, improve and expand Catholic K-12 schools, especially schools lacking resources.

“Catholic schools had their origin in the immigrant Church, providing a safe and faith-filled place where newcomers to this country could learn, grow, and prosper,” Father Nuzzi said. “They served a vital social and religious purpose, providing waves of immigrants the opportunities to fully participate in American society. Today, Catholics are part of the mainstream, but schools are still providing a counter-cultural witness, addressing the secularization, consumerism, relativism, racism, and hyper-individualism that are so common today.”

“In some ways, a Catholic school education, rooted in Gospel values and the example of Jesus, are even more important today than they once were,” he continued.

Father Nuzzi’s task force is set up to secure three key goals. These include a review and study of Church documents about Catholic teaching and tradition, especially the formation of conscience, free will, and human social and sexual development. The task force will assess, analyze and summarize the convictions, beliefs and opinions of archdiocesan stakeholders about the ministerial covenant and its use in employment decisions.

They will make a recommendation based on “an informed and thoughtful approach” to renewal of the ministerial covenant in a way that respects both of the previous goals and “embraces the fullness of church teaching while honoring and appreciating the sense of the faithful,” the Seattle archdiocese said.

The archdiocese did not respond to CNA’s questions about the meaning of “the sense of the faithful,” or what would happen if public opinion conflicted with Church teaching.

“The Ministerial Covenant ensures that our 73 Catholic schools reflect our Catholic faith. How it is applied across our Catholic schools is of great interest not only to me, but to all our principals, teachers, parents and students,” Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle said in a June 16 statement from the Seattle archdiocese.

He voiced gratitude for Father Nuzzi’s leadership in “this important body of work.”

“He is a well-known leader in Catholic school administration and has a wealth of experience as well as a great passion for the faith and Catholic schools,” Archbishop Etienne said.

Father Nuzzi will review nominees for task force membership. Nominees include principals, pastors, parents of children in Catholic schools, Catholic school teachers and members of the archdiocese’s Office for Catholic Schools. The nominees will be announced in July.

“The ministerial covenant is signed by all employees of the Archdiocese of Seattle. It hasn’t been updated in several years, so this taskforce will review its language and how it is applied at Catholic schools across the archdiocese,” Nuzzi told CNA. “What is important about the title ‘ministerial covenant’ is that every Catholic school in the country, including all in the Archdiocese of Seattle, considers teachers to be ministers of the Gospel and witnesses to the faith.”

Ministerial language is not intended to “clericalize” lay teachers or obscure the lay state, he said.

“Lay leaders not only help run our Catholic schools, they help run our entire archdiocese,” Father Nuzzi said. “This taskforce is focused on Catholic teaching and the Catholic faith – not on clericalization. In calling our teachers ministers, we are saying they are public, contractually committed, inspired examples, worthy of emulation, not clerics.”

The task force will meet 12 times from August 2020 to June 2021. Members are asked to maintain confidentiality about all deliberations.

In a statement from the archdiocese, Father Nuzzi described Catholic schools as a “vital part” of the Church’s mission. He said he was “enthusiastic” about the task force and “its potential to help shape a brighter future for youth, children, and families.”

The Seattle archdiocese covers the territory of western Washington State. Almost 580,000 Catholics are registered with a parish and make up over 15% of the area’s population.

The people of Washington state tend to be more secular than other Americans. Those without religious affiliation make up the largest group, about 32%, if small sections of atheists and agnostics are grouped with 22% who self-identify as “nothing-in-particular.” However, 61% self-identify as Christian. Evangelical Christians make up about 25% of Washingtonians, 17% identify as Catholic, and 13% as mainline Protestant, the Pew Research Center reported in 2019.

The task force was announced in February after the Seattle archdiocese saw a controversy in which the facts are disputed. Two teachers at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Washington either resigned voluntarily in order to contract same-sex civil marriages with different partners, or were forced out of their positions.

Michael Prato, president of Kennedy Catholic, said in a February statement that the two teachers approached him in November 2019 to share their desire to civilly marry their same-sex partners.

The teachers had voluntarily signed a covenant agreement to “live and model the Catholic faith in accord with Church teaching,” Prato said. In light of the agreement they signed, both chose to resign, he said. The school worked out a transition plan and financial package for the teachers.

“I hired these teachers and I care about them very much. I still do,” Prato said. “I wanted to make sure they felt supported, and so we discussed several options including the possibility of finishing out the school year.”

Groups of students staged protests in support of the teachers. Students, as well as parents and alumni of the school, also staged a protest outside the diocesan chancery in Seattle.

The two teachers’ attorney, Shannon McMinimee, said the teachers were forced out. She said they “were hoping to have a dialogue with the school about their desire to be their authentic selves and not hide that they were engaged and not hide who they were engaged to.”

"And that -- what they thought would be a conversation with their principal turned into being called into the presidents' office and being told that the superintendent of the archdiocese school system wanted their keys the minute they found out they were gay and engaged,” McMinimee said, according to KING 5 News Feb. 21.

Archbishop Etienne addressed the situation in a Feb. 19 statement.

“Pastors and church leaders need to be clear about the church’s teaching, while at the same time refraining from making judgments, taking into consideration the complexity of people’s lived situations,” he said, stressing that the end goal of accompanying people in faith is “to help people embrace the fullness of the Gospel message and integrate the faith more deeply into their lives.”

“Those who teach in our schools are required to uphold our teaching in the classroom and to model it in their personal lives,” he said. “We recognize and support the right of each individual to make choices. We also understand that some choices have particular consequences for those who represent the church in an official capacity.”

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexual inclinations are not sinful, homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law... under no circumstances can they be approved.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say that people with these inclinations should be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

In 2003, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that “in those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty.” It said Catholics must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation with such laws and, insofar as possible, any material cooperation.

“In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection,” the CDF said.

In the United States, various Catholic schools and dioceses have faced lawsuits from employees who have been fired after contracting civil same-sex marriages in violation of the diocesan or school policy.

Despite strong social pressure, the legal freedom of primary and secondary Catholic schools appears secure at present. In the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case Hosanna Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court unanimously ruled that religious organizations do not need to follow federal anti-discrimination laws in what was characterized as a “ministerial exception.”

At the same time, religious freedom has become a target by some LGBT advocacy groups and politicians who say it wrongfully protects actions they consider discriminatory.