I have a hard time mustering what to say about church employees being fired for announcing engagements to people of the same sex, being pregnant outside of marriage or normal conception activity. The truth is that many of us sign church employment agreements that stipulate good moral conduct. The employer is always the arbiter of that.
I remember being faced with such an arbitration with the pastor and business manager at the end of my first year of employment–and the day before I took a June vacation to visit my hometown. I was informed that a married couple in the parish was poking around my new living situation with a male roommate. Their daughter, whom I was dating, had asked me my political opinion about a university professor at a Christian college who had declared himself “out.” I hadn’t been offered a new contract on the date my old one said it was to happen–the pastor was actually more than two months late.
Funny how those pieces all fit together in retrospect.
But it also confirmed my long skepticism about church management: you might think you work for a system that employs a higher moral standard, but don’t be fooled. Clergy are just as petty and sinful as the people they fire or try to pink-slip. And in the case of my first boss, who fancied himself a strong and decisive manager, just as easily manipulated by gossip and invented folklore.
I did go into my vacation the next day with a signed contract for the coming year. But I warned my roommate to watch his back with the parish staff and a certain parish family. And I felt better having written and delivered a scathing letter of criticism to the pastor on my way out of town.
I suppose I could have returned to find myself terminated, but at least I was getting a vacation out of the guy. He might have been too easily manipulated by these people, but he was moral enough to accept he was in the wrong. Firing me would have just compounded his cooperation with, as my roommate described it, evil. He got to stew on my accusations of him for a few weeks, then he blew up at me at our next meeting. I called it even.
I did notice that Cardinal George consented to a meeting with another fired gay musician. Fired, it seems, not for having sex, which seemed to be taken for granted by absolutely everybody who knew the man, including his pastor. But for announcing a legal reality in the state of Illinois that still seems to me to be morally neutral, despite Fr Michael’s protestations to the contrary.
My early experience certainly colored the way I’ve handled myself as a church employee. I’ve admired most of the guys who have employed me. But they’ve never been my friends, advisors, or spiritual directors. I don’t socialize with people who are my bosses. I remember one priest being surprised when my future wife and I announced our engagement. I certainly didn’t include him in our discernment–we spoke with other friends. Before I was married, I didn’t bring women I was dating to parish staff social events. I wouldn’t subject a friend to moments like that. (Taking women home to my family was traumatic enough.)
Cardinal George doesn’t have a spotless moral record of his own on which to stand. I suspect that more people have called for his job termination than for Mr Collette’s. That may be some small measure of comfort when a body is standing in the unemployment line, but there you have it.
Cardinals, priests, music directors, teachers: all fall short of the ideals of the Gospel. That some classes of folks are cashiered out of a job and some not isn’t always because of differing levels of moral conduct. All too often, the decision happens not because of moral misconduct as much as because it can happen. And don’t we all know it.