Op-Ed: A credible Christian church would respect gay employees
Catholic organizations have a particular responsibility to respect them, particularly by honoring their own gay staff members and clients. The credibility of Catholic organizations as Christian and as humane is at stake.
By Andrew Hamilton, originally published at La Croix International.
Debates about social issues tend to bring out blanket statements, sweeping claims, dire threats and feverish reporting. They usually carry historical baggage that needs to be unpacked and the contents tested against contemporary reality. This is true also of the coming plebiscite on gay marriage [in Australia: Editor].
A threat reportedly made, and later denied, by some church leaders was to dismiss from employment in Catholic organizations people who contract same-sex marriages. Regardless of what was said the threat will be featured in the coming debates. It may be helpful to set it in its broader context.
The argument for taking such action is that Catholic organizations must uphold the teaching of the church and that this implies living in a way consistent with it. Where the public relationships of people working in Catholic organizations are inconsistent with Catholic teaching they call into question the teaching itself.
Whatever the abstract merits of this argument and its applicability to dismissal in limit cases, its general use belongs to a past age. It presupposes a tightly bound Catholic world in which Catholic faith is accepted and shared, where the Catholic Church is a primary allegiance for its members and where Catholic schools, hospitals, and welfare agencies are staffed by Catholics. Faith is maintained and transmitted through adherence to the close and disciplined Catholic community.
In such a world it is understandable that Catholic authorities might exclude from employment in their organizations people in relationships not countenanced by Catholic teaching.
But even there such action undermined the church it was supposed to protect. It identified the Christian gospel with repulsion rather than attraction. The novels of Irish writer John McGahern show clearly how such authoritarian behavior gave birth to resentment and bred the present disowning of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
To carry out such a threat would now be suicidal for the Catholic Church. In large Catholic institutions involved in education, health care or social services, neither the officers of the organizations – administrators, doctors, nurses, auxiliary staff, teachers etc. – nor the people whom they serve are united by religious or church allegiance. Some belong to other churches or religions; others have no religious belief.
In addition, few of the baptized Catholics among medical staff and patients, or among teachers and their students’ families, are practicing Catholics who have an adult understanding of their faith. They have only a secondary allegiance to the Catholic Church.
What attracts many people from diverse backgrounds to work in these Catholic organizations with children, the ill and people who are marginalised is their ethos. The tradition they inherit appeals to the unique value of each human being regardless of faith, worthiness of life, gender or sexual preference.
That appeal is rooted in the belief that each human being is deeply loved by God. It is embodied in the story of Jesus Christ, and in the stories of the religious congregations inspired by him to found the organizations.
If such a tradition is to retain its power in organizations where not all people share the religious faith that lies behind it, those who work in them need to share the radical respect for human beings, and especially for the most vulnerable, that is embodied in the tradition, and to be open to draw on the stories of the faithful people in whom it is embodied.
This will require that people in positions of responsibility for handing on the tradition embrace it fully, are enthusiastic about living its values, and able to commend them effectively and ensure that they govern their relationships with the people whom they serve and with one another.
Their capacity to commend the tradition will depend on mutual trust between the leaders of the organizations and the staff that both hold and live by its values, and that they are united in respect for the dignity of each human being, and particularly for the most vulnerable. If that trust breaks down, the tradition will become a source of division and not of unity.
Trust would certainly break down if people were dismissed for contracting same sex marriages. In the context of the plebiscite, gay people are particularly vulnerable and so deserving of respect by church organizations, whose members are also particularly sensitive to their claims.
They have endured a long history of prejudice and violence, some of it claiming a Christian warrant. Catholic organizations, therefore, have a particular responsibility to respect them, particularly by honoring their own gay staff members and clients. The credibility of Catholic organizations as Christian and as humane is at stake.
In short, it would be inconceivable for Catholic based organizations to dismiss people who contract gay marriages. It would both be inconsistent with their own tradition and would make it impossible to for them to commend that tradition to their own members of staff.