It is September. The days grow a little shorter. There is that hint of fall crispness in the air. And, of course, it is back-to-school season.
And if it is back-to-school time, then it must also be time for that very sad, very sorry, and utterly needless ritual that we all wish would stop happening. I am talking about the Catholic schools that continue to fire gay teachers. These annual firings are tragic, pointless, and inflict great harm. The discharged teachers, of course, are the most seriously injured, but so are all the people associated with the schools -- students, graduates, parents, and staff. The Catholic school system is diminished in the eyes of the public. And the church as a whole is made to suffer.
Motherhood and mortgages -- these are the classic symbols of quiet suburban domesticity. Yet they were also the triggering events that led to the firing of lesbian teachers in Detroit and St. Louis, respectively. Barbara Webb is 33 years old and a trained chemist. She could have pursued "lucrative private-sector opportunities" but felt the calling to teach and to awaken young minds to the joys of science. In a world that is shaped increasingly by science and technology, she seems like the sort of teacher every school district would want.
And, in fact, she was quite successful at her chosen career. In her nine years at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, she "taught advanced placement and honors chemistry," "coach[ed] volleyball and softball, and moderat[ed] student government." She has been in a same-sex marriage for two years and became pregnant this summer by "nontraditional" means. She has asserted that her pregnancy was the reason for her discharge: "That you can't hide a pregnancy from the public is why I was terminated."
Students and graduates have expressed support. As one student put it, "I think the bigger thing everyone is feeling is that we have been taught this whole time to live a Christian life and be accepting of other people and yet we go and fire one of our favorite teachers?"
News accounts suggest that support for Barbara Webb is growing. A change.org petition has been launched in support of her cause. I've signed it. I hope others do too.
Some 500 miles to the southwest, in St. Louis, a similar set of tragic events are playing themselves out. Over the summer, it seems, a young married couple did what newlyweds routinely do all over the nation: They applied for a home mortgage. Olivia Reichert and Christina Gambaro, however, are in a same-sex union, and they are employed by Cor Jesu High School.
When the school learned of the mortgage application, the two teachers were terminated. Anger at Cor Jesu's decision has been steadily growing since. Students and alumnae have organized Facebook pages and engaged in other acts of protest. Graduates from as long ago as the 1970s have spoken out against the administration's decision. And alumnae have threatened what is always the most effective form of protest: They have promised to withhold contributions.
That these events are occurring in Detroit and St. Louis should perhaps not be surprising. Both archdioceses are led by veteran culture warriors who have long expressed hostility to same-sex marriage. In April 2013 Archbishop Allen Vigneron advised Detroit Catholics who supported same-sex marriage that they should not receive Holy Communion -- a position effectively answered by Francis de Bernardo of New Ways Ministry.
Archbishop Robert Carlson, who now heads the St. Louis archdiocese, has a culture-war pedigree that stretches back many years. While serving as Bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the early 2000s, he reportedly told Sen. Tom Daschle to stop identifying himself as Catholic -- something Daschle refused to do. As the archbishop of St. Louis, Carlson has spoken out against same-sex marriage as recently as this summer. Infamously, Carlson also testified under oath this past June that as the chancellor of the Twin Cities archdiocese in the early 1980s, he failed to report allegations of sex abuse to the police and wasn't even sure the acts were criminal.
Both archdioceses are experiencing demographic crises. Vigneron and Carlson both assumed their present offices in 2009. Vigneron has seen infant baptisms plunge by around 30 percent during his tenure as archbishop. The numbers under Carlson are not as catastrophic, but they are bad enough: Infant baptisms are down a little more than 12 percent in a territory that is growing in population. Do you think that these two men might come to realize that a faith of inclusion, not exclusion, might help reverse these trends? I hope so.
What I wish both Marian High School and Cor Jesu might also recognize is that our knowledge of same-sex attraction has shifted dramatically over the last couple of decades. Indeed, it is now fair to say that a scientific consensus has emerged that holds that same-sex attraction is a naturally occurring and totally benign variation in human sexuality. In light of this new consensus, the prudent course for school administrators is to withhold harsh judgment of these teachers' obviously rich and fruitful relationships. Certainly, they should not have been terminated from their positions.
Significantly, Catholic leaders in other nations are now adopting this cautious, do-no-harm approach. I have in mind particularly Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Italian Bishops' Conference, who has called for the acceptance of gays "without taboo." The American Catholic laity seem to agree with Galantino: Over half of American Catholics now support same-sex marriage. Modesty, prudence, the realization that science now counsels acceptance and support of gay relationships, not their suppression, should suggest that these firings must stop. Now. At once.