Archbishop’s letter to Catholic high school teachers
February 4th, 2015
By Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone
Dear Teachers in the Archdiocesan Catholic High Schools,
Thank you for the work you do to help our young students learn, mature, and grow in the Catholic faith. Know of my gratitude for the energy, expertise and devotion that you bring to this wonderful and most critical enterprise.
This enterprise involves a two-fold endeavor, since, for a Catholic high school to attain excellence, it must be at one and the same time an excellent institution of secondary education and a truly Catholic institution. Changes in our secular society over the last few decades have brought new challenges to this endeavor in both senses, as we now face both increased difficulties in educating our students well in an array of academic subjects, and unprecedented challenges in forming our young people with a deep and strong Catholic identity as well as a knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith.
The Second Vatican Council, in its declaration on Catholic education Gravissimum Educationis, insisted on Catholic schools assisting Catholic parents in their primary duty of educating their children in virtue, holiness, and their ability to evangelize others in society (see especially nn. 3 and 8). Picking up on this theme, the U.S. bishops have affirmed that “Catholic elementary and secondary schools [are] invaluable instruments in proclaiming the Good News from one generation to the next” (see Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, US Conference of Catholic Bishops , p. 2).
As one means of fulfilling this most serious responsibility, all of our schools currently have programs to help teachers give more effective witness to the Catholic faith. I support these programs. However, I also see a need to provide more clarity for our teachers. For this reason, I have developed a document that clarifies Catholic issues in our Catholic schools. At the outset, though, I wish to state clearly and emphatically that the intention underlying this document is not to target for dismissal from our schools any teachers, singly or collectively, nor does it introduce anything essentially new into the contract or the faculty handbook.
At the same time, we need to face the current reality in society and the Church honestly, seriously and frankly: many people have opinions directly contrary to the natural moral law and the teaching of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, many Catholics themselves have beliefs at variance with Church teaching. This is simply a reality of our modern society. This reality stems in great part from the tremendous pressure the contemporary culture places on everyone to conform to a certain agenda at variance with, and often aggressively so, our Christian understanding of the human person and God’s purpose in creation. This pressure is exerted relentlessly in the media, in entertainment, in politics, in academia, in corporations – in short, in all of the influencers of popular culture. This problem in society in general is already serious enough, but when people in Catholic institutions endorse such views it creates a toxic confusion about our fundamental values among both students and others in society at large. As teaching institutions, therefore, Catholic schools have to be very clear about what constitutes the true teachings of the Catholic Church. They owe that to the teachers, to the students, and to the parents of the students.
Confusion about the Church’s stance is prevalent in areas of sexual morality and religious discipline. For this reason, the statements for inclusion in the faculty handbook focus on these two areas. This focus does not imply lesser importance to Catholic teachings on social justice, which in fact are widely accepted and well interpreted in Catholic educational institutions. The areas requiring clarification are in Catholic teachings on sexual morality and religious practice.
Having clear statements especially about “hot button issues” related to faith and morals is important to teachers for two reasons. The first is that a forthright statement of the Church’s position on these issues helps teachers provide good perspectives to their students who often struggle in these areas.
The second reason is that candid formulation of Church doctrine protects those teachers who don’t agree with the statements. That sounds counterintuitive, but it is indeed the case. In a society in which confusion reigns about Church teachings, highlighting the controversial issues alerts teachers to avoid contradicting Church teaching on these issues either in the school or in some public way outside the classroom.
All teachers are expected to contribute to an atmosphere of holiness, virtue, and familiarity with the Gospel. How can this occur if not all teachers agree with Catholic teachings?
The way to assist teachers who distance themselves or privately oppose some Catholic teachings is to alert them to sensitive issues. Because the school fosters holiness, virtue and evangelization, teachers not knowledgeable about the precise contours of Catholic teaching have to be cautious about what they say in the school and what they do in the public sphere outside the Catholic school. Honest mistakes do happen, and when they do, reparation can be made. This is not in and of itself a cause for a teacher to be punished. At the same time, teachers and staff at Catholic high schools have to strive to present Catholic teachings as consistently as possible. Dissenting from Catholic teaching or the natural moral law in a Catholic high school does not promote holiness, virtue and evangelization.
Finally, it is important to note the careful use of language in the document. In front of many statements of Catholic teaching in the faculty handbook come the words “affirm and believe.” This is a statement made on behalf of the institution, not all individuals in the institutions. Our Catholic high schools try to hire people who do believe what the Church teaches, but in our schools we have good teachers who belong to other Christian faiths or to no faith at all. They are members of the school community. The language “affirm and believe” acknowledges the good activity of the entire corps of faculty and staff by making this claim on behalf of the institution. That is, in the first instance, “affirm and believe” refers to the Catholic high school itself, and, secondly, to many faculty who identify with the Catholic teachings behind which the high school as a whole stands.
My hope is that the document on Catholic faith and morals that is becoming part of the faculty handbook in our Catholic high schools will help the schools better fulfill their mission, and also highlight for teachers true Catholic teachings that are contested by many people in secular society today.
Sincerely in Christ,
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone
From February 6, 2015 issue of Catholic San Francisco.