Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mark Zmuda Story Featured in New York Times: Spotlight Remains on Francis and the Kinder, Gentler, Less Homophobic Media Meme

The firing of Mark Zmuda by Eastside Catholic high school in suburban Seattle (Sammamish, Washington) is in the national news again today with an article about the Eastside story by Michael Paulson in the New York Times. I've talked about this story in the following previous postings--here, here, here, here, and here

As some of the preceding postings note, the students at Eastside have organized a vocal campaign to protest the firing of Zmuda, and have a Facebook page and Twitter account to publicize their protest. As Paulson points out, two days ago, the school's president Sister Mary E. Tracy, who forced Zmuda out of his job when the school learned that he had married his same-sex partner, resigned. Previously, the chair of the school's board had also resigned.

Paulson's article notes the "wave of firings and forced resignations of gay men and lesbians from Roman Catholic institutions across the country" that I've been tracking here for some time now, as have other commentators on U.S. Catholic issues at other blog and news sites. Paulson notes that these firings have been "in most cases prompted not directly by the employees' sexuality, but by their decisions to marry as same-sex marriage becomes legal in an increasing number of states."

As Paulson notes,

This month, the band and choir director at a Catholic school in Ohio was fired hours after he told the school’s president that he planned to marry his boyfriend; in December, a French and Spanish teacher at a Catholic school in Pennsylvania was fired days after telling his principal he was applying for a marriage license in New Jersey. Similar ousters have taken place at Catholic schools, universities and parishes in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Missouri, New York and North Carolina.

The fact that this story has made the national news--and that Paulson's account of the Mark Zmuda story notes the deep backstory of ongoing firings of gay employees in Catholic institutions across the U.S. in recent years--says two things to me. First, the story will now be squarely in the minds of many people who might not normally follow insider news about American Catholicism. It's now a story impossible for Catholic officials to avoid as they seek to present an image of the church as kinder and gentler--altogether less homophobic--under Pope Francis.

The second thing that the appearance of this story in the New York Times says to me is that the spotlight will now be on Pope Francis in another respect than the one I discussed yesterday as I talked about his handling of the abuse crisis. If these firings of gay employees of Catholic institutions continue (again: look at the list of states compiled by Mark Paulson for a significant national news publication), it will be increasingly hard for Catholic officials to make the case that Pope Francis really does make a difference in how the church functions as it engages its gay members and the gay community in general. 

And people will ask why the pope does not address this glaring disconnect between what he has said about not judging those who are gay and defending those on the margins, and the behavior of one Catholic institution after another at this point in Catholic history. People will keep asking about the papal substance behind the papal rhetoric, that is to say.

In Terry Weldon's view (and here), the resignation of the school's board chair and its president constitutes a victory for the Eastside students protesting Mark Zmuda's firing--and a victory for Pope Francis in his encouragement of Catholic young people to "make a mess" in their local churches. At the Commonweal blog site right now, a thread has developed to discuss the resignation of Eastside's president and the student involvement in this event, after Eduardo Moisés Peñalver recently posted another article about the Eastside story.

One aspect of the Commonweal discussion catches my attention. Early in the thread, David Pasinski notes that there are significant questions about justice in the way Catholic institutions handle gay employees who marry same-sex partners--while they never ask any questions at all about whether straight couples are contracepting. 

Bill deHaas then asks if the salient fact as we look at what appears to be a double standard in how Catholic institutions treat gay employees who marry same-sex partners, and straight ones whose moral lives may not meet the Catholic moral mark, is the public nature of marriage. When a gay employee of a Catholic school marries, she makes a public statement that a straight employee does not make when he uses contraceptives . . . .

Jim Dunn then chimes in to state his agreement with deHass's point that the "'public' nature of the marriage is indeed the dividing line." This has now become a regular theme of many Commonweal threads discussing the reception of gay folks in the Catholic church in the U.S., and I have to say, I find myself impatient with this facile distinction between the "public" nature of same-sex marriage and the "private" nature of the use of contraception by heterosexual couples--or the "private" nature of the choice of many heterosexual couples to live together before marriage, or to remarry after divorcing.

Something about this distinction fails to get at the deeper roots of raw prejudice and discrimination within the Catholic community from which the firing of gay employees of Catholic institutions springs. (The meme also smugly and implicitly congratulates the kind of straight married Catholics who dominate in the Commonweal circle for being savvy enough to avoid incurring the wrath of Catholic employers while they contracept, as it also blames gay employees of Catholic institutions for being unwise enough to draw attention to themselves by marrying.)

The fact is--and I'm surprised that people contributing to discussion threads at Commonweal, many of whom have taught for years in Catholic universities, don't know this--that gay employees of Catholic institutions have long been susceptible to being fired solely because they're gay. Prospective employees of Catholic institutions who are gay or are thought to be gay have long been susceptible to screening even before they are hired--and have often been ruled out of jobs in Catholic institutions solely because they've been discovered to be gay when they apply for a job in these institutions.

The story of Timothy Nelson and the Regis Catholic school system of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, last year turns on the denial of a contract to someone who claims he is not even gay, but was suspected of being gay when Regis yanked a contract it had offered to him. As I've noted repeatedly on this blog, after Belmont Abbey College, where I taught theology and chaired the theology department, gave me a terminal contract in 1993, and after I resigned in protest when the school's president refused to provide a reason for the terminal contract, I turned to National Catholic Reporter and asked if that Catholic journal would consider doing a story about what had happened to me.

NCR informed me that stories about the unjust firing of gay employees of Catholic institutions--often on specious grounds--were so common that they didn't merit consideration in the early 1990s. 

But now in 2013, the claim is being made by leaders of Catholic institutions--the kind of people who constitute the Commonweal crowd--that Catholic institutions haven't ever really discriminated against gay employees solely because they're gay, and that it's only when gay employees of these institutions are foolish enough to decide to marry that they bring the wrath of these institutions down on their heads? I think David Pasinski is absolutely correct to point to the deeper issues of justice at play in these stories, and how they haven't yet fully been addressed--particularly by those who defend the use of contraceptives by married couples, but who have never been willing to stand in open solidarity with gay employees of Catholic institutions even as they themselves are using and defending the use of contraceptives.

As I said previously, the public-private distinction, as it's applied to these stories, allows straight Catholic employees of Catholic institutions who have never stood in solidarity with gay employees  treated with conspicuous injustice by these institutions to pretend that they somehow merit their protected, privileged status. Even when they themselves violate the same rules of sexual ethics (all thwarting of the "natural" end of sexual activity is forbidden by Catholic sexual ethics) that gay people violate. 

And it allows straight employees of Catholic institutions to imply--with a smugness that isn't very attractive--that gay employees who choose to marry somehow deserve the institution's abuse of them, because they haven't learned to play the political game as adroitly as have their heterosexual peers. In short, this self-serving meme allows heterosexual Catholics in general to continue refusing to discuss the patent, obvious fact that the Catholic institution is set up to provide unmerited power and privilege to straight men, and that women and gay folks are consistently treated as second-class citizens in the Catholic institution, due to deep, inbuilt cultural norms reinforced by church teaching and fully evident in the comportment of Catholic institutions, with their clear double standards for the treatment of gay and straight employees.

The graphic: Eastside students at a protest rally on 28 December 2013, from KOIN in Portland, Oregon (a CBS affiliate). The photo is an AP Photo/, Jordan Stead).

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