Monday, April 6, 2009

Inversion of Values: Reflections on the Firing of Lay Catholic Catechist Ruth Kolpack by Bishop Robert Morlino

A case in Wisconsin involving a lay Catholic pastoral associate, Ruth Kolpack, is gaining national attention. As Mike Sweitzer-Beckman reported on 17 March in National Catholic Reporter (here), Kolpack, a pastoral associate at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Beloit, Wisconsin, since 1995, was fired in early March by Bishop Robert Morlino.

Kolpack began her ministry in the church in 1971 as a volunteer catechist. Since that time, she has worked tirelessly and fruitfully for the church. In 1983, she was hired as a part-time youth minister. She then earned a degree at Loyola University in 1986 and was hired full-time. After this, she earned a master's degree.

She has contributed to the church in numerous ways, giving of her services to diocesan educational programs, training lay ministers, and taking a leading role in establishing a program called “Hands of Faith,” which helps to house homeless families. She has also assisted in establishing Hispanic ministries in several parishes in her diocese.

Despite her years of hard work for the church, of contribution of her talents and herself, and despite the fact that she regards her ministry as her life, Sweitzer-Beckman reports, “Kolpack said that when she met with her bishop she was given no opportunity to defend herself, nor did she have a chance to face or respond to those who had accused her.” She was fired outright, with no disclosure of a reason for her termination. As Sweitzer-Beckman notes (here), the diocese refuses to reveal any information about the reason for her termination because it considers the matter a “personnel issue” and has indicated that revealing the reason could impair Kolpack’s character.

Due to the controversy surrounding what seems on the face of it to be outrageously unjust treatment of a lay minister, the Madison diocese has released a document to respond to questions about Kolpack’s termination (here). This document consists of FAQs about the termination.

I’m particularly interested in the diocese’s attempt to defend Bishop Morlino’s decision to terminate a lay minister without providing a reason for the termination—even to the person being terminated. One of the questions in the FAQ is, “Is it true that Ms. Kolpack was not given an opportunity to confront her accusers, and that there was no due process in this matter?”

As Colleen Kochivar-Baker notes in an excellent posting about this on her Enlightened Catholicism blog (here), the diocese’s handling of this central question—was a lay minister who has worked for many years on behalf of the church, who has sacrificed much and given much, afforded due process when she was terminated?—is, well, curious, indeed.

Believe it or not, here’s the diocesan response to that question: It should never have happened! It should never have happened because a bishop should be able to trust all the ministers working in his diocese. The FAQ states,

What is true is that this should never have happened. A bishop should be able to trust that every priest, deacon, religious and lay person tasked with catechesis is teaching the truths of the Church. But this is not always the case.

As Colleen Kochivar-Baker observes, note what this unbelievably fatuous response does: it completely inverts the matter at hand, and makes it about Bishop Morlino, not about Ruth Kolpack. It makes the issue a perceived injury done to Bishop Morlino (i.e., betrayal of his trust), and not an injury done to Ruth Kolpack.

Ruth Kolpack has given her life to serve the church. She has sacrificed, as a lay minister without access to the lavish institutional funds provided for the education of priests, to earn the credentials to pursue her ministry as a catechist and a pastoral associate.

After nearly four decades of ministry, she is out on her ear, without a job, with no explanation at all for her termination. Her ministry has been unilaterally judged null and void by a bishop, and she has not had a chance to defend herself against the charges that apparently resulted in her firing. As a lay person, she is quite simply without rights, and as an ordained member of the church, Bishop Morlino has all power in his hands, to make or break her.

His vocation counts, as a clerical member of the church. Hers does not count, as a lay person.

But it is Bishop Morlino who has been hurt. Not Ruth Kolpack.

This is the dynamic to which I refer in previous postings as the inversion of values often practiced by churches and church institutions when they violate their own ethical proclamations about human rights in how they treat their employees. As I note (here), I have found that church institutions typically employ the inversion of values approach in conflict situations in which the human rights of gay employees are violated by church authorities or by those at the top of church institutions (e.g., presidents of church-related colleges):

A typical response of church folks in supervisory positions in Christian institutions, when challenged with evidence of their homophobic ill-treatment of gay employees, is to claim that the evil gay is victimizing them! This inversion of values, the attempt of the oppressor to turn the tables and try to identify the oppressed as the victimizer, is typical in any twisted relationship in which a privileged party abuses a party placed in a subordinate position, in which that person cannot easily defend himself or herself.

The stark, unbelievable logic of the inversion of values approach is that the person on top is right—always right—because, well, he or she is on top, after all. And it is a church or a church-owned institution, after all. And churches and church institutions do right. And those who run these institutions and do right because they are on top are the church. To violate them by questions about their motives is to violate the church itself. To combat them is to fight against the church (and God).

To expect them to apply their teachings about just treatment of employees and universal human rights to the church and its institutions is to question the right of those on the top in churches and church institutions to represent themselves as the church, as agents of God, as God. It is to question the self-identification of fallible human creatures with divinity and divine right.

There is, of course, no real defense for such an approach to workers and workers' rights. There can be no ethical defense for what is simply crude hardball abuse of workers by an institution that considers itself above the law and above the reach of its own ethical teachings, in what it does to its workers.

Here is how the diocesan FAQ tries—lamely—to defend Bishop Morlino’s violation of Ruth Kolpack’s human rights:

1. It should not have happened.

2. It should not have happened because it is about Bishop Morlino and not Ruth Kolpack—it is about the fact that he should always be able to trust his workers.

3. Of course, there is an “optimal process” that should apply in any Christian institution: a process that “would have seen any issues resolved, lovingly, in a one-on-one basis, within parish structures.”

4. But this is not what happened because, well, what happened should never have happened—it is about Bishop Morlino, for goodness’ sake, not about Ruth Kolkpack: “If there was a breakdown in the optimal process, that necessitated that the bishop address the situation himself, then this is something that must also be addressed. Because, again, this should have never happened.”

5. And, after all, those noble Catholic teachings about the rights of employees and the rights of all human beings, well, they apply only in criminal cases—not in the everyday, ordinary life of the church: “‘Due process’ has its place in criminal matters. Were this a criminal accusation, canonically or civilly, the proper canonical or civil process would then come into effect. This is not a trial, but simply a matter of trust.”

This is simply a matter of trust. Trust me. I am a bishop. Ruth Kolpack is only a lay minister. The power is in my hands. Could I possibly do wrong?

Have you ever heard such a mishmash of logic and plain mendacity? And can you believe that this mismash of logic and plain mendacity prevails in many churches and church institutions? Even today, anywhere that a church or a church institution can get away with treating its employees this way.

I can, because I have been there, several times. In my own dealings with these institutions, as a lay minister who happens to be a theologian, who pinched and scraped to pay for my theological education while priests and nuns in my graduate program had their way paid by the church, I have learned that the church and church institutions will almost always do what they can do legally, even if what they can do legally violates what they proclaim ethically.

When I was given a one-year terminal contract with no explanation at Belmont Abbey College in 1993, that is precisely what the college president told me as he informed me I would receive such a contract—and would not be told why I was being terminated. He said, “I am ethically conflicted about doing this. I can do it legally but I know it is ethically dubious to act this way. I have chosen to do what is legal.”

I know Ruth Kolpack's story intimately, because it is an old story, and one I myself have had to live with. That prevaricating diocesan statement—that its refusal to discuss why Ruth Kolpack was terminated is an attempt to protect her reputation—I've had to live with that statement, too.

It shields the church and church institutions from legal culpability, when the church and its institutions do what is legal but not ethical. It also allows the church and its representatives to damage the former employee even while claiming to have that employee's reputation and best interest at heart.

Think, for a moment, about the power of insinuation and of whispers about real reasons in these cases, and you will see what I mean. We whose reputations are being "protected" would far rather know why we have been terminated, than to be "protected" by damaging campaigns of lies, secrets, and silence which allow the institution to insinuate all kinds of ugly reasons about why we have been terminated.

I certainly do feel for Ruth Kolpack, and I hope that she attains some justice, no matter how rough, in this situation. No matter how hard she worked, no matter what good she did, she is now up against the institutional power of the church, and that power is considerable. In my experience, those with power in the church lock arms and stand against anyone who asks questions about how they have unjustly wielded their power, in cases like this.

What happened to Ruth Kolpack should not have happened. That is the "should not have happened" that Bishop Morlino ought to be pondering, not some bogus betrayal of his trust. But this scenario will continue to happen in churches and many church institutions until laws that protect the rights of workers compel institutions which preach to society about just treatment of workers to embody that preaching in their own ecclesial life.