Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver on Latest Firing of Gay Catholic Teacher, Mark Zmuda: Continuing Inconsistency in Treatment of Straight and Gay Employees of Catholic Institutions

I appreciate the work that Eduardo Moisés Peñalver has been doing at the Commonweal website to invite Catholics of the comfortable center to think (and talk honestly) about the conspicuous injustice Catholic institutions frequently do to gay employees, as they apply to those employees criteria from which heterosexual employees appear to be exempt. Back in April last year, Peñalver commented on the firing of a gay Catholic teacher then dominating the news--Carla Hale's firing by Bishop Watterson school in Columbus, Ohio--noting, "[T]o be honest, I'm sick of this stuff happening in my name as a Catholic."

In August last year, when yet another gay teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by St. Lucy's Priory school in Glendora, California, after he married his longtime partner Christopher Persky, Peñalver pointed out that divorced and remarried teachers don't seem to be getting fired in Catholic schools, whereas openly gay teachers who choose to marry their partner or make their relationships public (or unmarried and pregnant teachers) do seem constantly susceptible to firing.  As Peñalver wrote then, 

The axe always seems to fall on those who are somewhat more easily marginalized:  unmarried pregnant teachers, gay teachers, etc.  

Here on Bilgrimage, I noted Peñalver's analysis of the story of Ken Bencomo in a posting which states,

I wrote yesterday that it takes a huge amount of chutzpah for heterosexual Catholics to continue to pretend that what gay Catholics do (and who gay Catholics are) is somehow a special and egregious violation of Catholic sexual moral teaching, which deserves special condemnation and justifies the suspension of human rights accorded to all other Catholics by the institution. I suggested that there's a whole world of liberal Catholics who somehow manage to imagine that the sexual infractions of gay Catholics demand particular attention, while the sexual infractions of straight Catholics don't deserve the same attention--though they contravene the very same moral norms that gay sex contravenes.

Now that yet another gay teacher in a Catholic school has been fired for marrying his partner--Mark Zmuda, vice-principal of Eastside Catholic in Peñalver's home diocese of Seattle--Peñalver continues to challenge Commonweal Catholics, who are Catholics of the comfortable center, to think and talk about this firing. He posted about it at the Commonweal blog in late December, wondering what effect one story after another like this is going to have on younger Catholics and their connection to the church.* He followed that posting with a second one noting that Seattle Times, which endorsed the Republican candidate for governor in the last elections, had come out with a strong editorial in support of Zmuda, which echoes Peñalver's question about the effect of such firings of gay employees on younger Catholics.

And now Peñalver has posted again at Commonweal on the story of Mark Zmuda's firing by Eastside Catholic in Seattle. Noting that Eastside principal Sister Mary Tracy had asked Zmuda to renounce his marriage in order to keep his job (I discussed this story a few days back), Peñalver notes that the Catholic church has painted itself into a corner on the issue of same-sex marriage by opting for an all-or-nothing approach in which divorce is preferable to marriage for same-sex couples:

The incongruousness of this suggestion points towards the rhetorical corner the Church has painted itself into on this issue. Instead of embracing same sex marriage as a way for gay people to participate in the many legal and human goods that come from stable, long-term relationships, Church leaders have opted for an all-or-nothing approach in which divorce becomes somehow preferable to marriage for same-sex couples.

Peñalver goes on to mount (once again) his argument that Catholic institutions do not seem to apply the same criteria to straight employees that they apply to gay ones: as he points out, even if we might grant that Catholic schools have an obligation to punish gay teachers who marry, since that action "has a public status that is absent with cohabitation or use of contraception," there's still this to think about: "[T]he Church does not appear to have applied this standard consistently to heterosexual educators who divorce and remarry."

Instead of embracing same sex marriage as a way for gay people to participate in the many legal and human goods that come from stable, long-term relationships, Church leaders have opted for an all-or-nothing approach: in my view, that says a great deal. If nothing else, it says that the Catholic church is astonishingly insensitive to the human rights of those who are gay, and to the need of gay human beings and their families to enjoy the same legal and human goods available to everyone else in the world. Marriage is, as Peñalver suggests, a key way of affording such legal protection to people in many cultures around the world.

The firing of one gay employee after another in Catholic institutions after these employees choose to marry--while divorced and remarried heterosexual employees of the same institutions are never treated in this way--tends strongly to confirm what many of us who are gay have long since concluded about the Catholic church: the church is not only insensitive to our human rights. In its institutional face as distinguished from its lay members, the church is, in fact, intent on assuring that we do not have human rights, that our rights are not protected in many societies around the world, and that we are not accorded a place in the various societies of the world--or in the church itself.

The blunt, hard reality that gay employees face in Catholic institutions is that there is no legal protection at all for these employees, to prevent their being fired solely because they are gay. There is no legal protection at all for gay employees of Catholic institutions which prevents their being fired on specious grounds when the ultimate reason for their firing is their sexual orientation. 

Predictably, several Commonweal regulars who are married heterosexual men--notably Deacon Jim Pauwels and Mark Proska--are all over Peñalver and his argument, as they have been in the past when he's offered this argument. Deacon Jim and Mr. Proska want to quibble about whether Catholic institutions really single gay folks out and really accord special privilege to heterosexual people (like themselves), which is denied to those who are gay. Bless their hearts, after reading these folks'  tortured response to Peñalver's clear, good arguments, I have to wonder: wouldn't  privileged white heterosexual Catholic men do themselves a world of good if they'd listen carefully to Pope Francis about our obligation to stop looking at things from the vantage point of the center, with all its pomp and privilege?

And if they'd start challenging themselves--for once--to see things from the perspective of those shoved to the margins? Whom they like to invite to dialogue with them, issuing effusive public invitations to dialogue . . . but then totally ignore in private, after their dialogue partners have accepted their effusive public invitation to contact them and talk to them . . . .

It's really not easy, is it, to begin struggling to see things from the vantage point of the marginal, when we ourselves are ensconced in the power seat? And when we don't want to admit or engage our privilege in any self-critical way . . . .

* As Peñalver's posting notes, Eastside students began organized protests in support of Zmuda after his firing came to light. They have now created a Facebook page and Twitter account to publicize their protest (thanks to Andrew Sullivan at the Dish site for noting these developments).

The photo of Mark Zmuda is from Seattle's King5 News, by way of Huffington Post.

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