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Bishop Vasa Stands Up for Catholic Identity in Santa Rosa's Diocesan Schools
March 7, 2013 -- Peter Jesserer Smith -- National Catholic Register
Catholics applaud as the California bishop mandates that teachers affirm they accept Church teachings in their personal and professional lives.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. - School teachers and administrators are not expecting some sort of "Spanish Inquisition" in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., even though the diocese is the epicenter of a media-generated local furor surrounding Bishop Robert Vasa's decision to mandate that Catholic educators live the Ten Commandments and reject "modern errors" on life and family in their personal and professional lives.
"I think it's a little overblown, in some ways," said principal Graham Rutherford of Cardinal Newman High School. "The bishop said he wanted to clarify his expectations. ... He never said we've been doing things wrong here."
And, in fact, Bishop Vasa told the Register there has been a massive outpouring of support for the action he has taken to uphold Catholic identity.
The 200 educators who teach more than 3,000 students in Santa Rosa's 11 Catholic diocesan schools have until mid-April to sign a contract that includes an addendum written by Bishop Vasa himself. Entitled "Bearing Witness," the document elaborates on the contract's faith and morals clause that states educators must "be a model of Catholic living and adhere to Catholic teachings in both personal and professional life."
The language added into the contract explains that teachers are entering into a "covenantal relationship" with the bishop, wherein they become his "ministerial agent" in forming the souls of their students. The document states that they recognize that they are "called by God to a life of holiness," must live in conformity with the Ten Commandments and must reject "modern errors," including contraception, abortion, same-sex "marriage" and euthanasia, that are "not consistent with the clear teachings of the Catholic Church."
But it's the requirement that teachers live up to the Church's moral teachings outside the classroom that prompted at least one teacher to leak the contract to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
"Personally, it's probably something that I can't sign," a Cardinal Newman High School teacher told the Press Democrat on condition of anonymity. The teacher said he objects to "the whole idea that they want me to live their morals when it's my personal life what I do outside of work."
When asked by the Register, however, Rutherford said only one teacher has decided not to sign the new contract and will pursue teaching elsewhere. He said he expected the rest of the faculty would have little problem with signing it.
Far from a public backlash, Bishop Vasa told the Register that Catholics inside and outside the diocese have greeted his decision with great enthusiasm.
"I've received a positive outpouring of support saying that it is good and refreshing to see this kind of clarity," he said.
John Collins, superintendent of schools for the Santa Rosa Diocese, said the new contract doesn't mean that the diocese will be launching an "inquisition" into the personal lives of its school employees.
"We're not sending out a checklist or anything like that," Collins said. "We don't have bad teachers, and the addendum shouldn't be seen as a corrective to bad teachers."
Collins said that the diocese holds a "very high regard" for its teachers and has "high expectations for them." Bishop Vasa placed the addendum in the contract, Collins said, in order to help teachers better understand their role in helping the bishop both to form students and witness to the Gospel.
"Young people listen to their teachers, who are also witnesses by their life example," he said.
According to Bishop Vasa, Benedict XVI's proclamation of the Year of Faith had a big influence in guiding bishops to clarify the role of teachers in evangelization.
"It was a call to make more explicit the faith, which underlies our apostolic mission," Bishop Vasa said.
Bishop Vasa told the Register that his reflection on Benedict's Year of Faith apostolic exhortation in Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith) inspired him to communicate to the diocese's educators that they were "ministerial agents" in a covenant with him to form young people.
"If the purpose [of a Catholic school] is evangelization, introducing people to the message of Christ and the Church, then those people in some way are ministers of evangelization and apostles," he said.
While most of the 194 U.S. dioceses have a "faith and morals" clause in their contracts, Catholic education expert Father Ron Nuzzi said only a handful have made their expectations as explicit as Bishop Vasa has done.
"The 'faith and morals' clause is meant to be a guarantor that a person in the classroom is not doing harm and is providing a compelling witness to the Church's teaching," said Father Nuzzi, director of Catholic leadership programs at the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).
Still, more dioceses have taken recent action to clarify in their contracts with teachers that the Church looks on them as partners in ministry.
"We regard our teachers as ministerial employees and Catholic role models, both inside and outside the classroom," said Dan Andriacco, communications director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. "If we become aware of them not living up to that, then we have to act."
Under Archbishop Dennis Schnurr's leadership, the archdiocese has fired two teachers and an administrator over the past two years for breaches of contract on the "faith and morals" clause. The two unmarried teachers - one became pregnant by artificial insemination, the other by extra-marital sex - have sued the archdiocese. The archdiocese also fired a vice principal in February after he made public on a blog his support for same-sex "marriage."
"Our schoolteachers are ministerial employees because our schools are ministries," Andriacco said. "We don't operate our schools to give our kids just a good education and discipline. We open our doors every day to form them in the faith; even in cases where the students may not be primarily Catholic." Andriacco said the archdiocese "beefed up" language in the teachers' contract to make more explicit its expectations that teachers live in conformity with the moral teachings of the Church.
"No one presented with the contract should later be surprised," Andriacco said. "If anybody doesn't think they can live up to that, then they shouldn't sign it."
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., also came under fire recently in the local Washington-area media for requiring catechists, youth ministers and religious-education teachers to make a public "Profession of Faith" under oath to the Church's teachings. Besides belief in the Nicene Creed, the profession required teachers to "firmly accept and hold" all the Church's teachings on faith and morals and to submit "in will and intellect" to the teachings of the pope and the College of Bishops.
"The bishop is the chief catechist of the diocese, but he can't be everywhere," said Mike Donohue, communications director for the Arlington Diocese. Bishop Loverde had reflected on the then-upcoming Year of Faith and made the decision to require the profession of faith, Donohue said, because he believed the profession would give parents confidence that their children were receiving genuine instruction in the Catholic faith.
Both Andriacco and Donohue noted that their respective dioceses have garnered positive encouragement and praise from Catholics for promoting Catholic identity in Catholic education. Andriacco said fundraising and enrollment at the school of the fired administrator has continued to go up. Donohue said that Bishop Loverde's action had a "very positive response" in the diocese and among religious educators and said he would not be surprised if more bishops trend in this direction.
"I would imagine you would see more of this as bishops refocus their efforts on catechesis and evangelization," he said.
Father Nuzzi said that fidelity oaths, while useful and "effective at creating dialogue and interest," are really only the short-term part of an overall strategy for raising Catholic school standards. The long-term strategy, he said, depends on forming better Catholic educators with "compelling instruction" in the Church's teaching and mission.
Superintendent Collins told the Register that such ongoing instruction is at work in Santa Rosa. Officials there are rolling out a new instructional video this week for diocesan educators that better explains their role in helping the bishop form students spiritually.
"I went at length to explain that their 'Yes' to Jesus is the same 'Yes' to the Church," Collins said about the video.
Father Nuzzi suggested better instruction eventually will make the need for oaths of fidelity moot. He pointed to Notre Dame's ACE program, which graduates a few dozen principals and about 200 teachers every year.
"You would know within 10 minutes of meeting them that they were strong, faith-filled Catholics," he said. "It would be clear they were not only competent educators, but also faith-filled witnesses."
"Their oath is their lives," Father Nuzzi added. "The paper is beside the point."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.