Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Friday, April 07, 2006

Untangling the Boston Herald's baby firing story

Now, now, let's not say mean things about Laurel Sweet; she's a Boston area reporter, so no one really expects her to know much about the Catholic Church. For all we know, she didn't volunteer, but was simply assigned to write the story about a Catholic high school teacher fired after fathering a child out of wedlock. Anyway, let's try to sort out the mess of an article she published.

Sweet's lead reads: "When he confessed to impregnating his new girlfriend, the Catholic Church refused to marry a devoted parishioner, then last week fired him from his teaching position at Bishop Feehan High in Attleboro for choosing fatherhood over abortion or abandonment."

Okay, deep breath.

1. The pronoun "he" has no referent. This is the first sentence in what pretends to be a news story, not a grabby teaser in a gossip rag.

2. Confession is a sacrament. Sweet would have no idea what was "confessed" or whether a "confession" even took place. She meant, of course, "admitted to" and should have said that, avoiding the use of a term with a specific meaning in a Catholic context when that term doesn't mean what it might mean elsewhere.

3. I suspect there is difference between a "devoted parishioner" (which would be at least idiosyncratic) and a "devout parishioner" (which could be good) but since Sweet isn't qualified to assess either, let's move on.

4. The Roman Catholic Church does not marry people; people marry people (1983 CIC 1057). The Roman Catholic Church officiates at marriages (1983 CIC 1108). Literature buffs: Shakespeare had fun with this same point. Remember where?

5. The "Catholic Church" has not made a marriage-refusal decision here, the pastor of a Catholic parish has made a decision. The pope does not sign-off on refusals of weddings.

6. This man was not fired for "fathering a child out of wedlock" but, I imagine, for "having sex out of wedlock", the evidence of which, in this case, happens to be a cute baby girl. Biology has always made it harder to identify men having sex than women having sex, but when teachers of either sex are found to be engaging in relations outside of the parameters of Church teaching (CCC 2353, not to mention common sense), a Catholic educational institution has the right to enforce its conduct expectations. Admittedly, Sweet wasn't the only one to be confused here, but it is worth stressing: babies are never wrong, but the acts by which they come into existence might be seriously wrong.

Okay, if you can make it through the first sentence of Sweet's report, you'll probably be able to navigate the rest. I just have two more quick points.

A. I can't imagine that the Diocese of Fall River has a "celibacy policy" for single employees. "Celibacy" means not married, and in Catholic circles, it means "not married by choice". Is Sweet telling us the Diocese of Fall River requires employees to refrain from marriage? Single people are supposed to refrain from sexual relations, that is, they are to remain sexually "continent" or "chaste according to their state in life" but they need not refrain from marriage.

B. The pastor's decision here was, as far as I can tell, completely correct. Marriage is a serious undertaking, to be entered into after serious reflection and prayer. In a culture where the odds are literally stacked against every marriage to begin with, picture this: a man goes to his pastor and basically says "Hi Father. I need to get married. My new girlfriend is pregnant. Besides, I'll lose my job if my boss finds out I got her pregnant if I'm not married. So we need to set a date."

Sorry, I don't think so, but then, I think 1983 CIC 1066 is in the 1983 Code for a reason. I've said for a long time, we need more pastors who are willing to say No to ill-considered weddings these days (pace 1983 CIC 1075 & 1077).

Final note: I won't parse Grandma's comments, because I don't think it right to criticize grandmas for things they might say in the midst of such upsetting events, and I won't parse the ACLU lady's comments because they aren't worth parsing. Anyone who refers to an expectant mother as "a woman with baby bump" -- well, 'nuf said.

April 17: By all appearances, the same situation has arisen in the the Diocese of Lismore (Australia) where it received the same correct response from Church officials and was treated to the same mangling by the local secular press.