This January, Maggie Barton, a technology teacher who had taught for six years at a K-8 Catholic school in Denver, was fired after the archdiocese found a photo indicating she was in a same-sex relationship.
Barton’s firing is the latest in a trend of LGBTQ employee terminations from Catholic institutions. According to New Ways Ministry, there have been more than 100 LGBTQ employees and allies who have lost their jobs in Catholic institutions (most of which are schools) since 2007.
In justification for Barton’s firing, the archdiocese released a statement saying “as Catholic institutions our schools retain their right to ensure that its ministers, which includes our teachers, carry out a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Similar statements have been issued by bishops or school leaders in most of the LGBTQ employee terminations. According to these statements, the presence of LGBTQ Catholic school educators who do not conform to magisterial doctrine threatens the Catholic mission of the institutions.
However, our research has shown that LGBTQ Catholic educators are deeply committed to, and make unique contributions to, the Catholic mission of their schools.
In 2018, we conducted a national study of LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools. We received responses from participants across the country, all of them current or past employees in Catholic schools. Our research shows that these educators see their work as a vocation and are deeply connected to the Catholic mission of the institution. This exciting study confirmed some of our own doctoral work on inclusion in Catholic education (Ruiz, 2022 and Bleasdale, 2014).
Our research suggests that LGBTQ educators, including those who conscientiously dissent from magisterial doctrine, can offer unique and indispensable blessings to the mission of Catholic schools. For that reason, they should be retained and celebrated. What follows is a summary of our findings and its implications for Catholic education.
Key Findings from Research of LGBTQ Educators
The findings across all studies on LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools are consistent and call for an alternative perspective to that shared by those who fire them. Survey Experience of LGBTQ Educators in Catholic Schools (2018) generated five important findings:
1). There is a significant number of LGBTQ Catholic school educators who teach religious studies or work as campus ministers. Forty-four percent of the survey participants were religious studies teachers and 33 percent were campus ministers. These educators share a deep commitment to their faith and offer direct contributions to the Catholic mission of the schools.
One participant of the survey observed, “Having LGBTQ+ religion teachers is very important. I have seen firsthand how the lack of our presence, accompanied with negative words, policies and treatment, often turns off the spiritual and religious dimensions of the students’ lives.”
2). LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools serve as prophetic witnesses of advocacy and inclusion, particularly for LGBTQ students. One participant stated, “I think being a LGBTQ+ educator has made me a more empathetic teacher to all minorities and students who don’t ‘fit in.’” Another said, “I have become an unofficial support for LGBTQ+ students to come to and share their story with.”
3). LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools have deepened their faith and vocation due to their LGBTQ identity. This aids their ministry to their students. One participant said, “I want to stay in a Catholic school. If I leave, there is one less person to represent the LGBTQ+ Catholic Community.”
Another noted, “By serving and ministering in a Catholic school, I have grown in my faith journey and have been able to receive more fully God’s unconditional love.” A third one stated, “I have deepened my sense of hope. I have also deepened my faith and relationship with Christ through our mutual struggles with rejection and exclusion.”
4). LGBTQ educators are courageous and Christlike. Although many of them face personal scrutiny due to their identity or sexual orientation, they choose to stay in Catholic schools despite the risk of termination. Over 70 percent of the participants feared they would be dismissed if people found out about their identity. Only 15 percent were out to their colleagues.
5). Inclusion in the Catholic school environment would allow these educators to better exercise their vocational call. One teacher explained, “The struggle is wanting to be open to students but not quite sure how that would play out. …It would be very fulfilling to me to be an open role model for students. I would feel more authentic and therefore probably be an even better teacher.”
Our findings further support the work of Drs. James Everitt and Kevin Stockbridge, who also conducted research prior to our survey. In 2010, Everitt found that LGBTQ educators who identify as Catholic and work in Catholic schools have a deep commitment to their Catholic identity, practice a strong prayer/sacramental life and informally mentor gay and lesbian students.
In 2017, Stockbridge concluded that LGBTQ teachers are on a constant journey of self-discovery and seek to dismantle institutional oppression within Catholic schools through a vibrant spirituality emerging from their LGBTQ identity.
The Question of Magisterial Doctrine
Despite the significant contributions LGBTQ educators offer Catholic schools, there is still the challenge of magisterial doctrine, which prohibits (among other things) same-sex sexual relations, same-sex civil marriage, gender affirming transitions and allied support for any of these.
The U.S. Catholic bishops who support the dismissals of LGBTQ educators are concerned that employing these educators who disagree with Catholic doctrine would confuse or scandalize the students. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil” (2284). It also states that scandal “is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obligated to teach and educate others” (2285).
Based on this definition, Catholic school leaders are afraid that the presence of LGBTQ educators who disagree with the doctrine, in word or deed, would lead the students to sin. In other words, they worry that the dissenting life-witness of LGBTQ educators would send a message to the students that same-sex sexual relations and gender affirming transitions are morally permissible.
In response, we observe that so-called scandal might be inevitable in these cases and “avoiding scandal” should not operate as the guiding principle for decisions pertaining LGBTQ employees.
While, as some bishops state, the retention of LGBTQ ducators might lead students to think same-sex relationships and gender transitions are permissible, their dismissals might send another problematic message: that it is permissible to discriminate against, harass and oppress LGBTQ+ persons by firing them.
The moral theologian Lisa Fullam calls this phenomenon “opposite scandal,” which occurs when an action attempting to avoid one scandal inevitably creates a second scandal.
We humbly suggest that the best course of action would be to teach students the skills of dialogue and conscience formation so that they can learn to navigate a messy world where diversity of opinion (including theological opinion) abounds. It is better to teach the students to interact with the real world and resist any temptation they experience than to provide them with an unrealistically sanitized Catholic school environment where everyone follows doctrine in lockstep.
Realistically, we must ask: Would Church leaders prefer students who are blindly faithful or students who conscientiously discern their way through dialogue amidst diversity?
Most notably, we invite readers to consider that magisterial doctrine on homosexuality and gender is significantly contested at all levels of the church, from the bishops to the lay faithful. Even those who do not themselves question magisterial doctrine on these issues inevitably share a church with those who do, and the whole body of the church will continue to need to discuss these issues even across disagreements.
To illustrate examples of disagreements: bishops in Germany are calling for reform to doctrine on sexual morality, the Belgian bishops have published a document for blessing same-sex couples, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, the archbishop of San Diego, is calling for radical inclusion of LGBTQ persons and polls show that an increasing majority of Catholics in the U.S. support same-sex marriage.
In addition, national synodal reports throughout the globe, as well as the Vatican’s continental summary, “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” reflect calls from the lay faithful toward more inclusion of LGBTQ persons. And, just recently, though this may qualify more as discussion than disagreement, several young people pointedly asked Pope Francis to explain various church teachings on sexuality in the Hulu documentary The Pope: Answers.
Finally, as James Martin, S.J., points out in Building a Bridge, the dismissals of LGBTQ employees from Catholic institutions constitutes unjust discrimination because the litmus test of “conforming to Catholic teaching” is not applied consistently to other employees who violate many Catholic precepts of faith and morals without suffering the same consequences.
If all educators were held up to the same standard concerning Catholic teachings on morality and justice, how many employees would be left in Catholic schools? Why are questions of sexual morality more important than questions of finances, sustainability, church attendance, sacramental practice, charity and other matters of Catholic doctrine?
In summary, we observe that when Catholic schools fire LGBTQ educators due to their dissent from magisterial doctrine, they are committing a drastic hurtful action that could scandalize students into believing LGBTQ persons do not deserve a place in a Catholic community. It deprives the Catholic school communities of faith-filled ministerial role models without solid doctrinal justification and constitutes “unjust discrimination” (CCC 2358).
Our Hope for the Future
Inspired by heroic LGBTQ Catholic ministers, we are calling for a “cease fire” toward LGBTQ employees, students and their allies in Catholic schools and ministry. We are inviting, asking and demanding that bishops and other church leaders consider a more humanizing way forward for all of our communities.
At a time when church attendance is decreasing and Catholic schools are closing, we invite Catholic leaders to reflect: Who are we humanizing and conversely dehumanizing through these dismissals?
LGBTQ educators and ministers have literally and metaphorically shown “grace under fire.” This was the case when Terry Gonda was fired, in June 2020, after 36 years of service in music ministry at a parish in Detroit. Gonda’s parish, including her pastor, did not want her to be dismissed, but her removal was mandated by archdiocesan officials. Gonda and her supporters have moved forward in love and grace focused on finding a better way of ‘being church.’
Given the increasing levels of teenage disaffiliation from the church, it is important for Catholic schools to retain LGBTQ educators who have every reason to leave the church yet choose to stay. Their vocation involves serving as bridge builders between the institutional church and Catholic school students who are considering leaving the church. This makes them indispensable role models.
More importantly, we invite church leaders to take a more pastoral approach to the LGBTQ community given the alarming disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety, suicide ideation and suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth. Retaining LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools provides these vulnerable students with adequate role models that can offer a unique form of pastoral care through their life witness.
LGBTQ youth in Catholic schools need to see LGBTQ adults living fruitful lives as cherished members of a Catholic community. Furthermore, the presence of LGBTQ educators in Catholic schools represents an opportunity to unite a diverse community in meaningful dialogue and discernment on complex matters of human sexuality.
In conclusion, we hope for a time when all Catholic schools reflect Pope Francis’s call to walk on a synodal journey as a community, despite disagreements, by including and cherishing the evident gifts LGBTQ people bring to the church.
Ish Ruiz appeared on Outspoken, our monthly series of virtual talks. View the recording.
I find this very encouraging and strongly support all that was. Stated as a former educator. I would have love and served in that capacity as an open and catholic gay history teacher in service to my former alma mater. Sadly I too was forced to lie and leave my role as a temporary substitute if in the near future the welcoming door is open to us gay educators then I gladly offer to teach again. My heart breaks because of being driven out a Catholic school environment. Cathedral High school was recently destroyed by a tornado 2011. But in my heart I have kept the deep love and devotion and sense of social justice instilled in me by wonderfully ssj faculty.
Thank you for this article , it was sent to me by a good friend. Maggie Barton is my daughter; what happened to her was heartbreaking for us, a family of cradle-Catholics for generations. Maggie’s school leadership and local church community, families and students were overwhelmingly supportive, while words and actions of the archdiocese were discriminatory and cruel. The fallout left her and and her students extremely sad, confused, and deeply troubled. Your article hit home in so many ways, especially in referring to the litmus test of “conforming to Catholic teaching” not being applied consistently to other employees who are violating Catholic precepts of faith and morals. Why is homosexuality always the absolute worst “violation?” Why is it that a much-loved, talented technology teacher who actively participates in the prayer life of the school suddenly not qualified to teach? It’s very hard to forgive the individuals who exhibited such hurtful judgement and discrimination towards her. Our Catholic school students need ALL their teachers.
I was a closeted, gay Catholic high school theology teacher and campus minister for years. LOVED my students! Jane interviewed me, possibly for this study.
All of this being said – I resonate deeply with the experiences described above. I am so glad Jane and Ish are doing such amazing work!