WASHINGTON, DC, January 11, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – The Catholic Church has the freedom and also the duty to take counteractive measures when one of its ministers publicly defies Catholic teaching, Washington D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has said, lest the Church risk harming its own mission. And if an individual in ministry persists in violating of Church teaching, it is neither punitive nor discriminatory to end that relationship.
“The purpose of our parishes, schools, ministries and other Catholic entities – and the task of those who work for them – is to lead people to Jesus,” Cardinal Wuerl stated, quoting his pastoral letter from last year, Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.
Cardinal Wuerl was addressing a situation at a Maryland parish in his blog where, as he stated, “the employment of a person in public ministry at a local parish was no longer possible when he indicated that he would continue to openly live in contradiction to what the Church proclaims as true, specifically a civil ‘same-sex marriage.’”
Jeffrey Higgins was a cantor at Mother Seton Catholic Church in Germantown for the past year and a half, but was let go in early November after it was learned he was in a same-sex “marriage.”
“When a person involved in ministerial activity offers a counter-witness to Catholic teaching by words or public conduct, however earnest they may be, experience shows that it can lead people away from the truth and otherwise have an adverse effect on our mission,” the cardinal said in his column. “The Church not only must be free to then take corrective steps, it has an obligation in charity and truth to do so.”
Cardinal Wuerl said at the outset that mercy is at the heart of the Catholic faith and that the outcome of this situation was unfortunate. He also reminded those struggling to live in accord with the revealed truth of Catholic teaching that the Church recognizes their human dignity and also that everyone has the need to grow in faith, but that while everyone falls on occasion, we must amend our lives in Christ and when a person insists on continually contravening the Church, it’s not possible for the Church to keep them on.
“However, if one persists or effectively insists that they are right and the Church is wrong,” the cardinal wrote, “in the face of such irreconcilable differences it is not discrimination or punishment to say that continued ministerial service is not possible.”
He also spelled out the negative result of scandal when the Church does not act to maintain its identity. “It is not a question of personal private activity, but the social consequences of conduct which undermines the Church’s ability to fulfill her mission,” he stated. “When there is the potential for scandal that might lead people astray regarding the Catholic faith, continued service becomes untenable.”
Cardinal Wuerl cited Pope St. John Paul II’s document on the Church's missionary mandate, Redemptoris Missio, and Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in addition to his own pastoral letter to illustrate the Church’s position on upholding its identity, specifically saying that people have a right to authentic Church teaching and that a bad witness can lead people away from God.
“Those who agree to assist the Church in her mission and ministries represent the public face of the Church,” and thus they have a special responsibility to “respect our Catholic identity and avoid behavior that contradicts the very mission of the Catholic institution,” he wrote. “The Catholic faithful, and the other people that our ministries serve, have a right to the Gospel and to receive authentic Church teaching.”
“Conversely,” he continued, “people are denied that right, and our mission and Catholic identity can be compromised ‘either through explicit dissent, miscatechesis or personal conduct that tends to draw people away from the communion of the Church’ (Being Catholic Today, 22).”
“When people are faithful and give good witness, they lead people to Christ. But when we give bad witness, we can lead people away from Christ.”
Cardinal Wuerl stated as well that “no one can claim a right simultaneously to work for the Church and to work against her belief,” and that any entity, whether secular or religious, “has the right to its own identity, mission and message, including the freedom of association to retain only people who will faithfully serve those interests and not act in ways that prejudice what the entity stands for.”
He said it wasn’t uncommon for companies to sever employees who’ve done something in their personal lives that reflects negatively on the company, and “no official would ever continue to employ someone who in his off-hours publicly demonstrated that he was opposed to the official’s policies or campaigned for the official’s opponent.”
A handful of protesters stood with Higgins and his same-sex partner outside the church this past Sunday, according to NBC Washington.
Mother Seton’s pastor Father Lee Fangmeyer approached Higgins in November after news surfaced of Higgins being part of a same-sex “marriage.” Higgins confirmed this but refused to resign, appealing to the Archdiocese of Washington, according to the local ABC affiliate WJLA.
Higgins heard back via a letter from Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout in early December.
“Those who minister in the name of the Church, whether paid or volunteer, share in the mission of the Church and therefore are to support Church teaching and practice,” the bishop’s letter said. “If someone chooses to live publicly in a manner that is incompatible with Church teaching, their continued work in ministry becomes untenable.”
Bishop Knestout’s letter also reminded Higgins that Higgins had read and accepted a copy of the Archdiocese of Washington's Employment Policies and Procedures in accepting the cantor position.
That employment document states in part, “Our employees must conduct themselves with integrity and act in a manner consistent with the official teachings, doctrines, laws and policies of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to all other legal grounds for discipline, up to and including termination, employees may be disciplined or dismissed for conduct constituting serious public immorality, public scandal, or public repudiation of the teachings, doctrines, or laws of the Roman Catholic Church.”
“Your entering into a civil same-sex marriage is a public act contrary to Church teaching on marriage and is incompatible with a position as a liturgical minister in the Church,” Bishop Knestout said in his letter. “While you claim the freedom to act as you choose, you can recognize that the Church, too, has the freedom and also the obligation to teach and live according to her identity.”
“Sometimes continued employment in the Church becomes untenable when there is a potential for scandal that might lead people astray regarding the Catholic faith,” he continued, concluding by stating that as a member of the Catholic Church, Higgins is still welcome in the Church.
The Archdiocese of Washington had also released the statement below on the matter in late December:
The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington seeks to manifest the presence of Christ in this community through its mission and ministries. Those who minister in the name of the Church, whether paid or volunteer, share in the mission of the Church and therefore are to support Church teaching and practice. While those employed as ministers in the Church may claim the freedom to act as they choose, they must also recognize that the Church too, has the freedom and also the obligation to teach and live according to her identity. If someone chooses to live publicly in a manner that is incompatible with Church teaching, their continued work in ministry becomes untenable.
Recently it came to the attention of the pastor at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown that a four-hour per week, part-time music minister there entered into a same-sex marriage, in public violation of Catholic teaching that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The individual ministered in the parish as a part-time cantor, leading songs in public worship from the church's sanctuary. After the pastor met with the music minister and determined that the person had violated the agreed upon terms of his employment in the archdiocese, his employment at Mother Seton Parish was terminated.
The issue, in this case, clearly became not the sexual preference of the music minister but his ability to publicly and authentically manifest the teaching of the Church. The Church's ability to transmit authentic teaching and to pursue its mission effectively depends on its ability to select ministers whose public lives are consistent with its teachings and mission. The Catholic Church welcomes everyone into the Church for worship and calls every believer to strive to live the Gospel.
As this is a personnel issue, the archdiocese will not comment further on this matter.