Firing shows church’s dilemma on gay marriage

January 16, 2014 

Sister Mary Tracy faced a crisis not of faith but of doctrine: The president of Eastside Catholic middle and high school near Seattle found herself last month in the awkward position of asking an employee to disobey one Catholic teaching to fulfill another.

The employee in question, Mark Zmuda, was the school’s popular vice principal and swim coach. Last summer, half a year after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington state, he married his boyfriend. Because gay marriage violates Catholic doctrine, last month he was fired (the school says he resigned).

Just before the firing, however, Sister Mary offered a compromise, according to Zmuda: He could keep his job if he got a divorce. Divorce also violates church teachings, of course.

There’s a lesson for the church in Sister Mary’s offer. Yes, it is hypocritical – but it also illustrates how Catholic creed isn’t static. Fifty years ago, church employees might have been terminated for divorcing and remarrying. More recently, Zmuda might have been fired just for being gay. Those policies became untenable with the broader culture’s acceptance of divorce and homosexuality.

Gay marriage is now gaining the same kind of validation, as evidenced by a backlash against the Eastside school and other Catholic institutions that have fired gay employees for marrying. The question is how or whether Catholicism will evolve to avoid such self-inflicted wounds.

Pope Francis’ now-famous remark from last summer –“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” – is a positive sign.

The removal of Zmuda has provoked a student walkout, protests at other Seattle-area Catholic schools and a plan for nationwide demonstrations in support of him later this month.

A Catholic embrace of gay marriage is too much to hope for just now. But the church might stop punishing it. By doing so, it would show some mercy to conflicted officials such as Sister Mary and acceptance of gifted employees such as Mark Zmuda.

Bloomberg View

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