Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Problem With Lay Catholic Organizations

There is a constant slow trickle of stories about Catholic institutions getting themselves into trouble over having employees (sometimes Catholic, sometimes not) who are not living according to Catholic teachings. For a long time, it seemed like the standard script for this was a female Catholic teacher or church employee being fired for using IVF, having a child out of wedlock, or getting an abortion. More recently, there have been a spate of controversies over employees of Catholic organizations entering into or advocating for same sex marriage. One of the more high profile recent examples is Catholic Relief Services. Controversy simmered for the last couple months after CRS admitted the accuracy of a charge leveled by the Lepanto Institute that their Vice President of Oversees Finance had entered into a same sex marriage and was a same sex marriage advocate via his social media accounts. The incident closed, more or less, with the vice president resigning earlier this week, though in its press release announcing the resignation, CRS made a point of decrying those who had criticized him.
On April 20, a self-described Catholic defense group issued a report on Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) vice president for overseas finance, Rick Estridge. Mr. Estridge was a valued employee of CRS for 16 years. He held a technical finance position that did not involve mission-related decisions. Because of that, CRS did not require that position to be held by a Catholic, and Mr. Estridge is not Catholic. He entered into a same-sex civil marriage two years ago, when doing so became legal in Maryland. Because of the stress this situation has caused Mr. Estridge and his family, he has made the decision to leave CRS.
CRS respects Mr. Estridge’s decision and thanks him for his service. He has done a tremendous job during his years at CRS and will be missed. We are grateful that he has agreed to be available as needed for consultation to ensure a smooth transition.

CRS also wants to express its strong objection to these types of attacks and the tactics of the groups which launch them. This highly personal, public critique broadcast Mr. Estridge’s home address and used derogatory terms that are now part of the online record. This has caused great pain for many people. As a Catholic agency, CRS is committed to treating all people with the respect and compassion they deserve as children of God. We detest hurtful campaigns that do not build up, but undermine, individuals and Church agencies carrying out the mission of bringing the love of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering.
They're right, of course, that these kind of campaigns have a distasteful edge to them. However much one agrees with the campaigners (and I do) as to how inappropriate it is for a Catholic apostolate to be hiring people who clearly don't agree with Church teachings, we're talking about campaigning to have someone lose their employment. None of us would like to lose our jobs, and while any day on which you lose your job is a bad day, doing so because someone doesn't like your beliefs or your family must be even more painful that losing your job because the company is simply downsizing or some other "it's not personal" kind of reason.

And yet, I think many people rightly expect that an organization closely tied with the USCCB, one for which collections are taken up in our parishes one or more times a year, is not merely doing good humanitarian work but doing it in a clearly Catholic spirit. The same problem crops up with schools, hospitals, adoption agencies and a host of other types of organizations -- staffed, these days, primarily or exclusively by lay people who earn salaries for their work -- which at labeled as Catholic.

There seems to always be a tension, in regards to such organizations, over how much of their emphasis should be professional. Whenever a controversy over Catholic school teachers and morality clauses comes up, the "why is this a problem" side invariably states their objection in the form of: Don't you want a Catholic school to hire the best math teacher possible? I'd much rather have a Catholic school teacher who's good at his job.  Who cares what he does in his time at home!

In CRS's press release, they emphasize that being Vice President of Oversees Finance did not involve "mission-related decisions" and that the post thus did not need to be held by a Catholic. Now, I work in a finance department. My boss is the Vice President of North Americas Finance at my company. In our roles, however, we're still very much expected to care about and focus on the mission of our company, even though that's just providing consumers with a certain range of products. Often, it seems like finance is just an exercise in score keeping. We let people know the cost of various decisions, and they make the decisions. But it still matters that we do this with the company's mission in mind. If we publicly dissed the company's mission, we'd stand a good chance of getting fired.

At root, I'm very sure that CRS, Catholic schools, etc. care very much that all of their employees have the organization's mission at heart. If Estridge had been outed in the media for making callous and hateful jokes on social media about the suffering people around the globe that CRS makes it its business to help, I suspect that CRS would have felt far less conflicted about letting him go. However, I would imagine that Estridge had no qualms about devoting himself to CRS's humanitarian mission, even though he is not himself Catholic and disagrees with the Church on certain moral issues.

One of the things we do as employees is devote ourselves, at least conditionally, to the mission of the organizations that we work for. I've worked at companies with the mission of providing affordable consumer electronics or of serving quality fast food. These may not be the things that I most deeply believe in in life, but I am quite willing to devote myself to them 8-10 hours a day. I cared about my employer succeeding in its mission, and I ended up using company products more than I had before joining. There are other organizations that I would not work for, because I don't believe in their essential mission. I wouldn't go become a pricing director for Playboy nor would I work in finance analytics at Planned Parenthood. Similarly, I imagine that Mr. Estridge, although quite happy to work for CRS, would not have chosen to work as a finance VP at the Family Research Council.

What creates friction is that Catholic organizations often seem to develop an understanding of their mission which makes it quite possible for employees to devote themselves to the mission of the organization without actually aligning all the much with Church itself. A school ceases to be a community of Catholics focused on educating their children in the faith, and instead becomes an educational institution with some Catholic bits tacked on. A charity designed to serve Christ as found in the poor and suffering becomes a humanitarian organization which happens to be funded and staffed mostly by Catholics.

Through much of Christendom's history, this was a constant temptation for religious orders. They were founded with a particular mission rooted in Christ, but then people gave them property and money and soon you had a lax religious order which wasn't a bad route to comfort and security for people not already on the path to inheriting wealth. However, in our modern secular age this problem seems to crop up not so much with religious orders (which are mostly comparatively poor these days) but in lay organizations. They pay salaries in order to get people who will do certain jobs well, and people like to make salaries, so there's always a temptation on the part of the potential employee to think, "Well, I'm okay with the basic mission of this organization even if I don't agree with the Church as a whole, and so this looks like a decent enough job doing good work." If the organization itself is focused narrowly on its practical mission and not on that mission as rooted in faith, the organization can quickly become just another NGO.

And yet, as Pope Francis has said on a number of occasions, the purpose of the Church is not to be one more NGO. A Catholic school is not just there to educate. A Catholic relief organization is not just there to move money, food and medicine around. And yet it seems all too easy for Catholic organizations to fall into exactly this problem.


August said...

Many people in these 'charitable' fields are social justice warriors. They will get jobs within Catholic organizations precisely to subvert them.

Anonymous said...

We're about to go through our accreditation process at my Catholic school. I sit on the Mission Committee for this process, so this problem in general, as well as this case in particular, is very much on my mind. There's always "Identity Entropy" going on, but how to check it, and in what way, and to what degree, are not easy questions. It's certainly going to be an interesting and perhaps quite..."lively"...committee.


Foxfier said...

If it's important that the group be identified as Catholic in the name, they should be identifiable as Catholic in how they behave.
If the only thing that matters is their mission, and not being Catholic, then nothing stops them from being a group of Catholics that makes a not-specifically-Catholic group to pursue the stated goals.

Anonymous said...

That's an aspect I hadn't thought of. Now that you bring it to my mind, I think it's the reason my kids' school, founded by parents independent of the local diocese, has so much more of a Catholic atmosphere than the diocesan school they used to attend. This is not an SSPX or traditionalist school that thinks it's more Catholic than the Pope. But it is a place where everyone buys into the mission of the school, and the Church as a whole, and the difference is palpable.

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Anonymous said...

I agree that this is a tricky position, and where these lines should be drawn is indistinct, at best. I have not thought through the particulars well enough to have a position on it at this time.

It would be interesting and informative to compare and contrast a Catholic organization's decision to part with a man living in sin with Mozilla's decision to force Brandon Eich out for contributing to Prop 8.