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Santa Rosa Diocese requires its teachers to reject 'modern errors'

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.

The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese is requiring its 200 schoolteachers to sign an agreement affirming that "modern errors" such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia are "matters that gravely offend human dignity."

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Bishop Robert Vasa

The move is an effort by Bishop Robert Vasa to delineate specifically what it means for a Catholic-school teacher -- whether Catholic or not -- to be a "model of Catholic living" and to adhere to Catholic teaching.

That means abiding by the Ten Commandments, going to church every Sunday and heeding God's words in thought, deed and intentions, according to a private church document that is an "addendum" to language in the current teachers' contract.

In his two years as Santa Rosa's bishop, Vasa has attempted to bring his strict interpretation of church doctrine to a diocese that historically has had a more tolerant approach.

But some teachers fear the addendum is an invasion of their private lives and a move toward imposing more rigid Catholic doctrine.

"Personally, it's probably something that I can't sign," said a teacher at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa.

John Collins, the diocese superintendent, said the contract language is not an effort to drive certain teachers away or "provoke" them. He said about 25 percent of the teachers are non-Catholic.

"People are being invited to grow in an understanding and appreciation and embrace of the Catholic faith," he said.

He said he did not expect that many teachers would reject the document, which they must sign if they are to return for the 2013-2014 school year.

The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said he has not made a final decision whether or not to sign the document.

"On my high moral days, I feel I absolutely won't sign," the teacher said. "And on my days that I think about my job, I think who will it affect if I don't sign it."

The teacher said he objects to the "whole idea that they want me to live their morals when it's my personal life what I do outside of work."

But Vasa said that very response is why he felt compelled to write the addendum. He questioned whether someone "can teach what the Catholic Church teaches with zeal and enthusiasm while holding, as they say, 'in the privacy of their heart' " views that are contrary to Catholic doctrine.

He strongly rejected the notion that the letter was a move toward greater religious dogma. "That's fear mongering, which does not in my view have a foundation in fact," Vasa said.

"I'm not presuming that the campus is liberal or conservative. I am simply fulfilling my duty and responsibility to make sure that the Catholic faith, as it is presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is clearly and consistently taught in the Catholic institutions of the Diocese."

The issue is similar to one that arose in 2004 while Vasa was the bishop of eastern Oregon. At that time, he asked lay ministers to sign an "affirmation of faith" that called on them to accept the church's prohibition against contraception, premarital sex, masturbation, fornication, pornography and homosexuality as "gravely evil."

The contract addendum has been distributed to the 200 educators at 11 Catholic schools who are formally employed by the bishop. These schools, which include Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, have about 3,100 students. And additional four Catholic schools in the diocese are not under the direct authority of the bishop.

Teachers who have qualms about the document will confront the issue prior to receiving employment contracts in April. Beginning Saturday, teachers have until March 15 to submit their "declarations" of intent to work the following school year.

The diocese, which serves a population of about 150,000 Catholics, covers an area that includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Though it is geographically large, its population makes it one of the smallest dioceses in the state.

Cardinal Newman Principal Graham Rutherford said he expects the "vast majority" of teachers to sign the document. He said he hasn't heard any direct complaints about the document from teachers at Cardinal Newman, which has about 50 educators, though he said some may be keeping their thoughts private.

"I don't think that they want to lay out their private thoughts to me or you," he said.

When asked if he thought any teachers might refuse to sign the document, Rutherford said, "It could happen."

"For people who have been here longer, I think it's highly unlikely" they would not sign the contract, he said, adding that newer or younger teachers might have "more leeway" in making their decisions.

Asked if he would fire teachers who refuse to sign the contract, Rutherford said teachers "have to choose to sign it. That's not firing them."

"If somebody says I'm not going to sign it but I still want my contract, well that would be difficult," he said, because Vasa wants the teacher to sign the entire contract.

Titled "Bearing Witness," the addendum asks teachers to "acknowledge" or "recognize" that:

They are called to a "life of holiness" and that "this call is the more compelling for me since I have been entrusted, in my vocation as a teacher/administrator in a Catholic school, with the formation of souls."

As a teacher in the Santa Rosa Diocese, "I am, by that fact, also a ministerial agent of the Bishop who is the chief 'teacher' of the Diocese."

It also requires all teachers to "agree that it is my duty, to the best of my ability, to believe, teach/administer and live in accord with what the Catholic Church holds and professes.

"I am especially cognizant of the fact that modern errors -- including but not limited to matters that gravely offend human dignity and the common good such as contraception, abortion, homosexual 'marriage' and euthanasia -- while broadly accepted in society, are not consistent with the clear teachings of the Catholic Church."

Diocese sources, as well as the Cardinal Newman teacher, said that specific language is what some teachers find troubling.

"I know this sounds like a cliche, but some of my very best friends are gay married couples. We have kids here whose parents are gay partners," the teacher said.

Vasa said he would be "saddened" if teachers decided to quit or not sign a contract because of the addendum. But he said, "I would commend them for their integrity."

Several teachers or school staff members reached at their homes or on their cellphones would not comment about the addendum. The Cardinal Newman teacher who spoke anonymously said he hasn't heard anyone say they wouldn't sign the document, though there are a "couple that are pretty upset about it."

John Walker, the principal of St. Vincent de Paul High School, refused to comment about the addendum.

Collins, the diocese superintendent, said that Catholic-school teachers and administrators are in some respects "signs of the bishop and the church," where adherence to church doctrine "goes with the territory."

"It's the same way that you're a sign of McDonald's if you're an employee to the point where they'll put their uniform on you," he said.

When asked if the diocese was prepared to lose teachers over the addendum, Collins dismissed the question.

"I personally haven't seen evidence of that," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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