North Coast Catholics have responded positively to the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, with good reason.
Bergoglio, who has chosen the name Francis, is the first pope from the Americas and is the first Jesuit chosen to head the Roman Catholic Church. But more than that, his humility, simple lifestyle and humble Argentinian origins provide hope for many that he will be a unifying figure focused more on social justice than dogma.
"I think it's a good step in the right direction," noted a 17-year-old student at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa. "It's the beginning of a new kind of era."
Yet the change of leadership over the entire Catholic Church comes at a time when the Santa Rosa Diocese finds itself divided — over a leadership issue.
Teachers in local Catholic schools have until the end of the day Friday to submit their "declarations" of intent to work in the next school year. As part of that declaration, they have been asked to sign a "bearing witness" addendum that declares their allegiance to the teachings of the church.
They must agree that they are called to a "life of holiness" and agree with this statement: "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."
As demonstrated by the response in recent letters to the editor, this declaration that Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese has asked educators to sign has become a wedge issue.
Some teachers have indicated they won't sign, knowing that may cost them their job. Others take the approach that most of the issues in the "bearing witness" statement never come up in class, so they feel signing the statement won't compromise their values. Still others support Vasa in requiring the statement and support its tenets.
We don't question's Vasa's right, as that of any other manager in private business, to ask for what amounts to an oath of loyalty to a company's set of values. We also recognize the church's sovereign right to preach what it chooses. At the same time, one can hardly defend these kinds of oaths as a best practice for building employee trust and morale. Whether they are for a church, a business or members of a baseball team, they paint employees into a corner and create a with-us-or-against-us work environment.
We say this in recognition that not all of those who attend or teach in Catholic schools are as committed to church doctrine as Vasa might prefer. But that alone is not evidence that they are not good teachers — or good students.
Also significant is that this comes as the church and, in particular the local diocese, is still recovering from a scandal that was not just a failure by priests sexually abusing children but was, in the final analysis, a failure of leaders to deal with the problem directly and properly.
Many of those teachers who are now being asked to sign these oaths have chosen to stand by the church throughout this crisis. It seems to us they should be applauded for their loyalty — not tested on it.
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