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COURSEY: Why we care about the Catholic Church

A Catholic friend of mine the other day asked me, rather pointedly, why The Press Democrat is so concerned with the personnel policies of the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa.

"It's a private, religious institution," my friend said, clearly referring to the church and not the newspaper.

You're right, I told him. And while the first two words of that description are important, it is the third word that explains why the Diocese attracts broad public interest.

It's not just a church. It's an institution that operates schools and social programs and has broad connections to the community that reach well beyond the lives of its parishioners. Its policies and its culture affect not just the faithful, but all of those who come in contact with the faith.

That's why your local newspaper cares about the workings of your local Catholic church, I told my friend. It's the same reason the world media makes a big deal about the selection of a new pope. It's the same reason the PD covers the wine industry, or – in its heyday – Telecom Valley.

It's why, when Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa requires his diocesan teachers to sign a loyalty oath to the Catholic faith, it becomes a big story that reaches well beyond the pews.

Opposition to the oath continues to build, and the story was back on Page One this morning after Vasa decided to exempt the teachers of one school, St. Mary of the Angels in Ukiah, from his mandate. He refused to explain the "temporary pastoral accommodation" when staff writer Martin Espinoza asked him about it, responding that it "is a private matter between me and the pastor and I don't want to discuss it."

That's the bishop's prerogative, but it doesn't mean the issue won't continue to be discussed.

When the head of the local diocese asks his teachers – about 200 employees in 11 Catholic schools that educate about 3,100 students – to choose between keeping their jobs and signing a statement that, among other things, condemns gay marriage and contraception as "modern errors" that "gravely offend human dignity," people are going to take notice.

The "sign here or take a hike" directive in and of itself would be news, but it takes on additional significance because it comes at a time when the Catholic Church is being pressured to change at both the local and global levels. The decades-long sex-abuse scandal that plagued the Catholic priesthood – and found one of several ground zeroes in the Santa Rosa Diocese – leaves many both inside and outside the church feeling that there are worse "errors" than gay marriage and contraception that "gravely offend human dignity." And in Rome this month, the church is celebrating a new pope who many hope will be less rigid in his dogmatic demands than his predecessor and more focused on ministering to the needs of the faithful.

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