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Santa Rosa’s Bishop Vasa puts forward new ethics code for diocese teachers

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Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa has released a revised code of conduct for Catholic school employees that requires conformity with the church’s teachings while avoiding mention of hot-button issues including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage that ignited a firestorm of protest two years ago.

The new ethics code accompanied the employment contract that about 225 teachers at schools operated by the Santa Rosa Diocese must sign within the next three months in order to work during the 2015-16 school year.

The document is the latest attempt by Vasa to establish a new set of personal and professional strictures and guidelines for teachers and principals in the diocese while this time not overtly calling out the controversial bedroom and domestic issues that stalled his 2013 proposal.

Instead, the new contract and code relies on the Catechism of the Catholic Church — a foundational document promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 — to clarify the church’s moral code, including its objection to contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

In a written statement, Vasa said the idea of linking the contract to the catechism came from parish pastors. “This prudently avoids specific identification of polarizing issues, albeit without, at the same time, eliminating them,” he said.

Vasa was attending a retreat Thursday and Friday and was unavailable for comment, according to diocesan spokesman Brian O’Neel. Vasa is expected back in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, he said.

The Santa Rosa Diocese includes 15 schools that enroll about 4,000 students from Petaluma to Eureka.

The response from teachers has been difficult to gauge.

Laura Held, who was hired last year as president of Cardinal Newman High School, said she had heard no complaints from school staff regarding the contract and ethics code, which were distributed to teachers this week.

“We’ve had a very positive response at Cardinal Newman High School,” she said.

Held said that school administrators, faculty and staff, as well as diocesan pastors, were involved in formulating the documents.

Calls to diocese teachers and some former teachers were not returned.

Since taking over the 165,000-member Santa Rosa Diocese in 2011, Vasa has attempted to bring his strict interpretation of church doctrine to a flock that historically has hewed to a more tolerant approach.

At his previous post in Bend, Ore., Vasa imposed on lay teachers and administrators a pledge of fidelity to Catholic prohibitions on premarital sex, masturbation and homosexuality, calling them “gravely evil.”

In February 2013, Vasa as head of the Santa Rosa Diocese introduced an addendum to the teachers’ contract requiring affirmation that “modern errors” — such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia — “gravely offend human dignity” and “are not consistent with the clear teachings of the Catholic Church.”

It prompted immediate protests from teachers who said they felt they were being forced to choose between their personal values and their employment.

Two weeks later, Vasa exempted nearly a dozen teachers at a Ukiah school from signing the morality clause, and a week later, following protests from parents at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, Vasa withdrew the requirement entirely, saying he would offer something similar within two years.

John Collins, superintendent of schools for the Santa Rosa Diocese, said the move in 2013 “admittedly was a little clumsy.”

The new ethics code “informs everyone of what the bishop expects of a Catholic school teacher,” he said, calling it “the happy outcome” of the controversy two years ago.

One former teacher, who asked not to be identified, said that teachers were “relieved” and feel their concerns over the disputed 2013 policy were heard.

The new code comes just a week after Salvatore Cordileone, the conservative San Francisco archbishop, spelled out a new set of morality strictures covering Catholic high school faculty and staff in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.

Cordileone’s high school teacher handbook cited the church’s opposition to abortion, contraception, homosexuality and other sex-related issues. A San Francisco diocese spokesman said it was simply affirming traditional Catholic principles.

The ethics codes come at a time when Pope Francis has made headlines for chastising church leaders for their fixation on divisive issues, such as same-sex marriage and birth control. Admirers have hailed the pope’s remarks on tolerance, mercy and social justice, while others have noted that Francis has made no changes in Catholic doctrine.

The catechism, which fills a 900-page paperback book, includes prohibitions on abortion, contraception, divorce, masturbation, pornography and homosexual acts, the latter defined as “intrinsically disordered.”

Yvette Fallandy, a Santa Rosa resident who served as a lay adviser to former Bishop Daniel Walsh, said there was a “very close bond” between Cordileone, Vasa and Oakland Bishop Michael Barber, whom she described as ultraconservatives.

Fallandy said she was confounded by the “utter preoccupation” of celibate male Catholic leaders who are “so caught up in sexuality.”

O’Neel, the diocesan spokesman, disputed the idea of labeling bishops as liberal or conservative. “They’re just Catholics,” he said.

Held came to Cardinal Newman from a job as assistant superintendent of faith formation and religious instruction for the San Francisco Archdiocese. In an interview last year, Vasa said that prior to approval of her hiring he had discussed with Held the possibility of bringing back the requirement that local Catholic school teachers sign a morality clause as part of their contracts.

Vasa said Held told him that the morality clause was something they could work on together.

Titled “Commitment to the Church,” the revised code calls on teachers and principals to “recognize” that:

“Whether we are at school or outside of school, our public behavior is to be in conformity with Church teaching as expounded in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

“We have a responsibility to continue to seek a fuller understanding of the Faith that the Catholic Church professes. Accordingly, we are to take advantage of opportunities offered by the Diocese or Parish to foster Faith, properly form conscience and to deepen understanding of the Church’s teaching.”

“In its entirety, The Catechism of the Catholic Church constitutes the source and standard according to which all ethical matters stated or implied in this commitment and in the contract are understood and adjudicated.”

Fallandy criticized the ethics code for singling out teachers, and said the moral dictates trample on a Catholic’s right to follow his or her conscience, a principle included in the catechism.

O’Neel said that Vasa crafted the 2013 morality clause and the new code on his own initiative, motivated in part by the need to provide legal justification for firing a teacher who violates church doctrine.

Mel Amato, a Healdsburg Catholic, said he was not aware of the new ethics code but the catechism is “without a doubt” an appropriate standard for the performance of Catholic educators.

“It tells you to love your brother and to love the gays,” Amato said, noting that the catechism calls for acceptance and respect for gay people but condemns homosexual acts as “contrary to the natural law.”

The ethics code “reminds diocesan school employees they are both educators and ministerial agents of the Catholic Church,” the diocese’s statement said.

It comes at a time when some Catholics’ personal values are evolving.

A former Cardinal Newman teacher, who asked not to be identified, said the campus — which incorporated the student body of Ursuline High School, a Catholic school for girls that closed in 2011 — was once hostile to gay students, prompting many to leave. But starting around 2005, the parochial high schools’ culture began a “sea change,” she said.

The homecoming queen several years ago was a lesbian who was “out, loud and proud,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@presssdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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