Truly Scandalous: Fired for Choosing Life

In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul is concerned with what causes scandal within the Christian community. Today we are not so concerned with eating meat prepared in connection with Roman sacrifice; instead, sex is the primary preoccupation of the day.

Sex is often at the heart of the aptly named TV show Scandal, and it is sex that many fear is the greatest cause of scandal within the Catholic community.

This week’s scandal: A Catholic middle school teacher in Helena, MT was fired because she was pregnant.

The Diocese defends its position by arguing that she violated the morals clause of her contract. For them, it is that simple. Because she is an unwed mother, she cannot be living a Catholic lifestyle and cannot be a proper role model to students – despite being an excellent teacher.

And so I ask, what causes scandal? Is the diocese right – an unwed mother on the faculty would cause irreparable scandal to the community? Will it weaken and put at risk the faith of the children and families in this school? Or does her firing cause scandal? Does firing a pregnant woman within a community that claims to value human dignity and life above all cause the greater scandal?

To answer, we have to first uncover what we most value, what our highest commitment is. It seems to me there are two options.

First, the primary value could be upholding the law, which is understood in an uncompromising and absolute way. It is the law that structures and protects us.  It offers us strong protection against uncertainty as long as we hold on to it tightly. The teacher signed a contract and therefore she knew that by having sex she was violating that contract. Here sexual morality becomes one of the primary ways in which fidelity to Catholicism and our commitment to our Catholic values are to be measured. Concern for the poor, the  Beatitudes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, The Parable of the Last Judgment…none of these are deal breakers because fidelity is not measurable in terms of clear contractual rules and obligations. Repeated violations of the Beatitudes do not cause irrevocable scandal but a single violation of Catholic sexual moral standards in public – that is scandal. Pregnancy is then reduced to publicly flaunting one’s sexual act and not the welcoming of new life.

However, there is another way to interpret scandal within the community and this begins with recognizing the centrality of human dignity. If our starting point is the inherent and inviolable value of every human person, then we interpret scandal a little differently. Beginning with human dignity does not discard law—but it does demand that we look at questions of sexual transgression and pregnancy differently. When one begins with human dignity, then pregnancy itself can never be reduced to sin. The inherent value of the imago dei, equally present in all human persons, is not dependent upon the circumstances of conception. Neither is the dignity of the woman.

If we begin with human dignity, then this teacher’s status as an unwed mother is not her primary identity—she is simply a mother. Without embracing or condoning premarital sex, beginning with human dignity means refusing to denigrate the life and dignity of either the child or the mother because of the circumstances of conception. If we begin with human dignity, then the expulsion and abandonment of a pregnant woman and her child causes deep and profound scandal in the community. Who are we as a Catholic community if we do not welcome and support life?

As a Catholic community, we need to think long and hard—because we can either hold that human dignity and life are what is most important or we can hold that the letter of the  law and sexual purity are what matter most. They cannot value both equally, because when they come into conflict, we must choose one over the other. If we are a pro-life church, then how do we justify expelling a pregnant woman from the community? Think about the message it sends to expel a pregnant woman from the community, claiming she cannot model living Catholicism to our children. It is hard to square this action with Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel or Cardinal O’Malley’s homily on the occasion of the March for Life.

To those who truly believe she cannot model discipleship – I pose two questions.

  1. If this woman had procured a quick abortion upon learning she was pregnant, no one would have known and she would have been able to keep her job. She chose life at considerable personal risk and yet you claim she cannot model discipleship and a commitment to the Gospel to our children?
  2. If what is most important is her marital status—she is an unwed pregnant woman—would you have welcomed another unwed pregnant woman, Mary of Nazareth?

There is great scandal in these events in Helena, Montana but it is not being caused by an unwed pregnant teacher.