Food pantry worker gets fired as the Catholic litmus test gets more stringent

News headlines in the past few years have included plenty of stories of Catholic institutions firing employees, ranging from teachers to parish musicians, for not living a lifestyle that conforms to church teaching. This week, the Kansas City Star reports on another job added to that list: parish food pantry worker.

Colleen Simon lost her job as social ministries coordinator at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City after another article in the Kansas City Star (about diversity along the city’s Troost Avenue) mentioned Simon, a Lutheran, and her wife, Lutheran minister Rev. Donna Simon. Word reportedly came down from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph that Simon had to go. She was asked to resign, but citing her need to collect unemployment benefits, the 58-year-old cancer survivor instead opted to be fired.

Simon tells the Star that her marriage was never a secret—in fact, she told the pastor of St. Francis Xavier about it when she was hired in 2013. She attempted to be discreet on the job and avoided using words like “my wife” so as not to call attention to it. But when word got out in the press, the diocese apparently feared that it would be inappropriate to continue to employ Simon.

The firing of Simon continues the ongoing debate about which church employees should be considered “ministers” who must uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church in their personal lives. The focus has often been placed on Catholic school teachers, with the Diocese of Cleveland recently asking teachers (or “teacher-ministers” as the diocese calls them) to sign a morality pledge as a condition of employment. The Cincinnati archdiocese has also introduced new contractual agreements for school teachers and administrators that stipulate strict conditions for employment.

When it comes to Catholic school teachers, who are in some cases expected to impart the teachings of the church to their students, I can see a need for caution. Teachers can have a profound impact on the lives of children, and it can be a source of confusion if a teacher openly lives a lifestyle that is contrary to what they are teaching in the classroom. But there have been questions about where the line is drawn: Firing single women for becoming pregnant, for example, or considering a gym teacher to be a “minister.” And what about non-teaching positions, like school secretaries or cafeteria workers?

And when your job is handing out food at a local Catholic Church and helping struggling residents of your community to get back on their feet, how important is it that you are following Catholic teaching in your personal life—especially when you aren’t even a Catholic? It would be one thing if Simon used her job to somehow promote same-sex marriage or to attempt to contradict church teaching, but she kept her private life quiet. She was also honest and up front about her marriage when she got the job. And no one seemed to mind that she’s a practicing Lutheran.

Yet a small mention of her same-sex partnership in the local paper was apparently enough of a scandal to cause Simon’s termination. I wonder if those who had been helped by Simon’s outreach in the community would agree, or if they might consider her removal to be a bigger scandal.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.