Parish firing of gay employee anything but pastoral

We all know the Catholic Church is opposed to same-sex marriage, and most would agree the church shouldn’t (and likely wouldn’t) ever be forced to officiate weddings between members of the same sex. But does that mean the church should fire an employee who takes advantage of a state’s legal recognition of gay marriage?

At least one parish believes that’s the case. St. Gabriel Parish in Charlotte, North Carolina fired music minister Steav Bates-Congdon, who had worked for the parish since 2004, after he wed his partner of 23 years in New York State, where same-sex marriage was legalized last year. According to a note that Bates-Congdon received after coming back to work, “Employees of St. Gabriel … are expected to live within the moral tradition of the Church. … Your civil marriage stands in direct opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church, therefore ending your employment with us.”

That’s in spite of the fact that parishioners had been well aware of Bates-Congdon’s sexual orientation for years. Not to mention the fact that Bates-Congdon informed his boss, Father Frank O’Rourke, of his wedding plans last June. According to the Charlotte Observer, O’Rourke said he couldn’t give his blessing to the marriage because of the church position on the issue, but offered his congratulations nonetheless. There was no warning that such an act might cost Bates-Congdon his job and, if there were, he told the Observer that he would have gladly put off the wedding until after his retirement.

It sounds to me like either word got to someone higher up in the diocese that a parish had an employee who was marrying someone of the same sex, or the pastor got nervous about what would happen if his bosses found out about it. But either way, is there really a good reason to fire a longtime employee whose lifestyle was seemingly already accepted by parishioners?

It would be one thing if someone who was living in opposition to the church’s teaching had a job like running the parish’s religious education program or its adult faith formation activities, since there would be a direct conflict between their job and their personal life. But as music minister, was Bates-Congdon really in a position to challenge church teaching through his work? He may have had a more visible and active role in ministry than a parish maintenance worker, but I doubt Bates-Congdon being gay had any negative influence on the music at Mass.

Instead the argument is the same as the one against allowing children of same-sex couples to attend Catholic schools: that doing so would cause confusion or scandal within the parish community, or that it would seem like the church was somehow endorsing same-sex marriage. Perhaps, if the parish or diocesan employment policy stated up front that adherence to Catholic teaching was a job requirement for all employees, there might be a legitimate reason for letting someone go when they violate that policy.

But if that were the case, perhaps Bates-Congdon should have been warned sometimes between 2004 and 2012. Or maybe he shouldn’t have been hired at all. Or at the very least, he should have been given fair warning when he told his pastor of his wedding plans that getting married would also mean getting fired.

Instead a faithful employee was put on the unemployment line just after returning from his wedding. Regardless of how strong the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage may be, there’s no good reason to treat an employee, a fellow Catholic, or a child of God in such a callous manner.

Related reading:

Pride and prejudice: The uneasy relationship between gay and lesbian Catholics and their church

About the author

Scott Alessi

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