Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Sister Mary Tracy faced a crisis not of faith but of doctrine: The president of Eastside Catholic middle and high school near Seattle found herself last month in the awkward position of asking an employee to disobey one Catholic teaching to fulfill another.
The employee in question, Mark Zmuda, was the school’s popular vice principal and swim coach. Last summer, half a year after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington state, he married his boyfriend. Because gay marriage violates Catholic doctrine, last month he was fired (the school says he resigned). Just before the firing, however, Sister Mary offered a compromise, according to Zmuda: He could keep his job if he got a divorce.
Divorce also violates church teachings, of course. “I was trying to hang onto him,” Sister Mary told a Seattle TV station, saying she was not proud of the suggestion and that the decision to fire Zmuda was the church’s, not the school’s.
There’s a lesson for the church in Sister Mary’s offer. Yes, it is hypocritical -- but it also illustrates how Catholic creed isn’t static. Fifty years ago, church employees might have been terminated for divorcing and remarrying. More recently, Zmuda might have been fired just for being gay. Those policies became untenable with the broader culture’s acceptance of divorce and homosexuality.
Gay marriage is now gaining the same kind of validation, as evidenced by a backlash against the Eastside school and other Catholic institutions that have fired gay employees for marrying. The question is how or whether Catholicism will evolve to avoid such self-inflicted wounds.
Pope Francis’s now-famous remark from last summer -- “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” -- is a positive sign. But (as usual) society is changing faster than the church. As more states allow same-sex nuptials, dioceses will be increasingly tested by gay and lesbian employees marrying their partners. Meanwhile, popular attitudes on the issue are only growing more liberal.
Already, 60 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage; in the general public, the figure is 56 percent. Among the young, support is even higher. Presumably, larger majorities are OK with gay spouses working in schools.
The removal of Zmuda, whom Eastside acknowledged was “an excellent administrator,” has provoked a student walkout, protests at other Seattle-area Catholic schools and a plan for nationwide demonstrations in support of him later this month. It has also prompted a petition calling on church officials to embrace gay marriage that has attracted more than 31,000 signatures.
A Catholic embrace of gay marriage is too much to hope for just now. But the church might stop punishing it. By doing so, it would show some mercy to conflicted officials such as Sister Mary and acceptance of gifted employees such as Mark Zmuda. It could also save itself years of pointless alienation from mainstream U.S. Catholics.
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