Watering the Seeds God Has Sown – David Austin

David Austin in Bhutan where he helped to set up that country’s first law school.

This Sunday’s reading from the Gospel (Matthew 13:1-23) emphasizes the important role that our surroundings play with respect to the ability to develop our God-given potential. The parable of the sower is one that has occupied my thoughts repeatedly over the past year, during which time I had the privilege of living in Brooklyn Heights, teaching at Brooklyn Law School, and attending St. Charles Borromeo parish. As I started my new job, settled into my new community, and introduced myself to Father Bill, I couldn’t help but wonder about the quality of the soil in my new surroundings. Would I grow in my faith and would that faith bear fruit? Or would it wither away, suffocated by worldly anxiety and the potential damage that comes from repotting a plant with fragile roots?

As a gay man, I cannot take for granted that every community will be welcoming and inclusive. Even within our Church, unfortunately, there have been many examples of intolerance towards members of the LGBT community. In Illinois, for example, the Bishop of Springfield instructed priests in his diocese to refuse Communion and funeral rites to persons in a same-sex marriage. I belong to that group: my husband and I have been in a committed relationship for a quarter of a century and were civilly married in Illinois as soon as it became legal to do so.

Fortunately, other members of the Church, have emphasized the value of inclusivity. One highlight of my time in Brooklyn Heights was the evening spent with Father Bill and other members of the parish listening to Father James Martin, author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church Can Enter Into A Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. In his talk, Father Martin shared details of his visit last year with Pope Francis, who expressed his appreciation for Father Martin’s ministry to the LGBT community. In fact, our Holy Father has repeatedly condemned the persecution of homosexuals, most recently in November when he addressed participants at the World Congress of the International Association of Penal Law, likening such persecution to the actions of Nazis and concluding that “[i]t is necessary to be vigilant, both in the civil and ecclesial spheres, in order to avoid any possible compromise” with those persecutions.

As a law professor, I take seriously the invitation to remain vigilant with respect to the rules that governments enact. And so it was with great relief that I read the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which was decided last month. The Court concluded that federal law protects people from being fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Court’s decision offers increased protection from persecution based on prejudice. As a Catholic, however, I was disappointed to find that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed a brief arguing that this protection was unwarranted.

This week, the Supreme Court issued a follow-up ruling, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Beru, in which it clarified and expanded the “ministerial exception.” The case was brought by two Catholic school teachers who alleged that their termination violated federal anti-discrimination laws; one claimed that she had been fired because of her age while the other claimed that she had been terminated after asking for a leave of absence to treat the breast cancer that ultimately killed her. The Court concluded that the exception applied not just to employment decisions involving “ministers” (the hiring or firing of priests, nuns, theologians, or other similarly credentialed personnel), but also members of the laity who had a role in educating and forming students in the faith, even if that component was marginal with respect to one’s job duties as a whole. In other words, the Church can continue to fire teachers, music directors, administrators, and others for any reason whatsoever. In its legal argument, the USCCB urged the Court to expand the reach of the ministerial exception by emphasizing that the laity were “co-responsible for the church’s being and acting” and were just as important as formal “ministers.”

If we take the USCCB at its word, then it should be possible to find some measure of comfort in the context of the Church’s efforts to insulate itself from laws that protect the most marginalized among us. If we are all co-responsible for the continued growth of the Church, then we have to take that responsibility seriously. We have to hold religious employers morally accountable when they fail to act in accordance with the Church’s teaching on social justice even if they cannot be held legally liable. The seeds of our Faith are fragile. We cannot tend them by abandoning our gardens when confronted by ideas or actions that stink to high Heaven. Manure stinks too, but a good gardener knows that it can be used to help produce profitable growth. It has been difficult to reconcile my sexual orientation with my Faith and reading the USCCB’s briefs and the comments of some ultra-conservative commentators has been a painful process that renews old wounds. But I prefer to reflect on these things rather than run away. As Father Martin expressed it: “If Catholic leaders use this ruling on ‘ministerial exceptions’ to continue targeting and firing LGBTQ employees in Catholic institutions, they may be within the law but outside of moral behavior.” In justifying its position that religious employers should be allowed to discriminate, the USCCB emphasized the importance of our voices. Let them be heard. Speak out against unjust terminations by religious employers when you become aware of them. In doing so, you will be watering the seeds that God has sown.

Fr. Bill’s note: I thank David not only for his reflections on this issue but for his advice to the parish over the year he was here and for his personal friendship to me and many others in St. Charles Borromeo. I am sure that I speak for all who knew him here that he always has a church family in St. Charles.