A judge will soon decide whether the Catholic Church’s First Amendment religious rights protects it from a lawsuit filed by a fired Cathedral High School teacher who is gay.
Joshua Payne-Elliott was fired in June for being in a same-sex marriage, something the archdiocese says violates church doctrine. The school had the option of firing Payne-Elliott or being stripped by the archdiocese of its Catholic status. Cathedral chose to dismiss the teacher, who had been with the school since 2006 as a world language and social studies teacher.
Payne-Elliott in July sued the archdiocese, stating that he has suffered lost wages, lost employer-provided benefits and endured emotional distress and damage to his reputation.
The archdiocese filed a motion this week to dismiss Payne-Elliott’s lawsuit, citing First Amendment protections and jurisdictional issues. Jay Mercer, attorney for the archdiocese, said he’s confident a judge will rule in the archdiocese’s favor.
While a constitutional law expert who spoke to IndyStar didn’t rule out the chance that the archdiocese’s motion to dismiss will prevail, he said it would be more complicated than it appears.
What the attorneys say
Mercer said the archdiocese is governed by Catholic canon law and that the archbishop is tasked with ensuring Catholic teachers abide by church doctrine. The archbishop’s right to do so without court interference is enshrined in the First Amendment, Mercer said.
“The court would be substituting its judgment for the archbishop, which it could not do because the court cannot put itself as the leader of the Catholic church,” Mercer said Thursday. “It would be inappropriate for a court to say it (the archdiocese) doesn’t have this authority. It would be violating the Constitution.”
The archdiocese’s motion asks the court to dismiss the case on grounds that it isn’t constitutionally allowed to interfere with church governance. The 20-page document cites a slew of case histories and rulings to support its argument.
Payne-Elliott’s attorney, Kathleen DeLaney, said archdioceses get sued all the time, making it clear that they can fall under court jurisdiction.
“I think they’re really overreaching,” DeLaney said of the archdiocese’s motion.
DeLaney argues that a court can hear and decide her client’s lawsuit without making a judgment about church doctrine. The case is really about the archdiocese interfering with a separate entity, Cathedral High School, to force Payne-Elliott’s termination without justification, DeLaney said.
In the archdiocese’s motion, Mercer says the plaintiff fails to show there wasn’t justification for the archdiocese’s involvement that led to Payne-Elliott’s firing. When asked by phone about alleged improper interference, Mercer said the merits of that allegation won’t even make it to court.
“The merits of this case will never be litigated because the court has no authority,” he said.
In the sprawling Amazon region, the Catholic Church is severely short on priests. Clerics trek from one town to the next, sometimes requiring military transport to get to their remote destinations. Communities can go months without a visit. The church, as a result, is struggling to hold its influence.
One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests.
South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.
A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy.
“I see a destruction of the priesthood,” Swiss Bishop Marian Eleganti said in a phone interview, claiming that liberal bishops and cardinals under Francis’s “shadow and protection” were working to enact the changes. “This is the beginning of the end for celibacy.”
The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.
But conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.
“It is the elevation of a model,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Lepanto Foundation in Rome.
The discussion has gained steam ahead of a Vatican meeting, scheduled for October, focused on the church in the Amazon. Although the meeting has many broad aims — helping the environment, aiding indigenous communities — one paragraph in the event’s working document mentions the possibility of ordaining older men “even if they have an existing and stable family” as a way to make up for the Amazon’s severe priest shortage. The text affirms the standard church teaching that celibacy is a “gift for the Church” and says the proposed exception is a “way to sustain the Christian life.”
With Francis more willing than his predecessors to consider how the faith might adjust in the modern age, and with a conservative pope emeritus still living in Vatican City, the church has been riven by cultural battles over everything from homosexuality to Communion for divorcés. But the idea of altering a tenet of the priesthood has caused an unusually public conservative backlash, even by the standards of Francis’s papacy.
Traditionalist groups have scheduled counterprogramming in Rome for the days leading up to the summit. Conservative religious media groups have given detailed coverage to objections about the event, while publishing treatises written by like-minded prelates.
In a representative missive, Kazakh Bishop Athanasius Schneider argued that “everybody knows” introducing married clergy in the Amazon would produce a “domino effect” across the Western church. He warned that were Francis to support such a move, the pontiff would “violate his duty” and “cause an intermittent spiritual eclipse in the Church.” Though Schneider predicted that Christ would send “holy, courageous, and faithful popes” in future.
A German cardinal, Walter Brandmüller, warned about “the abolition of priestly celibacy and the introduction of a female priesthood,” and took issue with other theological aspects of the summit document, which he called “heretical.”
The working document mentions, vaguely, the possibility of looking at expanded ministry positions for women. But Francis has shown little interest in ordaining women as deacons — ministers below the rank of priests who can perform some sacraments.
A final document would be voted on at the conclusion of the summit.
In an interview last week with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Francis said that ordaining married men will “absolutely not” be one of the Amazon meeting’s main themes.
Francis has stated clearly that he has no desire to significantly overhaul celibacy or make the practice optional. But during a news conference in January, he referenced what he described as an “interesting” book by retired bishop Fritz Lobinger, an advocate for married priests. Francis said he would consider ordaining “viri probati” — men of proven virtue — in “very far places . . . when there is a pastoral necessity.”
“I’m not saying that it should be done, because I have not reflected,” Francis said. “I have not prayed sufficiently about it.”
Lobinger, a German who spent his career in South Africa, said in a phone interview that, based on his assessment of the needs of dioceses across Asia, Africa and South America, the “possibility to ordain viri probati exists in all countries across the Southern Hemisphere.”
Progressive Catholics note that celibacy was not uniformly practiced during the church’s first millennium — and they say church teaching on the matter can be changed. Some early popes fathered children. Others were alleged to be sexually active during their pontificates. Celibacy was made law only during the Middle Ages, in part as a way to keep priestly wealth inside the church, rather than being divvied up among heirs.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI published a lengthy defense of the celibacy, calling it a “golden law” that should uphold every priest in dedication “to the public worship of God.” Four years later, bishops discussed a similar allowance for married men. A slight majority rejected the idea.
Today, some theologians and pundits, in a viewpoint with little support inside the Vatican, say celibacy has fueled the clerical sexual abuse crisis, fostering a culture in which even a consensual adult relationship becomes something to hide.
Some clerics make a different point: that legions of good would-be priests have stayed away, choosing instead to start families, to the detriment of the church.
“I think that we need married priests because we need more priests,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst at Religion News Service. “It’s as simple as that.”
According to Catholic tradition, priests are the only people who can perform all the sacraments of the church, including the Eucharist — the center of the Mass that Catholics are supposed to attend at least weekly. So the Catholic Church hasn’t been able to appoint lay people to fully substitute for clergy, as other denominations might.
German church historian Hubert Wolf, a celibacy critic who was invited by a summit organizer to Vatican City this summer, said in a phone interview that the Catholic Church “will be at its end” if it doesn’t incorporate married priests.
“This is the reason why the conservative part of the church is so aggressive,” Wolf said. “They are well aware that now is the time to talk about it.”
But traditionalists, instead, say they are on guard because they are suspicious that Francis, from Argentina, has chosen to hold a bishops’ meeting in Rome not on a universal theological issue, but on a particular region — a fairly small part of the Catholic empire.
Organizers have said the meeting is globally relevant for an obvious reason: because the church needs to evangelize in hard-to-reach places, and because the Amazon’s health is vital to the planet.
But Juan Miguel Montes, the Rome representative of the Plinio Correa di Oliveira Institute, a conservative Brazil-based Catholic group, said the meeting instead was a “laboratory experiment.”
With celibacy, he said, “they are trying to send a universal message.”
The handwritten missives, many signed simply “Uncle T.,” were sent to aspiring young priests as part of defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s perverse wooing of his victims, according to a pair of abuse prevention experts.
Several postcards and letters sent by McCarrick to his sexual targets were made public Tuesday by The Associated Press, with experts saying the correspondence offers insights into the grooming process used by the creepy cleric as he pursued the young men.
McCarrick, now 89, flaunted his top-echelon position in the Catholic Church, referred to the young men as his “nephews” and even sent a thank-you note to a seminarian groped by the priest during a 1987 overnight stay in Manhattan.
While the victim recalled vomiting afterward in McCarrick’s apartment, Uncle Ted instead sent him a note: “I Just want to say thanks for coming on Friday evening. I really enjoyed our visit.”
The Rev. Desmond Rossi was studying for the priesthood at the Immaculate Conception seminary when McCarrick was named Archbishop of Newark. Rossi recalled getting a letter from McCarrick urging him to return from a 1987 sabbatical and complete his work.
McCarrick mentioned a recent meeting with the Pope John Paul, and advised him that “you’re still very much part of the family.”
Rossi eventually left for a different diocese after a 1989 meeting where McCarrick rolled up on a chair and touched the young man’s leg as he spoke.
“At that moment, pretty much in my mind I thought, ‘I’m leaving this diocese,’ because it was that uncomfortable,” Rossi recalled.
Victim James Grein, whose allegations against McCarrick eventually led to the cardinal’s shocking dismissal, recalled the priest’s postcards angling for a get-together on weekends when the younger man was back in New Jersey from a California boarding school.
“Time is getting close for your visit back east,” read one McCarrick letter to Grein. “I’ll be calling him one of these days to check in on arrangements. Love to all, Your uncle Fr. Ted.”
Grein recalls how McCarrick sent some of the postcards inside letters to his father, adding additional pressure for him to meet with the priest.
“If I didn’t go see Theodore I was always going to be asked by my brothers and sister, or my dad, ‘Why didn’t you go see him?’ ” said Grein, 61, the first child ever baptized by McCarrick.
Grein testified before the New Jersey state Senate that the abuse began when he was just 11 years old, and continued for another 18 years.
The AP printed the letters ahead of the Vatican’s release of its own report into McCarrick’s reported sexual relationships with aspiring Catholic priests.
Ally Kateusz is a research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. Earlier this year, she published a thought provoking book entitled ‘Mary and Early Christian Women – Hidden Leadership’. It punctures a hole in the Vatican argument against female ordination on the basis of tradition.
In the book, Kateusz shows how early-Christian documents revealing women in leadership positions were later censored to exclude them. She concludes that (i) there was a significant gender role modelled by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the first phase of the Christian church; (ii) that women who were called apostles evangelised, preached, baptised and performed exorcisms and (iii) that women who presided at the altar table were called president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister.
She also outlines the lives of four extraordinary women in the early church – Marianne, Irene, Nino and Thekla.
Nino, for example, baptised 40 women on her missionary journey to Iberia, where she preached and baptised several tribes, including their queen. Thekla was instructed by St Paul to preach and baptise. A later document censored the baptismal part of the instruction.
On July 2, at a conference of the International Society of Biblical Literature, which was held in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dr Kateusz outlined her research to the participants. She drew on iconography from ancient Christian art to buttress her argument that, in the early church, women served as deacons, priests and bishops.
One of the artefacts is an ivory reliquary box, kept in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, dating from the fifth century. It shows a man and women standing on either side of the altar, each raising a chalice. Two other artefacts – a stone sarcophagus front in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and an ivory hyx in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dating respectively from the fifth and sixth centuries – demonstrate similar female prominence.
Dr Kateusz believes that these images are significant because they show women and men in parallel roles, their bodies and gestures mirroring one another. She argues that this parallelism indicates their equality in liturgical roles, saying that the images ‘illustrate that early Christian women routinely preformed as clergy in Orthodox churches’. “The art speaks for itself because women are seen at the Church altar in three of the most important churches in Christendom,” she says.
No specific texts about male or female ordination exist for the first seven centuries of Christianity. Female ordination had been prohibited. The artefacts survived because they were buried and dug up in the 20th century. They provide ‘precious windows through which we can see the early Christian Liturgy as it was once performed’.
One of the participants at the conference, Miriam Duignan, was impressed by the research. She commented: “The Vatican will undoubtedly be reluctant to engage with these findings because they have led a campaign to exclude women via the current argument of tradition. But for most Catholics, the research will confirm what they suspected all along – that the ban on female clergy has always been about the silencing and suppression of women and never about the tradition.”
A Northern California priest was caught stealing nearly $100,000 in donations after a car crash revealed bags of collection money — but he likely won’t face criminal charges, church officials said.
When Oscar Diaz, a 56-year-old Santa Rosa priest, crashed his car on June 19 and broke his hip, he told medics that “there were bags of money which he described as his salary” in the vehicle, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa wrote in a letter last week. But because there was so much cash, hospital staff got police and Catholic church officials involved. The diocese said officials counted $18,305.86 in the bags from the car, and found it was collected from Resurrection Parish.
“At that moment I decided to allow the police to pursue the case wherever it went,” Vasa wrote, but he added that “after a brief investigation and several interviews, the police determined that the protocols surrounding collection accounting were so poor that it would be very difficult if not impossible to arrive at proof of theft.”
Authorities returned the money to the Diocese of Santa Rosa, which wrote a check for the full amount to Resurrection Parish, Vasa said. Church officials searched Diaz’s desk and the rectory, where they found even more security bags of cash that “show systematic theft at Resurrection Parish from September 2018 through June 2019” totaling around $95,000 from various parishes, according to the bishop’s letter.
Vasa said that “there were and are a whole series of emotions which range from fierce anger, to sadness, to confusion, to shock and even to fear. Now, over four weeks later these same feelings are present.” Vasa added in a news release on Monday that Diaz “is presently suspended from priestly ministry” and “his future is uncertain.”
Vasa said that on June 29, he went to see Diaz as he recovered in the hospital and told him he’d be prosecuted and put on administrative leave.
“Father Oscar admitted that he had taken the Collection bags and had been doing so for some time. He made other admissions as well,” Vasa wrote. “I expressed to him my deep sadness, anger and dismay that he had so seriously violated the trust given to him by the Diocese, by the Parishes, and by the parishioners.”
Vasa said that his conversation with Diaz left him “even more determined at that time to proceed with filing charges and proceeding with a criminal prosecution,” but he then learned it would cost $5,000 and more to hire a fraud examiner.
“I have no idea what such an investigation would cost,” Vasa wrote. “While I am willing to have Father Oscar face prosecution I do not know that I want to expend additional money for a prosecution which brings no additional benefit to either the Diocese or the parishes which are victims of his crimes.”
Vasa wrote that, “to his credit, Father Oscar has been very cooperative with me in obtaining the records I need to establish some estimate of the full extent of theft.”
The Diocese of Santa Rosa ordained Mexico-born Diaz in 1994, and he celebrated his 25th year as a priest this month, Vasa said.
“I am not opposed to punishment but after reflection, prayer, discussion and soul searching I have begun to question whether my desire to have police involvement is a genuine desire for justice or much more akin to an angry response,” Vasa wrote. “One reason for pursuing prosecution would be to send a message to any in the Church who may be tempted to do what Father Oscar has done … Yet, Father Oscar can be suitably punished by the Church in a way which will send an equally strong message.”
“Initially, I had the fear of being accused of ‘cover-up’ which is very much a theme directed at the Church as She continues to deal with allegations of child sexual abuse,” Vasa wrote, but said that his letter to the parish and press release this week show he has “absolutely no intention or desire to engage in any form of ‘cover-up.’”
Vasa did not rule out some form of legal action.
“It may happen that the individual parishes involved may desire to file charges and pursue prosecution. I could not oppose such an action. It is the parish’s right to do so,” Vasa wrote. “I would however advocate for mercy.”