A protest over the firing of chemistry teacher and coach, Barb Webb — who is newly pregnant through "nontraditional means" (read IVF) and "married" to her lesbian partner — drew about 120 people to the sidewalks at Marian High School in the northern Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.
Webb had taught at the Catholic girls’ school — run by IHM Sisters of Monroe (IHM) — for nine years before her firing in August. School administration had either not known, or had looked the other way, when she and her partner Kristen Las had a "wedding" ceremony in Windsor in 2012. But when Webb informed school administrators this summer that she was pregnant (presumably through in vitro fertilization), the school explained that she had violated the morality clause of her employment contract. She was offered the choice of being terminated or resigning with continued health insurance coverage through the school year and a non-disclosure provision.
Webb chose to be fired. The defiance evident in a post on her Facebook page shows that the morals clause to which she assented in her employment contract meant nothing.
Their offer of resignation included health care through May, of course they claimed it was to help their conscience after firing a pregnant woman for no other reason than for being pregnant and getting pregnant outside the Catholic way … but really I think they were interested in the gag order that came along with it.
Well, you’re damn right I wasn’t going to sign something that said I was leaving willingly, and their $4k of health insurance wasn’t enough to buy my silence.
Webb is riding on a wave of sympathy from fellow teachers, former students, parents and alumnae. Her story has made national and local headlines in the "New York Times," the "Huffington Post," "USA Today," the "New Republic" and many other periodicals.
Journalists — including homosexual columnist Andrew Sullivan, "New York Times" columnist Frank Bruni, "Detroit News" columnist Marnie Rich Keenan and others — have sided with Barb Webb, calling for compassion and demanding “rights," without recognizing the right and responsibility of a Catholic school to operate under principles inherent in Catholic moral teaching.
I recently interviewed protesters demonstrating in front of the school in support of Ms. Webb and to learn their reasons for being there. Among them was Johnnie Charlene “Char” Genther, an alumna and former campus safety officer at Marian High who was fired after publishing "Badge 3483,“ an autobiographical book recounting her experience as a Detroit police officer and lesbian. The IHM Sisters immediately offered her a full-time position in security at Marygrove College, which IHM also operated.
Genther explained: “When I was in school in the ’50s, Marian High School was a leader in the civil rights movement. It was there I learned about human dignity and human rights — just from going to school. The religious ed chaplain took a leave of absence so that he could participate in the civil rights marches. This school had a legacy of caring.”
Sharon O’Hara-Bruce, an alumna from the Class of ’64, voiced her frustration:
“How many women have had in vitro fertilization — have had their eggs and sperm [joined in a laboratory]? We wanted to make a statement, and they don’t allow it. That’s against employment law [sic].”
Protestor Gloria Beaune, mother of a Marian High School student, described herself as a “recovering Catholic.”
Lillian Li, whose daughter graduated from Marian in 2013, told me, “We came all the way from Grosse Pointe to bring her to this school. It’s shocking how this is totally against the grain of what they taught the students at Marian.”
Enthusiastic support for Barb Webb came from other corners, as well. Cars leaving Mass at nearby St. Regis Catholic Church and drivers on busy Lahser Road honked, their drivers signaling “thumbs-up” as they passed. An on-line petition, I learned from speakers at the rally, had already garnered support from 70,000 people nationwide. A crowd-sourcing fund drive geared toward raising funds for a “diversity club” at the high school and diversity training for faculty and administrators brought in nearly $3,500 on its first day, although it seems to have stalled at about $4,100 (far short of the month’s $50,000 goal).
Clearly, Barb Webb’s story has struck a chord among liberal American Catholics.
The people I met standing vigil at Marian High School were good, well-intentioned people, committed to equality and social justice. They were committed to Marian High and to its excellence in education. They welcomed student participation in the Sunday rally, but had asked the current students not to disrupt classes or skip school in protest.
But what is frustrating in the protesters’ comments and in media coverage is that Catholic teachings concerning reproductive technologies and same sex "marriage" are misunderstood, misreported or simply unexamined because they are assumed to be outmoded and erroneous.
At issue are at least three Catholic moral principles:
— a disordered condition not in God’s plan for humanity but which is not in itself morally wrong — and sexual acts between persons with same sex attraction.
Church’s teaching on legal recognition of same sex unions.
3. In vitro fertilization and other methods of reproductive technology that substitute for the natural embrace of husband and wife raise grave moral concerns: (a) prospective parents take for themselves the power which is the prerogative of God alone; (b) new human beings are created in laboratories by technicians, not through an act of love between husband and wife; biological parents (including unknown donors and even persons who are dead) are merely suppliers of eggs and sperm; and (c) the process of IVF typically entails discarding and killing nine or more human embryos for every one that survives to birth. The U.S. bishops’ Respect Life Program (2011) offers a brief, basic
introduction to the Church’s teaching on IVF and similar technologies. A 2009 pastoral statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops presents a more extensive discussion in “
Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology.” The CDF has addressed reproductive technologies in “
Dignitas Personae” (2008) and “
Donum Vitae” (1987).
The challenge for the Church and for its educational institutions is to help Cathoilcs and others understand and accept the wisdom and logic underlying Catholic teaching on sexuality. Many adults raised in the years following Vatican II have never understood why sexual expression outside of marriage is condemned by the Church. A good starting point might be a discussion of the morality clause that had been signed by all faculty and staff at Marian High School. A public explanation and defense of the morality clause, including the school’s legal right to have and to enforce such a clause, would go a long way toward defusing the current tensions.
President of the IHM Sisters of Monroe, Sister Mary Jane Herb, announced that a group of priests and religious sisters will convene to develop a new morals clause "taking into account the IHM’s values of tolerance and inclusion" and to establish policies for the handling of future cases of morals clause violations: the "IHM community will provide a team of consultants to work with the administration. Members of the Leadership Council, theologians and others with expertise will provide various perspectives before a decision is made.”
Sister Mary Jane will address administrators and faculty at the school on October 1.
Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.