The Case for Bad Catholics: Reimagining employment policies in religious institutions

By Stephen G. Adubato

As the United States continues to legally and culturally recognize lifestyle choices that conflict with the teachings of some religions, religious institutions have had to think seriously about their mission and employment policies. Is firing a teacher who enters into a same sex marriage pastorally insensitive, or a matter of moral consistency? What about teachers in Catholic institutions who divorce and remarry without an annulment, or who indulge in more private sins like fornication or using artificial contraception?

As with most controversies that are sensationalized by the press, it’s always helpful to take a step back and look at the different factors at hand. In order to respond in a more nuanced and sensitive way, it might help to consider the drastic changes in what philosopher Charles Taylor would call our “social imaginaries.”

In his 700 page tome A Secular Age, Taylor defines social imaginaries as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” In contrast to social theories or one’s intellectual convictions, social imaginaries focus on “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings” which “is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.”

Needless to say, the social imaginaries surrounding matters of faith and morals have shifted dramatically since the Middle Ages. A few centuries ago, it was common for someone to assent to the doctrines of a religion while personally not following them in his or her private life. Being a “bad Catholic” was more of the norm than a shocking scandal. “Bad Catholics,” according to theologian Aaron Taylor, “knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex.”

In this regard, things may not have been so different from how they are today. “They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.”

And thus, someone could believe that sexuality is ordered toward unity and procreation, and that fornicating, contraception, and engaging in same sex relations is not what God wills for them, and still do it anyway…with the option to repent and go to confession. “Sometimes,” continues Taylor, “bad Catholics confessed, made a half-hearted attempt to mend their ways, and then slipped back into their old sins like a comfortable pair of slippers. They were never, on that account, excluded from the Church.”

This is largely how non-procreative sex was construed in the past. Take, for example, those who experience inclinations to be intimate with people of the same sex. They had the option to channel that desire into deep friendships or an artistic or religious vocation, perhaps struggling along the way, but with the awareness that they could repent for sinful action and be forgiven.

The way we “imagine” identity, morality, and desire nowadays is different, to say the least.

One of the catalysts of this shift began with what Charles Taylor calls the “spirit of reform,” which emerged around the 14th century. Religions used to have a “two tiered system” in which the spiritual “elites” (clerics, consecrated people) would adhere strictly to their beliefs and attend to more “spiritual matters,” while the lay people would adhere less strictly and attend to more worldly matters (thus the acceptability of being a bad Catholic).

As more active religious orders who had a presence outside of the cloister (Franciscans, Dominicans) came on the scene, there was a new drive to encourage piety and holiness for all people. Taylor claims that this same spirit is what inspired the Protestant Reformation, and several centuries later went on to inspire Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness.”

Aaron Taylor recognizes that while the universal call to holiness may “in itself” be “sound teaching…poor catechesis has meant that it is misinterpreted as teaching that the Church on earth is a club for holy people. As a result,” he continues “Catholic morality is either softened and bowdlerized to reassure people that they are already saints, or it is put forward with such intolerant rigidity that sinners are driven out of the Church, made to feel that their mere presence in the congregation is a source of ‘scandal.’”

The new social imaginary that emerges from this shift allows for less gray areas: you are either a good, “orthodox Catholic” who assents to everything the Church teaches and attempts wholeheartedly to adhere to all of it, or you become a “cafeteria Catholic” who follows the teachings that make the most sense to you (or that are easiest to follow) and expect the Church to conform its doctrines to your tastes…or you can just become an “ex-Catholic” and leave the Church altogether. Out goes the possibility of holding the objectivity of the Church’s doctrines in tension with the reality of one’s moral incoherence without falling into cognitive dissonance.

The change in social imaginaries was shifted further by the rise of relativism and expressive individualism. Reality is no longer understood to be created by God and ordered toward particular ends (the basis of metaphysical realism). And so happiness is less about living in accord with the design of the Creator, but rather is about expressing oneself and being true to one’s identity–without harming others, of course.

Thus why for many people today, the claim that marriage is an exclusive lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that is open to procreation no longer holds any ground. Accordingly, fornication–as long as it is consensual–is a way of expressing one’s feelings for another. Gay people (a category that as Foucault will remind us, didn’t come into existence until the late 19th century) are not chosing to transgress against the laws of Nature, and thus deserve the right to express their desires and have their unions formally recognized by the public.

We can’t afford to ignore the reality that “there will always be some group of people in the Church,” argues Aaron Taylor, “for whom the pain of not being able to…conform their lives to Christ’s demanding teachings despite repeated effort…The Church as a whole,” he insists, “needs to learn again how to look on this pain, to feel at home with it, without fleeing from it either to the right hand”–by outsting people for their moral incoherence–“or the left”–by trivializing their sins. “If the Church cannot do that, it cannot enable people to grow morally.”

Thus why I wonder how firing someone who gets married to another woman–believing that she is being “true to herself”–is going to help her (or others involved at an institution) to think more deeply about what constitutes the nature of selfhood and the truth of our sexual desires. Before deliberating on whether or not to fire an employee for acting against the moral teachings of the religion that the institution is affiliated with, administrators ought to first consider the discrepancy between social imaginaries.

Perhaps by shifting from a defensive, “political” stance to a pastoral and educative one, matters might unfold more fruitfully. More can be accomplished if clergy and administrators ask how they can accompany their employees to develop a deeper spiritual understanding of their mission within the institution. This position would not only be helpful to people who “publicly defy” certain moral precepts, but would ideally help everyone to grow to understand how the religious beliefs of the institution they work for can deepen their sense of purpose in their work.

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the “Cracks in Postmodernity” blog on Substack and podcast. Follow him on Twitter @stephengadubato.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Aeoli Pera says:

    This is useful historical context, so points for good research and writing, but in practice it’s simpler: People with more responsibility are held to a higher standard (and ought to be). This is true in any healthy hierarchy. The questions are how much authority the teacher had, whether the punishment was proportionate, and whether a double standard was being applied (to punish…her?…him?…for political shenanigans rather than maintaining standards). In pragmatic terms it matters how public the sins are because public shame casts a shadow on the institution.

    These things are true disirregardless of the moral nature of the institution, it’s how humans operate.

    As for modern Catholics, modern people, etc., I expect the host of a show called “Cracks in Postmodernity” doesn’t need me to write paragraphs about narcissism as a social phenomenon (ref. Twenge) and so on. tl;dr- People today are more comfortable in a state of self-delusion than a state of feeling guilty and seeking redemption.

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    1. Zarathustra's Eagle says:

      It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself. Socrates was a misunderstanding; the whole improvement-morality, including the Christian, was a misunderstanding. The most blinding daylight; rationality at any price; life, bright, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, in opposition to the instincts — all this too was a mere disease, another disease, and by no means a return to “virtue,” to “health,” to happiness. To have to fight the instincts — that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.

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      1. Aeoli Pera says:

        And yet here you are, explaining. Real psychopaths don’t provide justifications for their psychopathy, they just go on about their lives despite the brain damage.

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      2. Aeoli Pera says:

        More to the point, real psychopaths don’t have this “urge to confess”, which brings us back to the OP.

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      3. Venieux says:

        “Aeoli” is right about psychopaths. They “just go on about their lives despite the brain damage” because their brain damage leads them to have no sense of accountability for their psychopathy (many don’t even know they’re psychopaths) AND the political results of this brain damage provides them with lots of self-benefits — read the free essay “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” … https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

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      4. Zarathustra's Eagle says:

        I should have added an emphasis.
        Twilight of the Idols:
        https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52263/52263-h/52263-h.htm

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  2. Vxxc says:

    “ happiness equals instinct” shall be the whole of the law.

    Why thank you Mr. Crowley.

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    1. Zarathustra's Eagle says:

      All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity–and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they “spiritualize” themselves. Formerly, in view of the element of stupidity in passion, war was declared on passion itself, its destruction was plotted; all the old moral monsters are agreed on this: il faut tuer les passions. The most famous formula for this is to be found in the New Testament, in that Sermon on the Mount, where, incidentally, things are by no means looked at from a height. There it is said, for example, with particular reference to sexuality: “If thy eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Fortunately, no Christian acts in accordance with this precept.

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  3. Amy says:

    The “clergy and administrators” should accompany the teacher to the door. You see, teachers are hired for the benefit of the students moral and academic development not for the pleasure and financial support of the teacher. Perhaps “honesty” is the best policy. A same-sex attracted person or a person inclined to adultery should be honest when seeking employment and only seek employment where they may be able to live as suits their sexual end. How about administers making it plain before a person is hired that many behaviors will not be tolerated and they are employed “at the will” of the institution. How about the family of the students be informed of this provision and make decisions for their child according to whether they agree with the hiring policies.

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