But for some, particularly more liberal Catholics, the oaths are an alarming effort to stamp out debate in the church at a time when it is bleeding members and clergy in the West. They note that church leaders’ views have changed over the centuries on various subjects, including contraception.
“I’m just shocked, I can’t believe they’re asking me to sign this,” said Riley, who said she may keep her own children out of the parish education program in the fall. “The bishops are human, and sometimes their judgment is not God’s judgment. We always have to be vigilant about that. The Holy Spirit gives us the responsibility to look into our own consciences.”
The pastor and director of religious education at St. Ann’s parish did not return requests for comment, but Riley and others said about 20 teachers attended a meeting last week that the pastor held for people with questions about the new oath.
Riley and others said St. Ann’s is considered a community that deliberately doesn’t focus on such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex relationships on which Catholics, like Americans generally, are divided.
“It’s an oasis of humanity,” said Rosemarie Zagarri, a history professor at George Mason University who also resigned last month from teaching at St. Ann’s.
Zagarri said the oath was a “slap in the face” to Catholics who have remained active and close to the church despite controversies.
“Although I fully understand the authoritative role of the Catholic hierarchy in defining the teachings of the faith, in my view only a person who is willing to abandon her own reason and judgment, or who is willing to go against the dictates of her own conscience, can agree to sign such a document,” she wrote to Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde.
“This is not in the spirit of what people go to a Catholic church for, which is community and a loving, welcoming environment. It’s exclusionary, a suppression of dissent, let’s all line up and be the army of God,” Zagarri said in an interview for this article.
To others, the oaths are an inspiring correction after a period when they think Catholic teaching has been watered down.
“The bishops have been appointed by the pope to let us know: This is the path you should be following,” said Kerri Polce, 31, who teaches at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington and says she has no problems signing the oath. “If you’re struggling with something, fine, don’t teach.”
Loverde, who called for the oath, was not available for comment. Catholic bishops have broad authority in their dioceses, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said there is no churchwide requirement for such oaths.
Some experts said the oath embodies the intense struggle in Catholicism today to define what makes someone a true follower. What teachings are core? What authority do laypeople have?
The Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, who heads the leadership program for Catholic educators at the University of Notre Dame, said many bishops “are in a pickle.” They want Catholic institutions to be staffed by people who not only teach what the church teaches but whose “whole life will bear witness.”
Nuzzi said he keeps a photo on his desk from the 1940s that shows all the German bishops in their garb, doing the Nazi salute.
“I keep it there to remind people who say to do everything the church says, that their wisdom has limitations, too.”