Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church. But as a fifth-generation Catholic who went to a Catholic school and grew up to teach in one, Riley feels the faith deeply woven through her. So when her Arlington parish asked for volunteers last summer to teach Sunday school, she felt called by the Holy Spirit to say yes.
A year later, the 52-year-old computer scientist feels the same spirit calling her to say no.
Last month, Riley joined at least four other Sunday school teachers and resigned from her post at St. Ann’s parish after a letter arrived at her home requiring her — and all teachers in the Arlington Catholic Diocese — to submit “of will and intellect” to all of the teachings of church leaders.
Although the St. Ann’s teachers represent a tiny fraction of the diocese’s 5,000 Sunday and parochial school teachers, the letter went out to parishes just as classes were finishing for the summer and diocese officials says they do not know how many teachers have received it.
The Arlington Diocese, which includes nearly a half-million Catholics across northern and eastern Virginia, is one of a small but growing number that are starting to demand fidelity oaths. The oaths reflect a churchwide push in recent years to revive orthodoxy that has sharply divided Catholics.
Such oaths are not new for priests or nuns but extend now in some places to people like volunteer Sunday school teachers as well as workers at Catholic hospitals and parish offices.
One in Baker, Ore., reiterates the sinfulness of abortion and says, “I do not recognize the legitimacy of anyone’s claim to a moral right to form their own conscience in this matter.” One in Oakland, Calif., requires leaders of a group doing outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics to say they “affirm and believe” official church teaching on marriage, hell and chastity.
The Arlington “profession of faith” asks teachers to commit to “believe everything” the bishops characterize as divinely revealed, and Arlington’s top doctrine official said it would include things like the bishops’ recent campaign against a White House mandate that most employers offer contraception coverage. Critics consider the mandate a violation of religious freedom.
The Arlington Diocese is considered among the most conservative in the country and was the next to last in the nation to say girls could serve at the altar. Teachers must give the new oath in front of a priest.
“The church is foremost a communion, not a building,” said the Rev. Paul deLadurantaye, Arlington’s head of education and liturgy. “And the church’s teaching is meant to be a service, not to coerce or oppress. . . . This is just to say the church is a reliable guide, more reliable in these matters than what I read elsewhere. There’s something more transcendent than just my own judgment.”
Diocesan spokesman Michael Donohue said the letter was sent to parishes this spring in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s direction that churches worldwide celebrate this year’s 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II in various ways, including those that “profess our faith in the risen Lord.”
He said the oath is meant to be a positive sign to parents and called it uncontroversial.
“I can’t imagine there are many [teachers] who have issues with the church’s teachings on faith and morals,” Donohue said. Asked about polls showing that the majority of American Catholics use artificial contraception, forbidden by church doctrine, he said he “found it hard to believe” that anyone who had concluded that a church teaching was wrong would want to teach it.
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.”