Catholic schools can hire only Catholic teachers… but that doesn’t mean what you think it does

In a recent Weekly Update for Canadian Atheist, I made a throwaway comment about requiring teachers in public Catholic schools to actually be Catholic. It’s a very controversial topic, and my position on it is very nuanced, so I thought I’d expand on exactly where I stand on the issue.

The issue

The issue came up after a series of reports of public Catholic schools in Alberta imposing strict, anti-LGBTQ requirements in teachers’ contracts (here are articles from Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary). Alberta Education Minister David Eggen promised to review these contracts, and it sure looks like he’s taking that promise seriously.

In defence of the contractual requirements, Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association president Serena Shaw said:

The courts have told us that we have to be Catholic or there’s no reason for us to exist, and this is one of many ways that we are Catholic. We expect people to live Catholic lifestyles.

Atheists at large had a good laugh at the first part of that comment: We have to be Catholic or there’s no reason for us to exist. Oh how close to self-awareness Serena Shaw came.

But I actually agree with that. I think the first part of her comment – the courts have told us that we have to be Catholic – is true. And I agree with the courts.

Separate (religious) school systems are constitutionally-enshrined, and even protected in the Charter. Now, they shouldn’t be. They were a compromise between Protestants and Catholics that perhaps made sense in the middle of the 19th century but that’s long outlived its utility. They should definitely be abolished in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, just as they have been in Québec and Newfoundland & Labrador. They should also be abolished in the territories.


So long as they exist, they are constitutionally protected (in the provinces). And the explicitly exist for the purpose of… as Shaw puts it… “being Catholic” (in Protestant-majority regions; in Catholic-majority regions they’d “be Protestant”, but since Québec abolished separate schools, there are no more Catholic-majority regions that still have them).

And thus, I say it makes perfect sense to require that all teachers in public Catholic schools actually be Catholic.

Catholic schools should have Catholic teachers…

Now, what I’ve just said smacks of discrimination. Am I seriously saying that public jobs should have a religion requirement? That the government should be in the business of refusing to hire people if they’re not the “right” religion?

Yes. Yes, I am seriously saying that.

What I am not saying is that that is a good situation to be in.

As I explained above, separate schools are constitutionally defined as being specifically for the purpose of… “being Catholic”. That’s why they exist. As long as they continue to exist, they should continue to “be Catholic”. Otherwise there’s no point of them.

“Then there’s no point of them,” you say. I say your thinking is disordered. There are two questions, and you shouldn’t confuse them. One question is whether they should exist. The other is whether they should “be Catholic”. To the first I say… they shouldn’t… but they do. For now. As much as we may not like it, we can’t simply deny that reality. So that brings us to the second question. And to that I say… they should. That shouldn’t be controversial: If public Catholic schools exist, they should be Catholic. Sure, they shouldn’t exist. But if they do, they should be Catholic.

And in order to “be Catholic”, public Catholic schools should be allowed to hire only Catholics in leadership roles… such as teachers.

(What about non-leadership roles, like janitors? Well, honestly, I’m not going to give it much thought, because rather than spend too much effort philosophically untangling this mess, I’d much prefer to resolve the problem by getting rid of separate schools altogether.)

The constitution enshrines Catholic schools. It does not enshrine Catholic bigotry.

A common objection to that – and one I used to buy into myself – is that one doesn’t necessarily need to be Catholic to teach at a Catholic school. For example, a math teacher doesn’t need to be Catholic to teach math; there’s no difference between Catholic math and secular math. As long as a non-Catholic math teacher keeps their religion to themselves – which they should also do at a secular school – there shouldn’t be any problem with them teaching Catholic kids at a Catholic school.

As I mentioned, I used to find that argument convincing. But talking to real-life teachers has changed my view. Teachers are not mere curriculum dispensers. Teachers do so much more. They are leaders within their classrooms, role models, and mentors. In a school system that exists for the express purpose of creating a Catholic environment, those roles require Catholics.

Consider this scenario: A math teacher calls a student to their office to ask why their math grades have fallen drastically of late. The student responds by telling the teacher that they have recently been struggling with their sexual orientation, and it’s been consuming their thoughts for weeks now. There is no way the appropriate response from the teacher could be: “Whoa, whoa, stop right there. I’m a math teacher. So give me a math-related reason for your poor grades.” That’s absurd. No, the teacher has to engage with the student’s issue in some way.

But what way would be the correct way for a Catholic mentor and role model to respond? Would it be to tell the kid to go talk to his priest? That might be right answer… or it might be horrifically wrong. Is there a Catholic organization or discussion group to help Catholic kids deal with these issues? If there were, would that be the place to send them? Even a Catholic may not have clear and ready answers to these questions, and that’s fine, because no-one can predict every scenario a teacher might face. But a Catholic would respond to a situation in a Catholic way. A non-Catholic… might not. If your sole purpose for existing is to provide an environment that satisfies “be Catholic”, you want the people who have to handle these situations to “be Catholic”.

That’s why I now believe that public Catholic schools should have the right to hire only Catholic teachers.

Look, it’s a shitty conclusion, I agree. But… it’s a shitty situation. It shouldn’t be surprising that a shitty situation leads to a shitty conclusion. The fix isn’t to try to interpose a sensible conclusion from a sensible situation into that shitty situation… it’s to get rid of the shitty situation. In plain English, don’t try to undermine the nature of the Catholic system by forcing secular system rules onto it… get rid of the fucking Catholic system. That’s the proper way to fix it.

So I agree with Serena Shaw, and the courts: The public Catholic system should be allowed to restricts hiring to Catholic teachers.

But does that mean I agree with the rest of Shaw’s comment?

… but they shouldn’t get to choose what kind of Catholic teachers

Let’s review Shaw’s comment:

The courts have told us that we have to be Catholic or there’s no reason for us to exist, and this is one of many ways that we are Catholic. We expect people to live Catholic lifestyles.

Let’s take it line by line to figure out exactly where it flies off the rails:

  • The courts have told us that we have to be Catholic…. Agreed. (But I have to note how quickly they forget that fact when it comes to accepting non-Catholic students. Or rather, funding for them.)
  • … or there’s no reason for us to exist…. Agreed.
  • … and this is one of many ways that we are Catholic. This is where things start to get dodgy. Who is the “we”? Shaw and people who are on the same page as her, presumably. So not being gay is one of the ways Shaw lives her Catholicism, and that’s fine. But there are other Catholics who make different choices. There are gay Catholics (clearly, or this whole thing wouldn’t be an issue) who clearly have different ways of practising the religion.
  • We expect people to live Catholic lifestyles. And by the time we get here, she’s completely lost the thread. Because not only has she decided that her way of being Catholic is the only legitimate way, she’s going to use the government’s power to impose that on others.

Here’s the thing about Catholicism: it’s really hard to get kicked out. In fact, it may even be impossible. Sure, it’s not difficult to get yourself excommunicated: get an abortion, desecrate the cracker, punch the Pope – you’ve got options. Thing is, even if you’re excommunicated… you’re still a Catholic.

So even though Catholicism frowns on homosexuality… homosexuals are still Catholics. And, in fact, since being gay isn’t even a latae sententiae offence, you can be openly gay and still be in good standing in the Church – meaning you can still get the cracker and all.

So frankly, Serena Shaw is full of shit.

What she’s doing with her behavioural contracts is not restricting teaching jobs to Catholics… she’s restricting them to her kind of Catholics. It’s functionally no different that if she were requiring teachers to sign contracts agreeing to Sedevacantism or some other quirky doctrinal policy.

And that, dear readers, is not what the constitution’s separate school provisions are about.

Put in plain English: public Catholic schools are allowed to require Catholics for teaching positions… but they are not allowed to require only certain kinds of Catholics.

Serena Shaw is a government official. She is not allowed allowed to discriminate by religious doctrine. The constitution does allow her to hire only Catholics for the public Catholic system. It does not allow her to apply her own, idiosyncratic purity test to select only those Catholics who practise their faith in ways she approves of.

The constitution enshrines Catholic schools. It does not enshrine Catholic bigotry.


In case it isn’t already abundantly clear, I am very opposed to separate (religious) public school systems, and think they should be abolished in every province and territory.

But they exist. Until we’re rid of them, we have to work within that reality.

The purpose for their existence – the reason they were enshrined in the constitution in the first place – is to provide a Catholic (or Protestant) learning environment. Given that fact, it does make sense to limit leadership, role model, and mentoring positions – such as teacher – to Catholics. That’s the best, and arguably only practical way to create a real Catholic learning environment.

It’s a fucked-up conclusion. But it’s a fucked-up situation, so fucked-up conclusions are to be expected. The way to fix this is to end the fucked-up situation, not pretend it’s reasonable and attempt to force reasonable conclusions on it.

But while it makes sense to restrict certain positions to Catholics, that does not mean restricting them to only certain Catholic factions. It’s one thing for the government to determine who is or isn’t Catholic – just ask for a baptismal certificate. (Again, not something the government should be doing normally, but, this is a fucked-up situation.) It’s quite another for the government to decide someone isn’t doing Catholicism “properly”.

What the employment contracts are doing, and what Serena Shaw is advocating, is not restricting employment to Catholics. It is restricting employment to the types of Catholics they like. And that is flat-out discrimination, in flagrant violation of both Canadian and Alberta human rights law.

So, to sum up as a soundbite: It’s okay for the public Catholic system to hire only Catholic teachers. It is not only to discriminate in any other way, such as sexual orientation.

So that’s my position on the matter, which is fairly nuanced, and has evolved.

I’ve got one more thing for you to chew on here, which I’ll use to wrap up this article.

A gay Catholic… is a Catholic.

That is an indisputable fact within Catholic law, and, in fact, to obstinately deny that a person still has a connection with divinity merely due to the fact of being gay would be… oh shit… why, that would be heresy. And… heresy is a offence leading to latae sententiae (or “automatic”) excommunication.

In other words, a gay Catholic teacher has more claim to being a Catholic in good standing than a person who refuses to accept them as Catholic, like Serena Shaw.


2 thoughts on “Catholic schools can hire only Catholic teachers… but that doesn’t mean what you think it does”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.