Last week, Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson declared that Brebeuf Jesuit High School is no longer a Catholic school.
In 2017, Brebeuf discovered that one of its teachers had entered a same-sex “marriage.” After learning of this, Archbishop Thompson requested that the school conform to canon law by including in its employment contracts a clause requiring teachers to live according to Catholic teaching. The school, run by the Midwest Province of Jesuits, subsequently refused to include such a clause. Thompson has now declared that the school “can no longer use the name Catholic and will no longer be identified or recognized as a Catholic institution by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.” By refusing to honor the archbishop’s request, Brebeuf High School has chosen to place itself outside of full communion with the Church.
Thompson’s actions provoked misleading responses from the press and even high-profile Catholics. Many described the story as if the archbishop had simply removed the “Catholic” label from the high school—as if the archdiocese were merely some religious corporation unhappy with the abuse of its trademark by an underperforming franchise. But the Church is more than a market of competing ecclesial brands. The controversy between the religious order and the bishop concerns fundamental notions of ecclesiology and the nature of the Church as communio. It concerns the school's connection to the true Body of Christ through its communion with the one “presiding in place of God.”
Too often, modern ecclesiology understands the Church as a kind of social club. But communion is not established merely by the self-identification of the believer. Communion is an act of God’s grace. Grace permits the believer’s union with the Body of Christ and manifests itself in the external unities of faith, of sacraments, and of ecclesial governance. The Code of Canon Law insists that the baptized are in “full communion” with the Church only when they are “joined with Christ in his visible body, through the bonds of profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.”
In other words, part of our communion with God is found in our visible communion with those who govern the Church, including (and even especially) our diocesan bishop. Central to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was the reinvigoration of the bishop’s role as teacher, prophet, and ruler in his diocese. The conciliar fathers repeated the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said that being a diocesan bishop means “presiding in place of God over the flock.” The Council reminded religious orders—even those of pontifical right, like the Jesuits—of their duty to “show reverence and obedience to bishops according to the sacred canons.” Religious priests make this promise almost word-for-word when they “promise respect and obedience to the diocesan Bishop” in the rite of ordination.
The external act of obedience is so important to ecclesial communion that the Church sees its violation as a crime against Church unity. To violate communion by the refusal to submit to legitimate ecclesial governance is what the Church calls schism. The Church responds to schism with the automatic penalty of excommunication, because it is in and of itself an action that breaks communion. Excommunication in the case of schism is not an imposed penalty, but a declaration by the bishop that a person has put himself outside of communion by breaking the bonds of governance.
I am not arguing that the Jesuits at Brebeuf High School and the Midwest Province are guilty of schism or have excommunicated themselves. Questions of the imposition of punishment are fact-intensive, and we should never presume a penalty in such cases. But I am alarmed at the casual way in which those involved have brushed aside the external ties that maintain communio in favor of an individualistic understanding of what it means to be Catholic.
Current canon law establishes that the diocesan bishop has the right to supervise all Catholic schools, even those run by religious orders (c. 806§1). The bishop may not run the school himself, but he may require schools to follow his general directives when he seeks to enforce the Church’s own universal mandates for Catholic schools, including the requirement that all teachers be “outstanding in…probity of life” (c. 803§2).
Not every statement by a bishop demands to be followed—sadly, too many attempt to exercise authority they do not have. But when, as in this case, the bishop exercises his actual authority on a central issue of Church teaching and governance, the faithful’s communion with the Church is at stake. Even if the school’s actions do not rise to the level of schism, the school’s insistence that it may substitute the legitimate authority of the diocesan bishop with its own prudential judgments harms the Church’s communion. In this case, the harm is not simply between the Jesuits and the archbishop; the harm extends also to the communion of the students seeking an authentically Catholic education.
May the grace of God move all those involved to seek the restoration of full communion that has been weakened by these unfortunate events.
Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, is assistant professor of pastoral studies at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California.