In response to controversy over a diocesan school firing a teacher for using in vitro fertilization, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend outlined priests' responsibility to affirm Catholic truths.
“While sometimes difficult and delicate, priests are expected always to speak the truth in charity. Priests are required to clearly affirm the truths of our faith, and to speak honestly about what these truths mean for our lives and what we owe to others,” Bishop Rhoades said in an April 26 pastoral statement.
He explained that priests are “instruments of Christ’s love and mercy” and their duties at times include “correction.” Sinful behavior, the bishop added, “not only offends God, but also harms the individual and the community.”
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said the statement is meant to clarify “what appears to be a serious misunderstanding regarding the pastoral obligations of priests” amid growing media focus on a school in the diocese.
In June 2011 Msgr. John Kuzmich, the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, fired language arts teacher Emily Herx from the parish school after he learned she was undergoing IVF treatments.
Herx is now suing the school and the diocese for discrimination. She alleges that the church pastor told her she was a “grave, immoral sinner” and that her treatments would cause “scandal” for the church if they became public knowledge.
She had worked at the school for eight years and received exemplary performance reviews, the Associated Press reported.
Herx and her husband Brian appeared on the Today Show, where she said her supervisor knew about the treatments for two years and said she was praying for Herx and her husband.
Her lawsuit is seeking reinstatement and compensation for mental anguish and emotional distress. In January, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported Herx’s complaint.
On April 24 the diocese said it is “saddened” by the lawsuit, but it denied any discrimination on the basis of sex, pregnancy or disability.
The diocese said requirements for its school teachers are “expressly incorporated” into their contracts. They are to have “a knowledge of and respect for the Catholic faith” and must “serve as moral exemplars.”
It said the lawsuit challenges the diocese’s right “to make religious-based decisions consistent with its religious standards on an impartial basis.”
The diocese stressed the Catholic Church’s “deep pastoral concern” for spouses struggling with infertility, but it said in vitro fertilization is among the fertility treatments Catholic teaching does not morally allow.
“The Church teaches that every individual embryo has the right to life,” the diocese said. The in vitro fertilization process frequently involves the “deliberate destruction” or freezing of embryos, which is against the Church’s respect for human life.
The process also separates procreation from the conjugal act.
Bishop Rhoades said that the diocese takes its obligations as an employer seriously. He has asked the faithful to pray for “the swift and just resolution of this matter” in a way that affirms the diocese’s ability to act legally in a way consistent with Catholic teaching.
The diocese said April 26 it “will not argue this case in the media or in the court of public opinion.”
It reported that church pastor Msgr. Kuzmich has a record of “exemplary pastoral ministry” and has been “a model of truth in charity.” The diocese asked for prayers for the priest, his parish and school, and for the plaintiff.
A similar lawsuit is already headed to court. In March, a federal judge approved a trial for a teacher’s lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The unmarried woman, a computer teacher, was fired after she became pregnant through artificial insemination.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed a ministerial exception to lawsuits against religious employers, Herx’s lawyer Kathleen Delaney said it does not apply to her client.