The saints ‘next door’

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Every Christian has a goal, a longing in their heart, a yearning to become a saint.

Yes, a saint.

It’s not about holding an important office in the ecclesiastical hierarchy or having supernatural gifts (only a few are granted these). Rather, it’s about God calling every person to follow a certain path that, if pursued, will bring out the best of the person. While few saints are actually canonized, the vast majority are, as Pope Francis calls them, “the saints ‘next door,’” those who form part of “the middle class of holiness.” In other words, most are anonymous saints, who with their good works can transform their surroundings, making them more Christian and more human.

This is the main message of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad), published April 9, 2018.

Holiness does not consist in pretending to have another’s qualities but about rejoicing in one’s own and glorifying God with them. It can be forged in the activities of daily life, such as abstaining from gossiping, listening to a family member who needs help or talking to a person on the street that is in need.

Yet the fight to reach holiness has two subtle enemies: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Gnosticism consists in having a faith trapped in subjectivism and interested solely in having a certain religious experience, in seeing oneself as someone greater for having a deep understanding of certain doctrinal aspects, in obliging others to submit to one’s own theories or in using religion “to promote [one’s] own psychological or intellectual theories” and considering the rest of the faithful as nothing more than the “ignorant masses.” But the pope reminds us that true Christian wisdom “can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbor.” It is useless to be a great theologian if these teachings don’t transform one’s daily life.

The second vice, Pelagianism, derives from a heresy that arose in the fifth century, holding that personal effort is sufficient for salvation but forgetting that Jesus calls us first — he “firsts” us (“primerea”), as Pope Francis would say. This vice brings about many bad habits of showing only social and political achievements and boasting about practical matters. “We unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace,” the pope says.

Francis refreshes us in his new apostolic exhortation with the much simpler text of the Beatitudes, which stands contradictory to a society that primes individualism and competition. For the pope, this text is the “Christian identity card.” Living with simplicity and meekness, being thirsty and hungry for justice, crying to be consoled, being pure in heart and merciful, working for peace and being persecuted for righteousness are some of the aspects that make a Christian reflect Christ himself.

In the 21st century, we still have many saints that combat evil by living out this beautiful biblical passage – which is translated in attitudes such as joy, patience, apostolic audacity, the formation of communities and constant prayer – making sanctity possible in our day, as Pope Francis highlights in Gaudete et Exsultate. His exhortation that reminds us that “even amid their faults and failings, [the saints] kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.”

COMING UP: Catholic school teachers are ‘ministers’, SCOTUS rules

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.