In case you missed it, early this week a jury in Indiana awarded a former language arts teacher at Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic School nearly $2 million in damages after finding that the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend discriminated against her by firing her after her third round of IVF treatments.

The issue is whether the school, and the diocese, could lawfully terminate 'a minister' of its religion when such a termination would otherwise be prohibited by anti-discrimination laws that protect employees from firing on the basis of gender or pregnancy. Both the Catholic school/diocese and the teacher agreed that she was terminated because of her decision to undergo in vitro fertilization.

The teacher's 'victory' in this case might be short-lived. Following the ruling, it was stated that the diocese would appeal the verdict to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

I have already written about the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor, and the Catholic Church's interest in seeing the so-called ministerial exception upheld. This is a factor not only in cases involving IVF and other reproductive issues (such as premarital pregnancies) but also in cases where a church employee is terminated as a result of a same-sex marriage. I expect that the diocese, with the support of the USCCB, is in this for the long haul, and will dedicate a significant amount of time and resources to ensuring that the ruling is overturned.

Many media outlets, including the Associated Press, noted in their coverage that the teacher had informed the school principal of her IVF treatments more than a year before her termination. The suggestion is that the matter only became an issue when the pastor of the parish was informed. I found this tidbit interesting, but not surprising. Many Catholics, in my experience, are unaware or do not acknowledge the Catholic Church's teaching regarding IVF.

At the same time, many priests and bishops seem uncomfortable or do not know how to talk to people about this topic, and in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis that critique extends all the way to the top. I recall being at dinner at Pazzaluna one evening with Father Laird, John Bierbaum (former CFO) and his wife Nancy, Andy Eisenzimmer (former Chancellor for Civil Affairs) and his wife Joan. In some way the topic of IVF came up, and I stated the Church's position. Nancy seemed surprised to hear it, and turned to Father Laird, who was sitting next to her, and asked Father Laird for clarification. Laird, who trained as a moral theologian, responded that the Church did not consider IVF to be gravely immoral, and promptly turned the conversation to a different topic. Some might argue that a dinner table isn't the place for such conversations, but we were all adults capable of having an intellectual conversation, and the topic was less sensitive than in other instances because no one at the table was dealing with infertility or was likely to seek out IVF.

Father Laird's 'interpretation' of Church teaching was interesting coming from the Vicar General of the Archbishop who wrote his doctoral thesis on the topic, ("Human Life in a Test-tube; the Moral Dimension of In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo transfer, St. Alphonsus, 1977), but I took it as just another confirmation that Laird and Nienstedt couldn't agree on which one of them was the Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. 

Still, the man with the mitre didn't do that much better, in my opinion. One of the saddest things that I remember seeing during my time working in Saint Paul (and by now you know there were many, many sad things) was a letter the Archbishop received in the last month of my employment. This letter was one of a stack of such letters the Archbishop received from a class of teenagers about to be confirmed, but the one I found so heartbreaking was written by a young girl seeking the Archbishop's blessing to be confirmed because she was one of a set of triplets conceived through IVF. Apparently she hadn't been spared the full-on version of Church teaching, and she wrote her Archbishop questioning her worthiness to receive the sacraments given the fact that the Church condemned her very creation. 

Reading the letter, I wanted to call her and assure her that she was a welcome and valued member of the Body of Christ, and I am sure many of you reading this feel the same way. But I found the letter when I was doing my weekly 'review' and sorting of the Archbishop's correspondence, so instead I remember my hands shaking as I turned to the next page in the stack, dreading seeing the Archbishop's response. Some bishops I know would have called the girl to reassure her, or met with her personally to alleviate her fears. I was just hoping that the Archbishop's written response wouldn't be too stern of a rebuke, so that someone, someday, might be able to bring her back to the faith. I was both relieved and disheartened to find that Archbishop Nienstedt didn't respond to her at all. Instead, he took a copy of her letter, along with that of a boy who wrote to say that he questioned being confirmed because he thought the Church's teaching of gay marriage was wrong, and sent them back to the pastor and told him that he had reservations about the confirming the kids in question and that the pastor should work it out.

The pastor in question is one of the good guys, and in this matter he and his flock benefited from the Archbishop's exceedingly poor memory. The confirmation ceremony was scheduled for just days after the Archbishop received the stack of letters, but Archbishop Nienstedt didn't think of this when responding, so, as was typical of him, he wrote rather than picking up the phone or talking to someone directly. If the pastor opened the mail before the confirmation ceremony I don't think he let on, because the kids were confirmed without anyone being the wiser, and the pastor was able to talk to them in a non-threatening manner after the fact.



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    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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