The Archdiocese Incident

Dexter King '20 and Carter Bice '20

On the 20th of June in 2019 the Archbishop of Indianapolis ordered Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School and Cathedral High School to fire Layton Payne-Elliott and his husband Joshua Payne-Elliott, threatening to expel Brebeuf from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis if refused. Such a request had nothing to do with either man’s teaching ability nor any other common reason for which teachers are let go. Rather, it had everything to do with their sexuality and the fact that they “chose to act on it,” by engaging in a legal gay marriage in 2017. Although Cathedral accepted the archbishop’s demands, Brebeuf did not give in to this order, jeopardizing its identity as a Catholic School in order to support a teacher but most importantly stand for the values that define Brebeuf’s community.

The archdiocesan decree of June 2019 is the publicly visible outcome of a long, behind-the-scenes conflict between the archdiocese and Brebeuf Jesuit (See Natanya Katz’s news article on the whole affair for more information). A governance stalemate continues, despite Brebeuf’s Jesuit identity, and will continue until the Vatican can assess the situation. The Jesuit Province should have full freedom of governance authority over the school rather than the archbishop, due to one simple reason: Brebeuf is Jesuit at its core. As a Jesuit institution, Brebeuf’s community embraces Jesuit values, values that bring out the best in every student, teacher, and parent. Brebeuf’s Jesuit nature drives all the good that it does as an institution, from its community service requirements and diversity dialogues to its thought-provoking religion classes. All of these elements of Brebeuf’s culture and learning experience are a testament to the good that Jesuit values can provide for a community, and a testament to the very reasons why Brebeuf rejected the Archbishop’s demands in July.

Beyond the issue of governance there exists a humanistic and moral issue surrounding the actions of the Archbishop and what these actions mean for Indianapolis’s Catholic community.

Primarily, Archbishop Charles Thompson’s reasoning behind the incident is misguided and does not even reflect the values of the faith tradition he represents. Instead of focusing on the broader scope of the Catholic faith, the archbishop chooses to focus on a specific dogma. In order to acquire a more direct statement from the archbishop and hear the reasoning behind his decision, we reached out to the archdiocese but received no response. We were left with evaluating the archbishop’s press statements coming after the incident as our only option to discern his motives. In these statements, the Archbishop claimed that he ordered Brebeuf to fire Mr. Payne-Elliott because he participated in a gay marriage, not because of his sexual orientation. If the problem has nothing to do with his sexual orientation, then why does acting on it with a legal marriage breach church doctrine? Well according to the Archbishop, church teachings technically only support marriage when it is between a man and a woman. Well, it is also technically against the church’s teachings to have a divorce, and yet members of the Catholic Church and employees in Catholic schools have gotten divorced without the Archdiocese getting involved. It is also technically against Church teachings to eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and yet Archbishop Thompson is yet to put Brebeuf’s Catholic identity in jeopardy after a few social studies teachers have a burger for lunch on a Friday in March. And yes, it is also technically against the Church’s teachings to sexually abuse children, but it seems like the Church has a pretty long history of letting certain priests get away with that and in many cases still fails to properly respond to such a crisis. There is a lot that is technically against Church teachings, the question is: why was gay marriage was the solitary issue that Archbishop Thompson decided to focus on? We will let you figure that out for yourselves.

Every major religion practiced across the world has specific teachings and dogma, however all faith traditions share something in common: the core beliefs and values that underscore all else are always predicated on loving others. In the Bible, Jesus’s teachings cover many topics and many areas of life and faith. However, there is a common theme. Most lessons Jesus taught boil down to “loving thy neighbor.” More than anything else the Bible emphasizes the importance of love and solidarity among humans, and the same can be said for major texts in other faith traditions such as the Quran of Islam and the Sutras of Buddhism. However, leaders of world religions often fail to prioritize this message, leading to religious persecution, wars, and territorial battles like that of Israel and Palestine at the moment. Religious texts tend to be lengthy, containing minute details that throw interpreters off course and obscure the true meaning behind the stories they tell and the lessons they give. When Archbishop Thompson ordered Brebeuf and Cathedral to fire two teachers who participated in a gay marriage, he was focusing on the minute details of the Bible and of his faith tradition, blindsighted to the more significant message laid out around them.

Perhaps Jesuit Priest, Father James Martin summarized it best, stating: “God wants us to love. And not a twisted, crabbed, narrow tolerance, which often comes in the guise of condemnations, instructions, and admonitions that try to masquerade as love, but actual love.”

While the archdiocese believes they have taken a step forward through their actions, many Catholics at Brebeuf feel isolated because of them. Almost all Catholics go through periods of time in which they question their beliefs and their faith as a whole. Incidents such as the clash between Brebeuf and the archdiocese pit Catholics’ friends and families against the same Church body that they are supposed to trust. This makes these Catholics feel alone in their faith and frankly tired of Church leadership that does not seem to be in the right. This isolation certainly does not encourage students to reconcile their faith, and also turns off many from the idea of ever considering joining the Catholic Church. Additionally, even though Brebeuf is a Catholic school, it is difficult to group it with any other local Catholic Schools because of its unique sense of individuality and community. Even before the incident with the archdiocese in June, Brebeuf has always been isolated at some level within the local Catholic community, since the archdiocese and certain other Catholic schools disapprove of Brebeuf’s uniqueness and want the school to function as “one of many” rather than as an individual institution. If this fundamental division in the Catholic community continues to exist, soon there may not be many devout Catholics left at Brebeuf.

Sadly, Archbishop Thompson’s decision is simply the latest of a long line of misguided decisions by Church leadership and leaders of faith traditions throughout history. Notable examples from the Catholic Church’s history are the Crusades, the corruption before Martin Luther, the exclusion of women from ordination, and the more recent sexual abuse scandals. In each example, the Church’s decision making was flawed, mainly because it is in human nature for leaders to strive for greater power, often neglecting moral responsibilities in order to do so. As a disclaimer, it is necessary to note that by pointing out these examples from history, our intention is not to smear the Church as a whole. Just like with most religious organizations, the Catholic Church has done a lot of good throughout history. Rather, the point is that the leaders of the Church are capable of making misguided choices and we all must hold them accountable for these choices regardless of their position and authority within the faith tradition. After all, Jesus taught that we are all flawed. In fact, that in itself is the very concept of sin.

This same concept of holding Church leaders accountable was what lead to the discovery of sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The journalists depicted in the movie Spotlight broke the story of abuse scandals in Boston despite the majority of these same journalists having Catholic backgrounds. They were able to detach themselves from any biases they were raised with in order to discover the truth, challenge authority, and in the end save lives. Such a mentality is exactly what the Catholic community needs, and the backgrounds of these Journalists in Spotlight are actually not so different from the backgrounds of many Brebeuf students. A lot of students at Brebeuf were raised Catholic and a good amount are still actively Catholic. The question is, can we detach ourselves from our affiliations and morally evaluate the actions of the leaders representing us? Hopefully.

One thing that stuck with both of us from Mr. Payne-Elliott’s class, and if we are honest not a lot does in Calculus BC, was when he said, “Whenever you make your problem simpler, you’ve furthered your cause.” So let’s make the problem simpler. This entire problem boils down to disconnects that currently exist. There is a disconnect between Catholics and their leaders. There is a disconnect between members of the local community. There is even a disconnect between the archdiocese and the teachings of its own faith tradition. In the end, all we can control is how we act towards others and what values we advocate for. Everyone involved has a different path to follow in order to achieve this, and yet one Bible verse can aids in all paths:

“So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

Artwork created by Brebeuf Jesuit faculty and staff during their annual Ignatian Retreat.