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Bishops do not call the shots

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

For Catholics in the United States, one of the great unknowns in the voucher debate is how much control the church might lose over its schools if they accept public funding. A comparison with the situation in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, may be instructive.

Taxpayer support of Catholic schools in Ontario means that the schools are run autonomously by boards of trustees elected by voters on municipal ballots. Under constitutional law, any attempt by the hierarchy of the Catholic church to control Catholic schools in the province would infringe on the independence of what is known as the “separate school” system.

While the notion of independent Catholic media or advocacy groups -- organizations neither funded nor sponsored by the institutional church -- may be a familiar one in the United States, the vast majority of U.S. Catholic schools are formally governed by the hierarchy. Not so, however, in Canada.

In 1984, Ontario’s Bill 30 provided Catholic schools in the province with full public funding. Since that time, Catholic bishops have not been able to control the religion curriculum nor the hiring of religion department heads. The largely lay staffs work for the school boards, not for the church.

No constitutional principle, however, prevents the church’s hierarchy from exercising tremendous influence behind the scenes. Political observers in Ontario say that the bishops are consulted by school trustees before most major decisions, and public ruptures between the hierarchy and the trustees are rare.

For example, in a recent case involving an openly homosexual chaplain employed by the Catholic School Board for York (situated on the northern rim of Toronto), immense pressure was exerted by the archdiocese to remove the chaplain, and shortly thereafter he was dismissed.

In another such instance, Ted Schmidt -- a columnist for the Catholic New Times, and a former Catholic school teacher in Toronto -- said he was pressured out of a job teaching religion by the archdiocese in 1995. Schmidt, who was named Ontario Catholic Teacher of the Year in 1991, told NCR “It turns out [they] heard a talk I’d given a few years earlier and didn’t like what they heard.”

Schmidt says the Ontario Catholic Teacher’s union has introduced new protocols to prevent similar cases from recurring. “There’s less interference now,” he said, “because there is an understanding of the hands-off relationship between the Catholic church and Catholic schools in Ontario.”

Even before the Schmidt case, a school had the legal power to tell a bishop to mind his own business. In 1986, for example, Bishop (now Cardinal) Aloysius Ambrozic of the Toronto archdiocese asserted that the bishops should have some rights over the hiring of religion department heads and be allowed to unilaterally dictate the religion curriculum. The Toronto Catholic School Board rejected the suggestion, limiting the official role of the archdiocese in Toronto to partial control over the hiring of school chaplains.

Although full public funding of Catholic schools was welcome news in 1984, it has triggered an intense debate in the Catholic community in Ontario as to what Catholic schools now stand for.

For his part, Schmidt sees the present soul-searching as a positive thing, including the labor controversies that public funding has generated. “It’s forcing us to ask these fundamental questions about our identity,” he said. “I’m excited when I see a break between the Catholic teachers and the trustees.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998