N.J. Catholic school’s actions may be more troubling to kids than seeing an unwed mother

August 24, 2023 6:52 am

When St. Theresa’s fired an unwed teacher for getting pregnant, it taught its students that it's OK to ostracize a member of their community. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor

When I saw that a New Jersey school named for St. Theresa fired a teacher for getting pregnant out of wedlock and that the teacher sued the school, I was moved to go to my bookshelf.

There I grabbed “The Interior Castle” by one of the most popular saints in the Catholic faith — St. Teresa of Avila. Two different women, but I felt strongly drawn to this action because of the common name.

“Is it right for any one as faulty as myself to speak on sublime spiritual subjects?” she wrote.

That self-reflection strikes me as a terrific conversation starter for a classroom of bright kids of any faith. A wonderful exploration of morality, the tenets of faith, and whether piousness is required to weigh in on spiritual matters.

You see, for me, this case between teacher Victoria Crisitello and the St. Theresa School must be discussed in two different categories. One is cut-and-dry legal, the other is through the lens of what students should or shouldn’t be exposed to in their classroom.

When it comes to the letter of the law, it’s easy to see why the New Jersey Supreme Court recently sided with the Catholic school that fired Crisitello in 2014. The teacher had signed a code of conduct when she became employed at the Kenilworth school and it included adhering to Church teachings.

Freedom of religion is, after all, part of the First Amendment, along with press and speech. Thomas Jefferson explicitly addressed the “wall of separation between Church and State,” so religious institutions do have a right to only employ people who agree to adhere to the principles of said religion.

That’s why other religious bodies like the New Jersey Catholic Conference and Agudath Israel of America filed briefs in support of the St. Theresa School. They want to keep it that way.

I get that.

However, I think it’s far more interesting to explore that second category. What can kids handle? What should be modeled for them in school? What might be considered a negative influence on them?

The diocese has a constitutional right to constrain its teachings and/or its teachers. I don’t think it’s a leap to assume the school’s code of conduct exists to be sure its teachers are proper Catholic role models. Let’s parse that a bit. Is there a general belief that students would be unduly influenced by a pregnant teacher out of wedlock? That it will “give them ideas?”

I understand that premarital sex is considered wrong in the Catholic faith, but be honest. Can you name three people who have actually abided by this? It is fraught on several levels.

One, those who engage in premarital sex and wind up pregnant are on the chopping block because there is visual proof of their “sin” (a male teacher in this diocese has also recently been let go for impregnating his girlfriend). Two, getting away from Crisitello specifically, what if a teacher has an abortion? The diocese wouldn’t know, and her job wouldn’t be in jeopardy. In other words, it’s not possible to police premarital sex in the lives of one’s employees unless they get pregnant.

Incidentally, if you’re enforcing adherence to Catholic doctrine in your teachers, are you also gauging whether they do charitable works, attend mass, get a divorce, support the death penalty? You get the idea.

I divorced the Church in 2002 when the Boston Globe broke open the priest scandal. Back then I wrote about how I wanted to hear some acknowledgment from leadership that it was not just wrong to commit heinous acts against children, but almost equally disturbing, to conduct a massive coverup where pedophile priests were moved around like pieces on a chess board. This gave them a new pool of children to victimize.

Even as a non-Catholic, though, I find comfort in the emergence of Pope Francis because he has a grasp on the nuance I hear in St. Teresa of Avila’s words. “Who am I to judge?” he famously said, this man who chose the name of a beloved saint who teaches us to endeavor “to understand” and not just focus on being “understood.” That’s a life-altering shift for anyone who cares to make it.

Bringing it back to the kids, I believe we are sorely underestimating their capacity for critical thinking. This is particularly attention-worthy at this time when boards of education are consistently in the news for pushing back on what students are learning. Can children handle studying this country’s history of slavery? Should a library book where a family has two moms be considered controversial?

Modeling kindness and forgiveness, tolerance and respect, will serve kids. We probably all agree on that. But we must acknowledge that kids talk and witness their elders’ reactions to things like, for example, unwed mothers. What are they seeing? Gossip? Judgment? Loss of job? The ostracizing of a person they may have looked up to? Acceptance?

Couldn’t some of that be more troubling than exposure to an unwed mother?

Sure, the courts kept it constitutional. But ultimately I dare to wish for more than that. How about a universal code of conduct that evolves to a place where we revere our shared humanity above all else?


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Nancy Colasurdo
Nancy Colasurdo

Nancy Colasurdo is an award-winning journalist, author, and professional coach. A former Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, she has won writing awards from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the NJSIAA. In 2019 she was selected to be part of 50 Women Who Can Change the World of Journalism through the nonprofit Take the Lead.