Wednesday, September 05, 2007

When Catholics Fight the Church

This is a follow-up article about the resignation of Tom Girsch (pictured to the left with wife Molly--picture is from the DesMoines Register's article on the web), the former football coach of Columbus High School, a Catholic school in Waterloo. Mr. Girsch was forced to submit his resignation because he, while representing the Church as a teacher in a Catholic school, was not living in conformity with Catholic moral teaching and the Precepts of the Church. This article is from the Sept. 3rd issue of the DesMoines Register, I will post the article in its entirety and also will add my own comments (which appear in blue). You can read the article (and the lively and the scathing reader comments) on-line at:
'Fighting church is difficult for us'
Former Waterloo teacher pursues lawsuit over job he lost after Catholic Church declined to annul his first marriage
September 3, 2007

Tom and Molly Girsch had less than a week of wedded bliss before their lives were thrown into a turmoil that tested their marriage, faith and livelihood.
OK, right off the bat this article sounds like it has a bias towards the couple (who the reader can see in a lovely picture)--you may note that as you read the rest of the article the humanity of the Girsch couple is clear--while the position of "the Church" is not explained well, and is left to appear as a heartless institution.
The simple civil ceremony performed before a handful of friends and family members in their backyard Aug. 4, 2006, launched the Waterloo couple's new life together.
Let us give the technical description of what has happened here. By this action Mr. Girsch publicly initiated what amounts only to an adulterous affair with a woman who is not his wife. That is to say, Mr. Girsch remains validly/sacramentally married to his first civil-marriage wife (a civil divorce does nothing to dissolve the bond established in a sacramental marriage). This second civil marriage is not a sacramental marriage for many reasons. This is what the universal Code of Canon Law has to say about this issue: "A person bound by the bond of a prior marriage, even if it was not consummated, invalidly attempts marriage." (Can. 1085.1) "Even if the prior marriage is invalid or dissolved for any reason, it is not on that account permitted to contract another before the nullity of dissolution of the prior marriage is established legitimately and certainly." (Can. 1085.2)
It also began the end of Tom Girsch's three-decade career as a teacher and coach at Columbus High School, a Catholic school in Waterloo.
Over the next year, Girsch would negotiate a revised contract, the Cedar Valley Catholic Schools' board would take two votes on whether he could stay, and the archbishop would weigh in on the controversy. In the end, for lack of a church annulment, the social studies teacher would be forced to resign.
"The wedding was supposed to be a happy thing," said Molly Girsch. "We had been lucky (in love) once before, and we were overjoyed we could be lucky again."
Molly, 52, was a widow and a substitute teacher at Cedar Valley Catholic Schools. Tom, 59, divorced in 1997. They met through a mutual friend about 10 years ago and were friends before they began dating."
We didn't think the marriage was going to cause trouble," said Tom Girsch. "But a few days after the ceremony, I got called to the office. When I walked in, (school officials) offered congratulations on my marriage and said they were happy for me. Then they asked if I ever got an annulment. I said I hadn't. Then they asked if I was aware that they could terminate me."
After teaching in a Catholic school for some 30 years did Mr. Girsch not realize that by his actions he was violating one of the precepts of the Church and was contracting an invalid marriage? Did he care? Did he bother to ask a priest or fellow Catholic friends for counsel? Did he bother to bring the issue up to the school BEFORE he contracted this second marriage? What did his teacher's manual and contract (which is signed each year by every teacher) say about the need to live in conformity with Catholic moral law and canon law? If I was in the position of the school officials, I would have told Mr. Girsch that I was glad that he found someone he loved, but that I was disappointed that he chose to marry outside of the Church and deny himself the benefits of a possible sacramental marriage.
Church sees teachers as examples of faith.
About half of U.S. Catholics, by the 20th anniversary of their first marriage, have divorced, according a 2002 study. The church does not make public the number of annulments granted.
I am not sure about this. I have read figures before... and they are large. The Church in the U.S. surpasses, by far, all other nations in declarations of nullity. I do not know the percentage of cases that receive a declaration of nullity, but I know that it certainly is not rare! In other words, if I hear that a marriage case, once heard, was not declared null, I would be apt to suspect that the court really could find NO legitimate grounds to recognize the marriage as invalid.
While the Catholic Church recognizes that some marriages fail despite the best efforts of the couple, it views marriage as a sacred covenant that cannot be broken by civil divorce. While parishes give support to divorced Catholics, they may not remarry with church blessing unless they receive an annulment - a determination by church officials that their first marriage was invalid.
This is not some wacko Catholic rule. The Catholic Church received this straight from Our Lord Jesus Christ. Read Matthew 19:1-9: "They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no man must separate... I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery." I know that this is a sensitive issue... and divorce is a painful experience. The Church is sympathetic (which is why it offers pastoral support to those who deal with divorce and separation)... but the Church is also duty-bound to hold fast to the teaching of Christ on marriage as exclusive and indissoluble.
Annulments do not nullify the first marriage, but are granted under the criteria that some element of the marital bond, while presumed to be present, actually was lacking when the parties married, according to the Metropolitan Tribunal for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
The statement that "annulments do not nullify the first marriage" can be a bit confusing. An annulment is precisely a declaration of nullity. That is, an annulment is an official recognition by the authoritative Church, upon examination of the facts, that a certain marriage was invalid from the very moment it was contracted. Perhaps the Tribunal meant that the annulment does not annul the original civil marriage--i.e., it does not deem the children of that union as "illegitimate" (that is a chief concern of many Catholics who approach the annulment process.
It might also be good to explain what circumstances could render a sacramental marriage as invalid and null. I am no canon lawyer, but by consulting my copy of the Code, I can mention some of the specific impediments to marriage can include: a man not being of the age of 16, a woman not being of the age of 14 (Can. 1083.1), antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse on the part of the man or the woman (Can. 1084.1), a person bound by the bond of a prior marriage (Can. 1085.1), the marriage of a baptized Catholic and an unbaptized person (Can. 1086.1), those in sacred orders [diaconate, priesthood, etc.] (Can. 1087), those bound by a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute (Can. 1088), those who are held captive against their will for the purpose of marriage (Can. 1089), in a direct line of consanguinity (Can. 1091), those who do not give free consent of the will to the marriage [i.e. no shot-gun weddings] (Can. 1095), and ignorance of the purpose of marriage as a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation (Can. 1096), etc., etc.
When school officials suggested that if Girsch sought an annulment he might be allowed to continue to teach, he said he told them he'd have to check with his former wife, current wife and his family. He asked for some time, but by the end of the day, school officials notified him that he had 48 hours to resign or be terminated. The difference between the expectations for Catholic teachers and teachers of other faiths centers around the Roman Catholic Church's beliefs concerning the sacraments and supporting the precepts of the church, according to Jeff Henderson, Dubuque Archdiocese superintendent of schools.
"In the Catholic Church, teachers are referred to as witnesses and examples of faith," Henderson said. "By contract, a teacher also agrees to conduct himself as a moral person, ... to be a community leader and faithful citizen of the church and state, and act accordingly at all times."
Do we have any denial of this by Mr. Girsch?--surely someone who has been teaching in a Catholic school for so long must have been aware of this contractual obligation?
Again, from the Code of Canon Law: "The instruction and education in a Catholic school must be grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine; teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life." (Can. 803.2, my emphasis in bold) [by the way, while you should not read certain canons of the Code out of the context of the entire Code, the canons of the Code that deal with Catholic education in schools consist of only 3 pages--they can be read in one sitting, they are available in book form and on the Vatican website ]
"So relieved people stood up for us"
News of the school board's ultimatum spread quickly.
"It was like a tidal wave of e-mail in the Catholic community," said Kathy McCoy, a friend of the Girsch family. "Tom got thousands of supportive e-mail messages from students, current and past, from all over the world."
Cedar Valley officials were also hearing from people, according to George Scully, a Waterloo Catholic. Scully said he believes that uproar led the school and archdiocese to negotiate a revised contract with Tom Girsch.
Their support, while touching, was sadly not informed by the facts about what the Catholic teaching is regarding marriage and what the Catholic school's expectations of its Catholic teachers were.
The agreement, signed Sept. 7, 2006, specified that Tom would immediately seek an annulment through the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. If the annulment wasn't granted, he would submit his resignation, which the school board could accept or reject. He also agreed to work with the school board to "heal the wounds that may have been created by the situation."
Although many Catholics receive annulments, Girsch's request was denied. The annulment proceedings are secret.
Interesting how the reporter describes the annulment proceedings as "secret" rather than "confidential." Would you describe the medical records that your health providers keep or your employee files as "secret" or as confidential? The proceedings and documentation of an marriage case are extremely detailed and personal. Would Mr. Girsch or his first wife want those details opened to investigation and publication by the DesMoines Register? Do we need to have every case decided by a marriage tribunal reviewed and confirmed by a newspaper reporter? "Secret" is a useful word because it invokes the culture of corruption that the Church is constantly flogged with due to the clergy sexual abuse scandal (don't get me wrong, there were true acts of administrative corruption in some cases--but does that mean that everything the Church does is sinister? This is where anti-Catholics can have a field day. Give me a break).
Girsch submitted his resignation to the Cedar Valley school board July 12. He told the board that his resignation was extremely painful, but that he was meeting all the stipulations in the revised contract. Six of Girsch's supporters and his attorney asked the board to reject his resignation.Brendan Quann, attorney for the archdiocese, told board members that it was an unfortunate situation, but that they had to vote not out of sympathy but in favor of the laws of the church, according to the meeting minutes.
"This situation is not about Tom and his performance, but about the precepts of the church and Tom knowing these when he signed the contract," [my emphasis in bold here] said Quann, who went on to warn the board that not accepting the resignation would set a precedent for future special requests.
Right on Mr. Quann. He is right! Does anyone not see the problem here? As a Catholic school one of the school's mission is to pass on the Gospel and the teachings of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. One of those teachings would be regarding the nature of the sacrament of marriage (that it is permanent, ordered to the creation and education of children, and exclusive between 1 man and 1 woman). Now, it is a pretty important task for the Catholic school to educate the students in the meaning of the sacrament of marriage seeing as how the vast majority of its graduates will end up entering into marriage (you hope a valid sacramental marriage--but this is becoming less common). What happens when a student in theology class learns what a true Catholic marriage is and then cynically scoffs at his teacher and says, 'no one believes this, even my social studies teacher Mr. Girsch does not live by that, he is divorced and remarried and he is teaching here!'??? That is an example of hypocrisy (teaching one thing and doing another) and scandal. If Mr. Girsch is as noble as he claims to be, he should recognize this fact and just resign with dignity (instead of adding scandal to scandal).
When the board returned from executive session, the Rev. Lou Jaeger, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, made a motion to regretfully accept the resignation. In a show of hands, Girsch's resignation was rejected, 8-6. The room erupted in applause."
I thought it was over," said Tom Girsch. "I was so relieved that people stood up for us and that everybody was honorable."
Sorry, but I do not see this as an example of honor. Loyalty, certainly, but where is the honor in betraying the mission of a Catholic school, knowingly violating the terms of your contract, and then attacking the Church because they uphold the principles upon which a Catholic school is founded.
His sense of relief evaporated soon after, when Dubuque Archbishop Jerome Hanus sent a letter to the school board insisting that the board follow church law and archdiocesan policy.
Bravo Archbishop Hanus! This is the tough job that bishops are called to do--defend the Faith when it is under attack.
A special board meeting was called for Aug. 6 to reconsider the vote. On Aug. 2, Girsch sued the school and archdiocese, asking the court to bar the second vote and force the board to issue him a contract.
On Aug. 6, Black Hawk County District Judge George Stigler refused to act, stating he didn't want to get involved with church business.
Good decision Judge, it is called the 1st amendment--we don't need the government coercing the Church to act against its conscience.
That evening, the board reversed itself, voting unanimously to accept Girsch's resignation.
Most people in the room interpreted the archbishop's letter as a threat to remove church funding from Cedar Valley schools. They could not survive as a private school, people agreed.
How sad. Do they want to be a "private school" or a "Catholic school"--because that is what they were founded as? "Dumb old bishop ruining our wonderful private school with his fuddy duddy Catholic beliefs."
Girsch left the meeting without a job, and without benefits.
"It's difficult not to be bitter"
"Tom was the face of Columbus High School in this community, and after 32 years, they threw him away without a pension or retirement," said McCoy. "That's great thanks for all the students he's helped. It's difficult not to be bitter."
What is the pension that Catholic teachers ordinarily receive?
When it comes to church matters, the archbishop holds the cards, according to Waterloo attorney Tim Luce, a former Cedar Valley board president. "The archbishop is the president of every corporation in the church. It's a tough deal. This would have been easier if Tom hadn't been such a good teacher," said Luce.
Mr. Luce must have read his Code of Canon Law:
"The Catholic religious instruction and education which are imparted in any school whatsoever or are provided through the various instruments of social communication are subject to the authority of the Church. It is for the conference of bishops to issue general norms about this field of action and for the diocesan bishop to regulate and watch over it." (Can. 804.1 my emphasis in bold)
"The local ordinary [=in this case, the presiding Diocesan bishop] is to be concerned that those who are designated teachers of religious instruction in schools, even in non-Catholic ones, are outstanding in correct doctrine, the witness of a Christian life, and teaching skill." (Can. 804.2 my emphasis in bold)
"For his own diocese, the local ordinary has the right to appoint or approve teachers of religion and even to remove them or demand that they be removed if a reason of religion or morals requires it." (Can. 805, my emphasis in bold)
Thank goodness that the archbishop "holds the cards" because, in this case, HE IS RIGHT and the emotionally-invested school board and personal friends of Mr. Girsch, Mr. Girsch himself, and his lawyer ARE ALL WRONG.
Tom and Molly Girsch have stopped attending St. Edward Catholic Church - where Tom attended as a child and where his children were reared - after their parish priest, the Rev. Jerry Kopacek, spoke about Tom's case from the pulpit.
"Tom was used as an example by name, and I thought it was in poor taste," said Patricia Connell of Waterloo, who attended the Saturday evening service."
Father Kopacek spoke about Tom's divorce and remarriage, that he didn't get an annulment. He said the local school board was given the job of accepting Tom's resignation, and when it did not, the archdiocese had to remind them to follow Catholic doctrine. He used it as a springboard to review church rules on marriage and annulment."
Kopacek denies "giving any details about the nature of the case."
"I would never do that," Kopacek said. "It would be totally inappropriate. I spoke on the general process, what annulment is about. There are a lot of misconceptions."
Fr. Kopacek is right about there being a lot of ignorance and misconceptions about the nature of the annulment process (and, I would add, of the nature of the sacrament of matrimony itself). You can certainly observe that by reading this article and the interview comments. However, one could certainly question his prudence in bringing up the issue, mentioning names, etc. at a time when passions were aflame. (And, having not heard his homily, it is hard to know what he really said.) He was probably trying to address head on an issue that man of his parishoners were obviously preoccupied with. He also probably wanted to defend the teaching of the church and the position that the Archbishop has to take in such a situation. Still, there is a time and manner in which to take on the subject. But again, I was not there so I cannot judge.
Girsch's breach-of-contract lawsuit is pending.
"Fighting the church is difficult for us," he said. "They never want to talk about the legal part of this, they want to push the church part. They wrote a contract stating if I fulfilled it I could teach. I fulfilled it. I won the vote, and it should have been over."
Religion Editor Shirley Ragsdale can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or
Yeah, leave it to the Catholic Church to worry about "the church part" when considering who they allow to teach in their schools (in this case, "the church part" refers to the universal Code of Canon Law, the evanglizing and catechizing mission of a Catholic High School, the integrity of the Catholic teaching that is being passed down, the authority of a bishop, etc.). I also have not seen the contract, but I would need to see it with my own eyes to believe it. Did his contract actually say that if Mr. Girsch simply filed his case for an annulment with the marriage tribunal REGARDLESS OF THE OUTCOME than his contract would be automatically extended? I just cannot believe that the school would draw up a contract that is so obviously counterintuitive and in violation of Canon Law on a number of counts. If they did--then shame on them--but I would have to see that to believe it.
A Catholic school should be Catholic first... a Catholic school does exist to be simply a "private" school with a good football program. A Catholic school's mission is to educate students
not merely in math, history, and science,... but to hand down the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church. If you want something else, sign your kid up at a "private school."
By the way, I do not mean any of this to be a personal attack on Mr. Girsch. His very public actions, and his legislative action against the Church, has brought up some interesting issues such as the popular understanding of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony among some of the laity and, more importantly, the issues of the mission of a Catholic school, teaching with integrity, and the authority of the bishop. Very few people attempt to present the position of the Church which is why I have attempted to do so here.
By the way, immediately after finishing this LONG post, I went over to "In the Light of the Law", a blog run by Canon Law expert Ed Peters. Peters, unlike myself, actually knows what he is talking about regarding the issue of canon law. Check out his post, with the headline: "NEWS FLASH: Catholic Church expects faithful to follow her rules!":

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