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The Other Side of the Fidelity Oath

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 04, 2007

In my previous entry, I commended George Cardinal Pell for employing an oath of fidelity in the Catholic school system in Sydney, Australia. In discussing the role of such an oath, I used terms such as “fully committed to the teachings of the Church”, “devoted to the Magisterium”, and “Catholic vision”. Unfortunately, none of these comes from an oath.

I’m not taking back what I said (see Using an Oath of Fidelity); Cardinal Pell’s use of the oath is a great idea. But don’t expect it to radically change Catholic education in Sydney or anywhere else over night. It is one thing when people forming a school are all eager to take an oath of fidelity; it is another thing when it is imposed on them. Those who are eager are those who really don’t need the oath. A school formed of such persons will be outstandingly Catholic whether they take an oath or not. The oath is simply an outward sign of their interior commitment.

Unfortunately, the world is full of Catholics who can say, “Yes, I guess I can take this oath. I more or less accept Church teaching, and I certainly don’t want to make waves.” There are also many who can say, “Well, for those things I disagree with, there are plenty of other ways to get the point across without personally advocating a position which contradicts Church teaching. We can always read what modern theologians have said.” And even those who fully accept the teachings of the Church are not necessarily driven to enthusiastically promote them as critical to the proper formation of young minds.

In other words, there are a great many Catholics with little or no authentic Catholic vision, not to mention the deep spiritual life necessary to be a great Catholic teacher. Such people may well take an oath of fidelity with little or no positive impact on the minds and souls entrusted to them. For example, it is quite possible to emphasize the rights of gays in a way that sends the wrong message to young people without ever violating a teaching of the Church. It is equally possible to avoid promoting contraception without providing a sound and inspiring spiritual foundation for a life of chastity. One can even grudgingly accept that women cannot be ordained without contributing at all to an understanding of what it means to be a priest or, for that matter, what it means to serve the Church. In fact, one can simply concentrate on other popular things, like the environment.

For this reason, an oath of fidelity is simply a modest first step in improving the quality of Catholic school administrators and teachers. In and of itself, it proves very little about the actual quality of a school. With independent and especially newly-founded Catholic schools, you frequently have faculties carefully selected for their combination of Catholic commitment, spiritual depth, intelligence and love of young people. It takes a lot more than an oath of fidelity to produce that kind of effectiveness in a teacher and role model. We must never forget that if the parochial schools were hiring based on these qualities, they wouldn’t need an oath of fidelity.

So Cardinal Pell is to be commended for making a start. But, realistically, there is still a very long way to go. In a large established school system, even with a determined effort, the process will take many years. An oath of fidelity is only one small step—and not even an essential step—along the way.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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