Years ago, there was a story in the paper about two unmarried schoolteachers in a small town in upstate New York who began a serious relationship at the beginning of the school year. Every evening, the man would park his car a few blocks from the woman’s house and walk the rest of the way before spending the night. Although the nature of the relationship quickly became an open secret in the town, no one ever raised an objection.
But the temperatures soon began to drop, as they will in upstate New York, and one frigid evening the man decided to save himself a walk through the cold and parked right in front of his lover’s house. Next day, all hell broke loose and the two teachers were summoned to the principal’s office and fired.
So long as the man didn’t park in front of the house, he tacitly acknowledged the community norm that unmarried adults — or at least those responsible for the education of youth — should not be sleeping together. The community tolerated the behavioral deviation, as communities tolerate so much social deviation. But by parking in front of the house, the man flouted the norm, and that could not be permitted.
This exemplary tale came to mind when reading about Mark Zmuda, the vice principal of Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish, Wash., who was fired last month after it came to light that he had married his partner. “If the teachings of the church change, I’d hire him back in a minute,” said the school president, Sr. Mary Tracy. Then, after tendering her own resignation in the face of widespread protests, she said, “I look forward to the day when no individual loses their job because they’re married to a person of the same sex.”
“We are uniting in order to change the Catholic Church’s opposition of gay marriage,” declared a petition asking for Zmuda’s reinstatement that was presented with thousands of signatures to the archdiocese of Seattle. “Leaders of Catholic schools are charged with the responsibility of both imparting and modeling our teaching,” Archbishop J. Peter Sartain responded.
This is, in short, a fight over a Catholic doctrinal norm, not one man’s failure to abide by it. I venture to guess that there were people at Eastside Catholic who knew Mark Zmuda was gay and that he lived with a partner. But marriage is public act, and by marrying his partner Zmuda parked his relationship in front of the church.
Same-sex marriage is rapidly becoming the norm in American society and there is every reason to think that more and more gay and lesbian Catholics will be embracing it. The church, which has figured out how to accommodate changing societal norms in the past, will be hard pressed to avoid accommodating this one.