St. Joe's elementary teacher speaks out against "morality clause"

St. Joe's elementary teacher speaks out against "morality clause"

Michele Ellson
St. Joseph Elementary School

After 15 years as an art teacher at St. Joseph Elementary School, Annie Heller was considering retirement to take care of an aging parent. But new contract language that seeks to dictate the private conduct of teachers in all of the schools operated by the Catholic Church’s Oakland diocese sealed her decision to move on, she said.

Heller, who is among the 18 percent of teachers employed by the Oakland diocese who aren’t Catholic, has close friends and family members who are gay and a son who lives with his longtime girlfriend. Being gay and living with an unmarried partner are both prohibited by church teachings.

“I just felt like I can’t say, ‘Oh, let me sign this,’” Heller said during an interview late last week.

Heller is one of just a handful of East Bay Catholic school teachers to speak out publicly against the controversial contract language. She said she feels it’s important to speak out for others who can’t.

“The diocese has them over a barrel. They need their jobs,” Heller said.

Hundreds of parents and East Bay Catholic school alums have signed a petition seeking removal of the new contract clauses, including Alameda parents with students in the Island’s Catholic schools and at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School.

“As an O'Dowd parent, who is considering sending a second child to the school, it is distressing to see the impact the words of this contract amendment have had on our school's community. It's a giant step backward, especially as we strive to teach our children inclusion, tolerance, and respect,” Christina McKenna wrote as her reason for signing the petition.

Heller said that she understands the diocese is a private employer, but she thinks the contract is an invasion of teachers’ privacy that steps on their civil rights. She and others have questioned why the diocese would impose the new language at a time when the church’s new leader, Pope Francis, appears to be working to make it more accepting.

“Civil rights are really important to us in the Bay Area. Of course this would be a big flash point,” Heller said. “I think it was kind of naïve to expect everyone to just go along and sign this thing.”

Heller said the new contract language was a surprise to teachers at St. Joe’s, who get new contracts every year, in mid-April. Unlike prior years’ contracts, the 2014-15 teacher contract includes language that requires teachers to model behavior in both their personal and professional life that conforms with church teachings.

Representatives for the Oakland diocese, who have characterized the new language as a “very small” change, have said they’re not on a “witch hunt” to root out teachers who engage in or support behavior that contravenes church teachings. After a series of May 27 meetings with teachers and students at Bishop O’Dowd, Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber promised to clarify the meaning of the new contract language and to work collaboratively to change it next year.

A statement attributed to Bishop O'Dowd expressed confidence that Barber wouldn’t be monitoring their private lives.

“The Bishop made it clear that he does not intend to monitor the private lives of teachers and staff – he simply wants them to refrain from doing anything in their private lives that results in public scandal or which could cause harm to the students. He also wants to ensure that educators present moral codes aligned with Catholic teachings,” said the statement, published on the diocese’s website.

In an earlier interview with The Alamedan, diocese spokesman Mike Brown said that in an age of social media, the new contract language is a “reminder” that private behavior can become public – and a distraction in the classroom. But Heller said teachers at St. Joe’s were already being cautioned about sharing anything on social media that could get back to parents or students, before the new contract was offered.

Still, Heller thinks opposition to gays and others whose lives don’t follow church teachings is implied in its broad, vague language.

“I think until the language is changed, I’m not assured of anything,” she said.

In a resignation letter Heller said she sent to Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, diocese Superintendent of Schools Barbara Bray and St. Joseph Elementary School principal Monica O’Callaghan, she said signing a contract forcing her to denounce friends and family members she loves would be hypocritical.

“I feel that every person has the right to find their own path in this life without restrictive interference and judgment from the Diocese,” she wrote.

She said she thinks the contract represents some “misplaced backlash” over the church’s sexual abuse scandals.

“It is an attempt to shift blame and place shame on those who don't deserve it. It's harmful and divisive and I will not lend credence to it with my signature,” wrote Heller, who said she hasn’t gotten any response to her letter.

Contacted on Monday, Brown said he couldn’t confirm the letter was received; the diocese’s official count of teachers who have quit due to the contract language stands at three who opted not to return to Bishop O’Dowd.

In both her letter and the interview, Heller expressed pride in the inclusiveness of the St. Joe’s community. The K-8 school has long held ecumenical services – including an annual Passover seder – and the church, St. Joseph’s Basilica, was recently home to the Bay Area’s only openly gay priest.

And while she’s disappointed with the new contract language, Heller said she thinks the controversy it has generated could be an opportunity for people to think deeply about their own personal ethics and a good thing for the Catholic community.

“It’s really good that there is public discussion about this. It’s good for the community. It’s going to make it stronger,” she said. “It’s good for the bishop to be getting so much feedback from the public on how they feel.”

Related: Catholic school teachers sign controversial contract


Submitted by BP (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

I completely support Ms. Heller's position. The hypocrisy of the church leadership knows no bounds.

Submitted by Harry Reppert (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

As an Episcopalian I consider myself a brother in faith to the Catholic church. My faith recognizes that we live in an imperfect world and that we are all called, regardless of our faith, to make our world more loving. While our churches strive to be well-springs of faith, they are not necessarily examples morality and some clergy members are apparently unable to grasp the difference. History tells us that Churches, in their zeal, have occasionally done real moral harm. That is why we sometimes find better examples of morality among our atheists - Christopher Hitchens, for example.
I applaud Annie Heller for speaking out and I pray for the enlightenment of the Oakland Diocese.

Submitted by DG (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Thank you Annie Heller for standing up for what you believe.

Submitted by Laura DiDonato (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Parishioners and parents of Catholic schooled in Alameda, where are you?

I'm thinking this must have happened AFTER school got out for summer break....

Thank you Annie (and teachers/parents at O'Dowd for protesting/withholding donations)!

Submitted by Steven Heller (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

I'm so very proud of my wife for making this stand. She didn't need to do it...she agonized over whether it might inflame or insult the Catholic families she has served and loved during her time at St. Joe's, which was never her intention. Anyone who knows Annie, knows her to be one of the most loving, compassionate and committed teachers at the school, and to think that the Diocese can be driving out quality teachers and families due to their adherence to this ill-advised pledge is truly unfortunate. Our children deserve a learning environment that embodies integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit and acceptance of diversity...traits consistent with the life of Jesus, not those of the Doctrinaire Diocese.

Submitted by Vineeth (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Thank you Annie!

Submitted by William (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Annie has always been a special individual. We've known her for 25 years now and have the greatest respect for her. Our children attended school together, so we have had viewed her as a mother, a teacher and a friend. We understand her position and agree with her. A contract is something that represents the past. We and she can't go there.

Submitted by The Truth May H... (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

The old contract language is: "Duties: EMPLOYEE shall perform his/her duties as a minister and steward of principles characteristic of an educator in a Catholic school; including without limitation, teaching the doctrines, principles and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, conduct himself/herself in accord with these Catholic standards, respect for authority and others consistent with Catholic teachings." If the diocese wanted to go on a witch hunt, the conduct clause in the old contract could certainly be used to do that. There would be no need to change the contract language. The new contract language is here:, at the end of the page. It adds a philosophy and makes it more clear that the employee is to model the teachings for the Catholic faith including in "personal and professional life". St. Joseph's is a Catholic school. I fail to see the problem with asking faculty and staff to be congruent with Catholic teaching for employees working at a Catholic school. I do have a big problem if there is a witch hunt but that could be done without changing the contract.
So is the problem really the contract or is it that many people disagree with the teachings of the Catholic Church on issues of morality - divorce, fornication, participating in same-sex acts, etc? What are these teachings? If you want to learn, on the starting at number #2357. If you've gone that far, start reading at #2337. If you read it, it's pretty compelling. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in the early 90s and has not changed since then. It sounds like Mrs. Heller has been at the school for a number of years. Did she just recognize now that she doesn't believe what the church teaches? What took so long? If it was against her personal morals to teach at a Catholic school, why did she start working there in the first place, and get paid for a number of years? And if Mrs. McKenna doesn't agree with the teachings of the Catholic church, why does she send her child to a Catholic HS? Do they expect a Catholic school not to be Catholic? Maybe they want the benefits of a Catholic school (good students, strong academics, relatively low costs, less issues than public schools, etc.) without the religious aspects that are the foundation for the benefits to exist in first place. Again, the teachings of the church have not changed. You can ignore them if it's convenient while you get the other benefits. So maybe we start to see the Bishop's logic in this new contract.
Far more interesting questions are: Are the teachings of the Catholic church relevant in today's society? Will they make society better or worse? It's clear where many commentators fall on this question. I think our society is in shambles - financially, ethically, morally. If you actually read this Catechism stuff, a lot of it makes sense. May God Bless all those who are effected by this change.

Submitted by Doug Waite (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

My fellow Alamedan's you may want to take a couple of hours to view Frontline's intrguing piece called "Secrets of the Vatican" aired February 25, 2014 on KQED (link to Frontline website provided below). As best they could, the producer and staff go inside Pope Benedicit's papacy and uncover all kinds of power struggles, cover ups and hypocriscy. The piece comes at an interesting time given the reign of a new papacy under Pope Francis. Take a look. It is interesting.

Submitted by The Truth May H... (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Thanks Doug. I'll watch it.

Submitted by Steven Heller (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

I'd like to respond to "The Truth May H" ( is the H to mean "hurt"?) and say upfront that any comments I make are solely from me, and not my wife. I don't clear my comments with her before making them, nor does she clear hers with me.

Yes it is true that the changes in the wording of the contract are small, but the implied differences are not. To me ( and to a lot of others )the new wording specifically targets the signee's personal and private behavior, as opposed to in-school behavior, and that, in my opinion is a very slippery slope. If the change in wording is insignificant, why then did the Diocese feel compelled to make it? The writer goes on to ask:

"It sounds like Mrs. Heller has been at the school for a number of years. Did she just recognize now that she doesn't believe what the church teaches? What took so long? If it was against her personal morals to teach at a Catholic school, why did she start working there in the first place, and get paid for a number of years? And if Mrs. McKenna doesn't agree with the teachings of the Catholic church, why does she send her child to a Catholic HS?"

This paragraph is replete with false logic. How does disagreeing with the Catholic Doctrine necessarily dictate that it be against a teacher's personal morals to teach there? My wife's dedication, loyalty and love has always been about the children in her charge, and I challenge anyone to find an iota of fault in the way she has fulfilled her responsibilities to them. And if you realized how little she was paid, especially in comparison to what she could have been making in public schools or the private sector,you would realize the folly of accusing her of "getting paid" under false pretenses. How dare you make that accusation?

Rather than ask why she took the job and got paid for years, why not ask what immense benefits were received by the school and the students she taught for 15 years while she never hid the fact that she wasn't a Catholic? And do parents who also aren't Catholic, and might disagree with many of the tenets of the Doctrine, send their kids to Catholic schools to try and give their children the best education they can afford ? Of course they they have for years. Why point your accusatory finger at these families that are just trying to do the best by their children, and not at the The Diocese who has taken their tuition money for years, knowing full well that they weren't Catholic? The "blind eye" looks in both directions, yet I believe the families' motives are much less suspect than the Church's in this equation.

He also says " I think our society is in shambles - financially, ethically, morally." What society is he talking about? The one mired in hypocrisy and stained by decades of perversion and child abuse and coverup? Wasn't it that guy Jesus who coined a popular phrase...what was it...something about casting stones?

Submitted by Laura DiDonato (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Too bad "The Truth May H..." cannot be truthful by using his/her true name when publicly condemning/provoking someone who has publicly identified herself. My guess is that they "truly" don't want any replies to their comment.

I very much appreciate the intent of anonymity, but seriously, who would accept spiritual blessings from an anonymous and blaming individual, which by the way can only be received if you're in agreement with their truth/moral views? Whoa.

Submitted by Joseph (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Good for you Annie. Glad to say I know you. Principles only really matter when you have the courage to actually implement them. People find all kinds of rationalization for hate, but when it is supposed to be "christian" values, then it is a no-brainer to call it what it is, and reject it. I find it ironic that Pope Francis would probably support Annie, and teach this local "bishop" a lesson in tolerance and love.

Submitted by The Truth May H... (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Yes, Laura, the "The Truth May Hurt a Bit" is not my real name. Since I am not lying about my name, how is that not being truthful? Calling myself someonelse's name would be being not truthful.

Did I expect my comment would generate additional comments from those who don't agree? Of course I did. I am respectful of anyone's desire to reply back. And I know the comments prior to mine were all in support of Mrs. Heller. I am providing another perspective and some thought process behind it. It's nice to have a forum to do that. So not sure where the "truly" don't want any replies comes from. A little punny humor perhaps.

Finally, I am sincere is hoping that God blesses all those affected by this change. If you are agnostic or atheist, then this blessing means nothing but I am still sincere in offering it. I accept blessings from many people who don't agree with me. Gosh, if we needed to agree with everything someone believed to accept a blessing from them, I guess there wouldn't be any blessings for anyone.

Submitted by Ken Harrison (not verified) on Tue, Jun 3, 2014

As has been stated previously, one has to assume that since the church is a private employer, it has legal standing to define the parameters for its employment of individuals. On the other hand, anyone conversant with mid-20th Century American history would know how successful the notorious senator McCarthy was in defining similar conduct for the entire country. "I am not now, nor have I ever been, etc."

All of these "pastoral" efforts seem to me to be last ditch attempts to fight against what seems to me to be an inevitable path to secularism, where conduct is not described in supernatural terms but in terms of human respect and dignity.

I refused to sign a loyalty oath in the 1960s, but as a public school teacher I was protected by a system of tenure that stated I could only be terminated for certain gross errors of conduct, such as sexual contact with students. (As an aside, what do we know about whether there were sexual predator instances in this very same Diocese)?

What these teachers need is a union to work in their behalf.