BUTTE – The Diocese of Helena is defending its decision to fire an unwed Butte Central Catholic Schools teacher because she is pregnant.

Shaela Evenson taught sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade literature and physical education at the school for the past nine years. She was dismissed Jan. 10 after the Helena diocese received an anonymous letter about her pregnancy.

Superintendent of Catholic schools Patrick Haggarty defended the decision in a Wednesday interview with the Montana Standard.

“It’s not easy being a Christian or a Catholic in today’s world,” Haggarty said in a phone interview. “Our faith asks us to do things that right now are not popular with society. I’m really OK, I’m not comfortable, but I’m OK with what’s transpired. Being a Christian is this way; we’re asked to do things that are not popular with our society.”

Haggarty and the diocese are facing harsh criticism over the firing, especially on social media where some Catholics are calling for Haggarty to be ousted. Others are sending Twitter messages supporting Evenson under the hashtag #JusticeForShaela.

Critics say the move is in conflict with the message of Pope Francis. Last month, the pontiff baptized the child of unwed parents inside the Sistine Chapel. And in September, Francis called an unmarried Italian woman who’d chosen not to have an abortion and offered to baptize the baby himself.

Haggarty responded to the criticism:

“The Holy Father certainly understands the sacrament of marriage and certainly is compassionate and understanding, and so is the diocese in Helena,” the superintendent said. “... I think that the connection between what the Holy Father has done, which is an incredible act of kindness, is not the same as what we face with a contractual obligation with our teachers. I’m sure that the woman that he blessed is a wonderful person, as is Shaela, but the woman just didn’t agree to teach in a Catholic school.”

Haggarty could think of only a handful of cases in the past decade in which an employee was fired for violating a contract.

“It is unusual,” he said. “The vast majority of our teachers fulfill their contract without any question and without any exception and they’re excellent teachers.”

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