by Graham McDonough
The controversy surrounding Vanier Catholic Secondary School’s policy on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning students raises serious questions.
At issue is the Diocese of Whitehorse’s document, Living with Hope, Ministering by Love, Teaching in Truth, which until March 5 appeared as school policy on Vanier’s website. For some, the clash between Catholic Church teaching and prevailing secular values has led to calls to reconsider public funding of Catholic schools in Yukon.
That’s an important topic. But at Vanier school there’s another question that deserves immediate attention: How should Catholic teaching apply to the curriculum, administration, and social atmosphere of Catholic schools?
This question is no doubt of interest to Catholic school students and supporters, but to the general public as well, lest it be left with the impression that all Catholics think alike about Church teaching, and, in this case, about how to receive gay and lesbian students in a Catholic school.
Living with Hope, which remains used as a religious document at the school, quotes the Catholic Catechism in describing homosexual acts as a “grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.” It also quotes a document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which describes “the particular inclination of the homosexual person” as not sinful, but nonetheless “an objective disorder.”
This is not surprising or new language in the church, and these teachings are freely found on the Vatican’s website. However, there is the question of how these teachings should apply in the curriculum and administration of the school. To answer this question, it is helpful to look at another Catholic teaching and see how it is applied in schools.
It is also well known that the Catholic Church disapproves of sexual relationships outside of marriage. Interestingly, Living with Hope also mentions this point, stating in section 9 that sexual acts are “reserved for married (heterosexual) couples” and “Any sexual expression outside the context of marriage is morally wrong.”
Why does this point deserve attention? Because publicly-funded Catholic schools across Canada also serve students who are pregnant and unmarried parents – that is, students who have engaged in sexual encounters outside of marriage.
This important service is provided in both “mainstream” schools and specially designed programs. Edmonton Catholic Schools operates the Our Lady of Grace program “to help students manage pregnancy and parenting complexities while completing school.” The Toronto Catholic District School Board, in following its policy on student pregnancy to create “a loving, affirming environment” and provide encouragement to attend classes, has “asked school uniform suppliers to provide maternity-sized apparel to reinforce the message of inclusivity,” according to an Oct. 30, 2012 article in the Catholic Register.
Since these school districts abide by the same Catholic teaching as the Catholic schools of Whitehorse, it is plain to see that a double standard exists. Catholic schools interpret and apply Catholic teaching to provide love, safety, and support for students having heterosexual sex, and their presence is quite compatible with the school’s Catholic identity. However, when gay and lesbian students in Whitehorse perceive Living with Hope to be disrespectful of them as persons – including its very denial of the terms “gay” and “lesbian” on the grounds that they “legitimate an arrested psycho-social development” – the official response is not of the same welcoming kind.
Pregnant and parenting students are not subjected to the negative judgments of phrases like “morally wrong,” but gay and lesbian students find themselves having to assert that they are not disordered. Living with Hope is hardly creating the conditions of welcome, love, or inclusion.
In his 2009 book The Future Church, journalist John Allen predicts that 21st-century Catholicism will “be more concerned with defending its particularity than in finding common ground,” which means that institutions like Catholic schools will ensure “that their policies do not blur Catholic teachings.” Seen this way, the events at Vanier over the past weeks are not surprising, which is not encouraging news for its gay students.
However, Allen also offers some hope by stating that change can occur, but it will have to be “in the language of the Church, appealing to its own traditions and concepts, rather than drawing on secular democracy.”
Since good Catholic reasons exist to welcome pregnant and parenting adolescents in Catholic schools, it only makes sense that they should also take a firm stand to welcome, affirm, and respect gay and lesbian students. Promoting their safety, rights, and dignity is crucial. It is not only the right thing to do, but the right Catholic thing to do.
Graham P. McDonough is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education and Associate Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. His 2012 book, Beyond Obedience and Abandonment: Toward a Theory of Dissent in Catholic Education, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.