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Catholic schools clash with LGBT rights — but "institution" isn't a synonym for faith

peter goffin

Rainbow flag

Creative commons photo by Flickr user strangedejim.

That Catholic schools do not always look positively upon homosexuality may not come as a great surprise, given their collective track record. But in the past week, two news stories have brought new and unique anti-gay measures taken at Catholic schools to light.

First, officials at Missisauga’s St. Joseph’s Catholic  Secondary School allegedly restricted students’ use of rainbow banners at an anti-homophobia fundraiser, and then forbade them from donating the event’s proceeds to a gay rights charity.

In a second, separate, and more bizarre incident, comedian Dawn Whitwell was booked to speak at an anti-bullying assembly at Bishop Marrocco-Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School in Toronto, but her performance was quickly cancelled when, she says, it was discovered she is married to a woman. Both schools say their actions were not motivated by an anti-gay bent and it is doubtful anything more will come of these allegations. But the Catholic school boards of Canada should recognize, in these stories, the need for them to reform, and return to theology as opposed to policing sexuality, lest their students abandon Catholic schools altogether.

Church attendance in Canada, and indeed around the world, went into a tailspin in the latter half of the twentieth century and seems unlikely to recover in our lifetimes. But the Catholic Canadians who now stay home from church in droves are not, according to a 2000 University of Lethbridge study, abandoning their religion. Rather, they are finding their own ways in which to worship.

The study attributed this new trend to people’s disillusionment with the church — as opposed to opposition to faith itself. Their problems were with the institution, not the teachings of the religion. It was the Church, not Catholicism, that was speaking out against gay marriage, contraception, and abortion — topics that divided many congregations. While people were looking to the religion itself for the values and morality they wanted, the Church was imposing hard and fast rules that a significant number of Catholics didn’t want or agree with.

Parents send their children to faith-based schools so that they can learn about their culture and religion, and grow up in an environment that recognizes that religion and the lessons it imparts. The Toronto Catholic District School Board’s website provides a great insight into the appeal of Catholic school. It has a page detailing the Board’s Equitable and Inclusive Educations strategy. It quotes St. Paul and discusses the open and accepting tenets of Catholicism, which is supposed to be applied to Catholic school  education. The intended message is that Catholic School will teach your children about their religion, instilling in them positive values of faith and tolerance.

And looking at that explanation, it is easily understandable why parents would want to send their kids to a Catholic school. But wanting your child to learn about the ancient teachings of Christ and the Apostles is very different from wanting your child to be subject to the institutional rules and judgments of school administrators, just as practising Catholicism can be very different from following the dogma of the Vatican.

There are plenty of examples of Catholic reformers working within the Church to change its doctrines on birth control, ordaining women, and embracing sexual minorities. There is no rule in Catholicism that Catholics can’t support LGBT rights or listen to a gay person present their feelings on bullying. The schools may say that Catholic teachings were the criteria that caused the rainbow-ban and Whitwell decisions to be made, but the fact is that they were not “Catholic” rules. They were rules imposed by the institution, lead by some individual or group of individuals who acted under the guise of channeling Catholicism. And, as such, they are rules that are apt to alienate students and parents alike.

Followers of a religion can be expected to adhere to, or at least respect, the guidelines of their religion. But rules made by a bureaucratic official based loosely on his or her interpretation of that religion’s teachings cannot be expected to inspire adherence. In fact, they are probably more likely to offend, especially when those interpretations result in the exclusion and intolerance that the religion ostensibly condemns. So, in the same way that people pushed back against the rules imposed by the Catholic Church, people may well begin pushing back against the rules imposed by Catholic schools, unless some action is taken to return to the positive values the TCDSB extols.

There is, and may always be, a debate over whether faith-based schools should be abolished in Canada. And in that debate there are many reasons to support abolishment, schools’ opposition to sexual diversity being among them. But the greatest argument in favour of keeping faith-based schools may be the large number of students who continue to enroll in these programs. Those numbers are essentially a straw poll of people’s support for religious education. Because of this, Catholic schools need their students, perhaps even more than students need their schools. If their flock abandons them to the same degree that the Church’s did, the Catholic school system will lose its greatest remaining reasons for survival and isn’t likely to be around for much longer. Whether that’s for the best or not is up to the parents and children to decide. But in the coming years, if institutional intolerance continues on, faithful Catholics may begin questioning just how well the Catholic school system represents their Christian values.

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