St. Francis (Frances) Cabrini is often quoted as saying “If something is possible, it will be done. If something is impossible, it must be done.” That saying came to mind to me this weekend when I read the news about a Catholic college’s lecture series being criticized because it is designed to train Catholic educators on how to present doctrine concerning mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people to students.
The series is being held at Regis College in Toronto, a theology school associated with the University of Toronto. The lecturer, Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, a professor at the school, will be delivering six talks under the umbrella title, That They May Have Life to the Full – Accompanying LGBT Youth. Some university personnel are complaining about the series because it is based on the Ontario bishops’ document Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, which, not surprisingly, heavily promotes mandatory celibacy.
Mongeau, in defending the lecture series, told The Varsity, the university’s student newspaper:
“It’s just not possible in a Catholic school to propose alternative moral paths… The challenge is to present that teaching in a way that remains psychologically sound.”
That’s when I thought about Mother Cabrini.
Not possible? Well, maybe that means it must be done. I don’t intend to just be playing with Mother Cabrini’s words or intentions here, but to look for a broader understanding of Catholic educators’ obligations. If their obligation is to teach church doctrine, doesn’t that include teaching them the doctrine of the primacy of conscience? If their obligation is to teach sexual morality, doesn’t that include reinforcing to heterosexual students that sexual activity outside of marriage is also not permitted?
The issue is usually never looked at in these broader perspectives. Bans on sexual activity between people of the same gender are always absolutized in church policies. While teachings about the same sort of absolutes regarding heterosexual people are often overlooked. I’m not suggesting that church officials be harder on heterosexual people, but that they treat lesbian and gay people in the same manner. Why can’t pastoral understanding and appreciation of people’s individual life stories, situations, and mature consciences be applied generally in the Church’s practice?
Fr. Mongeau went on to explain:
“a healthy psychological life is the basic condition for the possibility of make healthy and fruitful moral choices for one’s life. If anyone makes moral choices from a place of psychological or spiritual unhealth, that’s not a good thing and I would never suggest that’s a good thing.”
I agree with Fr. Mongeau here. But where I don’t think he would agree with me is that I think celibacy is only a healthy psychological and spiritual choice when it is freely chosen, not when it is imposed by an outside authority, fear, or immaturity.
Matthew MacDonald, a University of Toronto alumnus, commented on the series along similar lines of thought. In an email to The Varsity, he wrote:
“The aims of this course… make no student safe or encourage them to live a full life. . . .This course is harmful and damaging — as a bisexual man who grew up in a christian household, I can attest to the inner torment and anxiety these kinds of programs and teachings cause in youth and LGBTQ people of all ages.”
Fr. Mongeau also told the newspaper some of the lecture series’ goals:
“It will not be a part of this lecture series to suggest that the experience of homosexual or non-cisgender gender identity is wrong. . . .What we’re trying to prevent by having this [lecture series] is instances where religious authority or any form of power is used to oppress the young person or cause them to have a distorted psychological or psycho-spiritual development.”
Those goals are worthy ones. But if the series is only trying to make a harsh teaching sound sweeter, or do anything to stigmatize the lives of LGBT people, those goals will not be achieved.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 23, 2016