Australia’s Melbourne Archdiocese has released a document which encourages its 330 schools to approach LGBT students with support and tolerance. The resource is an alternative to a government program, Safe Schools, with which church officials disagreed. However, the new document is not without its own controversies.
According to The Age, the new directive encourages school administrators to devise plans to support students who are sexual and gender minorities. The document states:
“Sexual orientation and gender have become the subject of widespread discussion in the community. In our highly polarised and politicised environment, schools are challenged to respond appropriately to those members of their community who have particular needs in the sensitive areas of human sexuality and gender.”
“It states that sexuality is ‘deeply grounded’ in the capacity to love and procreate.
“It also states that labels are inappropriate for students because ‘they have not yet matured to the point where they are capable of distinguishing between a passing phase in their search for self-identity and a longer-term understanding of their identity.’
“Sexuality is frequently referred to as something that is being explored, rather than something innate.”
The document also describes lesbian and gay people with a term that many people find offensive. The document states:
“Those experiencing same-sex attraction must be accepted with respect, compassion and dignity.” [Emphasis added.]
The Safe Schools program aimed “to ensure schools are safe places for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, and are free of discrimination.” But Safe Schools was met with significant criticism from some Catholic leaders claiming that it indoctrinated “a radical view of gender and sexuality.” That comment was from Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at Australian Catholic University. Donnellypenned an op-ed in The Age in which he charged:
“While those students who identify as LGBTI should not be unfairly discriminated against or victimised it is clear that the Safe Schools Coalition is more about advocacy than simply making schools safer places.”
Because of what some considered controversial content, the Safe Schools program was not implemented nationwide, but only in areas which supported its approach.
Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart supported the new Catholic program by quoting Pope Francis: “Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being.” This is a change from his stand in 2007 when he said that he did not want schools to accept the reality of gay students in their communities. In 2016, he allowed student in Catholic high schools in his archdiocese to take same-gender dates to their proms.
Peter Norden, a former Jesuit priest and an honorary fellow at Deakin University was a bit more circumspect about the new document, saying the document was a good opening, but more must be done:
“Up until now there has been a vacuum. The document needs to be far more concrete and help teachers and counsellors know how to go forward in this complex area.”
Though this is the first time an Australian archdiocese as a whole has provided materials to support LGBTQ youth, it is not the first time an Australian Catholic organization has taken initiative to create supportive environments. The Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA), a network of Catholic schools, rolled out its own anti-bullying program last year. Their program is also based on faith principles, asserting that the importance of inclusion takes precedence over all other concerns. School staff members are trained to anticipate the concerns of families who believe LGBTQ topics have no place in schools; their resources ensure that “Schools and teachers who address LGBTI educational issues are not advocating or promoting a homosexual agenda; they are creating a safe, caring and inclusive environment in which all students and their families can expect to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Similarly, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales launched a similar anti-bullying program last summer in their part of Great Britain. That document was widely praised because of the way it balanced church teaching with compassionate outreach, as well as negotiating the difficult conundrum of religious liberty.
—Julia Basnage, New Ways Ministry, June 2, 2018