A bishop in New South Wales, Australia, has issued a pastoral letter opposing a proposed law that would ban discussions of gender diversity in school classrooms. The letter splits from that state’s main Catholic education body, which has expressed its support of the bill.
Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta issued the letter reinforcing that diocese’s opposition to the Parental Rights Bill now before New South Wales’ (NSW) legislature, and affirming that this opposition was rooted in Catholic values and did not diminish the key role parents play in their children’s education. Long, who oversees the 80 Catholic schools in the diocese, wrote further:
“At issue is whether or not certain sensitive or challenging topics such as consent, sexuality, gender et cetera can be discussed in the classroom. Some have quickly made a judgment that our Catholic education system panders to dangerous ideology. I can assure you that we take all the vital questions of our culture seriously and reflect on them through the prism of Jesus’ solidarity with the marginalised.
“As a Catholic community, we believe that all students – including those who identify as gender diverse – should have the opportunity to reach their potential, to learn with their peers and feel a sense of belonging in their school. The Bill prohibits the schools from affirming and supporting these children who are already at risk of marginalisation. We have to remember that at times the teachers are the only people these children might trust in helping them in these sensitive matters. By banning their discussion, the school community is unable to address unhealthy and discriminatory attitudes that may exist in their learning environment.
“[Bold in original] I emphatically reject the notion of gender ideology. What I advocate for is a compassionate, respectful, inclusive, Gospel-centred learning environment and a deep commitment to the wellbeing of all students, particularly those at risk. Their lives must not be made more intolerable by unjust laws such as elements of the ‘Latham’ Bill that I have articulated above.“
Long also wrote that there was “nothing to fear” about dialogue with children, even if complex, because “we need to acknowledge and stand with those who are ostracised rather than consigning them to the margins of society.”
According to The Star Observer, the Parental Rights Bill would place a wide-range of restrictions on transgender students and staff:
“If it passes, teachers, counsellors and other school staff could face dismissal if they offered support or advice to transgender and gender diverse students. It would also leave transgender members of staff unable to speak openly about their gender identity. Parents would be allowed to withdraw their children from any class where LGBTQI+ issues were discussed.”
The bill was introduced by Mark Latham, NSW’s leader of the far-right One Nation party. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Latham as saying this bill is about “re-establishing the primacy of parents in shaping their children’s development and sense of identity.”
Preceding Bishop Long’s letter, the Diocese of Parramatta had submitted a comment to the legislature via its education office, which described Latham’s proposal as “counter to promoting and respecting the human dignity of all” and “an unacceptable incursion into the professional judgement of Catholic schools and school systems.” The best interests of children must prevail over parental “rights,” wrote the education office.
Differing from that diocese, Catholic Schools NSW, which represents the majority of the state’s 600 Catholic schools, stated its support of the bill in an official comment to the legislature. The organization said parental primacy was paramount, but made a caveat that schools must still provide LGBTQI students with pastoral care.
Dallas McInerney, the Catholic Schools NSW chief executive, rejected claims that his position denied transgender people’s existence:
“‘[It] is more focused on learning and curriculum and less on the culture wars or individuals. It is around what belongs in scholarship and school instruction and what doesn’t.'”
Greg Whitby, the head of Parramatta’s diocesan education office, clarified that Catholic Schools NSW is a separate organization from his own. “They cannot dictate a position; they can offer a position,” he said.
Bishop Long is establishing a strong record on LGBTQ pastoral care. He has advocated that people vote according to their conscience when it comes to marriage equality and has spoken about the need for an inclusive church.
Bishop Long’s pastoral letter against the proposed law that would harm gender diverse people, especially youth, is a strong expression of how Catholic values should actually inform conversations about gender and sexuality. Long recognizes transgender students’ burdens and needs , and he is prioritizing them. Such an approach makes concrete the church’s teachings on making a preferential option for marginalized people. Teachers, pastors, and parents who seek a caring and inclusive path for LGBTQ students in Catholic education should take from Bishop Long’s letter not only strong arguments for doing so internally, but inspiration to be strong advocates in the public sphere, too.
–Beth Mueller Stewart and Robert Shine, April 28, 2021