Bishops in New Zealand Endorse Proposed Law Banning Conversion Therapy

Bishop Stephen Lowe and Lyn Smith before a New Zealand parliamentary committee

New Zealand’s bishops have issued their qualified support for legislation that would ban conversion therapy in that country, in part citing their earlier document that largely supports transgender students.

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference submitted comment to the parliamentary committee reviewing a bill against such practices, reported NZ Catholic. Two spokespeople also represented the conference: Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hamilton, who is the conference’s secretary and vice-president, and Lyn Smith of the National Centre for Religious Studies.

In the bishops’ written submission, they write they “support the aims of the bill in line with the Catholic Social Teaching principles of human dignity and common good.” The bishops explain:

“The Catholic Church in Aotearoa NZ does not support, provide or participate in any kind of ‘conversion therapy’, by which we understand to be any programme that seeks by medical, psychological and/or spiritual means to ‘convert’ people from a homosexual or transgender orientation or identification towards a heterosexual one. Evidence shows that such programmes cause harm and suffering. Any harmful, coercive or abusive practice under any name is abhorrent to the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . .

“For some [young people], the exploration of sexual identity may take time and require a psychological space free from any judgements and free from internal and external pressures. For believers or members of the Church, this exploration frequently includes a religious/spiritual dimension. It is important to offer affirming spiritual support to people should they seek it as part of their journey. An important part of the role of Catholic schools and parishes here is to help in the formation and exercise of a young person’s personal conscience.”

However, the bishops did express certain concerns that the proposed law could restrict adults working with youth. The bishops write further:

“While some who are on the journey to fully understanding and embracing their sexuality will require and seek support from a qualified professional, some will wish to talk about their sexuality with others whom they trust, including a teacher, priest, chaplain, youth leader, counsellor, spiritual director or similar adviser. We would not wish this need to be restricted out of fear that such a person could be seen to be breaking the law. We want to ensure that the legislation prohibiting conversion therapy protects the ability of people to have these important conversations without fear.”

Still, the bishops are clear that any such advisor “must be careful not to coerce the inquirer” and must work from a “neutral, open stance” that allows the young person to explore.

Cited in the bishops’ submission is another document of theirs, which addresses the question of transgender students in Catholic education. In contrast to documents from the Vatican and some U.S. bishops, this text, titled “Gender Complexity in Schools,” is more pastoral. For instance, addressing the “social context,” they state:

“And we live in a time when some young people are particularly vulnerable as they discover that their own gender and sexuality does not fit traditional binary categories. The number of children who report their gender does not match their biological sex is significant. Gender dysphoria is real.”

Some of the notable points in the New Zealand document include:

  • Making available unisex or single-use restrooms and locker rooms which are “as unobtrusive and easily accessible as possible”;
  • Treating sleeping arrangements for overnight trips with “constructive, mature dialogue” on a “case-by-case basis,” and that any decision, along with other stakeholders, needs to be agreed to by the student;
  • Recognizing a legal name or gender change in Catholic schools’ records and communications;
  • Allowing that “after careful discernment over time by a young person, their family/whanau, and appropriate support persons, a secondary student may deem it appropriate to use a different name and gender (though not seek to change their biological sex)”.

While imperfect, and at times incorporating LGBTQ-negative talking points, the openness to respectful discernment about individual students’ needs is a world of difference from trans-negative church texts to this point. Too often, any policies regarding transgender students have been about simply enforcing usage of the student’s assigned sex rather than being willing to engage complexity.

In both their support for the anti-conversion therapy bill and their document on gender identity in Catholic education, New Zealand’s bishops make clear that young people’s wellbeing is the priority for them and should be for the church at large. Hopefully, more Catholics will follow their lead in approaching LGBTQ issues with youth.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 25, 2021

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