This week, New Zealand’s Catholic bishops released pastoral guidelines on how Catholic educators should consider gender and sexuality. The guidelines are groundbreaking—a major positive step in the way members of the hierarchy have been addressing gender and sexuality policies for Catholic schools. The new document is the opposite of so many policies which have harmed students and upset school communities in recent years.
“Aroha and Diversity in Catholic Schools” was issued by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference as a resource for staff and educators, and the document clearly shows that the bishops’ core concern is young people’s safety and well being, not with defending church teaching. [Editor’s note: “Aroha” is a word from the Maori people, the indigenous persons of New Zealand. It has a variety of usages meaning “love,” “compassion,” and “connection.”]
For many reasons, this document is exciting as it provides Catholics worldwide with an opportunity to grow in understanding and to improve pastoral practice. Let me explain by drawing from the document’s key points.
First, most importantly, the New Zealand bishops address LGBTQ+ issues primarily through the lens of social justice. The text stresses repeatedly values like respecting human dignity, advancing solidarity, and promoting the common good. At the document’s heart is the clear statement, “How we as a Church treat those members of the LGBTQIA+ community should reflect Catholic social teaching.”
The bishops recognize, too, that this commitment to social justice is central for young people. The bishops recognize that while there are a “range of attitudes and opinions” from young people, the next generation holds a firm commitment to “strong, public stands particularly regarding justice or injustice.” Such a social justice-focused approach is different from nearly every other diocesan or national gender policy, which sadly focus instead on upholding orthodoxy and imposing LGBTQ-negative prohibitions.
Second, linked to this social justice approach, there is a repeated emphasis on the need to end discrimination and curtail bullying. Later in the document, in sections focused more on practical advice, some general principles include:
“Ensure that school is a safe place – many young people may not feel accepted anywhere else in their life and school may be their only place of sanctuary.
“Acceptance of others sets a very ‘low bar’ – Catholic schools need to be centres of welcome from all the community. . .
“Ensure Discrimination/Harassment/Bullying Policy documentation clearly articulates in the procedures and guidelines how homophobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of violence are unacceptable and how they are to be addressed if present.”
Third, the New Zealand bishops prioritize the role an informed conscience has in handling such personal, complex issues like gender and sexuality. The document states:
“Catholic schools are called to help form the consciences of the young people in their care, while recognising that parents, caregivers and whānau [extended family] have a role to play in this area. . .It is this informed conscience that will guide us in the decisions we make, including decisions around sexuality. . .This is a necessarily complex area and requires a whole whānau approach rather than application of a set of policies.”
The document offers a number of concrete considerations. For instance, staff at Catholic schools are encouraged to educate themselves about LGBTQIA+ people, examine their language to make sure it is respectful, and develop relevant resources. The wider school community is encouraged to accept the validity of young people’s concerns and questions about LGBTQIA+ issues, address LGBTQIA+ students requests for support individually with all relevant people involved, avoid any conversion therapy practices, and revise dress codes related to gender.
Guidelines for young people include: understanding oneself as made in the image and likeness of God including sexual identity, attending a school that is supportive and ensures their safety, having the right to be respected and to privacy, have all opportunities for participation available to them, being able to start a support group at school, and have their needs related to gender-segregated spaces handled with dignity.
The final section includes “Tools for Decision Making,” includes questions about how to hold events or promote resources. The bishops allow for a very localized approach, which emphasizes the need to respect Catholic identity, but is more complex than similar policies. It recognizes that some events, like Pride, could have the “positive resonance within a Catholic context” picked up even if there are questions about it generally. Many questions are given, like “Does it clearly show that bullying is never OK?” and “Does it reflect that diversity and religious belief can be supportive of each other?”
There are some negative aspects of the New Zealand bishops’ work. Unsurprisingly, the document reiterates a heteronormative ethic on sex, promoting the gender complementarity that underpins a conservative interpretation of church teaching. Yet, the document does so in a way that is far more limited than other policy documents on this subject. These theological points almost read as secondary. Addressing marriage at one point, the document both draws a distinction between sacramental and civil types, and includes the note that just because not all marriages are sacramental “does not mean that other couples cannot commit to wonderful, loving, and enduring relationships.”
Further, at several points the document highlights as a problem that some young people may be facing “external pressures which may push them into accepting definitions of who they are too early.” It cites the example of so-called “de-transitioners,” people who reverse their gender transitions. (Such cases are exceedingly rare.) The document also claims that some pro-LGBTQ+ organizations or advocates may be driven by ideologies inconsistent with Catholic teaching.
Still, on the whole, these failings do not alter the fact that the New Zealand’s bishops offer a different, better approach to handling LGBTQ+ students in Catholic education than previous church leaders have. They avoid entirely the sanctions and prohibitions so common in other such policies, instead choosing to acknowledge complexity and the need for individualized pastoral care.
Social justice should be the primary lens through which every Catholic approaches LGBTQ+ issues, and it is heartening to see a bishops conference endorse this approach so wholeheartedly. Educators and staff in Catholic education worldwide can now study the New Zealand bishops’ guidelines. By being so focused on localized decision-making, the bishops end up offering universal principles and tools for reflection.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 7, 2022