Archdiocese’s Failed Communication Raises LGBTQ+ Questions about Catholic Schools Decision

Archbishop Alexander Sample

A U.S. archdiocese that unexpectedly shuttered its Catholic schools office has said the closure was not related to an ongoing controversy about a gender identity policy issued earlier this year, but a lack of communication has left local Catholics with serious questions about links between the two factors.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon announced in late June that the archdiocese’s Department of Catholic Schools would be temporarily closed “to reevaluate how to best integrate schools more fully into our mission.” No reason or timeline was given.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, oversight of schools “will now be done instead by other chancery staff and parish priests,” who may not be education professionals. The Portland Catholic school system educates more than 15,000 students with some 1,300 personnel. The Department of Catholic Schools had three staff members, two of whom—the superintendent and associate superintendent—had their positions eliminated.

NCR reported that the closure of the archdiocesan schools office comes “amid backlash over a new gender identity document for students.” The news story details extensively how a significant number of local Catholics have protested since that transgender-negative document was released in January, explaining:

“Since the document’s release, at least two administrators have resigned in protest, several teachers have opted not to renew contracts and many families have withdrawn students.

“Additionally more than 1,000 parents and educators, representing nearly 50 schools and Catholic entities in the archdiocese, signed a petition expressing their distress about the document and its impact on the LGBTQ community. . .

“‘Many faithful Catholics,’ says the petition, are ‘profoundly concerned about the consequences’ of the document because it ‘ignores commonly accepted best practices in education, medicine, psychology, and child development, and has the potential to cause grave harm to an already vulnerable population.’

“The guidelines were released quietly, the petition continues, and school communities were not given the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the archdiocese about its contents or express their opinions on it before it was presented to them.”

However, the archdiocese explicitly states that “the decision [to close the schools office] is unrelated to the publication” of the gender policy.

Neither the gender document, nor the schools office closure are the real problem in this story. The problem is the archdiocese’s failure to communicate clearly and transparently what is happening in Catholic education. Archbishop Sample has been brief in his explanations, not making any public statements on the schools office closure.  Earlier this year, he claimed that reception the gender document’s reception was  “largely positive.” He said that the critiques of the policies offered “nothing that causes me any grave concerns.”

Charlene Hannibal, whose children attend a Catholic school, criticized the archdiocese’s reserved approach, which she said “seems combative and confusing, and with so little communication around this and the gender document, it leaves people with fears and not knowing what’s true and what’s not.”

NCR’s report reveals how this failure to communicate about significant decisions already caused harm to gender-diverse students and their families:

“At one diocesan school, a strict implementation of the guidelines ‘decimated our beautiful community,’ according to a teacher who said he was asked to verbally pledge to abide by the document. The individual told NCR that when they refused, they were told their contract would be rescinded.

“Hannibal, [the parent of students at] All Saints [School, Portland], said the gender-identity document ‘was completely heartbreaking to read,’ while Anna Hope-Melnick, the mother of a nonbinary child at a Catholic school, said she felt panic after learning its contents.

“Hope-Melnick said years ago her child experienced night terrors and panic attacks before sharing with family they were nonbinary. The student has been attending a Catholic school where the community has been ‘shockingly wonderful,’ even after the guidelines were announced, she said. But if they become a mandate for all schools, ‘my kid could not be themselves; we would have to leave,’ said Hope-Melnick.”

David Palmieri, a Catholic school teacher and founder of the Without Exception network, told NCR that “what’s happening in Portland and more nationally is a real apostolic crisis — firings, reprimands, public feuds.”

NCR’s report connects the controversies around the gender document and now the closure of the Catholic schools office. But no clear causal relationship is evident in the current reporting from NCR and secular outlets.

Further reporting may indeed prove the two stories are linked. But prematurely linking them risks further rupturing an already tenuous relationship between Catholics in the Portland archdiocese and their leaders—which could make any possible changes in an LGBTQ-positive direction more difficult to achieve.

The best path forward does not rely on news reports though. Archbishop Sample and his staff should make clear statements about why the Catholic schools office was closed, if it was related to how gender identity issues are being handled, and what the faithful in the archdiocese can expect now.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 28, 2023

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