Disputes about proposed transgender policies for Alberta’s Catholic schools have again escalated, as church officials, educators, and equality advocates all weigh in on new LGBTQ guidelines. The bishops are unified in their opposition to these guidelines, but many lay Catholic officials disagree.
Alberta’s Bishops Oppose Trans-Inclusive Policy
Three Canadian bishops joined Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary’s opposition to LGBTQ policy guidelines released by Alberta’s Ministry of Education, reported CBC.
Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith, who is in India currently, released a media statement about his opposition that criticized members of the Edmonton Catholic School Board, too. The archbishop wrote, as reported by CBC and Metro News, that some Board trustees “have caused harm and hostility” and “betrayed the trust placed in them by Catholic electors” by their actions and alleged failure to defend Catholic education.
It is unclear from his statement which trustees and which actions he criticized or if the criticism is for the trustees as a whole who have been incapable of working together. Smith did admit that certain LGBTQ guidelines were “constructive, thoughtful and reasonable suggestions” and, in certain cases, were already being implemented in the province’s Catholic schools.
Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan and Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul also spoke out, releasing separate pastoral letters on the issue. Both claimed church teaching disallows what they describe as self-identification for one’s gender, citing recent comments against gender theory by Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family. Allowing students to identify their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression “repudiates the goodness of Creation,” according to Terrio.
Bishop Henry previously said the guidelines were “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” and criticized gay-straight alliances for opposing homophobia and heterosexism. The bishops will meet with provincial Education Minister David Eggen next month.
The Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association weighed in against the guidelines as well, saying the schools were already “very safe and caring.”
Catholic Officials Reject Bishops’ Stance
Grassroots Catholics have reacted strongly against these episcopal assertions. Parents were displeased by Bishop Henry’s letter and a decision by the Edmonton Catholic School Board (ECSB) to distribute that letter widely. Michelle Comeau, who has two children in ECSB schools and is Catholic, told CBC that the letter was “awful” and “embarrassing.” She added:
” ‘From what I can see with my kids and their friends, there’s no issue with them. It’s with the older people.’ “
Additionally, the mother (who asked not to be identified) of a trans girl whose human rights complaint prompted these school policy discussions, criticized the letter and its distribution, too. She told The Edmonton Sun:
” ‘This has nothing to do with the Catholic teachings. This has nothing to do with the Catholic faith. This is a scared man who is clearly anti-gay, anti-transgender, and anti-LGBTQ all together who doesn’t want processes changed. . .
” ‘He hasn’t been around a transgender person, obviously, and he hasn’t been around a transgender youth…you tell me that it’s as easy as pretending to be a bird when you have your seven-year-old child asking you to end her life.’ “
Marilyn Bergstra, who chairs ECSB, apologized to parents and others harmed by the Board’s circulation of that letter, according to The Edmonton Journal. She tweeted that it “never should have happened.” Trustee Patricia Grell voted against distributing Henry’s letter, telling The Edmonton Journal:
” ‘We have to follow the law. . .The law doesn’t care if it goes against our religion. Human rights will always trump religious rights and honestly, for me as a Catholic, trying to find a place for our transgender kids, our LGBTQ kids in general in our schools is very keeping with the gospel of Christ.’ “
An Edmonton priest, Fr. Stefano Penna, attacked Grell and others supportive of LGBTQ policies by comparing them to Nazis.
Jennifer Woo of the Calgary Catholic School District rejected Bishop Henry’s letter, saying the District’s schools would “continue to do what we’ve already been doing, and that is to build up communities where all of our students feel welcomed and respected” because Catholic teaching mandates love for all people and respect for their dignity. Other administrators in Calgary’s Catholic schools expressed similar sentiments, reported the Calgary Herald.
Educators and LGBT Advocates React
Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen weighed in, saying ECSB trustees should “sort themselves out and make sure they are doing the job that they are elected and paid to do,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. Eggen said LGBTQ policies currently being considered by Alberta’s 61 school districts should reflect the spirit of the guidelines, as well as lining up with “the letter of the law.”
Calls for Eggen to dissolve the Edmonton Catholic School Board are mounting from parents, community members, and transgender advocates. The Education Minister said he is considering the move because he is “very concerned” about the well-being of the “many tens of thousands of children” the ECSB trustees oversee, according to Winnipeg Free Press. Commenting about the standoff with bishops, Eggen said school officials are “moving down a path here that is very unfortunate and it has very serious implications.”
Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said this debate itself is harming school communities. Citing Bishop Henry’s comments specifically, Ramsankar said such “extreme rhetoric. . .would be laughable if they were not so hurtful.” Teachers seek to ensure classrooms are “safe and care places of learning for every student.” He also defended Catholic education in the province, saying it “served communities since before the province was created,” reported 660 News.
A new study of Canadian teachers out of the University of Winnipeg revealed 62% of educators in Catholic schools believe inclusive policies would be “very helpful” to students. But what is troubling in these findings by the “Every Teacher Project” is that, despite 99% of teachers saying it is important for students to have faculty with whom they can discuss LGBTQ issues, only 57% of educators in Catholic schools are comfortable being such a resource, reported Metro News.
An editorial in Medicine Hat News expressed sorrow about Bishop Henry’s letter and church leaders’ opposition to LGBTQ policies:
“It’s sad that such a declaration puts staff in the position where they might have to wrestle between what we know will definitely help students, and the words of higher church authorities.
“It’s sad, because the letter reinforces what many think Catholicism is — stagnant, close-minded, never willing to change for the better. It’s sad, because it reinforces the spiritual alienation many Catholics feel from the church they love and want to be a part of.
“The Bishop can talk about dignity and respecting each child — but it all rings hollow when he’d rather dig in his heels over the constitutional rights for Catholic education mixed with hyperbole over totalitarianism — instead of stepping over to the right side of history and to help vulnerable children not just survive, but thrive.”
The editorial said any solution will require creativity, compassion, and love which are not lacking in the Catholic community, even if church leaders fail to display such qualities. While its important to remember that the People of God support inclusivity, a Metro News column asked a sobering question about the bishops’ campaign:
“But in the battle between civil rights and religious freedoms how many LGBTQ children will be collateral damage?”
The bishops’ hyperbolic rhetoric does not prioritize students. It does not foster a preferential option for marginalized LGBTQ youth. While there are many complex legal, ecclesial, moral, pedagogical aspects involved in this controversy, the heart of this matter should be protecting students and promoting the best learning environments possible.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry