Students Resist Catholic School’s Anti-Marriage Equality Program

Students and parents at an Australian Catholic school have resisted administrators’ decision to host a program where the presenters advocated that people vote against marriage equality in the nation’s non-binding plebiscite on that issue, which is now underway.

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Pro-marriage equality signs posted by students

Officials at St. Brigid’s College, Lesmurdie, a high school in Western Australia, invited a Christian group called “Loving for Life” to lead a sexual education program for 11th and 12th graders. Students claim the presenters urged the registered voters among them to vote “No” in the plebiscite.  Students have responded by posting pro-marriage equality signs around the school.

A St. Brigid’s parent told WA News that “kids came out of the program saying it seemed they were urged to vote no, and they were obviously pretty upset.” The parent added:

“‘They said they were told about how marriage should be between a man and a woman and why that’s the case, and of course there’s a few girls in the class who are gay, and they said they just felt completely unsupported by their school. . .Why would they come out to the school the week the postal vote was sent out? I don’t believe [it was a coincidence] for a second.'”

A student said presenters framed the program as an “open discussion,” but “any time that one of us had our own opinions. . .we were shut down, ignored and told we were wrong.” Parents were also upset that no consent form had been sent to them, as is standard for sexual education.

Both Loving for Life and St. Brigid’s administrators are denying the program’s content deviated from the normal presentation to include anything on marriage equality. Dr. Amelia Toffoli, the principal, said:

“‘The College has no intention of influencing individual family decisions in relation to the Marriage Equality postal survey, nor does it endorse programs that are intended to politicise important social matters affecting its community’. . .

“‘St Brigid’s College seeks to provide a learning environment that supports students to develop as critical thinkers, who are able to consider and respect diverse viewpoints and contribute meaningfully to their communities whilst understanding Catholic teaching on important issues, such as the Church’s teaching on marriage.'”

Whether administrators intended to influence students’ views on marriage equality or not, hosting an LGBT-negative program at this moment was an insensitive decision. The plebiscite now underway has prompted a heated and sometimes nasty debate, including the public posting of neo-Nazi literature targeting LGBT parents. This moment is therefore one in which Catholic schools should be especially supportive of LGBT and questioning students.

If St. Brigid’s administrators need a model for how to provide this support, they can look to other Catholic schools in Australia. For example, rectors at Xavier College in Melbourne and Saint Ignatius’ College in Sydney called on their school communities to discern carefully about how they will vote in the plebiscite. In addition, Trinity Catholic College in New South Wales recently welcomed two transgender students and provided them necessary accommodations.

Beyond officials’ actions, however, are students’ actions to be inclusive. Faced with programming that was not inclusive and may have created an unsafe environment, St. Brigid’s students affirmed clearly the goodness of LGBT people and their relationships. In their resistance, we can all find hope for the future.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 15, 2017

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Catholic School Leaders Urge Discernment on Marriage Equality Issue

Leaders at two Jesuit-run Catholic schools in Australia have urged discernment over the issue of marriage equality ahead of a non-binding plebiscite set to begin September 12. SBS reported:

“The rectors of Melbourne’s Xavier College and Sydney’s Saint Ignatius’ College, whose alumni include Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and former prime minister Tony Abbott respectively, have written to parents and staff arguing the Catholic Church’s understanding of marriage stretches beyond procreation.”

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Fr. Chris Middleton, SJ

Fr. Chris Middleton, SJ, of Xavier College said young people’s “strong commitment to equality” is “something to respect and admire.” His column in the school’s newsletter appealed for civility and respect as the issue is debated. Of experiences with students, Middleton wrote:

“As one who works in a school and who is charged with witnessing to our faith to the young, it is clear that the debate exposes a real disconnect between the Church’s public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and the attitudes of young people. In my experience, there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them. . .

“They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value. Any argument against same-sex-marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young.”

Middleton said the church should reflect on why this support is so strong among young people, and offered a partial answer that they “know the reality of homophobia, and the destructiveness that it, like racism and sexism, can have in the lives of people, and especially on the young.”

More generally, Middleton said the institutional church “needs to find a voice that is appropriate to the secular sphere” given the debate is over civil and not sacramental marriage. This is a “difficult path” for church leaders, made even harder by the Royal Commission’s damaging findings about the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

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Fr. Ross Jones, SJ

In his own column in the school’s newsletter, St. Ignatius’ Fr. Ross Jones also encouraged his school community to reflect on the plebiscite. He said that when discerning how to vote on a given issue, one must use reason:

“‘Were it not for the school of reason approach, we would still hold that slavery could be justified, or believe that wives were subject to their husbands, contra to what St Paul clearly dictated in the scriptures’. . .

“‘Presumably, same sex couples who make such a commitment to each other in good conscience, do so by reflecting on experience and on what it is to be human, using their God-given reason.'”

So far, church leaders, including Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne and the Australian Bishops’ Commission for Catholic Education, have refused to comment on the rectors’ remarks. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an alum of St. Ignatius who opposes marriage equality, said of Jones’ remarks, “It sounds like they’re sitting firmly on the fence, which is a pretty painful place to be.”

Both of these elite schools have defended the rectors’ columns, and affirmed their schools’ missions to promote engaged citizens respectful of diversity. Fr. Middleton explained his reason for writing by saying he was motivated by “a concern that the Church needs to take seriously the views of our young people and to explore a way to articulate a response within the context of our Catholic tradition,” as well as his care for students’ well-being.

A statement from St. Ignatius also affirmed the school’s mission to “produce discerning Christians, who can embody the values of Christ in respectful debate and at the same time to be cognisant of the diversity of the community of which they, as thinking Catholics, are a part.”

Catholic schools in Australia have stepped up on LGBT inclusion. Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on Trinity Catholic College’s decision to welcome and to accommodate two transgender students. These incidents are good news for a nation where the debate over marriage equality is increasingly harmful, including the posting of neo-Nazi literature targeting LGBT parents.

Australia’s bishops have had a mixed record engaging marriage equality, and there have been prominent Catholic figures speaking on both sides of the issue. Thankfully, Catholic schools are not letting church leaders’ hesitations stymie the schools’ educational missions to form engaged citizens who care about human rights and social justice, including for LGBT people and their families.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 8, 2017

 

 

Australian Priest To Vote “Yes” for Marriage Equality

A high-profile priest in Australia has come out in favor of marriage equality amid a heated national debate over the issue, and his comments have been well received by Catholics.

Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, endorsed marriage equality in the lead up to Australia’s non-binding plebiscite that will be conducted by mail this fall. Speaking at a lecture delivered in memory of famed Labor politician Lionel Bowen, himself a Catholic, Brennan told attendees:

“Though a committed Catholic, I could vote ‘yes’ in a survey on same sex marriage while hoping and demanding that the parliament do the hard work on religious freedoms when considering amendments to the Marriage Act. I am one of those Australians who will be pleased when same-sex marriages are recognised by Australian law but with adequate protection for religious freedoms.”

Brennan, who heads Catholic Social Services Australia and is a law professor, offered three observations to critics of his position. First, he noted that civil marriage is a contract that is already inconsistent with Catholic sacramental marriage because it is not permanent and does not need to be open to children.

Second, he said:

“With civil marriage being expanded to include same sex couples as contract partners in countries like UK, USA, Canada and New Zealand, there will be an increasing number of couples civilly married in those countries living in Australia. It will be more and more difficult to deny recognition of those civil marriages here in Australia when the couples are ageing and needing spousal rights and recognition in hospital etc.”

Third, children raised by same-gender couples deserve “a society where there is a public commitment to respect and affirmation of their family arrangements.” Brennan concluded his remarks on marriage equality with these words:

“Those of us who are Catholic have multiple affiliations. We are members of the Catholic Church affirming the sacramentality of marriage as defined by our Church and we are citizens of a pluralistic democratic society under the rule of law affirming the legitimacy of committed relationships which are solemnised at law in the hope of contributing to the well-being of the couple and of their children.”

Brennan has been outspoken on LGBT issues, including his 2015 foresight that any vote on marriage equality like the current plebiscite would be “very nasty” and would “unleash torrents of hate on the gay and lesbian community.” This year, negative campaigning has appeared which denigrates LGBT people. In Melbourne, hate speech quoting the research of a Catholic priest appeared on a poster. The possibility of church worker firings has been raised by at least one bishop [Editor’s note: The church worker firings story was initially reported as a direct threat, but was later clarified to be more general].

Brennan also supported civil unions for same-gender couples as early as 2011, and later argued for the separation of civil and sacramental marriage.

In contrast to Brennan’s well-received endorsement of marriage equality, students and alumni at a Catholic school in Melbourne reacted negatively when the local pastor encouraged parents to vote against equality. Fr. Joseph Abatu made his opposition to marriage equality public in the newsletter for St. Peter’s College Cranbourne. Critics reacted strongly on social media against Abatu’s intervention in the school community, reported TenPlay:

“[Alum Nate Bicey said,] In the class of 2004. . .there is at least 7 that have come out LGBTQI. It’s really disappointing to see you dishonour not just past students but today’s and tomorrow’s. . .I just hope for your sake no one in this school becomes a statistic of youth taking there [sic] life for not feeling equal and the school announcing that they are not.”

While the school includes sexuality in its non-discrimination statement, alum Val Bucky Barbosa said there was much bullying when they attended and “the school chose to do nothing.”

Polling shows Australian Catholics’ opinions are very much in line with Fr. Brennan’s “yes” vote, and few Catholics support LGBT-negative church officials like Abatu. Indeed, Queering the Church reported that two-thirds of Catholics were supportive of marriage equality. As usual, such support is because of Catholics’ faith, not in spite of it. Fr. Brennan’s comments during the lecture helpfully enrich the public reasons for why Catholics are so supportive when drawing from our faith tradition’s riches.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 6, 2017

 

British Catholics Host Gathering on LGBT Issues in the Church

British Catholics joined together last month for a national conference on LGBT issues, a gathering that was marked by “joy” according to one organizer.

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Bruce Kent, Quest chair Ruby Almeida, and Sr. Jeannine Gramick

Quest, a pastoral support group for LGBT Catholics and their families, sponsored the conference, which was titled “Act Justly, Love Mercy.” The group’s website featured highlights from the weekend, and these included:

“Two talks by Sr Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, and a notable pioneer in LGBT ministry. These talks, and the Q&A sessions that followed, raised numerous important topics meriting further exploration – which will be discussed further in later posts. [Editor’s note:  More details about Gramick’s thoughts later in this Bondings 2.0 post.]

“A highly entertaining talk by Bruce Kent, notable for his work in peace activism, who reminded us that there are important areas of justice beyond LGBT issues, that all Catholics should be concerned with – and that obviously includes a responsibility for us as LGBT Catholics, towards the wider world as well.

“Moving and inspirational liturgies, for Mass and morning and evening prayers. By great serendipity, the Gospel for the closing Mass included the parable of the mustard seed.”

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Terence Weldon

Ruby Almeida, the chair of Quest, said the conference was marked by a great deal of joy.

Terence Weldon, who blogs at Queering the Church, reported on Gramick’s talks as well as his interview with her. Questioners asked Gramick how they could advance positive change in the church. She emphasized personal relationships, and the need for LGBT Catholics and their allies to continue to take the initiative in reaching out to church leaders.

In response to Weldon’s question about Pope Francis and church doctrine. Gramick answered that the pope’s actions de-emphasized the importance of doctrine, particularly those teachings related to sexual ethics. Francis prefers to emphasise Jesus and his offer of salvation. Weldon commented on Gramick’s response:

“In this way, the message that Pope Francis is sending to LGBT Catholics, is more powerful than the hurtful doctrine that has so dominated what we have heard from the institutional church in the past. The question then arises, while the hurtful and damaging doctrine remains in place, who are we who are LGBT Catholics, to respond? Sr Jeannine offered here an analogy from American football (or from rugby, where it works equally well: Pope Francis is playing defence, against the damage of existing doctrine. To see real change, it is up to us to run with the ball.” [Editor’s note:  Sr. Jeannine attributes the football analogy to Father Bryan Massingale, a U.S. theologian who offered that image at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium in April 2017.]

The July conference is but one of Quest’s many initiatives to help support LGBT Catholics and their families in Great Britain.  Congratulations to Ruby, Terence, and the entire group for a successful event!

For more information about Quest, click here. For Terence Weldon’s blog, Queering the Church, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 3, 2017

 

 

 

Catholic School Welcomes Transgender Students Amid Tensions in Australia

The principal of a Catholic high school has encouraged his school community to welcome two transgender students, a hopeful step not only for Catholic education by for Australian LGBT and Catholic communities as well.

8852592-3x2-700x467Brother John Hilet, FMS, of Trinity Catholic College Lismore in New South Wales, Australia, welcomed two students who came out to him as transgender. The students, who were assigned female at birth, sought to wear male uniforms consistent with their gender.

Though “surprised” to be dealing with gender identity issues, Hilet told ABC News that he was “very quickly moved by their level of trust, faith and willingness to come forward and speak with me.” He added:

“They were moved at a very deep level and at that point the only response I could think of was to treat them with compassion and reach out and do whatever I could to assist. . .

“One of the things I said to the students was that it is a fundamental Catholic teaching that all human beings have an innate dignity that doesn’t derive from anything other than the fact we are human and made in the image and likeness of God. . .When Jesus spoke he never taught us to do anything other than love others, so that was the way I expressed it.”

Brother John Hilet, FMS

The students’ request to wear male uniforms was approved, and the school went a step further by announcing a gender neutral uniform.

These changes were made in consultation with local church officials who had responded positively. Hilet consulted the New South Wales Catholic Education Commission and Bishop Gregory Homeming of Lismore, about whom Hilet said:

“[The bishop’s] response to me was quite clearly that this is an issue of wellbeing for these students. It is an issue of being caring, compassionate and reaching out and doing what we can to assist. I was very happy that confirmed my feelings.”

The principal also wrote a letter to parents, saying it was “essential as a Catholic community we offer our full support to these students.” Students would be expected to respect one another and understand difference, and Hilet explicitly warned against any bullying of the two trans students.

Expecting pushback, the school instead received overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents. Hilet explained;

“Invariably the responses have been incredibly positive, thanking the college for its openness and inclusiveness and overwhelmingly supporting the idea of a gender neutral uniform option. . .

“The one that touched me most was a mother who indicated one of her children left the school about three years ago for the same reason and at the time didn’t feel confident in coming to approach me and talk to me about it. And that was sad.”

This incident at Trinity Catholic comes at a difficult moment for LGBT people and their loved ones in Australia. The debate over the country’s non-binding plebiscite on marriage equality has become harmful, including a neo-Nazi poster targeting LGBT parents. Australia’s bishops have had a mixed record engaging marriage equality, and there have been prominent Catholic figures speaking out on both sides of the issue.

Brother Hilet’s decision could therefore have an impact on more than just the two students and the Trinity Catholic community. It can give hope to students in Catholic schools, to youth who may be questioning their gender identity, and to families seeking acceptance for their children. It is as well a bright light for all Australian Catholics, proof once again that our church can live by a more just and compassionate path on LGBT issues when we choose to do so.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 30, 2017

NEWS NOTES: Irish Prime Minister Predicts Marriage Equality in the North; Other Updates

Here are some items about Catholic LGBT news that may interest you:

News Notes

1. Leo Varadkar, the Republic of Ireland’s first gay prime minister, told attendees at Belfast’s Pride celebrations that it was “only a matter of time” before marriage equality became legal in Northern Ireland. Both traditionally Catholic parties in the North support marriage equality, while it is Protestant-backed political groups leading the opposition.

2. A hate crime complaint filed against Archbishop Francisco Javier Martínez of Granada has been dismissed. An LGBT group filed the complaint earlier this year based on the archbishop’s criticism of gender ideology in a homily, but his remarks fell under free speech protections according to a Spanish court official. This complaint is the second attempted hate crime charge against a Spanish bishop.

3. San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has appointed Maggie Gallagher to an archdiocesan post dealing with worship and liturgy. Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage.  Both the archbishop and Gallagher were leading Catholic opponents of marriage equality in the U.S.

4. The Catholic Women’s League of Canada criticized the nation’s new Bill C-16 law which adds gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. Margaret Ann Jacobs, the League’s president, said the group was concerned that Catholics would not be able “to live out their faith and peaceably disagree with the current gender theory without fear of reprisal.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 29, 2017

Hate Speech in Australia Marriage Debate a Moment for Catholic Reflection

The Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry (RCIA), a coalition of LGBTI affirming Catholic groups and pastoral organizers, this past week released a statement of concern about harsh messages that have begun appearing in the lead up to the nation’s non-binding plebiscite on marriage equality this fall.

rcia-logo-official-v1On last Thursday, Bondings 2.0 reported on a neo-Nazi poster bearing hate speech that appeared in Melbourne. The poster cited a Catholic priest’s discredited research that claims children with same-gender parents suffer disproportionately higher rates of abuse and addiction than those raised by heterosexual parents.

We also reported on Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart’s threat that he would fire church workers who entered civil same-gender marriages should that become a legal option. Archbishop Timothy Costelloe has since clarified those remarks, though not before a major Catholic healthcare provider released a statement affirming its LGBT employees.

Though Australians overwhelmingly support marriage equality, the plebiscite has instigated an increasingly harmful debate. That is why RCIA released both a peaceful guide for forming one’s conscience on the issue, and appealed for civility and respect especially from church leaders. Its statement said, in part:

“We are acutely aware that suggestions that LGBTI people are in some way campaigning against the rights of other Australians is both deeply hurtful and victimizes the already marginalised. Because of this, some LGBTI Catholics feel disheartened. They are disappointed and confused that some of their spiritual leaders seem not to realise the pain they cause by their language.

“Many have expressed shock and distress over the disturbing collaboration by some church leaders with the Coalition for Marriage whose position implies LGBTI people are to blame for demanding their civil rights. For many this has been very difficult and has caused harm. As is always the case, harm experienced by LGBTI people is also reflected in their families, friends, colleagues and allies.”

The voting guide asked Catholics to form their consciences by thinking about church teachings on inclusion and non-discrimination. It also rejected claims that marriage equality would threaten the church’s teaching on sacramental marriage or impair religious freedom. The guide included these points as well:

“v)  To reflect on what social justice means in the context of the appalling history of violence and abuse against LGBTI persons both in the church and in civic society. . .

“vii)  Consider the human rights of LGBTI people to have equal access to society’s civil institutions including civil marriage.

“viii)  To consider as Catholic Christians how you can protect and support LGBTI persons and their loved ones from discrimination, prejudice, harm and abuse.”

At least one bishop has endorsed the idea that Catholics should vote and follow their conscience. Bishop Michael McKenna of Bathurst said, as quoted in the Daily Liberal:

“Catholics will be informed by their beliefs in marriage according to their faith and that will lead some to vote no but others might say that this is what I believe as a Catholic but for various reasons vote yes. . .I think there are different opinions about changing the law on marriage among all people.”

Two weeks agoBondings 2.0 reported on the central role which Catholic voices are playing in Australia’s ongoing debate over marriage equality. In a moment when right-wing extremism is resurgent in the world, these damaging incidents in Australia are a moment to pause for reflection, and focus on appeals to conscience.

Church officials like Archbishop Hart, along with other prominent Catholics like former prime minister Tony Abbott, a marriage equality opponent, should ask what their impact is on LGBT people’s lives when they promote harmful misinformation and discredited science. They should consider the message of Bishop McKenna that respects the agency of Catholics who properly form and live by their conscience.

All Catholics should consider whether the Church’s mission is to stymie equal human rights for all people or to firmly resist hate in every place and in every moment where it surfaces. Do we really want to be a church where bishops threaten devoted LGBT church workers while remaining silent about hate speech targeting LGBT people?

As we reflect on these questions, and as Australian Catholics form their consciences on marriage equality, the Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry gives us these words to pray for Australia and every place where extremists are a threat to LGBT people:

“We pray that the weeks leading up to the survey will be a time when respect and listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit will reign over rhetoric and ideology that can damage the human spirit in each person.”

Amen.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 28, 2017