Australian Students Demand Greater LGBT Respect from Catholic Institutions

May 4, 2016
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Advocates rally in defense of Australia’s Safe Schools Program

College students in Australia are protesting an upcoming lecture by a of a Catholic man who claims “reparative therapy” successfully changed his sexuality, the latest dispute about LGBT issues as they relate to Catholic education  in that nation.

The University of Sydney’s Catholic Society will host James Parker tonight to speak about his experiences with “reparative therapy.” Parker is linked to People Can Change, a UK group which administers gay “conversion” programs, and he authored a 2014 piece about his own experience, reported Buzzfeed.

Georg Tamm, a gay Catholic student, said student objections were not to discussions about divergent views on sexuality, but specifically about the harm reparative therapy has caused. Tamm said:

” ‘I would have been OK with them inviting a priest, discussing why men and women are made for each other according to the Catholic scripture. . .But I don’t see the pertinence of inviting someone who is supposedly a patient of successful ex-gay therapy, when it has no scientific merit and is actually quite dangerous.’ “

Tamm said the Catholic Society’s invitation to Parker did not seem “to care about the welfare of those students” who are LGBT or questioning. Such talks, he added, defeat evangelical efforts “at a time when we need people to take the religion seriously and do good things with it.” The Catholic Society denied claims the event promoted prejudice against LGBT people.

Concerned students have appealed to the Student Union to prohibit, or at least refuse to fund, future events promoting reparative therapy. University of Sydney administrators are inquiring into whether restrictions can be placed on campus speakers, too.

Such LGBT controversies in Australian education are increasingly frequent. Last month, St. Francis Xavier College in Melbourne censored a sexual health workbook by requiring students to rip out a page about homosexuality and premarital sex. The Age reported:

“[Y]ear 9 students were called into the hall and told they could not leave until they had thrown a page of the textbook in the bin. . .

“[The [page] included a photo of two men hugging and smiling, and listed different sexual preferences including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality.”

The workbook asked students age-appropriate questions about sexuality and relationships, but Principal Vincent Feeney explained such questions should be addressed in religious education classes rather than health classes. He defended St. Francis Xavier College further by saying it was inclusive of LGBT students and even allowed same-gender couples to attend formal dances. Students remained critical, however, with one calling the ripping of pages a “medieval weak response.” Others refused to tear the page out.

In another story, the Safe Schools Program in Australia, which educates against bullying, has come under fire after four successful years. Conservative politicians have attacked the Program, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, has conceded to their demands. Following a government review, Safe Schools Programs, will be limited to high schools and have their content curtailed. A coalition under the name Save Safe Schools has organized rallies and campaigning to ensure funding is sustained and the Program keeps expanding.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, described the Program as “social engineering” in his call for its defunding, reported Buzzfeed. Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, herself a lesbian Catholic, said such comments were “negative and unconstructive” because you cannot engineer a person’s lived reality.

Just two Catholic schools participate in the Safe Schools Program: St. Joseph’s College, a Christian Brothers school; and St. Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, both in Victoria. St. Joseph’s College Head Paul Tobias said the Safe Schools debate “put people like me in a particularly difficult position” because of conservative attacks then lodged against the schools. Those pressures do not mean he or the school would be less supportive, however. He told The Age:

” ‘But I don’t believe there is anything in the Catholic faith that should stop us from promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and tolerance. . .

” ‘Every student who attends this school, irrespective of their sexuality, is entitled to be part of a safe environment. We need to accept that there are some kids who are heterosexual and there are some that are LGBTI.’ “

St. Joseph’s College under Tobias’ leadership established a homophobia task force as early as 1997 in response to an alum’s letter about anti-gay bullying. Tobias wrote to federal and state officials supporting the program, but he questioned whether the focused had shifted from promoting diversity and acceptance to focusing on the minutiae of gender and sexuality issues, which he felt would be detrimental to the Safe Schools Program’s mission.

Elsewhere in Australia, students in Catholic schools have challenged their institutions to participate. A gay student at St. Joseph’s College in Queensland asked Principal Michael Carroll for support, but the student’s testimony of intense bullying, but was met with a curt “no.” The student felt betrayed by administrators and teachers whom he admired, reported The Brisbane Times, and he added:

” ‘I hope that it is not the will of the Catholic Church that this group of young Australians, which are 14 times more likely to end their own lives, are not protected. . .All I can do is hope that they do not want to see me being abused, being made to feel uncomfortable and being separated from society, made to feel like a second-rate citizen.’ “

There is nothing in Catholic teaching which endorses marginalization of or discrimination towards LGBT people, particularly youth who are vulnerable and entrusted to the church for their education. Each of these controversies is rooted in flawed Catholic understandings of gender and of sexuality. These understandings refuse to prioritize social justice teachings about LGBT people’s rights and dignity, instead relying upon pseudo-science to validate outdated, but ideologically convenient ideas. As Australian Catholics reckon with how to protect LGBT people and expand their rights, including the question of marriage equality, a dose of honesty and an attentiviness to reality would be most healthy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


Sydney Archdiocese In Marriage Equality Brouhaha Concerning Supportive Businesses

April 15, 2016
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Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P.

Reports have surfaced that the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, may have threatened to withdraw from businesses supportive of marriage equality, which is not yet legalized in that nation.  Actions by both Telstra, a telecommunications company, and the archdiocese seem to point toward some sort of agreement between the two entities regarding the upcoming marriage equality plebiscite. Mashable reported:

“According to The Australian, Archdiocese of Sydney business manager Michael Digges approached a number of companies who had given permission for their logo to be used in a newspaper advertisement in support of marriage equality in May 2015. . .He suggested the church could withdraw business from participating companies, including Telstra , which reportedly serves Catholic schools around Australia.”

Digges’ letter said corporations were “overstepping their purpose” in speaking publicly on this issue, and such acts should be “strongly resisted.” A further report from Business Insider claims former Telstra Chairwoman Catherine Livingstone met with Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher in October. Reporter Harry Tucker stated:

“The pair, who have both known each other for years, eventually came to a compromise. As part of that, Telstra would keep its logo on the Australian Marriage Equality page, but it would stop publicly campaigning around the issue.”

Telstra said there would be not further corporate involvement in the pro-equality campaign, other than their being listed as a supporter of the group Australian Marriage Equality.  Whether this decisiono is due to the Archdiocese’s letter is unconfirmed. For their part, Digges and the Archdiocese have denied any pressure was implied in the letter to businesses with whom the church partners.

LGBT advocates have been questioning church leaders’ precise role, if any, in Telstra’s backing away from seeking LGBT equality. The company’s customers, and Australians generally, have reacted quite negatively to this move. Shelley Argent, a mother and spokesperson for PFLAG, said the company was wrong, and the church “should be ashamed they’re even asking this,” reported the Herald Sun. Other customers said they may cancel their Telstra contacts over the matter.

Marriage equality is stalled in Australia’s Parliament despite 70% approval nationally and the support of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who are both Catholic. Turnbull is holding fast to a plebiscite proposed by his predecessor Tony Abbot, another Catholic. Shorten recently called on Turnbull to hold the vote during the recalled parliament that begins this week.

Australians have criticized the plebiscite, promised by year’s end, as unnecessary since the overwhelming majority of Australians support marriage equality. Those critics include Fr. Frank Brennan, S.J., a law professor, who released on Facebook a letter he wrote to Prime Minister Turnbull. Brennan, writing against the plebiscite, explained some of the legal and political procedural complications:

“When the plebiscite vote is carried in favour of same sex marriage, as I am confident it will be, there will still be a need for our Parliament to legislate complex provisions protecting religious freedom and expanding the freedom to marry. It’s only a parliament, not a plebiscite, which can legislate the complex details of equality and the protection of all rights, including the right to religious freedom.”

Brennan also said the plebiscite would be “a waste of time” and “unleash torrents of hate on the gay and lesbian community.” Fr. Brennan’s projections seem likely given the Australian bishops’ heavily-criticized approach to opposing marriage equality, which has included using schoolchildren as messengers for an anti-equality pamphlet and using hyperbolic language about same-gender marriages.  Given Archbishop Fisher’s own negative record on LGBT issues and this recent incident between the Archdiocese and Telstra, it seems more than likely that any vote would negatively impact LGBT people.  Beyond the financial and political costs, it is time for church leaders to think foremost of the pastoral costs in mounting a hopeless campaign which aims only at causing further harm and division in an already wounded church.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Gay Author Turns Down Catholic School Which Tried to Silence His Identity

March 15, 2016
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William Kostakis with his book, The Sidekick

An Australian Catholic high school has asked an an author who had been invited to the school to refrain from speaking about his latest novel, which contains a gay character, after the writer came out as a gay man.

De La Salle College, a high school located in the Sydney suburb of Revesby, had invited William Kostakis to speak about his new book, The Sidekicks, in March and in June. But Kostakis withdrew from the engagements after being asked in a staff member’s email to him, that he be silent about his new book, The Sidekicks, which has a gay character in it. According to News.Com.Au, the school leader’s email stated that the institution had:

” ‘. . .a concern about promoting your new book at our school as it is a Catholic school. . .We were reading over your blog and I think it might not be appropriate, and parents might not be happy.’ ”

The school had successfully hosted Kostakis when a previous book of his, The First Third, was published.  Kostakis writes for a teen-age audience.

The school was also concerned about a blog post  Kostakis wrote recently in which he acknoledged his sexual orientation and discussed a former boyfriend’s cancer diagnosis.

The author posted the staff member’s email on his blog, as well as part of his response to the school’s request:

“Coming out publicly was difficult. I feared I would have to choose between doing what I love/earn a living from – engaging kids to read and be truthful in their writing – and not having to hide my partners from colleagues as ‘friends’. I had hoped, having spoken at some Catholic schools, those schools would be comfortable with my revelation knowing what I bring to my presentations and workshops. And that my sexuality, while it informs who I am, is not the subject of my presentations.

“Professionally, it would probably be wise to still present in June, your students were a lovely audience, I have to stick up for my 16 year old self, and say this is personal. . .The First Third was acceptable, but now I have a blog post saying I like men, The Sidekicks is not.

“And that is not something I will accept for the promise of a pay cheque.”

Kostakis mentioned, too, that he is grateful that his high school teachers were courageous enough to have students read diverse literature, even if some people were uncomfortable with those choices, because it made him, a closeted gay student, feel safe. He concluded that he hopes teachers at De La Salle College would have courage to do the same.

The book in question, The Sidekicks, is a novel for young adults that is “mostly a book about the fear of closets, and why teenagers in real life have to stay in the closet,” said Kostakis. The only sexual activity in the book is a kiss, which is far less than his earlier work, The First Third, that the De La Salle official asked him to speak about instead.

This incident occurs as St. Joseph’s College, the nation’s only Catholic high school which chose to participate in Australia’s Safe Schools Program, an anti-bullying effort, faces intensifying criticism from conservatives to withdraw from the program.  Additionally,  Australians are weighing a potential plebiscite this year on marriage equality.

But politics should never dictate students’ well-being. It seems a visit from William Kostakis to discuss his books and his career would have benefited all students at De La Salle College, as it had previously, and particularly those who might be LGBT in and not yet out. It is sad that Kostakis’ coming out was treated as grounds for trying to silence him, rather than as a teachable moment.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 



Australian Priest Warns Marriage Vote Could Be “Very Nasty”

December 12, 2015
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Frank Brennan, SJ

A plebiscite over marriage equality is a “waste of time” and “risks turning very nasty,” said a prominent Australian Jesuit as he appealed for a legislative solution in his country.

In a Eureka Street essay, Fr. Frank Brennan,. S.J., decried the plebiscite called for by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, stating:

“A plebiscite on this issue is a waste of time and risks turning very nasty, especially now that both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition support same sex marriage. . .

“It’s only a parliament, not a plebiscite, which can legislate the complex details of equality and the protection of all rights, including the right to religious freedom. . .

“When the plebiscite vote is carried in favour of same sex marriage, as I am confident it will be, there will still be a need for our Parliament to legislate complex provisions protecting religious freedom and expanding the freedom to marry.”

Australia’s top political leaders, including current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, all support equal marriage rights. Brennan said the plebiscite was suggested back when Abbott was in leadership to “give [equality opponents] more airplay.” But political realities in Australia and elsewhere have changed.

Now, Brennan said he “accepted the inevitability that civil marriage in Australia will ultimately be redefined to include committed same sex relationships.” He proposed a conscience vote in Parliament to amend the Commonwealth Marriage Act as an alternative to the popular vote, listing reasons why the State has an interest in extending equal marriage rights that include:

“Given the increasing number of children being brought up by same sex couples, it is desirable that the state take away any social stigma against same sex parents.

“Given the ageing population, the state has an interest in recognising and protecting long term relationships of same sex couples who care for each other.

“Given the harmful effects of homophobia, the state has an interest in encouraging broad community acceptance of those members who are homosexual. Laws and policies can help in this regard.”

Brennan was clear, too, that a legislative solution is most appropriate to ensure religious freedom is protected if marriage equality is approved. He weighed in on a controversy in which Catholic bishops face a discrimination complaint over their anti-marriage equality booklet, “Don’t Mess with Marriage.” In Brennan’s words:

“While the debate rages, it is only appropriate that religious groups like the Catholic bishops be able to evangelise their position. . .To date, the bishops have spoken cautiously and respectfully, with perhaps the occasional lapse into loose language. They know their views are not in fashion.”

The Jesuit even suggested that anti-religious statements by certain politicians actually “far exceed any traces of homophobic utterance by religious leaders.” Whether or not this is true, the controversy regarding the human rights complaint against Australia’s bishops has LGBT advocates on both sides. Setting aside legal questions, the bishops’ decision to publish the booklet and use children in Catholic school as messengers is pastorally concerning.

Fr. Brennan is right that any plebiscite wastes Australians’ time and resources while opening the door for homophobic attacks and nasty divisions.

I pray that church leaders will listen to Fr. Frank Brennan, and that they will temper, or even forgo entirely, an opposition campaign. There are far more pressing concerns for Catholics today.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Australian Bishops Face Discrimination Complaint Over Anti-Marriage Book

November 30, 2015
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The cover of the Australian bishops’ document under review

Australia’s bishops are facing a discrimination complaint about an anti-marriage equality publication they published earlier this year, the latest incident in the nation’s debate over equal marriage rights.

Martine Delaney, a politician who is transgender, filed the complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission in mid-September. She is now seeking conciliation by the Commission rather than a hearing, reported The Catholic Leader.

The Commissioner accepted the complaint initially, affording Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, an opportunity to respond. There is no word on mediation, but Porteous affirmed his openness to such a process, which may include meeting Delaney. He rejected claims the bishops had offended anyone.

The publication in question, a booklet titled “Don’t Mess with Marriage,” was distributed by Porteous to Catholic school students in sealed envelopes. Copies were also provided for distribution to all Catholic institutions in the diocese, accompanying a nationwide release.

Explaining her objections to the bishops’ document to ABC News, Delaney said:

” ‘It makes several statements which suggest that children being raised in same-sex relationships are not healthy’ . . .

” ‘The church is entitled, as we all are, to freedom of speech but there’s an inherent responsibility with that, that you cannot do it in a manner which is offensive and insulting and humiliating.’ “

Criticisms were widespread when the document was released in June, particularly in dioceses like Hobart where schoolchildren were used as couriers to bring it to their parents. LGBT advocate Michael Bayly went as far as calling it a “new low” for the nation’s bishops.

Marriage equality’s status in Australia remains contested, and this complaint is part of larger political conversations. The federal Senate rejected a statement of support for the bishops, reported The Guardian, but the question of free speech remains prominent.

Concerns have been raised about this case by both anti-equality activists and Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is gay and supports marriage equality. Gay News Network quoted Wilson as saying the complaint gave him “chills” for its potential to suppress political speech as Australians prepare for a national referendum on marriage. He said further:

” ‘Understandably, the direction of the Tasmanian case could have a significant impact on the extent of the public debate around marriage for same-sex couples in the lead-up to a plebiscite.’ “

Delaney said her decision to file a complaint was not an attempt to freeze free speech, but rather ensure a balance as there is “an obligation for [bishops] to exercise those rights without causing harm.”

Bishops elsewhere in Australia have criticized the Tasmanian complaint, adding their criticism to their ongoing criticism of marriage equality. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney called it “astonishing and truly alarming.” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, who supported more pastoral language on homosexuality at the Synod on the Family, wondered on Twitter if marriage equality is a “new totalitarianism.

While there are speculations as to why Australia has yet to extend civil marriage equality, what is clear is that more and more Australians are on board with it. In September elections, the country replaced former prime minister Tony Abbot, an anti-equality Catholic, with Malcolm Turnbull, a pro-equality Catholic but who nonetheless has sustained Abbot’s proposed national referendum on the question.

Many issues are tied into this discrimination complaint and the larger milieu of marriage equality. Those involved will sort through political and legal considerations, but what needs to be recognized, too, is the pastoral aspect.

A bishop shepherds all the faithful in their diocese, not just the Catholics whose political leanings pair well with the current occupant’s ideology.  Whether or not Australian bishops violated Tasmanian law, their document does not mirror Pope Francis’ call for mercy and inclusion nor does it show a respect for LGBT people.

Hopefully, through mediation, the wrongs incurred by “Don’t Mess with Marriage” can be rectified and Catholics, like all Australians, will be able to debate freely the question of civil marriage equality ahead of the nation’s vote.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Progressive Catholic Ousts Anti-Equality Catholic in Australian Leadership Vote

September 15, 2015

Malcolm Turnbull

Australians have a new prime minister after a leadership vote ousted the heavily criticized conservative Tony Abbot, a Catholic, in favor of a more progressive Catholic who supports marriage equality, an issue that is being hotly debated in that nation.

Liberal Party members elected Malcolm Turnbull, who is a convert to Catholicism, to be the country’s prime minister until elections next year, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

I will leave the political commentary to Australia’s pundits, but for Catholics concerned with LGBT issues, this is a change worth noting. Australian Michael Bernard Kelly explained, as reported at (another Australian native) Michael Bayly’s blog The Wild Reed:

“Interestingly, a hard right-wing, Opus Dei leaning, anti-marriage equality, climate change denying Catholic PM has been replaced by a progressive Catholic who is passionate about action on climate change, dedicated to marriage equality, and committed to making Australia a constitutional republic. Interesting times ahead for us – but now we have a PM with some real vision. That is something to celebrate.”

Indeed, Turnbull’s views are closer to Pope Francis’ views than they are to the views of Cardinal George Pell, the former hardline archbishop of Sydney. Australia’s new prime minister diverges from the pope in his support for equal marriage rights.  Turnbull’s support for same-gender couples’ rights dates back to 2012, though he drew criticism at the time for endorsing civil unions as a compromise.

Turnbull affirmed his support for marriage equality last month, writing in a blog post that he would vote for it if then-Prime Minister Tony Abbot allowed a conscience vote and that he would prefer the issue be settled before 2016 elections.

After being elected to Labor leadership, Turnbull has confirmed he will move forward with Abbot’s planned plebiscite on the question of marriage, allowing Australians to decide the matter directly. This is in keeping with his previous remark that:

“The best approach to this in my view therefore is to consult the people openly and honestly, to set out the proposition before them and ask them to approve it or not.”

Reports suggest Australians are quite ready for marriage equality’s legalization, support for which polls at 72%. Tony Abbot’s obstinance on this issue may be a main reason his leadership crumbled, particularly after an August decision to deny members of Parliament a conscience vote on the Equal Marriage Bill that would have likely passed.

Australia’s Catholic bishops were quite supportive of Abbot’s tactics, which enhanced their own efforts to prevent LGBT rights, including using children in Catholic schools as messengers of an anti-gay pamphlet. In addition, Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher struck at pro-equality Catholics in remarks deemed pastorally insensitive.

The bishops’ approach contrasts with local Catholic communities, like St. Joseph’s Parish in Newtown, which are accepting places for LGBT people.  It is a debated question why Australia, with a laid back and even progressive reputation, has not adopted marriage equality

In an interesting final note, this is not the first time marriage equality was central to an Australian leadership change in recent years. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, himself a Catholic, lost to Tony Abbot in 2013 and many speculated at the time it was Rudd’s last minute and firm defense of marriage equality that influenced his political downfall.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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