New Anti-Bullying Manual for Catholic Schools Is a Gift to the Church

A new manual for Catholic school teachers in England and Wales on how to combat homophobia and biphobia has caused a bit of a minor controversy based on its origin, perhaps because the document offers strong practical advice on how to stop and prevent bullying of sexual minority students.

The document, entitled “Made in God’s Image:  Challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying in Catholic Schools” was produced by the Catholic Education Service of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, in partnership with St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.  The Catholic Herald reports, however, that some critics have questioned who contributed to the document:

“A covering letter accompanying the document, reported online, states the CES has ‘received funding to cover the printing and distribution of a hard copy for each school.’

“However, a spokesman said: ‘The document is a collaboration between the CES and St Mary’s and no external funding has been received for it.’ “

The critics said that portions of the document are very similar to anti-bullying materials produced by Stonewall and lgbtyouth Scotland, two leading UK LGBT equality organizations. Stonewall denied any involvement but said their materials are public and they’d be glad if their ideas were used by others.

What is most remarkable about this “controversy” is that the criticism seems intended to discredit what is a fine document on how to educate Catholic students about respecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  Regardless of its source, the document explains its Catholic rationale very clearly.  Here are some excerpts from the first section:

“This guidance forms part of the commitment of the Catholic to the pastoral care of pupils and in particular the elimination of homophobic stereotyping and bullying for all children and young people educated in our Catholic schools. Its aim is to challenge all forms of homophobic and biphobic bullying in order to create safe spaces for pupils to come together to learn. . . .

“The intention of this guidance is to help our schools flourish as communities of loving respect where everyone is cherished as a person made in the ‘Image of God’. In April 19971 Cardinal Basil Hume wrote, ‘The Church recognises the dignity of all people and does not define or label them in terms of their sexual orientation. The pastor and counsellor must see all people, irrespective of their sexuality, as children of God and destined for eternal life. . . .

“Any systematic failure to respect that dignity needs to be tackled, if necessary by appropriate legislation. Nothing in the Church’s teaching can be said to support or sanction, even implicitly, the victimisation of anyone on the basis of his or her sexuality. Furthermore, ‘homophobia’ should have no place among Catholics. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is not founded on, and can never be used to justify ‘homophobic’ attitudes.”

And the document is clear that the material presented is based on Catholic social teaching. The following is an excerpt that descibes “inclusive education” as founded on Catholic social teaching:

“Inclusive education:  If we are serious about inclusive education in our Catholic schools then we must be concerned with the quest for equity for all who work within our communities. The social teaching of the Church and our participation within this teaching should be at the heart of what guides our work as a community. The well being of all – staff and pupils – requires the removal of any barriers of prejudice, discrimination and oppression if all are to strive and to realise our potential as unique and fulfilled human beings.

“What is Catholic Social Teaching? “The immediate purpose of the Church’s social doctrine is to propose the principles and values that can sustain a society worthy of the human person”. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 580) Catholic Social Teaching calls us…

  • to be aware of injustice in our society and the wider world
  • to challenge and change our attitudes to take action to bring about a more just society and
  • to be aware of injustice in our society and the wider world
  • to challenge and change our attitudes
  • to take action to bring about a more just society and world”

The bulk of the document presents eight detailed lesson plans that teachers can use to address bullying against gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, within an authentic Catholic context. Though transgender people are not mentioned in the general sections of this document, bullying against them is mentioned briefly in the lesson plan section.  More discussion of transphobia could have improved this document.

The Catholic “frame” and material conained in these lesson plans make it difficult to understand why critics would suggest that it was too heavily influenced by secular sources.  And what would be the problem if secular sources were used?  The Church as always learned from knowledge developed in the secular world.  Why should such learning be a problem in this case?

The document points out the need teachers have for guidance on bullying:

“Very few teachers in primary schools (8%) or secondary schools (17%) say they have received specific training on tackling homophobic bullying.

“Three in ten secondary school teachers (29%) and two in five primary school teachers (37%) don’t know if they are allowed to teach lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. . . .

“Scheider and Dimito (2008) found that 68% of teachers did not feel enough resources were present in schools to deal with issues on sexual orientation. 60% of teachers interviewed did not feel they had appropriate training and 56% of teachers believed parents would protest if sexual orientation or gender identity were raised at school.

“For teachers working in church school contexts there can be a hesitancy in addressing or challenging issues related to sexual orientation. It can be wrongly assumed that, for teachers working in a church school, there is a tension between a strongly held religious belief and equality and respectful treatment for gay people. As the St Mary’s University survey shows . . . many of our Catholic schools toned support in approaching issues relating to sexual orientation and, indeed, to respond to issues of homophobic bullying.”

Clearly, this document addresses an important need.  While there are certain sections in it that apply to UK law and policy regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, the bulk of this document, especially the lesson plans, can be useful for Catholic school teachers in almost every location.

If you work in a Catholic education or youth ministry, or if you are someone who is concerned generally about bullying, you should read the entire document by clicking here.  Made In God’s Image is a great gift to Catholic education!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 14, 2017