Australian Archbishop Allows Students to Take Same-Gender Dates to Dances

The archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, has made a decision which is one of the healthiest and most realistic ones that I’ve heard a church official make regarding LGBT issues in a long time:  he is allowing students in Catholic high schools in the archdiocese to take a same-gender date to the prom or formal dance.

Archbishop Denis Hart

The Age newspaper reported:

“Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart has urged schools to be sensitive and respectful to students who wanted to invite a same-sex date to the biggest night of the year.

” ‘These are quite often emotional situations and it’s very important that we always have respect for the dignity of the human being involved,’ he said.”

The decision came after the Academy of Mary Immaculate in Fitzroy initially denied a female student to bring another girl to the school’s formal dance.  The student responded with a Change.org petition which gathered 1250 signatures.  The school then reversed its decision, and the archbishop praised the school’s “sensitivity” in reversing the decision, stating:

“Students in a secondary school are growing up and in developmental stages where relationships are more like strong friendships and are not usually permanent, they are not in a situation where they are committing.

“The Catholic Church respects any relationship but always sticks quite firmly with its teaching that a relationship in the eyes of the church is heterosexual, between a male and female, and that is something we would always stand by.”

The issue of students taking same=gender partners to proms has long been an issue here in U.S. Catholic school systems.  In 2013, the president of McQuaid Jesuit High School, Rochester, New York, an all-boys school, allowed a student to take another boy to the junior prom.  The president cited Pope Francis as his authority on this matter.

Yet, last year Christian Brothers High School in Memphis suspended a student who tried to take a same-gender date to the homecoming dance.

What I find refreshing about Archbishop Hart’s decision is that he recognizes that dance dates do not imply sexual activity.  When schools have denied same-gender dates attending social functions, they cite the Church’s disapproval of same-sex sexual activity.  But by that logic, school officials would also then be saying that they expect that bringing someone to a dance is evidence or a prediction of sexual activity.

What about the many, many students who take a cousin or sibling as a companion to the prom or formal dance?  Clearly, the church does not approve of incest, yet these students are allowed to bring a relative.  So why would they allow people with familial ties to attend together, but not same-gender companions?

The decision not to allow a same-gender partner is purely homophobia.  It is a double-standard that says that allowing same-gender couples implies that same-sex activity will occur, but that the presence of heterosexual couples does not make the same implication.

The archbishop, sadly, does not approve of committed same-gender sexual relationships, yet what is good about his statement is that he recognizes that not all same-gender couples are going to have sex.  He is treating same-gender couples with the same expectations of heterosexual couples.  He recognizes that what is important is the the student’s choice about how to celebrate their academic successes with their classmates. That kind of attitude is a sign of respect for the student’s human dignity and equality.

Tim Christodoulou, a leader of “Minus 18,” an LGBT youth group in Australia, praised Hart’s decision:

“It’s hurtful if you can’t bring the partner you want to celebrate this milestone.

“The result is that sometimes young people disengage from their education. Seeing this progress coming from the Catholic Archbishop is really promising but there’s much further to go.”

Christodoulou explained the “much further to go” as “allowing trans- and gender diverse students to dress in the clothes they prefer.”

Let us hope and pray that Archbishop Hart’s decision will inspire other bishops and church leaders to take the same, reasonable course of action.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Australian Priest Excommunicated for LGBT Support Under Pope Francis

Fr. Greg Reynolds with his notification of excommunication

An Australian priest has been excommunicated for his support of women and LGBT people in the Catholic Church in a troubling development while many still celebrate Pope Francis’ inclusive-minded interview released last week.

Fr. Greg Reynolds received notification of his excommunication directly from the Vatican with no explanation provided in the Latin text. The Age notes that the notification is dated May 31, 2013, which is well into Pope Francis’ papacy and reports:

“Father Reynolds, who resigned as a parish priest in 2011 and last year founded Inclusive Catholics, said he had expected to be laicised (defrocked), but not excommunicated. But it would make no difference to his ministry.

” ‘In times past excommunication was a huge thing, but today the hierarchy have lost such trust and respect,’ he said.

” ‘I’ve come to this position because I’ve followed my conscience on women’s ordination and gay marriage.’ “

It appears that Fr. Reynolds’ archbishop in Melbourne did not submit anything to the Vatican about the priest, but that the priest was reported anonymously by someone else directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Denis Hart did say the excommunication is a consequence of Fr. Reynolds’ continuing to preach and celebrate Mass after he resigned from the priesthood.

Some speculate Fr. Reynolds’ trouble is because of his support for women’s ordination, and only marginally LGBT matters. Fr. Reynolds spoke to The Herald about his excommunication and broader efforts at renewal of the Catholic Church in Australia:

“ ‘Just from my own experience, I’m aware of a number of priests who share my belief and my guesstimate would be well over half of the Australian clergy would share that belief.’

“ ‘Understandably none of them haven’t spoken out publically about it because they fear they will suffer the same fate as myself.’…

” ‘I still love the church and am committed to it, I’m just trying to bring about in my own little way to help highlight some of the failing and limitations.’ “

Last week, Pope Francis’ interview with Jesuit publications was a hopeful sign for many that the Catholic Church was moving towards an era where it is less obsessed with rules and more in a posture of mercy and dialogue. Fr. Reynolds claims that interview makes his excommunication “outdated” as the two men are working for similar ends of renewal and reform. Still the excommunication formally remains.  Does this mean that Pope Francis’ positive words on LGBT issues won’t be translated into equally positive acts from the Catholic hierarchy?  Or was this decision made too early in his papacy to be a real indicator of his attitude?  What do you think?  Offer your thoughts in the  “Comments” section of this post.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Formation of Gay-Straight Alliances Should Be Top Priority at Catholic Schools

National Gay-Straight Alliance DayToday is National Gay-Straight Alliance Day.  February 6th has been marked by a coalition of youth advocacy organizations to raise awareness for the need of such organizations in our schools. Catholic schools are no exception.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network highlights the challenges posed to gay, lesbian, and transgender students:

  • “More than 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed;
  • Nearly 20 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted by their peers at school;
  • Almost 40 percent of LGBT students reported that faculty and staff never intervene when homophobic language is used in their presence;
  • Nearly 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day because they felt unsafe.”

Those behind National Gay-Straight Alliance Day propose expanding the presence of GSAs at schools to combat negative experiences and provide greater safety:

“Violence and discrimination against LGBT students is the rule, not the exception, in American schools. It is a national disgrace that students feel threatened in school simply because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  While Americans need to know that thousands of students each day go to school or college and endure LGBT violence and harassment, they must also know that GSAs are a tool in helping end violence and that these student groups save lives.”

Nearly half of Catholic colleges in the United States offer gay-friendly resources (here is a full listing by New Ways Ministry) and there are many GSA-style groups in Catholic high schools,  but the establishment of support groups remains a conflict for many schools.

In Canada, the province of Ontario passed legislation in mid-2012 mandating that all schools allow student clubs focused upon sexual orientation or gender identity. Catholic schools, which are funded by the government, were included in the law, but critics claim they have failed to provide anti-bullying or school spirit groups with an explicit LGBT focus. The Hamilton Spectator reports on this criticism and the government’s firm enforcement of the law:

“But according to local activist Deirdre Pike, [not naming the support clubs “gay-straight alliances”] could leave students feeling excluded and without the support they need…

“‘Until they get intentional about naming these groups, the silence will continue.’

“The education minister’s office, meanwhile, says the legislation is “clear” about the government’s commitment to safe, inclusive and accepting schools for all students, including those who are LGBT.”

In Australia, Daniel Torcasio is speaking about his troubling experiences teaching at an all-male Catholic high school where homophobic speech, bullying, and discriminatory employment practices were commonplace. The former teacher details one incident in 2009 for The Star Observer:

“‘A 13-year old kid came to me and told me he was gay. He’d only told his family and a few close friends, and told me so that if he was ever bullied at school someone would understand the situation and be able to help,’ Torcasio said.

“‘Naturally I took it to the school leadership, who then went to the Catholic Education Office…’

“‘The reply back from them was that we were never to mention matters like this again. That kid could’ve come to me as a cry for help – if he’d said he was suicidal or that he was being bullied, we would’ve been told to help him in any way we could, but because he was gay, we weren’t ever to discuss it,’ he said.”

Torcasio also left that position because of policies against gay staff that created a culture of silence for fear of termination:

“‘I was fairly open about my sexuality in the staff room, but I couldn’t let one detail of my private life slip to my students. If I’d mentioned my sexuality to someone or a parent had complained, I would have lost my job,’ he said.

“Torcasio claimed the ‘Catholic ethos’ stipulation in teacher’s contracts was only enforced on gay teachers.”

Torcasio, an alumnus of the high school, had returned to teach at the school after fifteen years expecting students would be more accepting than when he was a student and experienced severe bullying. He was disturbed by a continued culture of homophobia. The Catholic school district officially has no policy on LGBT students other than bland language regarding Catholic values.

Clearly, the common thread in these stories is the desperate need for students, educators, and parents to speak up. In Catholic schools, the establishment of gay-straight alliances that provide safe spaces for LGBT and questioning students, allow peer support to emerge, and create respectful atmospheres should be a top priority.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related recent post

February 1: Raising LGBT Standards in Catholic Schools