“The Lost Flock” Film Profiles LGBT Ministry in Baltimore

February 4, 2016

The good work done by the LEAD Ministry of St. Matthew’s Church in Baltimore has been profiled before on this blog, but a new video series gives even greater insight into the ways this ministry serves the people of God. Filmmaker Eric Kruszewski produced “The Lost Flock,” the seven-part series on LEAD, which stands for LGBT Education and Affirming Diversity.  He told Out Magazine:

“I was raised Catholic, but have not practiced my faith in years. And before this project, I had never heard of Saint Matthew Catholic Church. . . It was clear that there was something special within this congregation.”

Though not an LGBT Catholic himself, Kruszewski hoped the documentary could “accurately capture their thoughts, feelings and experiences” and advance the discussion about acceptance of sexual and gender diversity in the church.

The series covers diverse perspectives when it comes to LGBT identities in the church. One part documents the baptism of a same-gender couple’s daughter, with one of the dads saying that St. Matthew’s is a place which honors their relationship and which supported them during the adoption process.

In another, a lesbian woman named Gigi describes first being disowned by her adoptive parents but then coming to see God through her partner, Ashley, and through the church community which quickly welcomed her.

In a third part, Henry, who comes from Kenya where homosexuality is criminalized, explains why he participates with the LEAD Ministry. He says the LGBT communities need support like anyone else, and further:

” ‘I always ask myself: What would I do if one of my daughters or one of my sons came out? Do LGBT people need to be accepted? To be heard? Yes. We have got to find a way to give them everything they need.’ . . .Gay or straight. We are together.”

But “The Lost Flock” is not simply positive stories. It also explores the harsher realities of LGBT Catholics’ experiences. In a segment about Rachel and Vania Christian dos Passo, the film highlights that their marriage cannot be recognized in the church and for this reason, Vania explains:

“We made a serious decision to leave the church. We want to have a family where our children don’t feel pointed out because we are gay. . .W still go to LEAD because its family for us. But unfortunately we have to live this exile until one day, maybe in another lifetime, gay people will be equally recognized in the church.”

Then there is Carolyn’s story, the Catholic mother of two gay children, Renee and David. Though there were no difficulties with Renee’s coming out, her husband was unable to accept David’s sexual orientation and kicked their son out of their home. Carolyn now says she wants the same opportunities for my gay and straight children in the Catholic Church.” She says further that it was this idea that “was the foundation for LEAD” and expresses her own growth since joining LEAD as a Catholic led by her conscience.

Those profiled have helped foster the safe and affirming space that is LEAD.  Supporting the ministry is Fr. Joe Muth, the pastor, who, in his own video segment explains why, as a Catholic priest, he supports this LGBT work, saying:

“I don’t think the institutional church realizes how hurtful they are to homosexual people when they come across so harshly on that issue. The institutional church says, in a sense, you can be a part only so far.”

Muth acknowledges that LEAD struggles with being an LGBT support and outreach group, while at the same time worrying about being closed down by higher church officials. Despite that threat, these Catholics have managed to build up a more and more affirming community. They host parish events and have even participated in Baltimore’s Pride celebrations the last few years. As Bondings 2.0 has written previously, LEAD is a model for the Catholic Church when it comes to LGBT pastoral care.

To learn more and view all seven videos that compose “The Lost Flock,” click here. To read Bondings 2.0‘s previous coverage of the LEAD Ministry, click here.

To learn more about some of the hundreds of parishes across the U.S. which offer a welcome to LGBT people, click here.

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature on this blog that highlights Catholic parishes and faith communities that support and affirm LGBT people. 

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Alberta Bishop Refuses to Apologize for Anti-Trans Letter

February 3, 2016
>Bishop Fred Henry says the church has a lot to apologize for, but remains a tremendous source of good.

Bishop Fred Henry

The Canadian bishop who referred to LGBTQ education guidelines as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” is refusing to apologize for his comments or to dialogue about the issue, according to a second letter he released.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary issued his latest post, “Totalitarianism in Alberta II,” last week, reported the Edmonton Sun. In it, the bishop wrote:

” ‘If you are reading this piece in the hopes of discovering an apology and/or a retraction, you might as well stop reading right now. That’s simply not going to happen.”

Henry claimed he had received “considerable support” for both the substance and style of his initial letter, and quoted comments from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si  about gender and used Scripture to defend the idea that he should warn people of wrongdoing.

Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the letter by reiterating that collaboration and a willingness to put students’ well-being first would facilitate progress when he meets with church leaders in a few weeks. Other responses to Bishop Henry’s repeated attack of the LGBTQ guidelines were less reserved.

Educator and LGBT advocate Brian Hodder again noted how detrimental the Alberta bishops’ resistance to LGBTQ student supports is to actual students.  Writing in The Telegram, he stated:

“As we have found in this province, gay-straight alliances play a critical role in fostering support and understanding for all students. More importantly — as my own experiences in life have taught me — the value of a supportive and equal education system is vital in preventing many of the social difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth as well as others facing any kind of difficulty. Denying them this support is just the wrong thing to do.”

Hodder concluded that it was Bishop Henry, not Alberta’s Education Ministry, “who wishes to forcefully impose” an ideology, and he said that Henry could do so as long as Catholic education was not publicly funded.

Jeremy Klazsus echoed this point in Metro, stating the bishop “makes a better case than anyone that Catholic schools should no longer get full public funding.” The columnist explained further:

“Henry is unelected, and accountable primarily to his church, not the public. Yet he holds significant sway over the publicly funded Calgary Catholic School District as its moral and spiritual leader. . .Given his church’s privileged position, Henry could have responded to the new guidelines in any number of measured ways.”

The bishop’s responses could have included an acknowledgement that Catholics hold diverse views on sexuality or that more consultation with Catholics would be advisable. Instead, Klaszus wrote, Henry “went guns blazing.”

But in The Globe and Mail, University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams cautioned  against setting up the Alberta debate as a battle over religious freedom and human rights, or using the debate to undermine Catholic education. While there are many nuances in Canadian constitutional law and human rights law involved in the controversy, Adams’ broader point about consensus building is worth noting:

“The answer, as is so often the case, is not a battle of constitutional rights, but a co-existence of them. Policies that protect the rights of transgender students to human dignity fall, like other concerns focused on the well-being of students, within the province’s jurisdiction over education. A constitution of pluralism and mutual respect means Catholic schools teaching Catholic values and respecting the choices of transgender students to difference.

“Which rights win? They all do. We do, too.”

As regular readings of Bondings 2.0 will know, the question of LGBTQ policies in Alberta’s Catholic schools, specifically controversies around the Edmonton Catholic School Board, have made headlines almost weekly for awhile now. Each time, conservative church leaders and their allied board members have escalated the stakes with hyperbolic language. Church leaders fight harder and harder against guidelines that would help keep LGBTQ students safe and encourage them to thrive.

For the sake of LGBTQ students, Catholic education, and the wider church in Alberta, this approach to the issue must change. Bishop Henry should apologize for the damage he has caused, and, along with his episcopal peers, find a third way forward with Alberta’s Education Ministry so that Catholic education can thrive even more by its enthusiastic protection and embrace of LGBTQ students.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Trans Prisoner Writes Pope Francis After Priest Uses Slur Against Her

January 28, 2016
letter_raquela_ccf-copy

A portion of the letter to Pope Francis

A trans prisoner in Malta is appealing to Pope Francis for mercy after allegedly being subjected to derogatory slurs by a Catholic chaplain.

In a January 7th letter, Raquela Richards Spiteri told the pontiff that Capuchin Fr. Franco Fenech used the Maltese slurs bewwiela and imnittna against her. Spiteri further claimed the friar had acknowledged using such words in a meeting with the prison’s director but never apologized.

Fenech responded to the claim by saying, “I deny categorically using these words, but I cannot comment.” He also speculated about how such a letter could have left the prison.

Spiteri also wrote to Pope Francis about inaction by Fenech’s religious superior, as TVM reported:

“The prisoner wrote that a Provincial of the Franciscan Capuchins, Dr Martin Micallef, chose to postpone this problem to the coming June, when the Order’s General Chapter is held in Malta. She further alleged, however, that the Provincial is abdicating his responsibility, as she will have left the Prison by June.”

Spiteri, a Catholic, also mentioned in the letter that a priest had sexually abused her when she was younger.  She seeks a resolution in the church before exploring her legal options against Fr. Fenech. In an aside, she also mentioned how she is being improperly housed in Malta’s prisons which have failed to respect her gender identity.

In the first year of his papacy, Francis made repeated headlines for his handwritten notes to people of all kinds, including a note to a group for LGBT Catholics in Italy. I called it a “letter writing revolution” at the time and, despite his negative remarks on marriage equality more recently, something revolutionary remains about Pope Francis’ preference for personal and intimate encounter. This revolutionary aspect was present, too, when the pope dined last March with gay and transgender inmates at an Italian prison.

While the details of the situation are sparse, one thing we know is that a person is claiming they were hurt by one of the church’s ministers. Especially in this Year of Mercy, it is necessary for church officials at least to investigate the matter and pursue justice, if necessary, and then reconciliation in this matter. Since the pope is open to personal encounter, I hope Spiteri’s letter finds its way to him. His involvement on behalf of one of God’s most marginalized people would certainly advance justice and reconciliation in this pastoral matter.

But if all that does not happen, Spiteri can take advantage of improved legal rights in Malta.  Last spring, legislators in the heavily Catholic nation passed a transgender rights law that is considered the “gold standard” in Europe.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Alberta Bishops Unified in Opposition to Transgender School Policies

January 25, 2016
edmonton-david-eggen-transgender

Education Minister David Eggen announcing new guidelines

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

 


Martin Luther King’s Words Call LGBT Catholics and Allies to Action

January 18, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 4.38.03 PMRev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored today in the U.S. for his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. His many stirring words and ideas provide a lens through which to reflect on how we set Catholic LGBT issues in a broader context while re-committing ourselves to LGBT justice in our church.

Bondings 2.0 covers news on Catholic LGBT issues, but in preparing posts I often come across the tensions over sexuality and gender experienced in other Christian denominations and faith traditions.

For instance, headlines last week suggested that the Episcopal Church here in the U.S. had been suspended from the Anglican Communion by the denomination’s Primates Meeting, the body of senior bishops from the Communion’s member churches. While talk of suspension is overblown (see this post from gay Episcopal priest Mike Angell for an in-depth explanation), the Primates’ statement remains painful because it was sparked by U.S. Episcopalians’ affirmation of LGBT people and same-gender relationships.

In another case, after the government of Greece approved allowing civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, Metropolitan Ambrosios of Kalavryta in the Greek Orthodox church called for Greeks to “spit on” and “beat” gay people, and saying “they are not human.” Metropolitan Chrysostomos Savvatos of Messinia responded by saying LGB people, “like all humans are a creation of God and they deserve the same respect and honor, and not violence and rejection.”

What is the relevance of these stories and other faith communities’ experiences for Catholic LGBT people and their loved ones and advocates? I offer three points, guided by Rev. King’s words (in italics).

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

First, these two stories set Catholic LGBT issues in an ecumenical and global context. We understand that religious leaders of all types can be prone to promote anti-LGBT sentiments in their words and in their deeds, just as others in their denominations promote equality. Homophobia and transphobia are rooted in human prejudices common to all people rather than being specific to any religious tradition. The divide about homosexuality that exists between Western and African Catholic bishops is present in the Anglican Communion, too. Disputes between individual bishops about civil unions trouble the Greek Orthodox church, too. Yet, people of faith worldwide also are prophetically witnessing for communities to respect and affirm LGBT people–and, at times, prophetically suffering for that witness. Liberation’s path is a universal journey, playing out locally, meaning there are many commonalities despite the differences.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Second, because the quest for LGBT equality is a universal journey, we must keep a broad perspective in mind for our local work. Rev. King’s exhortation for an ecumenical and global perspective can be easily lost if we don’t intentionally cultivate it. Whether we are Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican, our deeper belonging is to the Church of Christ which extends beyond any particular church’s parameters. This greater Church, rather than our own denominational churches, is what we must ultimately make fully affirming and inclusive of all sexual and gender identities. Injustices against LGBT people in any faith community hurt all faith communities.

Parallels also exist with LGBT advocacy being done in Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, and other faith communities. The movement for civil rights which King helped lead united those of all faiths and no faith behind a common cause. There are parallels, too, with other justice movements like Black Lives Matter or fighting injustices facing immigrants and refugees. King’s desire for racial justice meant he opposed the Vietnam War and also sought economic justice. It is poignant to remember that he was assassinated organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, a racially-unified call to action on behalf of all who are poor.

When our Episcopal siblings hurt because they face exclusion, we must reach out with prayer and companionship. When a religious leader promotes prejudice, we must stand in solidarity against such messages. When police violence brutally afflicts black communities, LGBT people must stand against these crimes. When undocumented trans women are housed in unsafe detention facilities, LGBT and Latina/o advocates must act united. Intersectionality demands collaborative responses oriented towards global justice for all. Solidarity actions are a constitutive part of our LGBT Catholic advocacy.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Third, this call to an ecumenical and global perspective is concurrently a call to recommit ourselves to the existing local work we are doing in the Catholic Church–and to make our Catholic work fundamentally about reconciliation as the means of creating just conditions. Catholicism remains conflicted when it comes to LGBT issues. Splits exist between the hierarchy and laity, between different geographical regions, between generations, and between ecclesial camps. While these divisions remain in the church, there can never be true LGBT justice. Therefore, our work must balance positive outreach and necessary challenge, always with an eye to reconciling people. Expanding parish LGBT ministries, meeting with church leaders, protesting church worker firings, deepening LGBT-affirming theologies in Catholic circles are the day-to-day ways by which we contribute to healing and to universal liberation–and we must do them all with love.

As we remember the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. today by reading his words and recalling his witness, it is a moment to look at our own lives and our current efforts. We must ask if we live up to Rev. King’s call for a universal perspective in our local work.  If we fall short, we need to ask where we can build and grow towards that goal. Today is a day of remembrance, but equally for advocates of justice it is a time of re-commitment for the coming year.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Nebraska Bishops Blast Trans Athletics Policy, Promote “At Birth” Proposal

January 16, 2016
bishop_james_d_conley_in_rome_italy_may_4_2012_2_cna_vatican_catholic_news_5_4_12

Bishop James Conley

Catholic officials in Nebraska balked at state education officials’ newly approved policy on transgender athletes, and they called attention to a church-proposed by-law change that would determine participation by a student’s assigned sex at birth.

On Thursday, the Nebraska School Activities Association Board of Directors approved, by a vote of 6-2, a policy that allows transgender high school students to play sports according to their gender identity. Evidence would be required of hormone therapy or gender confirming surgery to be reviewed by a state-level gender-eligibility committee, reported Omaha.com. LGBT advocates criticized the policy for creating a “rigorous and expensive process” and the ACLU warned it may violate federal non-discrimination law.

Regarding Catholic schools ability to exempt themselves from the policy, Omaha.com explained:

“Under the policy adopted by the NSAA board Thursday, a local school would determine whether to seek state permission for a transgender student to participate. That means that a parochial school with objections to transgender participation could decide not to forward an application to the NSAA. It would also mean that the local school would be the primary target for any litigation.”

The Nebraska Catholic Conference criticized the Board’s policy by issuing a joint statement from the state’s three bishops which called the new directive an “arbitrary, non-collaborative decision.”

Catholic leaders prefer the “at birth” bylaw change, which would override the Board’s policy if approved. This past week four of six regional NSAA districts voted for the “at birth” proposal, meaning it will considered in April by the Association’s Representative Assembly. It needs three-fifths approval from the 51 members to be implemented.

Opposition to any policy which would support and protect trans students is seemingly rooted in misunderstanding, even ignorance, of gender identity. A letter to the editor by Lincoln’s Bishop James Conley claimed any criteria besides assigned sex allows students to identify by a “gender identity of their own choosing.” He promoted the vicious myth that allowing trans people to use restrooms or locker rooms according to their gender identity is unsafe for others. He mentioned “respect, understanding, and compassion” for trans people–a phrase which is often used in relationship to lesbian and gay people.

Earlier this week,  I recommended that the church not accept simple answers on these complex matters. Bishop Conley’s line of thought, however, is a simple, reductionist critique of gender identity. His views do not engage the lived experience of trans communities, including Catholics, or to consider modern knowledge which contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of gender identity.

Each of the policies currently considered by the NSAA would leave trans students and Nebraska school athletics in a troubling uncertainty. If the “at birth proposal” loses in April, the Board’s flawed but marginally better policy would become permanent (barring legal challenges). If the “at birth” proposal advocated by church leaders succeeds, trans students will be further discriminated against and marginalized, in part, because of Catholics actions. All students in Nebraska’s schools, public and Catholic alike, deserve better policies than those proscribed by uninformed clerics and their staffs.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Alberta Bishop Calls New LGBTQ Guidelines “Totalitarian” and “Anti-Catholic”

January 15, 2016
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Education Minister David Eggen announcing the new guidelines

In Canada, new guidelines from the province of Alberta’s Education Ministry may push transgender policies under development in a positive direction. However, according to one bishop, the guidelines are “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic,” though other Catholics involved in provincial educational systems say the new recommendations are good news.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary attacked the guidelines in a blog post titled “Totalitarianism in Alberta,” reported CBC. He wrote, in part:

“This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-Catholic ideology. . .Such a totalitarian approach is not in accordance with [Canadian law] and must be rejected.”

Henry also said the guidelines “breathe pure secularism” and described gay-straight alliances as “highly politicized ideological clubs” because they oppose homophobia and heterosexism–two influences which he belittled. Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the comments by saying he would meet with Catholic education officials,, and he was certain that the guidelines offered “a constructive process that will lead to a positive outcome in the end.”

Kris Wells, director of the University of Alberta’s Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services had a sharper critique, calling for the bishop to apologize. Wells said:

” ‘The only madness that Bishop Henry describes is his lunacy. . .What the bishop fails to realize is that this kind of harmful rhetoric does great damage to LGBT youth and individuals in our province.”

Mickey Wilson of Edmonton’s Pride Centre said most Catholics want their church “to move past these things,” reported The Edmonton Journal.   He also stated:

” ‘It’s just shameful that he would put students in a position where they have to chose between being schooled in their faith and having a safe place.’ “

Chair Marilyn Bergstra of the Edmonton Catholic Schools Board (ECSB) was among those Catholics who viewed the guidelines differently. She was “very impressed” by them, according to The Edmonton Sun. Bergstra, who began chairing ECSB last October, said further:

” ‘My wish would be that every single word in that document is adopted. . .But that’s not how democracy works, and we have to have a fulsome discussion.’ “

The guidelines in dispute suggested that school districts’ policies respect students’ gender identity and expression, specifically when it comes to dress codes, restrooms, and athletics. Non-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ employees are also suggested.Though not binding, the guidelines come from the Ministry which will be reviewing board policies once they are submitted in March. Catholic schools in Canada receive government funding, so they are not exempt from LGBT protections. You can read the guidelines by clicking here.

ECSB’s discussions about a policy for trans students have been particularly heated. The Board approved a draft policy in December which would allow “just discrimination” of LGBT youth. Previous meetings became shouting matches such that Minister Eggen mandated professional mediation. Trustee Larry Kowalczyk is on record saying trans people have a “mental disorder” and this whole initiative is due to “God-hating activists.”

Despite the new guidelines, approving a policy which actually protects trans students at Edmonton’s Catholic schools may be a challenge. But the guidelines would be immense progress if ECSB members integrate them into any new policy, a reality highlighted by transgender parent Marni Panas who told CBC:

” ‘These are words in a document and they’re really solid words, they’re really good words, but they will mean nothing unless we see action and we see these students protected.’ “

Protecting students should be a first priority of Catholic education, but somehow not all Catholics believe these protections should be afforded to transgender students. Rather than rejecting these guidelines outright (or going so far as calling them “totalitarian”), ECSB and all Catholic trustees should carefully read them and come to understand there is little, if nothing at all, in them which contradicts Catholic teachings. Indeed, they affirm the fundamental call of the Gospel to care about and provide for each person’s well-being, as well as the common good of all people.

With just over two months until a policy is due, Catholic officials in Alberta should put the harsh rhetoric aside.  Instead, they should be open to the guidelines and to new understandings of LGBT people..

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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