Ontario bishops address homosexuality in schools.
Two views of homosexuality
Arbour and Blackburn share a vision about homosexuality that is not Catholic and that appears to oppose the central message of the authors of Pastoral Guidelines (henceforth, PG). It is my intention in this paper to compare the views of Arbour and Blackburn to the reality of PG. I will refer to the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) as evidence for the Catholic interpretation of what to do about students who have same-sex attraction. Finally, I will conclude with some thoughts of my own, through which I hope to assist the bishops and those concerned for our Catholic students.
PG is the product of a Catholic School Education Writing Team which consists of representation from four Catholic school boards: Durham (Denise Colterman-Fox); Dufferin-Peel (Michelle Glavine); York Catholic (James P. Kelly) and Toronto Catholic District (Michael Paulter). Also represented are two moral theologians, Dr. Moira McQueen and Basilian Father Leo Walsh, both of the University of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. Rounding out the team are Sr. Joan Cronin of the Institute for Catholic Education, and Sharon McKeever of the Catholic Association of Religious and Family Life Educators of Ontario. PG is approved by the Education Commission of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops (OCCB) for use in Ontario Catholic Schools whose chairman is Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher.
The authors of PG acknowledge the difficulties encountered by youth in schools, and are pro-active in meeting their needs. They give us a bigger picture, however, when they say, "In Catholic education, students should be brought to an understanding of a loving God who gives to them ... a dignity beyond our imagining. It is in this context that the teaching of the Church on the morality of homosexual orientation and homosexual activity is presented and within the context of moral teaching on sexuality and marriage generally" (PG, p. 4).
Arbour and Blackburn, to the contrary, stress the "anti-homosexual Church" that affects today's youth "who are both afraid of and angry at the Church" as the problem. Although everyone concerned about students with same-sex attraction agrees that schools need to be safe, nurturing and inclusive, Arbour and Blackburn in contrast with PG say nothing about the serious ramifications of health risks for youth who might take on a 'gay' identity and engage in homosexual activity.
Unmarried persons are called to chastity
Unlike Arbour and Blackburn, PG does not presume that a homosexual identity is a given in high school. It says, "Adolescent students are not always the best judges of their own sexual orientation." Those who drew up PG know that with the help of the cultural milieu, many adolescents are in the process of coming to terms with their developing sexuality.
The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) concurs with the PG when it says, "Persons should not be identified with their emotional and developmental conflicts as though this was the essence of their identity" (Homosexuality and Hope, henceforth HH, p. 3. See HH at http://catholiceducation.org/articles/homosexuality/ho0039.html).
Arbour and Blackburn tell us something quite different: "It is a huge undertaking for gay and lesbian youth to acknowledge who they are (my emphasis), understand what this entails, see themselves as worthy human beings, and determine when they are ready to come out to family or close friends." The CMA authors who do not accept homosexuality as a true identity, nor any support group that conscripts students into accepting homosexuality, do not endorse the "coming out" process promoted by Arbour and Blackburn. They say, "'gay' rights activists have insisted that at-risk adolescents be turned over to support groups which will help them 'come out.' There is no evidence that participation in such groups prevents the long-term negative consequences associated with homosexual activity. Such groups will definitely not encourage the adolescent to refrain from sin and live chastely according to his state in life." (position paper HH, November, 2000, p. 11)
The PG too does not see "gayness" as something to be celebrated. This again contrasts with Arbour and Blackburn, who say that "gay students" have a "contribution to make." It is unclear what they mean by contribution, since everyone, including students who believe that they have same-sex attraction (henceforth SSA) has a contribution to make. Are they suggesting that "gayness" is their contribution, or their natural talents, such as acting or sports, or whatever those may be?
The CMA cites studies which indicate that, although at risk, a high percentage of students with SSA do not become homosexually active in adulthood. Many later "positive interactions," personal choices as well as the role of God's grace, have allowed these individuals to make a conscious decision not to act on SSA and even to lessen its effects (ibid, p.5). It is therefore crucially important that educators heed their warning that "The labeling of an adolescent, or worse a child, as unchangeably 'homosexual' does the individual a grave disservice," because it denies them the potential healing that they need which in turn may put them at serious risk (ibid).
While acknowledging that there is still much to be learned about homosexuality as a lived experience, PG makes clear that all persons outside of marriage are called to celibate chastity: "Chastity is a positive orientation to life. It is to be taught as a discipline of the heart, the eye, of language and all senses, which frees us to embrace important human goods" (PG, p. 3). Young people are called to form solid friendships marked by "genuine love and affection" and to see that "sexual activity between unmarried people can undermine such friendships and block vocational discernment." Lest any think that our desires need to be indulged, the bishops remind us that "all of us have the freedom to act morally even in the face of great temptation."
Formation in the image of Christ
In the introductory remarks of PG, Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher impressively states the goal of pastoral care of students in Catholic schools: "to help them be formed in the image of Christ." He acknowledges that "we have not always been sensitive to the particular needs of students with a same-sex orientation." Yet, although making the school community a truly Christian environment is a crucial goal of the resource guide, he wants us to know (unlike Arbour and Blackburn who want gayness "affirmed" and "accepted") that unless the dangers concerning homosexual inclination and practice are faced and accompany the Church's sound pastoral teaching and guidance, we will not succeed in meeting the needs of these students. Those who mentor our young people must excel in teaching and example. PG says, "In the case of inappropriate moral conduct, the duty of Catholic schools is to guide students into morally acceptable paths."
The goal is moral and spiritual conversion
Pastoral Guidelines points out that a distinction must be made between feelings and behaviour. (This distinction seems unimportant for Arbour and Blackburn whose interests seem to lie elsewhere.) Students who experience SSA must know that they will receive understanding, sensitivity and compassionate care from teachers who are encouraged to be well-formed to deal with the issues raised by struggling students. However, teachers are to understand that "moral and spiritual conversion is the goal" in relating pastorally to students with SSA.
PG addresses teachers, counsellors, chaplains and others with these words, "We share responsibility for bringing the truth of the Gospel to our young people, including young homosexual students who are struggling with identity and self-worth." They back up this claim with strong and positive resources for teachers. This includes a solid theological treatise on the nature of Christian marriage and the nuptial meaning of the body as well as an equally good explanation of natural law, the formation of conscience, sin, moral living (including a theology of chastity and the moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), and the scriptural background as it applies to homosexuality. Educators need to study these gems, "always with the intention of understanding and accepting the teaching."
PG knows that where confusion and emotional instability, coupled with possible compulsive behaviour, are involved, the good will of students experiencing SSA is not enough to ensure their safety. We are told not to underestimate the poor religious practice and devotion of many adolescent students, nor "the often negative impact of the media on sexual morality," and the "sexual permissiveness of the general culture." This can be counteracted by the expertise of the teacher, who is "called to understand the particular strengths and weaknesses of each unique student in order to assess his or her moral capabilities at any given time; what can and should be the next step in this person's journey toward chastity" (PG, p. 5.).
The Catholic Medical Association adds the important role of priests who, through counselling and especially confession, "can help individual penitents deal not only with (any) sin, but also with the causes of same-sex attraction." (HH, p. 9) PG makes it clear that knowledge and understanding, grace and the sacraments need to be encouraged as necessary parts of the life of any student wishing to live an authentically Catholic Christian life.
Finally, in contrast to the attitude of popular culture, which sees moral rectitude as an unrealizable ideal, PG offers young people words of hope from the late Pope John Paul II who said, "By walking always with Christ, even when the path is uphill, we can achieve joy" (World Youth Day, Toronto, 2002).
The authors of Pastoral Guidelines have given teachers much to think about, as Catholic schools find ways to properly address the needs of students with SSA. They have framed their theological, philosophical and pastoral approach within the overall context of the dignity of each human person, made in the image and likeness of God. The Catholic educators who contributed to this resource guide have also been particularly helpful in offering the possibility of "a spirituality of communion" in "solidarity" and "good stewardship" as a focus for each school (PG, p. 10). A "spirituality of communion" stresses the indwelling Trinity, the need to share the joys and sufferings of others, and "to see what is positive in others."
Educators would be wise to exercise good pastoral judgement when entering the section of PG called "pastoral practices." This section offers general and practical guidelines for teachers when approached by students who acknowledge a "homosexual orientation." Words like "orientation," "self-discovery" and "homophobic" are used freely. Teachers are encouraged to seek out "resource material" and "in-service" presentations. Furthermore, there is the definition of terms, specifically "heterosexuality," "bisexuality," "homosexuality" and "transgender."
Because there is ambiguity in the use of these terms and the bishops want clarity, educators need to be clear that these concepts should be interpreted in the light of the Church's official teaching concerning homosexuality. This is particularly important because sectors of our society and the media have clear biases in favour of the 'gay' lifestyle. For these reasons, I recommend serious consideration of the following:
1. The recent scientific discoveries that indicate healing for homosexual inclination.
Many social scientists, including those who promote 'gay rights,' no longer believe that homosexuality is necessarily permanent. Recently, the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Gerald Koocher, announced that the APA will now support homosexual reorientation therapy for those experiencing unwanted homosexual attractions (LifeSiteNews.com, August 29, 2006). Furthermore, there is the recent "Spitzer Study" in which renowned Columbia University psychiatric researcher Dr. Robert Spitzer, who previously believed that a homosexual identity was unchangeable and who played a pivotal role in 1973 in removing homosexuality as a psychopathology from the psychiatric manual of mental disorders, now believes after recent scientific study, that for committed individuals there can be healing from a homosexual inclination (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 5, October 2003, pp. 403-417). He states,
"I am convinced that many people have made substantial changes toward becoming heterosexual ... I came to this study skeptical. I now claim that these changes can be sustained."
Other former promoters like Dr. Simon Levay and psychologist Douglas Haldeman now agree with Spitzer. There is a wealth of material available that seriously challenges genetic predisposition and determination theories claimed for homosexuality (see HH). Recent studies seem to indicate the interplay of environmental factors, including family background, as reasons for SSA. This is further strengthened by the testimonies of "ex-gays" who give hope to those struggling with SSA.
The authors of PG are justifiably concerned about bullying and harassment especially of students who are "at-risk." Yet PG, which stresses that sexual activity is appropriate only within marriage, knows the risks for students who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. I suggest that there can be no serious consideration of how to help students with same sex attraction without considering the following:
2. The medical and social risks present in the active gay lifestyle.
Some social commentators give the impression that the only harm faced by same-sex attracted youth in schools is societal oppression (that is, mistreatment and misunderstanding from peers and others). As realistic as these concerns may be, these same social commentators give little if any consideration to the view that unwanted homosexual attractions and unhappiness with the 'gay' lifestyle (a claim of many 'ex-gays') is a potential for harm. The psychological harm includes serious clinical depression, suicide attempts, and addictions including drugs and alcohol. As to physical harm to health, youth who engage in the gay lifestyle are at risk for HIV, anal cancer, herpes simplex virus, human papilloma virus (HPV), gonorrhea, syphilis, genital warts, Chlamydia trachomatis, Hepatitis A, B & C, and a host of other infectious diseases, some of which are not presently curable (see HH, p. 10).
PG speaks of the importance of faithfulness to our tradition as we strive to build "school communities which are more Catholic in the fullest sense of the word" (Bishop Durocher). That is why I suggest the following:
3. Support Networks
One thinks immediately of Courage, a group for men and women with unwanted same-sex attraction, started by Father John Harvey of New York. Courage encourages prayer, the sacraments, and fellowship as means of support. Do not forget Encourage, a faithful Catholic support group for parents who have children with SSA and PFOX (Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays). These groups have philosophical, theological and moral differences with "pro-gay" groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians) and GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). The latter are not recommended.
Though difficult to find, there are also good Catholic and Christian psychologists and psychotherapists who can be of help. Also recommended is the website of NARTH (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuals at www.narth.com). This is a group of professionals who give various helps to those who are unhappy with their SSA. And the CMA position paper Homosexuality and Hope should be consulted. (The CMA specifically recommends this paper as a reference and educational tool for parents and educators.)
4. Critically and consistently evaluate information and statistics that are references from 'pro-gay' sources
While stories about 'gay' people appear daily in media reports, many statistics given are unquestioned by those same media, as if to say that the end ('gay rights') justifies the means (dubious, unproven or false statistics, confusing terminology, etc.). With this in mind, and to go along with the competent theological presentation in PG, I would like to clarify certain terms used in common by both bishops and popular culture, but with very different understandings. For example, ambiguous terms like "homophobia" and homosexual "orientation" need to be explained. When PG uses the term "homophobia," it is in the context of condemning aggression and unjust discrimination toward individuals with SSA. Conversely, "homophobia" in the 'gay' community describes anyone who disagrees that homosexuality is a healthy and normative lifestyle.
Again, when PG uses the term "same-sex orientation," they simply mean the SSA desires of an individual, and to what degree. On the other hand, 'gay' activists use the term "orientation" to impress upon the public that homosexuality is unchangeable. The approach of PG is to charitably help students through difficult and confused periods of their lives. This is why Arbour and Blackburn (and many homosexual activists) cause confusion when they call SSA students "our gay brothers and lesbian sisters," and go so far as to create and identify those who suffer from SSA as "sexual minorities." They do this despite the reality that homosexuality as a biological trait (like skin and eye colour) has never been accepted in current scientific evidence.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the terms "predominant" and "exclusive" but never "irreversible" with respect to same-sex attraction. Arbour and Blackburn, on the other hand, imply this irreversible sense and more when they tell educators that "more attention needs to be paid to the crucial moments of identity formation" in ('gay') students who are most at-risk in "the movement from self-awareness to self-acceptance." PG poses a challenge to 'pro-gay' biased thinking in saying that encouraging an affected youth away from homosexual ideology and practice should not be classified as "homophobia" (OCCB Letter to All Involved in Catholic Education, March 31, 2003, reprinted in PG, p. 25).
Arbour and Blackburn express concern for 'gay' students who are bullied and harassed in schools. But the PG is clear to point out that all bullying and unjust discrimination need to be eliminated from Catholic schools. Homosexual activists and sympathizers promote the view that SSA students are subject to school bullying and abuse more than others. This is politically motivated. For example, Arbour and Blackburn promote an agenda of 'gay' friendly schools when they accept as gospel that "verbal taunts and abuse of these 'gay and lesbian kids' have led to a suicide rate higher among them than for their peers." This is contradicted by an extensive December 2003 study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry which acknowledged high levels of bullying and harassment in schools, but it noted that it was reported no more often by students with SSA than other students.
The bishops of Ontario are to be congratulated for addressing the important issue of students who suffer from same-sex attraction. The Church welcomes experts in the field who can provide a wealth of information to help Catholic students with SSA, and those who misunderstand and abuse them.
Parents and professional educators need guidelines that are consistent with the teaching and pastoral experience of the Church. Educators need to pay special attention to the bishops and the CMA, who are eminently qualified to speak about the true nature of homosexuality. Furthermore, they should ignore ideologically driven perspectives of Arbour and Blackburn and those like them. Young impressionable minds depend on true guidance, information and hope; it may even save their lives.
Peter Mahoney is an Ontario educator.