CALGARY, Canada — The Catholic bishops in the western Canadian province of Alberta are criticizing a new set of government guidelines that require religious and public schools to enact policies that respect the “gender diversity” of their students.
The bishops say the guidelines — which declare self-identification to be the sole measure of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression — reflect a relativistic view of human nature and sexual orientation that directly contradicts a Catholic and biblical understanding of the human person and reality.
“Many of us are trying to say that the underlying philosophy of this is wrong,” said Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary, who wrote a letter, titled “Totalitarianism in Alberta,” arguing that the guidelines “breathe pure secularism” and embody the “madness of relativism.”
Bishop Henry told the Register that the issue goes “well beyond” education, adding that the active homosexual-rights lobby in Alberta is poised to push “gender identity” and sexual-orientation norms outside the schools to other segments of society.
“If they get a foothold in the area of education, what is going to be next, in terms of society?” Bishop Henry said. “We’re basically going to have this theory of sexuality in practice covering everything. It will probably extend to health care, forcing Catholic hospitals to comply with regulations and directives without discussion.”
In mid-January, Alberta’s New Democratic Party-controlled government released the 12 “best practices” guidelines to assist schools in enacting diversity policies that are required of them under the Alberta School Act.
The 21-page document supports the creation of school groups such as “gay-straight” alliances and suggests that schools should craft policies for sexually confused students that govern everything, allowing students to use the locker rooms and bathrooms of the sex that they identity with, rather than their actual biological sex.
The guidelines also say that schools should reduce sex-segregated activities “to the greatest extent possible,” address individuals by their chosen name and pronoun, and dress codes must respect an individual’s preferred sexual identity and expression. Schools are also called upon to accommodate students who want to play sports according to their self-declared sex, meaning that a boy could play on a girl’s team and vice versa.
March 31 Deadline
The Alberta government has given all 61 school boards in the province until March 31 to enact policies that reflect the guidelines. Alberta Education Minister David Eggen told CBC News that the guidelines will help “spur social change” and build “greater understanding and acceptance for all people.”
“This is a positive development that can lead to some remarkable outcomes,” Eggen told CBC News.
Several Catholic school districts in Alberta are reviewing the government’s guidelines as they craft policies for students and individuals with sexual-identity issues. Jennifer Woo, supervisor of religious education and family life for the Calgary Catholic School District, told the Register that students in Calgary’s Catholic schools are treated with respect, in accordance with Catholic teachings on the dignity of the human person.
“We’ll 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,” said Woo, who added that the district has an inclusive-communities policy that ensures “sexual minorities” are treated respectfully.
“As part of what we call our Catholic community of caring, we continue to evolve to meet the needs of all of our students,” Woo said. “It’s something we've been committed to for a long time, to make sure our schools are safe, welcoming and respectful, and we continue with our commitment and our work, moving ahead in doing what is best for each student and family in our community.”
Woo said that the government’s guidelines emphasize the importance of meeting the individual needs of students with a primary focus on creating school environments that are respectful, caring, welcoming and safe. Local bishops concede that the guidelines make some good points, but they add that the guidelines contain problematic content as well.
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton said the government’s guidelines contain “many constructive, thoughtful and reasonable suggestions” that he said are already being followed or could be adopted by Catholic schools without concern of compromising their Catholic identity. However, he faulted the government’s self-identification basis as “simply not congruent with Catholic teaching.”
Archbishop Smith told the Register that he agrees with Bishop Henry that relativism “is certainly a factor.”
“As I mentioned in a recent blog post, increasingly prevalent is the idea that one's identity, direction and meaning is self-determined,” Archbishop Smith said. “In such a worldview, nothing can be trusted beyond the confines of one’s own mind. Yet, truth precedes us. It is to be appropriated, not created. Of particular relevance here is the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, 22, which teaches that only in Jesus Christ is the meaning of human life, as fashioned and ordered by God, made manifest.”
Bishop Paul Terrio of St. Paul in Alberta said in a Jan. 17 pastoral letter that the guidelines’ insistence that “self-identification” is the sole measure of an individual’s sexual orientation is an “anthropological step which is a major problem” for Catholic educators and others.
“To say that a person’s sexual orientation solely depends on self-identification denies biological facts as well as biblical teaching,” said Bishop Terrio, who added that biology cannot be separated from culture and that the separation of biological and social gender is a basic error and weakness of gender theory.
Wrote Bishop Terrio, “But for the Bible, and therefore for Catholicism and many others, femininity and masculinity are not exchangeable roles, but, rather, they are gifts and callings from the Creator.”
Bishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan said in his letter on the subject that the Alberta Catholic bishops and the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association have proposed for Catholic schools a protocol called the “LIFE Framework” that he said respects the spirit and intention of the government’s legislation, while doing so in a way suited to Catholic education.
‘Maverick’ Catholic-School Trustees?
Bishop Henry’s strongly worded letter, in which he criticizes “gay-straight” alliances and “queer-straight” alliances as “highly politicized ideological clubs which seek to cure society of ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism,’” prompted criticism from some members of the Edmonton Catholic School Board.
Marilyn Bergstra, the chairwoman of the board, told local media outlets that she did not agree with the board’s decision to pass out the bishop’s letter to parents. Patricia Grell, another member of the board, wrote a blog where she criticized Bishop Henry’s comments as “uninformed” and not in line with the Year of Mercy, as called by Pope Francis.
Bishop Henry said the Edmonton Catholic School Board has some “maverick trustees” who are “out of bounds” by violating their own code of conduct as trustees in a Catholic-school system.
“They have clearly said, ‘Yes, we have heard from our bishops, but we are going to listen to and follow the LGBT lobby,’” Bishop Henry said, adding that he has received emails and letters overwhelmingly in his favor.
“People are saying, ‘We finally having someone challenging the politically correct philosophy of our day,’” Bishop Henry said. “I think we’re experiencing a groundswell of people who feel as if they have no voice, who are afraid to speak up, but by and large are finding out that it’s okay to speak up; it’s okay to resist, to push back.”
Father Stefano Penna, a vice president and professor at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, told the Register that Alberta’s government is implementing policies championed by a vocal homosexual-advocacy lobby in Edmonton that pushes values that are fundamentally at odds with Catholic principles.
“There is a heightened sense of individualism and an imposition of an adult notion of autonomy upon the child, such that the child's relationship with the parent is seen as problematic,” Father Penna said. “In fact, the whole idea on which Catholic education is based, namely that is the right of parents to educate their children, is somehow seen as antithetical to proper justice for individuals.”
Father Penna called the guidelines a “watershed moment” for religious freedom in western Canada. Archbishop Smith added that the right to freedom of conscience and religious liberty is clearly enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“It is something we must guard carefully,” the archbishop said. “Should the provincial government seek to impose the guidelines it has presented, then, clearly, this issue will be engaged.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.