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Catholic Church's overture to gays 'encouraging' but unlikely to change school teaching

10/15/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST
Catholic educators in Canada have lauded bishops in the Vatican for recognizing the positive aspects of gay relationships, but say it is unlikely to fundamentally alter their school curriculums.

"I don't know if we're going to see a change in church teaching," says Patrick Keyes, superintendent of student success and equity and inclusive education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

The bishops' comments on homosexuality were included in a report from the closed-doors debate Pope Francis convened to discuss a variety of contentious family-related issues ranging from marriage and divorce to birth control.

The report acknowledged that "precious" support should be accorded to gays and lesbians, but affirmed that gay unions "cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman."

For that reason, Catholic teaching on sexuality is likely to remain the same, says Keyes.

Still 'morally problematic'

Currently, most Catholic school teaching on sexuality revolves around chastity, which emphasizes that any sexual activity should come within the confines of a marriage, says James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic School Teachers Association.

But because homosexual couples are unable to procreate, gay marriage is seen by bishops as "morally problematic."

That said, Ryan says that even before the bishops' statement, Catholic schools emphasized that "discrimination is wrong, that hate of any group, including the hate of anyone in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community, is wrong and a sin and it is not acceptable."

He says the approach the bishops took "is based on love and caring, and I think that's a good approach."

CBC News contacted a number of other Catholic school boards across Canada, but was unable to reach any representatives.

A spokesman for the Calgary Catholic School District wrote in an email, "It would be premature to make a comment at this time."

While the weekend pronouncements don't change Catholicism's stance on gay marriage, they do signal a more inclusive attitude, which can be conveyed to students, says Keyes.

"What I think we're hearing is, 'Where are you placing your emphasis in the schools?' Is it a focus on 'Thou shall not' or a focus on 'Thou shall'? We typically find that 'Thou shalls' are more encompassing and draw people together."

A more progressive era

The weekend statement from the bishops offers yet more evidence that the Catholic Church is showing greater openness to sexual minorities.

Pope Francis has received plaudits for ushering in a more progressive era with regards to the Church's attitude to human sexuality.

In July, the Argentinian-born pontiff shocked many when he said that the Church has spent too much time and energy demonizing homosexuals.

"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" the Pope said.

This seemingly casual remark, made to a group of reporters on a plane, won Pope Francis widespread acclaim, and led gay lifestyle magazine The Advocate to name him Person of the Year in 2013.

Historically, many bishops in Canada have been "loath to use the word 'gay,' " says Frank Testin, president of Dignity Canada, an organization for Roman Catholics seeking reform in the Church's teachings on gays, lesbians and transgender issues.

"Pope Francis has used the word 'gay,' and in that respect he has changed the language. And that's a movement in the right direction."

Speaking on behalf of Catholic teachers, Ryan says, "we've never had a problem using the word 'gay,' 'lesbian' 'bisexual' or 'trangendered.' We've always recognized that people self-identify."

Even so, he says that some Catholics who may oppose such distinctions "believe that you're a whole person, and that you're not identified by any one part of yourself."

Accommodating gay-straight alliances

One of the most contentious issues in Catholic schools in recent years has been the establishment of gay-straight alliances, which are student groups that promote acceptance and understanding of sexual minorities.

As part of recent anti-bullying legislation, the governments of Ontario and Manitoba require all schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances.

The rules have drawn the ire of religious leaders in both provinces, including Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, who questioned "why provincial legislation should make this particular method normative in a Catholic school, which has its own different but effective methods of attaining the goal of addressing bullying and providing personal support for all students."

This past April, the Alberta legislature voted down a private member's bill that would have made it mandatory for all schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances.

Catholic school boards were not the only ones opposed to the bill.

But as Kristopher Wells of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta pointed out, “There are Christian-based student groups in our public schools, but there are no Gay-Straight Alliances in any Catholic school in Alberta, so why the difference?”

Dignity Canada's Testin says the Vatican's positive vibes are unlikely to lead to a significant change in attitude to human sexuality at the school level, but he believes most Catholics are more enlightened than those in the upper echelons of the church order.

"There is quite a big gap between what the hierarchy says and what the people in the pews believe, and how they live their lives," says Testin.

"I'm pretty sure it's the case that most teachers, most principals and certainly Catholics [in general] are supportive of LGBT persons, whether they're students in school or adults later in life."

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