09/16/2013 06:19 EDT | Updated 11/16/2013 05:12 EST

If Catholics Can Be More Gay Friendly, Why Can't Ontario Schools?

Since taking office Pope Francis has changed the tone and priorities of the Catholic Church. He has discussed rethinking women's roles in the church, focused on tackling problems in church governance, set up a commission to review the Vatican bank and even used the word 'gay'.

However, none of these actions changes church doctrine and it seems unlikely any major change in church teaching is about to take place. Francis has emphasized that the door to female priests is closed and using the word 'gay' is not meant to indicate a change in teachings about same-sex marriage.

Change in the Catholic church is a slow process. Progressive Catholics should be pleased by the change in language and focus, but not hope for much more. While this type of growth may be enough for the church, the Ontario Catholic school system must be more responsive to issues of equality. Fortunately, the Canadian Catholic community is quick to adapt to injustice.

On July 20th, 2005 same sex marriage was legalized in Canada with the signing of the Civil Marriage Act. Around this time a series of surveys showed Canadian Catholics were almost evenly split on the issue of same-sex marriage. Just a few years later support had shifted. In 2011 a survey conducted during the Canadian Election asked "Do you favour or oppose same-sex marriage, or do you have no opinion on this?" Support among Catholics stood at 41 per cent with only 20 per cent indicating they oppose same sex marriage. The other 38 per cent said they have no opinion. This result was very similar to the survey totals which found support for same sex marriage at 40 per cent, opposition at 20 per cent and 39 per cent with no opinion.

Regrettably, while Canadians, including Catholic Canadians, were becoming more tolerant of same sex marriage the Ontario Catholic school system was slow to adopt reforms aimed at improving circumstances for gay and lesbian students. Last year, for example, the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association aggressively fought the provincial governments attempts to ensure that Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) were available as a student support for every student in this province.

Instead of opposing GSAs school board leaders should have been focused on finding a way to make them work within a Catholic context. The church's emphasis on loving one another should have made this easy to do. Backing for same sex marriage among Canadian Catholics indicates the Catholic community would support GSAs aimed at helping vulnerable gay and lesbian students. The provincial government mandated GSAs, so this opportunity is lost, but there are more opportunities for reform if we are willing to accept the debate.

The next opportunity for growth in Ontario is in exploring the idea of having non-Catholic attend Catholic elementary schools. For years, Catholic high schools have successfully taught non-Catholic students, but in some Ontario Catholic School Boards non-Catholics face restrictions on enrolling in elementary schools. This is a perfect opportunity for public debate and discussion on the role of the Catholic school system in servicing all Ontarians. It is also a chance to show the Catholic school system can change to meet the needs of a modern Canada.

A similar article first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on Friday Sept. 13, 2013

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