This afternoon, I was up in London, talking to the staff of St Bonaventure’s Catholic secondary school about “The Catholic Obligation to Protect and Support Lesbian and Gay Pupils”. Part of the headteacher’s regular program for staff continuing professional development, this kicked off the school’s annual commitment to LGBT History Month.
I met the head,teacher, Paul Halliwell, at Stonewall’s Education Day last October, where he was a panellist in the Faith breakout group. Stonewall’s Dominic Arnall introduced him with glowing praise for the work that he has already done to promote LGBT inclusion in his Catholic school, St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate Newham – and his leadership with other schools in the area. I was delighted to accept his invitation to bring a specifically Catholic dimension to his valuable work on LGBT protection and safeguarding.
This is what I said:
In the UK, schools are required by law and by Ofsted standards to support and protect all pupils, without discrimination. That explicitly includes protection from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. For Catholic schools, there is sometimes a perception that this requirement is somehow in conflict with the Church’s well-known opposition to homosexuality. In fact, the requirement to protect and support all pupils, including lesbian and gay pupils, is required by clearly stated Church teaching, as well as by secular law and standards.
In school , the dual obligation to protect and support may be thought of as two distinct requirements. “Protect” applies in a whole school context, requiring staff and pupils to actively avoid any practices that directly or indirectly harm the well-being of lesbian and gay pupils. “Support” may be seen as applying more specifically to individual lesbian and gay pupils themselves. Here, I deal with these two separately. First, I discuss the Catholic obligation to protect gay pupils from external bullying or homophobia, whether deliberate and direct, or possibly unintended but nevertheless hurtful. Later, I discuss more direct support and personal support for LGBT pupils themselves, who find themselves confused or challenged by the task of reconciling what they understand of Church teaching, with what they are coming to understand of their own inherent nature.
Direct, deliberate homophobia
The most obvious form of homophobic practice and harm to lesbian and gay pupils, lies in actual physical or verbal violence. The opposition of the Catholic Church is clear, as stated in the Vatican’s most extensive statement yet on homosexuality.
10. It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.
-CDF, “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the care of homosexual persons, §10” ,
This imposes on Church “pastors” an active obligation to condemn all such harmful practices. Who are the pastors? The letter is addressed to bishops. However, I suggest that in practice, the term “pastors” also includes teachers in Catholic schools, as part of their pastoral role.Discrimination and indirect or implied homophobia (i.e., without “malice”)
It is easy to see how actual violence and obviously malicious hate speech are directly harmful to lesbian and gay pupils. However, there may be less obvious sources of harm, where they are perhaps not intended as such.
The best known example of this in schools is the widespread use of the word “gay” as a catch-all term of abuse. There is also the matter of practices which discriminate against gay pupils, possibly unintentionally. These are covered, I suggest, in the following clause from the Catholic Catechism:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2358
The importance of treating all people with “respect” is so fundamental and obvious, that I do not propose to discuss it any further.
It is here that we see the obligation to oppose not only violence and deliberate hate speech, but also indirect or unintended homophobia. There are many people who will use disparaging language, such as “that’s so gay”, or share homophobic jokes, while insisting that “no offence is intended”. The problem is, that intentional or not, such language can be deeply hurtful and especially damaging to young people. Sensitivity requires that we do more than avoid intending offence – we must be aware of language that may be heard as offensive, and avoid.
For teachers, there is another dimension to sensitivity that we need to consider. If the curriculum consistently ignores any reference to lgbt people or concerns, this is a form of erasure, a failure to acknowledge to lgbt people that others like them even exist, or that their concerns don’t matter. It is thus important that we find ways to build active inclusion into the curriculum. Taking note of LGBT History Month is of course, one way to do that. There are also many others.
For some gay Catholics, the idea that we need compassion is offensive. A same-sex orientation after all is entirely natural, is not pathological, and is not in fact experienced as a burden by most gay men – notwithstanding the words of the CDF.
What can be a burden, is dealing with the social response – and (sadly) some of the response from the Catholic Church. There’s the simple matter of language used in too many Church documents, which completely fails to put into practice the insistence on respect and sensitivity, previously discussed. Fortunately, the Family Synods in Rome of 2014 and 2015 showed that there is increasing recognition by most bishops, that historic language is insensitive and needs to change.
More serious, is the actual teaching on sexual ethics, as it applies to lesbian and gay Catholics. This raises an important, difficult question, raised in a few years ago in an important article at America magazine by the Jesuit priest, Fr James Martin:
What is a gay Catholic to do?
Fr Martin asked his readers to consider
“Imagine you are a devout Catholic who is also gay. Here is a list of the things that you are not to do, according to the teaching of the church.
- Enjoy romantic love.
- Adopt a child.
- Enter a seminary.
- Work for the church and be open”
To which I add my own observations:
What some gay Catholics have done:
- Accepted the doctrines and lived celibate lives
- Denied their sexuality, lived in closet
- Denied their faith
- Turned to substance abuse to numb the guilt
- Run away from home
- Self-harm, suicide
- Embraced hedonism, promiscuity
To Fr Martin’s questions, there are no easy answers. How then can we as teachers respond with compassion to young people who are beginning to face up to the challenge of accepting their natural same-sex orientation, while also remaining faithful Catholics?
Here I offer some reflections based on my own experience, the things that have most helped me.
Some lifelines in standard Catholic teaching
The most authoritative, and also the most recent, doctrinal statement is found in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation of 2016, “The Joy of Love”, which does not go into too much lgbt specific detail, but does stress, for all Catholics in difficult situations, the importance of pastoral accompaniment, discernment and the “interior forum”.The absolute primacy of conscience.
“The Joy of Love” also emphasises the importance of following one’s own conscience. This has been a staple of Catholic teaching for many centuries: many writers, from Aquinas to Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, have observed that where conscience and Church teaching diverge, it is more important to follow conscience. The qualification though, is that conscience must be “well-formed”. What that means, is too lengthy to go into here, except to note that it is not just a licence to do as one pleases, nor does not simply mean blind adherence to the Catechism.
It’s also important to understand the nature of church “teaching”. This is after all, “teaching”, not “law”. As teachers yourselves, you will know that teaching sometimes can be wrong, and it is permissible (even encouraged) for students to disagree – as long as they can substantiate their position.
In the Catholic Church, we differentiate between different “levels” of Church teaching, with varying degrees of importance. Those matters contained in the Creed stand at the top of the hierarchy of teaching – with matters of sexual conduct at a relatively low level. It is arguable, that we are not in fact required to take the guidelines on sexual ethics strictly on board.
“Objectively” disordered – but subjectively, natural?
For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.
-Amoris Laetitia, §344
Here, the Church’s wise moral tradition is necessary since it warns against generalizations in judging individual cases. In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance; or other circumstances may increase it.
-CDF, “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the care of homosexual persons, §10” ,
One final point: as this session was planned and billed as a prelude to LGBT History Month, let me point out that in Christian history too, there are some distinctly “queer” themes and people, if not specifically “LGBT” people as understood by modern usage. For more, see my summary post “Some very queer saints and martyrs” at the Quest website, or for more detail, my own blog dedicated to LGBT Christian history, “Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs“.
I close with a well known prayer particularly relevant to the theme of protection of young people from bullying and persecution – and also particularly appropriate for this school, with its respect for the Franciscan tradition – the prayer of St Francis:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”