Calgary’s Roman Catholic Bishop Fred Henry emerged this weekend as one of the few voices applauding the Prentice government bill on gay-straight alliances, but not all his flock shares his belief.
The bishop penned a letter that was distributed to congregants on Sunday regarding the bill, which could have forced gay-straight alliance meetings off school property if local school boards objected to their presence.
In the face of mounting resistance to Bill 10, which had already been amended once, Prentice put the legislation on hold on Dec. 4.
In his letter, Henry writes that he believed Bill 10 was a “win-win for everyone” because it enshrined parental rights, recognized the autonomy of local school boards and student rights.
“The mandating of Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) is problematic for a number of reasons,” states the letter.
“It infringes parental authority over their children, the freedom to instruct one’s children in a manner consistent with their faith, and citizens rights to manifest their religious beliefs by worship practice in the absence of coercion or constraint by government.”
Not all of his faithful, however, agree.
One man who spoke on the topic after a Sunday mass at a downtown Calgary Catholic church, and who identified himself as a teacher in the Catholic district, said he believes GSAs can be a valuable source of peer support to LBGTQ students.
“I can’t see the harm in it,” said the man, who declined to give his name, citing concern over publicly breaking ranks with his employer.
“They’re a vulnerable group of people and they should get all the help they can get.”
Although the bishop’s letter decried “mandating” the gay student support groups in schools, there was no such movement afoot. The Prentice government’s Bill 10 was designed in part to thwart a Liberal private member’s bill that would have removed a school’s ability to ban GSAs, if students bid to create one.
While gay-straight alliance groups operate in many Calgary and Edmonton public schools in an effort to prevent students from being abused and bullied, there has been resistance to the groups from officials in faith-based and rural schools.
Statistics in other jurisdictions show the rate of suicide among gay youth drops significantly when a school has one of the groups.
In a similar letter being shared in parishes of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton this weekend, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith writes that debate surrounding Bill 10 “might lead one to conclude from our principled objections to certain aspects of Bill 10 that we have little concern for students of same-sex attraction.”
“Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth,” the letter states.
Smith goes on to state that when visiting Catholic schools, he has seen staff committed to creating safe and caring environments for all students.
The letters come just days after Mayor Naheed Nenshi told several local business leaders that Alberta risked being portrayed as “hillbillies” if the province pushed ahead with Bill 10.
“By saying not all rights are absolute, the government seemed to be saying that our children don’t have the right to be safe. That’s not right,” Nenshi said Thursday.
Homosexuality has been the subject of fraught debate in the Catholic Church, whose traditional doctrine is that it is “intrinsically disordered.”
In August, Pope Francis created a stir when he answered a question about gay priests by responding, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”
In October, an annual conference of bishops acknowledged homosexuals have “gifts and qualities” to offer and they deserve a “fraternal place” in the church. But the bishops’ statement also said homosexuality is “morally problematic.”
Local Catholics weigh in
Leaving mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary on Sunday, one parishioner said local Catholics should look to the pope for guidance on the GSA issue.
“I would be interested in Pope Francis’ opinion. That’s where I think we need to receive our ultimate direction,” said Wayne Brown.
One woman, who didn’t give her name, said she agreed with the pope’s message of acceptance, but added she’s uncomfortable with campus clubs and the Pride movement.
“To me, it’s a private thing,” she said.
In Edmonton, Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell recently wrote a blog post expressing her support of gay-straight alliances.
To Kristopher Wells, director of programs and services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta, Grell’s statement reflects a schism between the Catholic leadership and laypeople.
“It shows us where the real resistance to GSAs lies: in institutionalized religion, not with teachers, trustees or even parishioners,” Wells said.