College students in Australia are protesting an upcoming lecture by a of a Catholic man who claims “reparative therapy” successfully changed his sexuality, the latest dispute about LGBT issues as they relate to Catholic education in that nation.
The University of Sydney’s Catholic Society will host James Parker tonight to speak about his experiences with “reparative therapy.”
Parker is linked to People Can Change, a UK group which administers gay “conversion” programs, and he authored a 2014 piece about his own experience, reported Buzzfeed.
Georg Tamm, a gay Catholic student, said student objections were not to discussions about divergent views on sexuality, but specifically about the harm reparative therapy has caused. Tamm said:
I would have been OK with them inviting a priest, discussing why men and women are made for each other according to the Catholic scripture....But I don’t see the pertinence of inviting someone who is supposedly a patient of successful ex-gay therapy, when it has no scientific merit and is actually quite dangerous.
Tamm said the Catholic Society’s invitation to Parker did not seem “to care about the welfare of those students” who are LGBT or questioning. Such talks, he added, defeat evangelical efforts “at a time when we need people to take the religion seriously and do good things with it.”
The Catholic Society denied claims the event promoted prejudice against LGBT people.
Concerned students have appealed to the Student Union to prohibit, or at least refuse to fund, future events promoting reparative therapy. University of Sydney administrators are inquiring into whether restrictions can be placed on campus speakers, too.
Such LGBT controversies in Australian education are increasingly frequent. Last month, St. Francis Xavier College in Melbourne censored a sexual health workbook by requiring students to rip out a page about homosexuality and premarital sex. The Age reported:
[Y]ear 9 students were called into the hall and told they could not leave until they had thrown a page of the textbook in the bin....The [page] included a photo of two men hugging and smiling, and listed different sexual preferences including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality.
The workbook asked students age-appropriate questions about sexuality and relationships, but Principal Vincent Feeney explained such questions should be addressed in religious education classes rather than health classes. He defended St. Francis Xavier College further by saying it was inclusive of LGBT students and even allowed same-gender couples to attend formal dances.
Students remained critical, however, with one calling the ripping of pages a “medieval weak response.”
Others refused to tear the page out.
In another story, the Safe Schools Program in Australia, which educates against bullying, has come under fire after four successful years. Conservative politicians have attacked the Program, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, has conceded to their demands. Following a government review, Safe Schools Programs, will be limited to high schools and have their content curtailed. A coalition under the name Save Safe Schools has organized rallies and campaigning to ensure funding is sustained and the Program keeps expanding.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, described the Program as “social engineering” in his call for its defunding, reported Buzzfeed. Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, herself a lesbian Catholic, said such comments were “negative and unconstructive” because you cannot engineer a person’s lived reality.
Just two Catholic schools participate in the Safe Schools Program: St. Joseph’s College, a Christian Brothers school; and St. Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, both in Victoria. St. Joseph’s College Head Paul Tobias said the Safe Schools debate “put people like me in a particularly difficult position” because of conservative attacks then lodged against the schools. Those pressures do not mean he or the school would be less supportive, however. He told The Age:
But I don’t believe there is anything in the Catholic faith that should stop us from promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and tolerance....Every student who attends this school, irrespective of their sexuality, is entitled to be part of a safe environment. We need to accept that there are some kids who are heterosexual and there are some that are LGBTI.
St. Joseph’s College under Tobias’ leadership established a homophobia task force as early as 1997 in response to an alum’s letter about anti-gay bullying. Tobias wrote to federal and state officials supporting the program, but he questioned whether the focused had shifted from promoting diversity and acceptance to focusing on the minutiae of gender and sexuality issues, which he felt would be detrimental to the Safe Schools Program’s mission.
Elsewhere in Australia, students in Catholic schools have challenged their institutions to participate.
A gay student at St. Joseph’s College in Queensland asked Principal Michael Carroll for support, but the student’s testimony of intense bullying, but was met with a curt “no.” The student felt betrayed by administrators and teachers whom he admired, reported The Brisbane Times, and he added:
I hope that it is not the will of the Catholic Church that this group of young Australians, which are 14 times more likely to end their own lives, are not protected....All I can do is hope that they do not want to see me being abused, being made to feel uncomfortable and being separated from society, made to feel like a second-rate citizen.
There is nothing in Catholic teaching which endorses marginalization of or discrimination towards LGBT people, particularly youth who are vulnerable and entrusted to the church for their education. Each of these controversies is rooted in flawed Catholic understandings of gender and of sexuality. These understandings refuse to prioritize social justice teachings about LGBT people’s rights and dignity, instead relying upon pseudo-science to validate outdated, but ideologically convenient ideas.
As Australian Catholics reckon with how to protect LGBT people and expand their rights, including the question of marriage equality, a dose of honesty and an attentiviness to reality would be most healthy.