We have to talk about the role of the Catholic Church in our schools

Irish Teacher: Sense of othering for LGBTQ+ students is not imagined; it hangs in classrooms alongside the crucifix

Irish Teacher: A well-designed lesson plan on same sex relationships is less impactful when 50% of secondary school students attend Catholic schools with a Catholic ethos.
FRI, 18 NOV, 2022 - 11:16

Did you know 76% OF LGBTQ+ students, children, teenagers, feel unsafe in Irish secondary schools. So finds a survey released by BelongTo this week.

I’d like to suggest how us adults could respond.

Firstly, we could speak frankly about the role of the Catholic Church in our schools. Culture eats policy for breakfast, and this is especially true here. The Department of Education has made significant improvements in developing objective and informative resources for teaching Relationships and Sex Education. It also part funds Stand-Up Awareness Week, taking place this week, to combat transphobic and homophobic hatred in schools. Last year, the Minster for Education even released pictures of herself with the LGBTQ+ flag. This is all good and necessary, but when it comes to changing culture, it’s not enough.

No doubt many Catholic schools did great work this week too. But that doesn’t take from the fact that there is a massive contradiction involved in doing so. The official doctrine of the Church calls homosexuals sinful and disordered. Only last year Pope Francis refused to bless a gay couple, announcing that he “could not bless sin”. He later commented that the comment was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite”. Fr Sheehy, our country’s now infamous Kerry priest, merely repeated the sentiments of his Pope when he described the 'rampant’ sin of gay and transgendered people in Irish culture.

Waving a flag won’t erase that contradiction.

More specifically, a well-designed lesson plan on same sex relationships is less impactful when 50% of secondary school students attend Catholic schools with a Catholic ethos. Without a legislative mandate, schools can simply skip the lesson.

One student's response in the survey reads: “I think a big part of my depression in life has been since I found out I’m gay when I was 14-15. At first I hated myself because of it, I used to pray and wish I was ‘normal’ because that’s how students in school treated LGBTQ+ people.”

They prayed to be normal. That sense of othering is not imagined; it hangs in the classrooms and hallways alongside the crucifix.

Teachers are also harmed by this contradiction. A 2021 report by the Irish National Teachers Organisation found that only 18% of teachers felt safe to come out in their school community. Less than one fifth of LGBTQ+ teachers.

We can’t expect teachers to change the system on their own. Parents and guardians, must act in this too. The Church isn’t going anywhere unless they get involved. If they don’t believe their child should receive a Catholic version of sex education, they must communicate this to their school. Parents and guardians get overlooked in this societal effort far too often. Their influence is infinite, far greater than the influence of a teacher. Transphobic and homophobic hatred travels in all directions.

Other supposedly liberal states have revealed similarly shocking statistics in recent years. Removing the Catholic Church from schools will not be enough and a multidenominational setting poses its own challenges.

In a multidenominational classroom one child might announce that being gay is a sin, whilst the child next to them might share that both of their parents are male. It’s a stressful and demanding learning environment, and it requires teacher training and community support to keep all children safe in that space, and safe when they leave it.

Organisations like TENI and BelongTo offer wonderful training, but it’s not compulsory. There is no teacher training to become an SPHE teacher, the subject through which these topics are taught. I have never attended a whole school SPHE department meeting. The subject often appears on teacher timetables without consultation. How do we expect students to take it seriously when the system won’t?

It is truly heart-breaking that in the survey 58% of LGBTQ+ students report hearing homophobic remarks from school staff. No teacher should be permitted through a school door without basic training to prevent this. No teacher should have to open a school door without knowing they will feel safe, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. No teacher should teach these topics without professional space to reflect on how they were taught, how they were treated, how this might impact their views.

The time to remove Catholicism from our schools is now — unless our need to protect the Church exceeds our desire to protect children.


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