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A Response to a Catholic Teacher and Parent

October 4, 2015

Here is a comment from a Catholic teacher and parent that was recently posted in response to my blog post on Glen Argan’s editorial in the most recent Western Catholic Reporter.  I am making my response to his comments in a blog post because it may be of interest to other readers:

Comment from Michael Bombak:

Mrs. Grell, your response to Glen Argan has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on this topic as a Catholic teacher, and parent.

I see here a false dichotomy between taking care of children and receiving council from the Archbishop. Pitting the Archbishop- and the Church- against the welfare of students is simply an unclear picture of events and quite a destructive vision at that.
Pope Francis is an excellent witness to call upon. We must accompany all students (staff and parents for that matter) in whatever situation they find themselves in, and this is the calling of the Church. Pope Francis has also said the following about the new gender theory:
“For instance, I wonder, for example, if the so-called gender theory is not also an expression of a frustration and of a resignation, which aims to cancel the sexual difference because it no longer knows how to address it. Yes, we risk taking a step backward. The removal of the difference, in fact, is the problem, not the solution. To resolve their problems of relation, man and woman must instead talk more to one another, listen more to one another, know one another more, love one another more.
-General Audience, April 15, 2015

We must as the Church meet everyone where they are at. We must patiently walk with them side by side. But we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere. Pope Francis is careful that they don’t slip along the way. We should be too.
You are certainly right about the difficulty of being “the servant of two masters,” and it is not a unique experience it you. It is a difficulty shared by all Catholic School teachers in this province. These teachers are anxious for guidance and support. Let’s work at providing them a good witness by serving the right Master- God; in His Holy Church.

My response:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts — especially from the perspective of a Catholic teacher and parent.  Let’s go back to how this whole issue began.  A mother and father visit a professional, accredited psychiatrist and he diagnoses their daughter with gender dysphoria.  The psychiatrist suggests that for the sake of their daughter’s mental health, they allow her to live out her gender identity as a girl in every respect.  The parents bring a letter from the psychiatrist to the school with the psychiatrist’s diagnosis and recommendations.  The school district denies their daughter access to the bathroom with which she identifies.  Their daughter is told to walk down the hallway –accompanied by a couple of her classmates because it is so far away — to a “gender neutral” bathroom because it could be upsetting to the other girls if they see her in their washroom. The first question here is:  why would a Catholic school district dispute the diagnosis and recommendations of an accredited psychiatrist?  When a child is diagnosed with a peanut allergy and needs an epipen we don’t question the doctor’s diagnosis but immediately accommodate this child by ensuring there is an epipen available at the ready everywhere that child goes.

The next question is:  who initially decided that this transgender girl could not use the girls’ bathroom?  I didn’t and neither did 5 other trustees who govern our district.  Prior to May 5, 2015, this decision was made by the chair of our board, the superintendent and the archbishop in private meetings.  When I asked that the trustees have a meeting on this case on May 5, 2015—after the parents had filed a Human Rights Complaint reported in the media–we were given incorrect, inaccurate and misleading information.  We were also informed that the archbishop did not want us to change our stance on the bathroom issue.  Based upon this inaccurate information and wanting to be in communion with the archbishop, the majority of trustees voted to allow the case to be decided by the Human Rights Commission.  I need to make note here that Trustee Marilyn Bergstra, due to illness, was not present at this May 5 meeting when this decision was made.  I know from her support of this child, that she certainly would have voted as I voted: to allow this child to use the bathroom with which she identifies.

You also need to know that our Board established an ad hoc committee to develop a policy for our transgender students and the archbishop chose not to meet with the committee, nor join in a conversation we were having with the psychiatrist.  Instead, he wrote a letter to trustees telling us to stop writing our policy and follow the policy he was developing with Catholic superintendents.  I respect that the archbishop is the ecclesial authority that determines the Catholicity of our district but does he respect our roles as tax payer funded, elected officials who are legislated through the School Act to govern our school district?  In not being willing to meet with us, to collaborate, to share ideas, I feel that it is unfair to say that I am out of communion with the archbishop.  I have not chosen to do this—he has made it impossible by his lack of communication and his lack of respect for my role as legislated in the School Act.

Another question I have been asked of late is:  why are we spending so much time and so many resources on an issue that only affects a very small number of our students?  It seems to a lot of people, that there are more important issues to worry about!  Parents of autistic children and other special needs children are beginning to complain.  I couldn’t agree more!  Who decided to make this bathroom issue the hill to die on to protect church doctrine and our Catholic identity?  Not me–I wasn’t invited to any of the meetings.  And so now, we are spending an enormous amount of time, money and energy developing a gender identity policy to protect these students because our Inclusive Communities Policy wasn’t specific enough.

Now let’s turn to what I have talked about all along in this whole matter:  what is our pastoral response?  In a recent Western Catholic Reporter issue (Sept. 14, 2015 Church Must Respect Persons and Tradition, Pope Says) the Pope is reported as saying that “theology should be for ‘the people we have before us.  Without encountering families and the people of God, theology runs the great risk of becoming an ideology’”.  The article goes on to report that “The Pope said that any attempt to limit or cut off the relationship between ‘received tradition and concrete reality puts the faith of the people of God in danger’. Theology and reflection should not be at odds with pastoral ministry and the lives of real people, he said”.  I have always maintained from the beginning of this controversy that no one is suggesting that church doctrine must change—not even the parents of this child are suggesting this.  What I am suggesting is a pastoral response to people in their situation.  You have spoken of this and you have suggested that “we must never forget that we are leading them somewhere”.  By welcoming our transgender students as they are, I would hope we are leading them to a safe, supportive place where they can thrive. A recent study Being Safe, Being Me by Elizabeth Saewyc (Edmonton Journal, May 7, 2015 Many Trans Youth Harm Themselves, Study Finds) suggests that “Young people who have supportive adults in their lives, whether it’s their parents or members of their communities, were four times less likely to harm themselves…And the minority of transgender youth who said they felt connected at school were much more likely to report good mental health”.  I hope that in accepting these students as they are and supporting them in their school environments they will be less likely to self harm.  According to Saewyk’s study, the stakes are high:  Trans youth, just like other LGBTQ youth, are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their non LGBTQ peers.  Taking a pastoral stance in regards to our transgender students is very important for their safety—it will save lives.  This is enough to convince me that we need to take a pastoral approach rather than an ideological one.

Finally, when we don’t welcome and accept our transgender students as they are, what affect does that have on their families?  How will their parents react?  How will their brothers and sisters react?  If we tell them that our church does not accept gender theory and therefore they must be segregated in various ways while at school, what message does the family take away from this?  In my conversations with not only the Catholic parents of the transgender child who lodged the Human Rights Complaint but many other Catholics, there is a great sense of disappointment and even scandal that our faith which is based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ who reached out to the most marginalized of his day, is choosing to stand by church doctrine over saving the lives of our most vulnerable children.  Some see this “digging in of our heels” in order to ensure our “Catholic identity” as a reason to stop going to church, to renounce their faith, to be disillusioned with Catholic schools and even call for their dissolution.  When we are seen to be following in the footsteps of the Pharisees rather than those of our Lord, we create great scandal.  I fully agree with you that we must “work at providing [teachers] a good witness by serving the right Master – God; in His Holy Church”.  This is exactly what I am trying to do by finding a safe place for our transgender students in our schools.  What I am up against though, are clergy who are choosing to follow the letter of the law over the Spirit of it.  It is not a new problem as we know.  In reading the Gospels we learn that Jesus faced the same struggles with the religious leaders of his day.

Thank you again for taking the time to write and giving me this opportunity to respond.  I believe that it is only in having these conversations that we can better understand one another and resolve how together, we can best serve the common good of all our students.  Thank you for all that you do in teaching our students both through our curriculum and your example, that all our students are cherished by God, made in the image of God and have their dignity as human beings in the fact that they are made by God.  This certainly is the core message of Jesus Christ, not where a transgender child chooses to go to the bathroom.

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