State must clarify its stance on relationships and sexual education in schools

The Vatican's latest statement on same-sex unions should finally convince the Department of Education of its duty to take over full control of the RSE programme in State-funded schools
State must clarify its stance on relationships and sexual education in schools

While Catholic teaching had not changed, the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 was one of the factors that helped lead to a welcome increase in LGBTIQ+ rights activities in many Irish Catholic schools. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Last week’s decision by the Vatican that "The Church cannot bless same-sex unions" should convince the Department of Education of the urgent need to take full control of the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in State-funded schools.

For decades, the provision of RSE has been grossly inadequate in our curriculum, as school boards have had the option to filter topics such as sexual orientation and contraception through the lens of their particular ethos. Interestingly, a recent National Council for Curriculum and Assessment report noted that, even within religious schools, the delivery of RSE has varied dramatically, suggesting, it would seem, that the liberal or conservative views of the principal and/or board were a more important factor than the ethos. 

Damningly, the report also found that, for most students, RSE was seen as ‘too little, too late and too biological’.

In this context, LGBTQI+ youth are particularly vulnerable. 

Their relatively negative experiences of education were well documented in the ‘Being LGBT in School’ report published by the Gay + Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) and are often characterised by higher levels of physical and emotional bullying, early school leaving, drug and alcohol dependence, self-harm and suicide.

School leaders who would have wished to fully include LGBTQI+ students in their schools would have felt empowered by Pope Francis’ positive statements in 2013 about the role of gay people in the Church. Picture: AP/Alessandra Tarantino
School leaders who would have wished to fully include LGBTQI+ students in their schools would have felt empowered by Pope Francis’ positive statements in 2013 about the role of gay people in the Church. Picture: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

I conducted research on this area with youth in Cork schools for my Masters thesis in the mid-2000s, as I felt ill-equipped to support my own students, who were suffering homophobic bullying. As part of the study, I became keenly aware of how international theological debates are often replicated in staff rooms and staff meetings of Catholic schools. Schools with the same patron, and theoretically the same ethos, had vastly different approaches.

The judgement, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is serious as it may embolden those within our schools whose idea of support for vulnerable youth is limited to the phrase ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’. Likewise, it may weaken the hand of the great many Catholic principals, teachers, and chaplains who wish to fully include LGBTQI+ students in their schools. They need the department to affirm its position and build upon the progress made in recent years.

Many of these school leaders will have felt empowered to act by Pope Francis’ positive statements about the role of gay people in the Catholic Church in 2013. Whilst Church teaching had not changed, the tone of the comment, combined with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015, led to a welcome increase in LGBTIQ+ rights activities in many Irish Catholic schools. For the young people in those communities, who had all-too-frequently experienced bullying, visibility was finally being achieved, along with the prospect of greater safety and respect.

Pope Francis’ comments had created a temporary sense of glasnost, but that openness has now been rejected in a rearguard action by conservatives, a process which is not without precedent.

Doctrine or hate speech?

In 1975, faced with the growing women’s and gay rights movements, Cardinal Seper, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warned against the ‘corruption of morals’ and ‘licentious hedonism’ of contemporary culture. He also warned, that ‘In sacred scripture they (homosexual acts) are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God’. 

Homosexuals, he continued, ‘must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society’.

In 1986, his successor, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, warned that ‘when civil legislation is introduced to protect [homosexual]  behaviour to which no-one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase’. 

Were this comment to be made today, it might well be viewed as hate speech.

Linking homosexuality to 'evil' 

Later, in 2003, when criticising politicians who had voted for gay rights, Cardinal Ratzinger made a statement that should horrify every democratic politician. He stated, that ‘the approval or legalisation of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil’.

The Department must now choose if it is acceptable for ideas such as these to be presented to students in State-funded schools. Likewise, Catholic schools, and the 30,000 voluntary board members that run them, must take a position. Will they actively promote this orthodox teaching, essentially denying the validity of certain citizens’ civil rights? If so, I have no doubt that harm will be done and that LGBTQI+ students and/or their parents will seek legal redress from both school boards and the State. In my opinion, the students would likely be successful, as the courts will be asked to balance the constitutional rights granted to school Boards in the 1930s, with those granted to children in the Children’s Referendum in 2012.

Loud voices blocking sex education

Over the past 30 years, sex education programmes have either been blocked or minimised, by a small number of loud voices, on the basis that their interpretation of traditional Catholic social teaching reflected parents’ wishes. This position is now clearly untenable, as shown in the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, when 75+% of under 45-year-olds voted ‘Yes’.

Proactive approach needed

The State must now proactively and comprehensively seek to protect the physical and mental health of all students, including LGBTIQ+ students. The current review of the Relationships and Sexuality Education programme is a good starting point, but this weeks’ Vatican statement highlights the vulnerability of our system, to the influence of a foreign State. If our government feels that it cannot fully assert and protect our citizens’ rights in our schools, due to legal constraints, a Constitutional Convention and referendum would be both justified and pressing.

Colm O’Connor is the principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School and a member of the Educate Together Board of Directors, though he writes here in a strictly personal capacity.

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