By Adam Radwanski, Globe and Mail, May 29, 2012
To most of the rest of the Western world, it would come as little surprise that Catholics in Ontario – the ones in senior positions within the church, at least – are uncomfortable telling kids that it’s okay to be gay. The surprise, rather, would be that Ontario still has a publicly funded Catholic school system beyond any point at which it’s reasonably needed or defensible as a minority right.
For that matter, we’re also rapidly passing the point at which that system’s Catholicism has any real meaning. To many of us, the church’s willingness to allow its identity to be heavily shaped by its positions on hot-button social issues – gay rights and abortion first among them – might seem peculiar. But to tell Catholics they can have their own schools but not their own beliefs surely defeats whatever purpose these schools are still supposed to serve.
That leaves – should leave – two choices.
One would be to let Catholics run their publicly funded schools according to their value system. Never mind that many of the students aren’t really there for a religious education, since there aren’t actually enough religious Catholics to sustain a parallel system in many parts of the province. This is our system, and we’re sticking with it.
The other would be for government finally to accept that, sometimes, progress involves a few headaches, and start treating Catholics the same as everyone else – free to practice their faith as they see fit, including with religious schools, but not on the public dime.
Privately, many of the people in and around government believe that’s the right way to go, and some take it as a given that it will eventually happen. But somehow, it remains a third rail that nobody in a position of power is willing to touch.
Religious conviction that can and often does lead to civil violence including bullying and sometimes suicide must not be tolerated. Being gay in a Roman Catholic, publicly funded school in Ontario is not a circumstance any parent would seek for his or her child. So ironically, when compassion and tolerance are the most obvious and most appropriate values to practice when faced with difference, the church's teaching prefers "not OKness" that somehow gay students are simply not OK in God's eyes.
So for politicians funnelling public money into a system that is premised on separation, and it consequences, there is a problem. And the public is unlikely in the long run to tolerate public funding of what amounts to intolerance.
However, as in so many other issues Canadian, we prefer to "muddle on" mostly not drawing attention to the issue, so long as no one challenges the state's position either in a public relations campaign on in a court challenge.
Would it not be ironic if, partly as a consequence of public funding for Roman Catholic schools, (the only religious schools receiving public funding in Ontario) the church found its position on gays and lesbians to be incompatible with the spirit of scripture and shifted to the more tolerant and compassionate one of acceptance?
Nevertheless, there have been boards of Catholic schools demanding that the province not impose its "secular" position of acceptance of gays and lesbians on their teachers, administrators and students, preferring to observe the church's teachings, as a condition of and a sign of the moral certainty of the church's teaching on the issue. So far, the premier has pushed back, preferring a publicly funded school system that teaches and practices tolerance, acceptance and civility of gay-straight alliances.
Some would consider the current situation a 'tipping point' in which the province will inevitably have to take the "road not taken" as Robert Frost reminds us in his famous poem. Let's hope that such a decision, either to de-fund Roman Catholic schools, thereby leaving them free to practice their religious teachings and dogma, or to let them continue as they are with public funding, will not result in social disturbance that requires the provincial government to restore order in the midst of inflamed passions and rhetoric.
The society is becoming more endangered by the debate(s) over "hot-button" issues, wedge issues as the political operatives call them, that profile one side against another, enabling headlines and conflict to boil feeding both the insatiable appetite of the media and the operatives to seek the higher opinion poll numbers, and hopefully the greater number of votes.
Some would argue that it is through "hot button" issues that the public becomes engaged; however, we would counter that reductionisms endanger the public discourse by positing a "right position" for both sides...and leaving little or no room for compromise.
On this question, we would support the discontinuing of public funding for Roman Catholic schools, knowing that such a decision will hang over whatever government makes it for decades, in resentment, anger and feelings of betrayal.