Regis College — a theological school affiliated with the University of Toronto — is holding a lecture series to train Catholic school board staff on supporting the mental health of LGBTQ high school students. The series, titled That They May Have Life to the Full – Accompanying LGBT Youth, has drawn criticism for its usage of the Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation as its core text.
The series held its first session on October 13 and will hold two more sessions on October 20 and November 3.
Concern has centred on the doctrinal stance of this policy document, published by the Education Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, which states that gay and lesbian adults should remain celibate in order to live moral lives.
According to the Pastoral Guidelines, this stance is based on the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that “homosexual orientation is not sinful,” but “homosexual acts are immoral.” “Homosexual acts” are defined as “genital sexual activity and erotic relational behaviour with a person of the same sex.”
The Varsity spoke with Father Gilles Mongeau, Professor at Regis College, who is presenting the lecture series. He insisted that the Pastoral Guidelines’ policies are focused on supporting LGBT students, stating, “If you read through all of them, you see where they’re saying ‘be compassionate, be careful, don’t use power.’”
Mongeau said that the aim of the lecture series is to help Catholic high school staff to “understand what the [Pastoral] Guidelines are about,” because “implementing the guidelines requires that each of the actors in a Catholic high school understand the responsibilities and the limits of their roles.”
“It will not be a part of this lecture series to suggest that the experience of homosexual or non-cisgender gender identity is wrong,” he said. “What we’re trying to prevent by having this [lecture series] is instances where religious authority or any form of power is used to oppress the young person or cause them to have a distorted psychological or psycho-spiritual development.”
Describing the content of the lecture series, Mongeau outlined the appropriate roles of Catholic school staff. Administrators, for example, should “ensure that homophobia and transphobia are overcome and prevented in the school,” by establishing a “safe environment” to prevent bullying and making sure that LGBTQ peer support groups exist in the school.
While Mongeau claims to teach Catholic school staff new strategies for healthier engagement with LGBTQ students, others argue that continuing to teach high school students that sexual and romantic same-sex relationships are immoral is entirely incompatible with creating a safe or psychologically healthy environment for LGBTQ students.
Matthew MacDonald, a University of Toronto alumnus, found the lecture series via the Toronto School of Theology (TST) Twitter account. Regis College is a Jesuit school that is a member of the TST, which is affiliated with U of T regarding their conferral of joint degree programs. Upon reading the event description and the Pastoral Guidelines, MacDonald described the stance on homosexuality as “appalling” and “pure bigotry.”
In an email to The Varsity, he said, “The aims of this course… make no student safe or encourage them to live a full life.” His email went on to say, “This course is harmful and damaging — as a bisexual man who grew up in a christian household, I can attest to the inner torment and anxiety these kinds of programs and teachings cause in youth and LGBTQ people of all ages.”
When asked about the possible negative effects of the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality on LGBTQ students, Mongeau responded: “It’s just not possible in a Catholic school to propose alternative moral paths… The challenge is to present that teaching in a way that remains psychologically sound.”
He emphasized that “a healthy psychological life is the basic condition for the possibility of make healthy and fruitful moral choices for one’s life. If anyone makes moral choices from a place of psychological or spiritual unhealth, that’s not a good thing and I would never suggest that’s a good thing.”
The Varsity reached out to Althea Blackburn-Evans, Director of News & Media Relations at U of T, for a statement on the lecture series. She pointed out that “[the university’s] relationship with Regis and other colleges who are members of the Toronto School of Theology is strictly related to the conferral of conjoint degrees, and TST and its members are solely responsible for creating and running their academic programs.”
Blackburn-Evans emphasized that this lecture series “appears to be continuing education/not-for-credit, so these are entirely separate from the conjoint degree programs.”
This is not the only time this issue has come up: in 2013, the Newman Centre, a Roman Catholic parish located on U of T campus, made national headlines after it hosted a group program encouraging gay students to be celibate.