New Zealand bishops release trailblazing document for Catholic educators on sexual diversity

Views David Palmieri / October 18, 2022 Print this:
Members of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference gather at St. Mary of the Angels in Wellington, N.Z., on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. From left: Cardinal John Dew, Auxiliary Bishop Michael Gielen, Bishop Michael Dooley, Coadjutor Archbishop Paul Martin, S.M.; Bishop Steve Lowe and Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa, the apostolic nuncio to New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Facebook/New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference)

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (N.Z.C.B.C.) has issued a momentous new document this month on sexual diversity in Catholic schools and colleges. The publication of “Aroha and Diversity in Catholic Schools,” is a response to the broad request for support on LGBTQ issues facing Catholic school leaders in New Zealand. The first line announces: “All young people in our Catholic schools should feel welcome and loved.” (Note: the Māori word aroha means “compassionate love.”)

This important work of the New Zealand bishops manifests the love of Jesus Christ in its courage to seek “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” for LGBTQ children in Catholic schools and colleges. For this unique effort among Catholic leaders, “Aroha” deserves global recognition and praise.

In an exclusive interview, Outreach corresponded via email with members of the National Centre for Religious Studies (N.C.R.S.), which is part of the N.Z.C.B.C.’s Te Kupenga–Catholic Leadership Institute, about their role in helping draft the new document, subtitled “Guidelines for Good Practice Demonstrating Compassion, Respect, and Sensitivity in Catholic Schools and Colleges Regarding Sexual Diversity.” 

On beginning the drafting process, the N.C.R.S. members said, “The bishops genuinely care for the young people in their schools and want to support them. Throughout the process, the New Zealand bishops have been compassionately aware of the need to support vulnerable young people.”

Signing the document were the five Catholic bishops of New Zealand: Cardinal John Dew, the Archbishop of Wellington; Bishop Michael Dooley of Dunedin, Bishop Michael Gielen of Christchurch; Bishop Stephen Lowe of Auckland; and Coadjutor Archbishop Paul Martin, S.M., of Wellington.

Historical and cultural context

In September 2020, the New Zealand Ministry of Education released new guidelines for education on relationships and sexuality. These governmental guidelines included gender considerations for all grade levels. In response to this curriculum from the Ministry of Education, the N.C.R.S. updated its own guidelines for teaching human sexuality in a document titled “Wonderfully Made in God’s Image.” This revised guide is in conformity with both Catholic teaching and the New Zealand Ministry of Education guidelines.

As conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity continue to widen in New Zealand, these updated documents were seen as insufficient to address some of the specific challenges currently faced by Catholic schools and colleges. The bishops have been attuned to this conversation, so the new document acknowledges that in the culture there are some “ideological stances which run counter to Catholic teaching on human sexuality.”

In an interview with Outreach, the N.C.R.S. members offered the following examples.

According to 2018 census data, 48.2 percent of the New Zealand population is religiously unaffiliated. Additionally, the Catholic Church is navigating cultural divergences among its members from official doctrines, including the legalization of prostitution, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

The bishops are also concerned about the over-sexualization of society, which targets young people and influences their principles and choices. Said the N.C.R.S.: “We believe that there is a deep richness in church teaching on sexuality, and we wanted to help with how this can be practical in the context of a Catholic school. We encourage those in education to take part in the study of all the richness that the teaching of the church has to offer, and then they are more able to make better judgments for the benefit of the community as a whole.”

According to the N.C.R.S. members, the bishops’ process for drafting the Aroha document “highlights the reality that being followers of Jesus today is just as complex as it was in Jesus’ time, and the church needs to be just as creative, compassionate and strong in its message of love and faith as modeled by Jesus.”

Preparing the document

The writing of “Aroha and Diversity” was an exercise in synodality and co-responsibility. According to the N.C.R.S., in receiving numerous requests for help, the bishops “listened to school principals, guidance counselors, directors of religious studies and diocesan religious education advisors. Principals involved in the drafting process were very clear that this document was needed urgently in schools. This awareness was supported by the New Zealand Catholic Education Office.”

“Policies and procedures are important and helpful, but they cannot always determine exact courses of action,” said the N.C.R.S. “This is why Jesus gave us examples and parables rather than policies in the Gospels.”

The N.C.R.S. also told Outreach that they “spoke to some groups of high school seniors and some school leavers [graduates], to see what they had to say about positive and negative experiences in New Zealand Catholic schools, and what advice they had to offer.” (A sample of student responses is included in Appendix 1 of the document.) The N.C.R.S. said: “This seems reasonably unique in bishops’ conference documents in this area. We think it is extremely significant.”

Also significant is the choice to use what we might call “LGBTQ language” in this document, similar to the use of the term “LGBTQ+” in the U.S.C.C.B. National Synthesis Report, part of the universal church’s deliberations for the Synod of Bishops. The U.S.C.C.B.’s rationale was that it reflects what was heard from the voice of the people during the listening sessions.

Similarly, the N.C.R.S. members told Outreach, “We used LGBTQIA+ because we wanted to show inclusivity. This is also the terminology used in the Ministry of Education documentation on relationship and sexuality education, and it is the language used by young people in general.”

While the United States continues to see sweeping diocesan policies emerge in response to LGBTQ issues, “Aroha and Diversity” takes a far different approach. When deciding on events or activities, the document advises that “each situation must be judged on its merits.”

“Policies and procedures are important and helpful, but they cannot always determine exact courses of action,” said the N.C.R.S. “This is why Jesus gave us examples and parables rather than policies in the Gospels. All situations must be judged on their merits because the uniqueness of our young people deserves respect, and they need appropriate support and guidance.”

The document emphasizes: “It is very important that ‘Aroha and Diversity in Catholic Schools’ is not seen as a new Catholic anthropology or sexuality theology. It is a pastoral document written to support schools and the young people in them, which affirms what the church already teaches. It is also unlikely to be a final document, but is a step on the journey of continuing dialogue.”

New approaches

The bishops’ letter that introduces “Aroha and Diversity” makes clear that “this document is not intended to be a statement of Catholic understanding of the anthropology of the human person.” The document is not an instruction but a pastoral guide intended “to clearly articulate the rich teaching of the church, and to provide practical information and tools to help schools make informed decisions regarding the support of rangathi [young people] who are grappling with issues around sexual diversity.”

The body of the document is unique in at least three ways.

First, since it is intended to be a pastoral guide, the document shows a preferential option for the principles of Catholic social teaching. Second, the document features a pastoral approach to catechesis on human sexuality. Third, the bishops of New Zealand prioritize the affirmation and buffering of young people. We will highlight each of these areas individually

Catholic Social Teaching

The first paragraph is a strong reflection of the pastoral approach intended by the bishops, with a clear reverence for the essential principles of Catholic social teaching.

All young people in our Catholic schools should feel welcome and loved. We support Catholic teaching which recognises that all people are made in the image and likeness of God [principle of dignity] and are loved and called to love others as their authentic selves.

As Catholic educators we follow the rich teaching of the Catholic Church in recognising that all people are different and that building relationships of aroha must always be the priority over excluding or alienating others [principle of solidarity].

A critical aim for all Catholic school communities is for everyone to feel safe and respected in our schools, and we take seriously our commitment to helping young people to discover who they are and to flourish [principle of common good].

These principles are unpacked more specifically in a later section of the document titled the “Wisdom Within Catholic Social Teaching” (see propositions 20-25).

In our interview, the N.C.R.S. members said, “Although Catholic social teaching is a significant element, it should also be noted that Catholic social teaching is contextualized within the words, actions, and life of Christ. It’s really a relationship with God, self, others, and our world that forms the theological linchpin in the document.”

Pastoral Approach to Catechesis

Catechesis is an important word for Catholic faith education and formation. It emerges from a Greek root meaning to echo, as in the re-sounding of faith from generation to generation. Rather than presenting a rote prescription for human sexuality, the bishops of New Zealand invite meaningful reflection on Catholic teaching amidst the cultural challenges.

Proposition 14 reads, “It is important young people receive authoritative Catholic education in these areas, where they can affirm and test the reality of what the church teaches rather than accept as truth the often limited secular interpretation.”

The document acknowledges that “human sexuality is a complex gift from God,” and goes on to profess official doctrines of the church, including:

  • Proposition 4: Sexuality “does not define the whole person but is a vital aspect of understanding ourselves and other people” (see CCC 2332).
  • Proposition 17: “Sacramental marriage . . . is a particular relationship between a man and a woman whereby their loving commitment to each other (unitive dimension) is blessed by God, and they are able to share in God’s creative action in the forming of a new human person (procreative dimension)” (see CCC 2369).
  • Proposition 26: “Recognise the importance of friendship, that the development of positive, affirming, and healthy relationships with peers and others is a significant aspect of school life” (see CCC 2347).

With these teachings presented faithfully, the bishops acknowledge in proposition 18 that “schools need to follow a pastoral approach with young people; teaching them the wisdom of the church, without the condemnation.”

“Rather than presenting a rote prescription for human sexuality, the bishops of New Zealand invite meaningful reflection on Catholic teaching amidst the cultural challenges.”

For example, the bishops remain clear on the official Catholic teaching on marriage, while also admitting that this “does not mean that other couples cannot commit to wonderful, loving, and enduring relationships, it simply means that such relationships are not ‘sacramental marriage’ within the Catholic Church as they cannot be open to the possibility of new life without external intervention” (no. 17).  

The nuances here are presented carefully, and the N.C.R.S. told Outreach that the bishops were intentional “not to reinforce any harmful attitudes.” The goal of the document is to stand in aroha [love] rather than in judgment, and to promote relational, empowering, transforming, practical care for young people in Catholic schools and colleges.

This approach seems to embrace the message of Pope Francis that the church is like a polyhedron, which “has a form similar to the sphere, but it is multifaceted.” Francis said, “I like to imagine humanity as a polyhedron, in which multiple forms, in expressing themselves, constitute the elements that compose the one human family in a plurality.”

That sentiment is echoed in proposition 5:

From a Catholic perspective the profound awareness that every person is made in the image and likeness of God includes that we are not all the same, literally “thank God”. There is significant diversity in the way this image and likeness is present and lived in the world.

Catholic understanding is richly nuanced by tradition and formal teaching that seeks to place aroha love and pūaroha compassion for community and individuals—as relational with one another, God, self, and creation—at the centre of any decision-making process.

  1. The Affirmation and Buffering of Young People

“Aroha and Diversity” recognizes the internal and external risks faced by LGBTQ young people. These concerns are named as ridicule, bullying, sporadic school attendance, poor concentration, low achievement, self-harm and suicide. In response, the bishops of New Zealand propose a “person first” strategy.

Proposition 24 states: “The Catholic Church has a renewed emphasis on its role in safeguarding all members of the community. The Catholic Church has a responsibility to protect those who are children and vulnerable in our community.”

This sentiment is an echo of The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue, the January 2022 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, which asserts that “the Catholic school is a school for all, especially the weakest.”

Choosing to stand in solidarity, the bishops’ document expresses a covenantal promise to LGBTQ young people in proposition 26, which declares in part:

  • “You are welcome and acknowledged as being made in the image and likeness of God.”
  • “Our school will be supportive of your journey of self-discovery.”
  • “Our school will provide support that ensures your well-being and safety.”
  • “There are staff who are available to discuss your needs, interests, and concerns as young people.”

This promise assures holistic care for all students, starting from a position of “awareness that our schools are filled with wonderful, diverse, and uniquely gifted young people” (no. 6). All of this is expressed to meet the demands of the Gospel so that all children “feel loved, supported, nurtured, and protected” (no. 7).

“Aroha and Diversity” recognizes the internal and external risks faced by LGBTQ young people. These concerns are named as ridicule, bullying, sporadic school attendance, poor concentration, low achievement, self-harm and suicide.”

In their section on “Responding and Accompanying” (no. 26), the bishops assert that “acceptance of others sets a very low bar.” When asked for elaboration on this statement, the N.C.R.S. responded that acceptance is too easy. “We want Catholic schools to welcome openly and genuinely, to stretch out the hand of Christ, to treat others as human beings and not just say the right words,” it said. “We need to do more than accept that LGBTQIA+ kids are in our schools. We need them to know we love them.”

Spiritual reflection

Now that “Aroha and Diversity” is available to the public, Outreach posed three questions for deeper reflection to the N.C.R.S. team, who were part of the drafting process.

“Where did you encounter Jesus in the process of writing this document? 

Said the N.C.R.S. members: “Jesus was present from the very beginning, in the challenge to reach out to the anawim, in the Gospel examples of aroha directed to the sick, the vulnerable, the broken, the arrogant and those desperate for guidance and wisdom.” They added that encounters with Jesus were also found in the voices of dialogue and in silent prayer, “asking for the Holy Spirit to help navigate this sensitive area.”

Where do you hope LGBTQ persons can find Jesus in this document?

The team told Outreach: “We hope they find Jesus in the honesty and genuineness of a document written from the heart by the people of God. We hope it awakens them to Jesus’ love in their lives and the richness of the Gospels, as witnessed in a church that reflects this love—and sometimes fails—but continually grows in its ability to find the right language and practical expression for sharing this love.”

Now that you are done with this process, what words of advice would you offer to LGBTQ students in Catholic schools and colleges, and to bishops and dioceses who are thinking about writing policies?

The N.C.R.S. members responded: “Our advice to those students and staff in our Catholic schools would be to remember that you are loved by God as who you are. We welcome your gifts and talents as people created by God, and do not be afraid to ask for support if you need it. Challenge us when we do not see you as made in that image and likeness of God. We are still learning and sometimes we make mistakes on this journey of understanding, so we may need your patience as well.”

“Life is a sacred journey,” they added, “and the conversations around these issues need to be open and caring. It’s complicated, wonderful, and needs patience and kindness.”

David Palmieri

David Palmieri is a contributing writer for Outreach and a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass. He is a D.Min. student at the Catholic ministry at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

All articles by David Palmieri

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