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Australian Catholic bishops offer guide for schools on gender and identity issues

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Hundreds of Catholic educators gathered in Melbourne for the 4-7 September National Catholic Education Conference, which included a discussion on the Australian bishops’ new guidance on gender and identity for schools. Photo: NCEC

Australia’s Catholic bishops have came out strongly against the medically and ethically controversial gender affirmative model of treatment for gender dysphoria which often involves the use of puberty blockers followed by cross sex hormones, and in some cases gender reassignment surgery.

In Created and Loved: A guide for Catholic schools on identity and gender the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference outlined a pastoral approach to support schools as they navigate their theological, medical and legislative contexts and the individual needs of students who experience gender dysphoria.

Social changes in definition and language around sex and gender identity and the view that a sex is assigned by others at birth or a matter of individual self-belief are in conflict with the Catholic understanding of creation, but Catholic schools are called to remain faithful to Christian anthropology in their educational programs and care of individuals, they said.

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They pointed out that in many cases gender affirmative treatment causes permanent infertility but that model has become the dominant form offered to children and adolescents diagnosed with gender dysphoria or identifying as experiencing gender incongruence in Australia.

“Traditional medical ethics and Catholic Church teaching maintain that health professionals should not disable or destroy healthy bodily organs or systems, or perform and/or advise actions that render a person incapable of parenting a child,” the guide says.

“There are also serious concerns regarding a young person’s capacity to consent to these treatments, as well as concerns with the safety of using puberty blockers and cross sex hormones on children and adolescents, particularly as many research studies continue to note the absence of reliable longitudinal data on this approach.

“A school community has a responsibility to avoid cooperation with actions which risk unnecessary damage, or which limit a student’s future possibilities for healthy human growth and development.”

Rather, the bishops recommend the biopsychosocial model as less invasive and more closely aligned with a Catholic worldview, and which treats adverse childhood experiences alongside the gender incongruence by using a trauma informed model of mental health care.

“Research data strongly suggests that, for the vast majority of children and adolescents, gender incongruence is a psychological condition through which they will pass safely and naturally with supportive psychological care,” the guide says.

“Studies quote between 80 to 90 per cent of pre-pubescent children who do not seem to fit social gender expectations are not gender-incongruent in the long term.”

In recommending a compassionate approach in “love and truth”, the guide suggests flexibility on uniform expectations and other ways to promote students’ sense of safety and reduce anxiety, and notes that in single-sex competitive competition where students are over the age of 12 years, “it may be lawful to exclude a student from a team where the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant”.

Intended to assist Catholic education authorities in the development of their own local policies and procedures the guide also recommends use of the terms ‘gender dysphoria’ or ‘gender incongruence’ when referring to students rather than using the term ‘transgender’, which it said infers “a fixed decision” about one’s identity.

Schools must also provide a designated senior staff member to accompany and liaise with the student and their family and to case manage the school’s response.

The guide was discussed by hundreds of Catholic educators gathered for the National Catholic Education Conference in Melbourne last week.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli said Catholic schools must support each student with compassion, guided by a Christian anthropology. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, chair of the Bishops Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement, said the guide is grounded in Christian anthropology which values the worth and dignity of each person, and also sees each person holistically, rather than defining that person by any single characteristic.

“The Catholic Church and our schools begin from the foundational principle that each person is created in the image and likeness of God, and is loved by God,” said Archbishop Comensoli.

“That principle guides this document, which we offer to our schools to support them in walking compassionately alongside each student we are invited to educate.”

The bishops consulted widely with specialists in education, including principals and teachers, sought advice from parents with children facing various gender questions, heard from bioethicists and other experts in the field, and from the international Church community.

“This will be the first of many opportunities for Catholic education authorities and schools in the formation of leaders and teachers to reflect on how they can respond to gender and identity with care and sensitivity,” said National Catholic Education Commission executive director Jacinta Collins.

Ms Collins said Catholic school communities already capably manage students’ needs in this area, but the guide will offer further advice that draws on theological, psychological, medical and legislative knowledge.

“Recent comments by eminent psychologist Professor Ian Hickie highlight the increasing number of medical professionals who are challenging the gender-affirmative approach and are supporting the biopsychosocial approach, which is less invasive, holistic and more closely aligned with a Catholic worldview,” she said.

“It remains critical that our Catholic schools can speak about the Church’s teachings on these matters in an informed way, underpinned by the principles of respect and human dignity.

“It remains critical that our Catholic schools can speak about the Church’s teachings on these matters in an informed way, underpinned by the principles of respect and human dignity.”– NCEC director jacinta collins

“Catholic schools are uniquely pastoral communities, but it is vital that the Catholic vision of the whole person informs our understanding. Created and Loved outlines a sound basis for that approach.”

Archbishop Comensoli said Catholic school leaders are well placed to respond to pastoral needs in informed and sensible ways, free of politics and the division sometimes seen in the wider community.

The Catholic position is to support the needs of each individual based on their circumstances, respectful of the person and the wider school community of students and families.

He said the guide will build on the engagement and formation that education authorities are undertaking as they develop practical local guidelines.

Access Created and Loved: A guide for Catholic schools on identity and gender

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