Following Fr Séan Sheehy’s controversial comments, a sample of Catholic school principals were asked for a response given the great work their schools do in helping pupils cope with sexual orientation and identity issues. Regrettably, the principals chose silence.
Silence is a virtue that can say all there is to say without a grumble or a nod. Depending on the subject matter, silence can leave an adversary reeling with indecision.
There is much to respect about silence: it functions as a sort of pseudo wisdom until the dust settles or a storm of diatribe passes. Silence is good at masking our reaction when someone is intent on pressing our buttons. Silence also allows us to hear what we need to hear, a skill in short supply in a world of foraging for hashtags and retweets.
Architect and philosopher Louis Khan describes silence as expressing the unmeasurable in a measurable way. He suggests that virtuous silence is not a sign on a wall with the instruction, ‘no talking’. Instead, it is the mind’s ability to know when silence is more advantageous than opting to speak out.
For this reason, silence can also be a vice. It can just as easily leave what needs be said languishing in misunderstanding. For example, some would prefer I had chosen to be silent rather than fashioning my opinions around a subject many think is better served by silence.
When Fr Séan Sheehy attacked same-sex couples and transgender people from the alter of St Mary’s Church in Listowel in October, he intruded on the silence of vulnerable people, regardless of the feeble argument that he was merely expressing Church teaching.
Fr Sheehy chose not to enact his virtuous silence that day. His comments still ripple in the emotions of gay people and those intent on expressing their gender selves.
Homophobia and gender transitioning expose young people to negative and sinister profiling. For all the supports in place, our world is still so polarised that the more self-expression and individualism is encouraged, the harder it is to establish acceptance.
Schools - in particular secondary schools with a Catholic ethos - do remarkable work against this tide of Church doctrine. Principals and teachers are choosing to guide teenagers through the unstable emotions around sexuality in a way that safely orbits Church rules.
It’s saying something for Catholic schools, whose criteria around faith formation does little to recognise same-sex couples and treats homosexual relationships as sinful, that they can eclipse dogma without censure.
It's because teachers are good at what they do; they know compassion and empathy to be closer to what is required of human nature than abiding by sacred scripture. All of which leads to my utter disappointment when principals declined an opportunity to respond in the aftermath of Fr Sheehy’s hurtful comments.
Far from a scientific analysis, I contacted eight of the largest secondary schools in the county in the days after Fr Sheehy’s sermon. A combination of phone calls, emails and text messages. I went in search of their views because, I feel, Fr Sheehy is a universe away from the work staff in Catholic schools are doing on the ground every day regarding sexuality and the turbulent toll it takes on the self-development of teenagers.
Whereas Fr Sheehy prides himself on critiquing gay and transgender people, our schools – the starting place in a young person’s life - remain committed to legislating policies that denounce homophobia and are sympathetic to transgenderism.
It made the principals’ silence all the more frustrating. Only one of the eight contacted decided to gave a comment: “The recent events do not affect our work…we are a welcoming and inclusive school and one where any issues facing students are dealt with in a caring and compassionate manner.” The rest, surprisingly, chose silence.
So why did principals, who run schools with excellent initiatives around supporting sexuality and denouncing the kind of beliefs Fr Sheehy swims in, remain silent? Surely it was a missed opportunity; a chance to distance their work and real-life experience from Fr Sheehy’s slavish theology.
One can understand reasons for apprehension had the Bishop of Kerry Ray Browne chose silence. But when the Bishop was the first to lambast Fr Sheehy’s less than Christian interpretation of compassion, it should have paved the way for school principals to follow, to take the lead.
Some might say the principals are correct. That my offer is nothing more than a media construct intent on adding petrol to the fire. But this was a fire in little need of fuelling; a fire no one can even got close to, let alone stoke it.
The principals should have responded to Fr Sheehy’s comments; they should have done so as he threatened to undo all their gains over the past decade; they should have done so because Fr Sheehy doesn’t believe school teaching on sexuality should be guided by compassion; they should have done so to prove that doctrine and scripture, while important in its own right, is no metric for hurting people.
Neither are Fr Sheehy’s views lost on many young people. Those facing a delicate time in life dealing with their gender or sexuality would have witnessed the circus Fr Sheehy’s remarks created, and, perhaps, opted to stay silent for the foreseeable future. A dangerous and disturbing thought. Fr Sheehy created a vacuum that sought to 'other' people based on their sexuality.
One of the schools I contacted had recently held a ‘Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation’ awareness week aimed at combating bullying, discrimination, and by supporting the LGBTQI+ community. When I suggested to the school principal this was an opportune time to promote such work, it was rejected.
Work like this is inadvertently targeting homophobia in a majority of CEIST schools (Catholic Education An Irish Schools’ Trust). While it also promotes teachings rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, CEIST promotes positive attitudes on social inclusion of minority groups, stands in solidarity with those most in need, and promotes dignity in humans.
It’s difficult to see exactly where Fr Sheehy’s logic finds room in Catholic schools today. He has chosen not to remain silent, as is his right. But whether or not those entrusted with balancing Catholic teaching and the emotions of young people coping with their sexuality should be silent is more to the point.