St Columba’s Primary School, Elwood

From a religious perspective, one of the odd things about Australia is that it’s majority Catholic. Or rather, uh – it’s 30.1% non-religious, and 22.6% Catholic. The broader Christian spectrum still makes up the majority, with over 50% when you count up all the different denominations. Point is, biggest denomination is the Catholics. They’re also massive employers, running hospitals and schools, and they have a major presence in the broader political life of Australia. What struck me was the number of Catholic schools built basically right next door to Catholic churches.

For our building this week, we’re looking at Sacred Heart Church in St. Kilda, which is next door to St. Columba’s Primary School. In its earliest incarnation, the school was built in 1918, with further upgrades across the years, and the church actually coming afterwards, in 1929, rather than before. The Catholics have a long and complicated history when it comes to Australia. They were part of the European colonisation of Australia, and arguably benefited from the oppression and marginalisation of the Aboriginal people. At the same time, they were largely Irish Catholics, experiencing their own forms of oppression at the hands of the British. Sometimes they tried to protect the Aboriginal people, and sometimes they contributed to the problems. Sometimes they fought conscription, and sometimes they fought contraception.

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I’m mentioning some of these complexities because I don’t want to suggest that Catholic schooling is all good or all bad. I have some reservations about it, but ultimately I’m just noting it as an important part of Australian life. As of 2011, 18% of Australian schools were Catholic. That’s a meaningful percentage. We also know that 35.7% of Australia’s reported sexual abuse cases took place in Catholic institutions. That’s 58.1% of survivors who were abused in religious institutions, and 61.4% of that group in specifically Catholic places. Not all of those institutions were schools, but some of them were.

Of course, I don’t want to imply that anything untoward happened at St Columba’s. It actually seems like a pretty great little school. They’ve got a page where they outline their sustainability policies, another one where they outline their (extensive) child safety policy, and another one outlining their policies around “St Columba’s commitment to teaching our children what it means to be an Australian citizen.” They all seem pretty on to it.

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So on the surface there seem to be lots of positives with this sort of school. They’re focused on environmental impact and good citizenship and all the rest of it. For me, though, there’s still a few questions. For instance, I’m not a hundred percent sure how this school might react to gay students or staff. St Columba’s seems to come under the umbrella of Catholic Education Melbourne, who run the party line about same sex attraction. That said, different churches tend to enforce their own policies that may or may not be in line with the people upstairs, and the partnership agreement between St Columba’s and the broader Sacred Heart Parish makes reference to “Creating Inclusive Communities” as a central principle, explaining that people are welcomed regardless of their “gender, gender identity, [or] sexual orientation.” It’s always a little tricky reading between the lines, but if they’re referring to sexual orientation and gender identity, they’re probably chill about gay people. I’m not totally certain, but typically people in the different camps tend to use certain key phrases – you normally wouldn’t catch anti-trans Christians talking about gender identity like it’s a real thing.

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The conservatives are getting more and more sneaky in their phrasing, though. If you read the Catholic Education Melbourne policy (here, again, for reference), it is legitimately difficult at points to tell whether they’re pro- or anti-gay. For instance, they say that “those experiencing same-sex attraction must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” That sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it. They also say that these kids shouldn’t be discriminated against, directly or indirectly, and that they should be able to access confidential counselling services – which, again, sounds pretty nice. Sounds like they’re trying to make sure their kids get appropriate professional support in coming to understand their sexual orientation. They even say that schools should ensure that “school functions that offer the opportunity for students to bring a guest (ie school formals) are inclusive and welcoming.” Sounds like a gay Catholic formal is on the cards, right? But then early in the policy, there’s a little citation: “CDF 1986.” The CDF is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy Office of the Catholic church. And that 1986 article is a ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.’ Let’s take a look:

“Special concern and pastoral attention should be directed towards those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.” 

There you go. Catholic Education Melbourne keeps their bigotry hidden in a footnote. And like I say – it’s possible that this particular parish runs the Catholic party line, but it’s equally possible that they just sort of, uh, quietly do their own thing. Hard to say. But the thing about gay kids is definitely a really important issue. If your school is going around teaching that being gay is morally unacceptable, that’s going to fuck with a kid’s head. It’s also pretty rough for gay teachers, as we know. There are ongoing and quite legitimate questions about the relationship between the church and Australia’s education system. Now that Australia has voted to legalise gay marriage, it’s going to become increasingly normalised in society. Australians have collectively voted to accept gay marriage. Should the Catholics keep receiving state money for their schools when the state and the people it represents have accepted gay marriage as a morally acceptable option? Can we let them have their bigoted little corner when that corner controls 18% of Australia’s schools? Or should we make like it’s black civil rights again and force them to accept the new status quo? After all, there was a time where the church was behind segregation too.

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