They are stubborn in defence of views that increasingly look anachronistic. Somehow, they have convinced themselves that the “diversity” of their province hinges on their ability to continue implicitly or directly telling some of the most vulnerable kids in the high-school system that there’s something wrong with them.
So, yes, it's easy right now to gang up on Ontario's Catholic leaders. But in the protracted fight over “gay-straight alliances” that seems to have come to a head this week, they're not the ones who really deserve to be feeling the heat.
That honour goes, instead, to the men and women running the province, who prefer to tell religious leaders how they should change their moral code rather than tell them they no longer have any business advancing that code through publicly funded schools.
To most of the rest of the Western world, it would come as little surprise that Catholics in Ontario – the ones in senior positions within the church, at least – are uncomfortable telling kids that it’s okay to be gay. The surprise, rather, would be that Ontario still has a publicly funded Catholic school system beyond any point at which it’s reasonably needed or defensible as a minority right.
For that matter, we’re also rapidly passing the point at which that system’s Catholicism has any real meaning. To many of us, the church’s willingness to allow its identity to be heavily shaped by its positions on hot-button social issues – gay rights and abortion first among them – might seem peculiar. But to tell Catholics they can have their own schools but not their own beliefs surely defeats whatever purpose these schools are still supposed to serve.
That leaves – should leave – two choices.
One would be to let Catholics run their publicly funded schools according to their value system. Never mind that many of the students aren’t really there for a religious education, since there aren’t actually enough religious Catholics to sustain a parallel system in many parts of the province. This is our system, and we’re sticking with it.
The other would be for government finally to accept that, sometimes, progress involves a few headaches, and start treating Catholics the same as everyone else – free to practice their faith as they see fit, including with religious schools, but not on the public dime.
Privately, many of the people in and around government believe that’s the right way to go, and some take it as a given that it will eventually happen. But somehow, it remains a third rail that nobody in a position of power is willing to touch.
Not Dalton McGuinty, whose own Catholic upbringing, and subsequent emergence as a social liberal and self-styling as the “education Premier” would make him uniquely well-suited to tackle the issue. Not either of the opposition leaders, Tim Hudak or Andrea Horwath. (The lone exception among party chiefs is Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, but it would be a stretch to say he’s in a position of power.) And not Don Drummond, the economist who earlier this year delivered a report with some 360 recommendations to make government more efficient, yet somehow managed to overlook the waste from doubling up on school administration across the province.
Now that the GSAs have once again brought attention to how outdated the system is, our leaders have another opportunity to get this right. At a minimum, they should level with Catholic leaders, by urging them to forego public funding if they want to receive the same treatment – and have the same freedom – as every other religion or denomination.
Still, it seems easier to gloss over the obvious.
On Monday, Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod accused Mr. McGuinty’s government of having “provoked the Catholic education system,” and of laying the groundwork for defunding it, by insisting that schools recognize GSAs. That she thought this would be a bad thing was slightly odd, given that Ms. MacLeod is a young MPP who has intermittently championed the kinds of anti-bullying measures that so trouble separate schools, but she needn’t worry. The government has thus far shown more inclination to try to make Catholicism palatable to the masses than tell Catholics to practice it on their own time.