When a Calgary bishop described Alberta Education's new guidelines that allow students to declare their own gender identity as "anti-Catholic," it started a roaring ideological debate. The church says the guidelines are contrary to its belief that God determines a person's gender, and that the government is interfering in how its schools teach. Edmonton's Rev. Stephen Penna recently entered the debate with strong words of his own. He spoke with Allan Maki.
When you wrote to an Edmonton Catholic Schools trustee who was in favour of the new guidelines, you used the words "bizarre right speak (the Nazi term was gleichschaltung)." How did that go over?
I did not explicitly nor implicitly compare anybody to the Nazis in that blog conversation with a trustee. Like the Pope, whom I quoted, I was implying that regulations to "standardize" language by eliminating words like "mother" and "father" manifest a kind of Orwellian "right think" we have had worrisome examples of in our history. I do wish that I and those who miscast my few words had not allowed rhetoric to distract from a serious conversation we have been having about recognizing how children are and should be cared for.
Last year, the Pope invited a Spanish transgendered male to the Vatican and hugged him. Was that a show of acceptance?
This is a bit bizarre in the sense that somehow in this moment, in certain voices in Alberta, Catholic education is being portrayed as a place that doesn't do just what the Pope did – embrace them. Embrace people in all their realities. We've been doing that by walking people through their journey of vulnerability. … Pope Francis is manifesting in many ways the best of what religion is about, that it gives this wider vision, a humble vision. And a humility that allows him with passion – and, boy, is he passionate and challenging – to speak the truth about our society. Where does that come from? That comes not from studying political science. That comes from him reading the gospels.
Calgary Bishop Fred Henry fired up Albertans when he said the provincial government's handling of LGBTQ issues and its gender identification policy was "totalitarianism." Is that a fight worth having?
We really deeply believe that Catholic education has been such a blessing for Alberta, indeed for Canada – that it is something worth defending. The Notley family, the Trudeau family, the Chrétien family, the Lauriers, all sent their kids to Catholic schools, and from those schools have emerged the leaders that have made Canada the kind of place that it is today, that welcomes.
Aren't people vulnerable if they are labelled a certain way?
For some kids, mother, father, sister, brother, those are really painful words because they don't have a mom at home. They don't have father at home and they don't feel like brothers. … Adults like to flatten everything up and making it all even. Life isn't that way. It's bumpy. It's messy, and you've got to get involved. There's no way you can legislate away bumpiness. We can't even legislate love. But the thing about a Catholic school is we have a higher standard than any government regulation. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The command of Jesus to love as he has loved is a really high bar. We fall short of it.
As a professor and vice-president at the Newman Theological College, what aspect of this issue have you discussed with your students?
Ice-T, the rap artist, I use this quote a lot. He said to young guys: 'You've never been my age. I was yours once. Pay attention.' I think it's really important to have a society in which discourse can be messy but should be respectful. And do I listen to rap? My nephew is a rap artist. I don't get it. I'm mourning David Bowie and Glenn Frey.
This interview has been edited and condensed.