How much say should a secular-minded provincial government have over course curriculum in Catholic schools?
That is the question at the heart of a noisy political debate that broke out in Alberta this week, one incited by proposals and bottom-line positions the province's Catholic school boards have made for an alternative sex-education prospectus.
In a discussion document that made its way into the public realm, the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta outlined its positions around a number of topic areas, including homosexuality, gender identity, contraceptives and sexual consent.
An early media report on its contents indicated church education officials were suggesting consent wasn't essential before sex. In fact, the background paper said the Catholic boards would have a problem with any syllabus that stated consent was "the major criterion" required to engage in sex without some reference to "the often higher standard of family or faith beliefs … within marriage."
In other words, consent, absolutely, but there are other factors that should be considered, too.
Unfortunately, NDP Premier Rachel Notley was asked to comment on the erroneous interpretation of the Catholic superintendents' view. (It could be fairly argued that a savvy politician should never have uttered a word before seeing the wording herself.) She said consent was the law in Alberta and under no circumstances would any child be taught that they have to "accept illegal behaviour in a sexual relationship." Something, of course, that the school boards were not suggesting.
This all might have been rendered an honest misunderstanding had it not been for other issues canvassed in the document. And this is where we get to the crux of the matter.
The Catholic school superintendents do have views around sex education that run counter to notions now generally accepted in a broad-minded, civil democratic society. For instance, they would be against any course outline that promoted the use of contraceptives, such as condoms. They have an issue with anything that promotes sexual relations between two people of the same sex. Problematic, as well, are any teachings that advocate "modern gender theory" – or the belief that gender identity is anything other than the sex you were at birth.
Not surprisingly, a socially liberal government such as Ms. Notley's NDP has some problems with these positions. And she has effectively drawn a line at the church door, saying the sex-ed curriculum the superintendents are advocating will never be taught.
Of course, this has infuriated social conservatives, such as former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney, who is running for the leadership of the United Conservative Party of Alberta. He is the consensus front-runner and is likely to win the job this weekend, setting up epic clashes with the NDP over this issue and others.
It's Mr. Kenney's view that the state has no business in the Catholic classrooms of the nation. He says it's not the provincial government's right to dictate how the Catholic education system wants to teach Catholic values.
Mr. Kenney is wrong.
A provincial government is responsible for education in the province, wherever it is taught, in whichever system it is taught. The Catholic school system is also funded, in part, by Alberta taxpayer dollars, which is another reason, although not the primary one, the province should have a voice at the table.
Some of the positions the Catholic boards are advocating around sex-ed curriculum are potentially deleterious to society. Prohibit the advocacy of contraceptive use among sexually active teenagers? Is the board serious? Suggesting sex between two people of the same sex is wrong? What year is this again? There is only one gender and that is the one you are born with? Again, this completely ignores the identity phenomenon that has become an increasingly accepted part of our society.
You may not want to promote it, but you certainly have to acknowledge it and educate your students about it. Just like you do the use of contraceptives and the reality of same-sex marriage with all that entails, inside and outside the bedroom.
No one disagrees that Catholic schools have the right to propagate the fundamental beliefs and teachings of their church. But at the same time, they can't be allowed to promulgate viewpoints that run counter to what's best for society, or that might help produce a narrow-minded, ill-informed and careless-thinking student. Students inclined to think more exclusively than inclusively.
There will have to be a compromise found here, one that bridges the gap between a publicly funded board's needs to advocate for the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith with the government's desire to have an education system that prepares all students for life in the real world, not the one some people wish there was.