Friday, April 13, 2007

"A Courageous Document"

To the best of my knowledge, Kristin L. Gunckel and Adam J. Greteman of Michigan State University have the distinction of being the first to review Creating Safe Schools for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective – the book I edited and which Harrington Park Press (the trade division of the Haworth Press, Inc.) has recently published.

Gunckel and Greteman’s review is featured on the Education Book Review website, and overall, I greatly appreciate what they have to say about the book I’ve been working on for the past five years. However, like many who are perhaps unfamiliar with the subtleties of Church teaching on homosexuality, they make the erroneous claim in their review that the Catholic Church considers homosexual people “disordered” rather than the homosexual orientation.

Of course, labeling either the person or his/her orientation as “disordered” is highly problematic and, for most gay people and those who know and love them, simply wrong. Still, when compiling Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, I was always mindful of the need to accurately present the Church’s teaching on homosexuality – even if I personally do not agree with it. Indeed, anything less would have diminished the book’s credibility. And you can be sure that there are folks out there looking for any chance to dismiss and condemn the credibility and value of this book!

Toward the end of their review, Gunckel and Greteman highlight a number of shortcomings they see in the book. I particularly appreciate their constructive criticism with regards to the lack of guiding questions for the various role-play scenarios presented in the book. I hope to address this issue before any future reprinting.

I disagree, however, that there is a lack of “specific questions . . . to stimulate discussions,” or that the book “fails to give an overall vision for the guiding [theological] framework” and that such a framework is “hidden” in the various handouts. I believe both the foreword (written by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton) and the introduction by Catholic high school teacher Genevieve Goodsil-Todd clearly define the book’s theological framework – one that is shaped by and reflects both the pastoral and prophetic dimensions of our living Catholic tradition.

Overall, I am very grateful to both Gunckel and Greteman for writing such a thoughtful and thorough review. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many, and that the word about this important resource will get out to those teaching and caring professionals within Catholic high schools who are concerned with the well-being of all their students.


Education Book Reviews

Bayly, Michael J. (2007). Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Creating safe environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth is a challenging task for any school, but particularly so for Catholic schools where homosexuality has long been religiously stigmatized as sinful. Michael Bayly addresses this challenge head-on in his book designed to lead facilitators through the steps of facilitating Safe Staff training sessions for Catholic high school educators. The book addresses not only the challenges of meeting the spiritual, psychological, and emotional needs of LGBT youth, but also the challenges of meeting the needs of Catholic school faculty and staff who must reconcile their desire to be helpful to LGBT youth with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Creating Safe Environments offers a pastoral perspective that balances Catholic doctrine and explains the theological rationale for creating safe environments for LGBT Catholic youth.

This book uses a Safe Staff training model that was developed by the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) in the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese. After achieving initial success in offering Safe Staff trainings to Catholic high schools within the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, CPCSM recognized the need for greater awareness of issues regarding LGBT youth in Catholic schools. Bayly wrote this guide to disseminate CPCSM’s Safe Staff model to other dioceses nationwide.

The book offers step-by-step directions for a series of five staff training sessions. The sessions are designed to guide participants through recognizing the need for Safe Staff who can compassionately respond to LGBT youth (and all youth questioning their sexuality), defining the role of Safe Staff members, understanding the needs of LGBT youth, reconciling the LGBT reality with the teachings of the Catholic Church, and establishing safe environments in Catholic high schools. The guide includes spiritual readings, hand-outs, discussion topics, and role play scenarios for each session. Additional readings for participants to consider between sessions are also included in the materials.

Creating Safe Environments provides a much-needed tool to help Catholic schools address the issue of sexuality and the needs of LGBT students within the Catholic educational system. It illustrates the complex and political nature of the situation while asking that Catholic educators address this sensitive topic not solely from doctrine or out of pity, but with an emphasis on social justice and the pastoral need to care for all students. Bayly challenges those who take part in the training to not simply tolerate LGBT students, but to embrace them for their differences and recognize their unique gifts and existence.

Bayly traverses the complicated terrain by contrasting the theological issues with the reality that LGBT students face increased persecution and higher suicide rates than their heterosexual peers. He calls for the Catholic community to take action to embrace its LGBT students and create a safe environment in which they can learn and develop. He does this through various means including an examination of the cultural context in which the Bible was written and the passages often used to condemn homosexuality. Bayly also provides an honest look at the various statements that have emerged from the documents issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, which at times have not been the most positive toward LGBT peoples, but which he recognizes as important in the on-going discussion. Finally, Bayly addresses the reality that the Catholic Church is constantly changing, just at a slower pace than other institutions. The pastoral move to discuss sexuality outside of Catholic doctrine is a positive advancement. While Bayly’s guide may not suffice for all schools, it provides useful guidance on what the issues are and how the Catholic school community can and should recognize the existence and needs of its LGBT students.

While the book is intended to be a guide for facilitators leading Safe Staff training sessions, we question whether an interested person could pick up this book and lead a training session without having additional support or resources available. First, not all high schools are the same, and we are not sure that this model will fit all schools’ needs. An introduction that helps schools assess their particular needs and tailor the training sessions to their situation might make the guide more useful to a wider range of schools. In addition, the book fails to give an overall vision for the guiding framework. The theological frameworks are hidden within the many hand-outs for each session, which are compiled together at the end of each chapter. Therefore, one has to read all of the hand-outs of the book before one understands how the sessions fit together and their grounding in Catholic theology. Each session includes a list of topics to be explored, but a clear listing of the purpose and objectives for each session is needed to help would-be facilitators understand what each session is designed to accomplish. Furthermore, while each chapter includes a step-by-step flow of hand-outs to read and associated discussion topics, the guide could be greatly improved if there were suggestions for specific questions to ask to stimulate discussions and tips for how to respond to common participant questions and concerns. Finally, many sessions include open-ended role-play situations to help participants work through the issues introduced in the sessions. However, the guide could present some suggestions for how to lead a discussion of the role-play scenarios and how to respond to role-plays that may lead away from the direction the facilitator intended. Without these supports, we feel the guidebook may leave potential facilitators in a precarious position as they attempt to organize and lead their first Safe Staff training sessions.

Overall, this book is a courageous document that presents materials to begin and continue the discussion on the issue of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. Bayly carefully walks a tight line between not alienating the Catholic hierarchy while making the needs of LGBT students visible. We hope that in opening the door for this discussion he is laying the groundwork for the Catholic Church to move toward nurturing LGBT peoples as whole human beings rather than viewing them as objectively disordered.

Reviewed by Kristin L. Gunckel and Adam J. Greteman, Michigan State University.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Confronting Classroom Homophobia
Update from the Great South Land (written and posted during the final stages of editing Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective)
A Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues

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