Some Catholic schools in Canada are flying ‘Pride’ flags. Here’s why

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Catholic schools in Ottawa, Toronto, and several other cities in Ontario, Canada are displaying rainbow “pride flags” on their flagpoles this month, in recognition of “Pride Month,” the annual phenomenon celebrated by those who identity as LGBTQIA+, which commemorates the 1969 Stonewall riots.

While it may come as little surprise that U.S embassies are flying such flags, and corporations are using rainbow versions of their logos for the month, it is somewhat more unexpected that Catholic elementary and high schools might be flying them. 

And the story of how they got there, and why, points to the unusual situation of Catholic schools in some Canadian provinces. 

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So what’s the situation?

At least eight Catholic school district’s in Ontario — Canada’s most populous province — began displaying rainbow “pride flags” in late May and early June, outside of elementary and high schools, and outside of Catholic school district headquarters in some cities. 

The flags have been controversial. While LGBTQIA+ advocates have praised the move, and some schools have said the flags are a celebration of diversity and inclusion, many Catholic school parents, along with some nearby priests, have said the flags seem to endorse same-sex marriage and sexual activity, which fly in the face of Catholic doctrine.

In some cities, including Ottawa, Canada’s capital, protestors have demonstrated outside of Catholic school district headquarters, according to the CBC. 

The move to fly the flags came in the months after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that priests and deacons can not offer liturgical blessings to couples in same-sex sexual relationships.

And Catholic bishops approved these flags?

No. In fact, quite the opposite. But to understand what did happen, it helps to understand a bit about Catholic schools in Ontario.

Unlike their counterparts in the U.S., Ontario’s Catholics schools, along with those in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, are fully funded by the government. And while that makes them operationally viable, it also creates an unusual situation for Church leaders.

The first school in Canada was founded by French religious priests in 1620. And in the centuries after that, most schools in Canada were founded by Catholic or Anglican congregations, but often funded by local or provincial governments, which tended to regard church communities as partners.

In the 1840s, in Ontario and several other provinces, taxpayer funding of schools was standardized, and most funding went to Protestant-administered schools. But Catholic families were able to found “separate schools” for Catholic children, and designate that their own taxes be directed to support the operations of those schools. Eventually, such schools also gained central provincial government funding.

Catholic schools have continued to receive taxpayer funding some Canadian provinces, despite decades of controversy and debate over the practice. Despite taxpayer funding, Catholic schools have often been underfunded compared to public schools. 

Because of the history of those schools, Catholic school districts in Ontario and other provinces are administered by elected lay boards, with the Church given limited influence, mostly over religious education curricula.

It was those elected lay boards which voted to display the pride flags outside Catholic schools. In several cases, the proposals were made to the board by Catholic school students.

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Did every Catholic school district in Ontario vote to display the flags?

No. Many didn’t consider it, and at least one Catholic school district in Ontario voted against a proposal, after lengthy debate on the issue.

The board chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board told the CBC that the Canadian flag is a sign of unity, and the district has a policy not to fly any other flags outside schools or administrative buildings.

Board chairman Pat Daly also told the CBC that the cross is “obviously the most important symbol of our Catholic Christian faith, and the, for us, sign of love and inclusivity, which is displayed in the interior of every one of our schools.”

In a statement, Daly emphasized that Catholic schools are informed by Catholic principles, including “the sure belief that each person, without exception, is a gift from God. When each belongs, we all belong.”

What have Church leaders said?

Bishops have spoken out about the issue, but their influence over the matter is limited.

Among the most outspoken has been Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa-Cornwall.

After the Ottawa Catholic School Board voted to fly a rainbow flag for the month of June, Damphousse emphasized that “I have no legal authority over Catholic schools or school trustees. The province funds and controls our Catholic schools. Trustees are elected by the people. I can only exert my influence on religious education and moral issues.” 

“I have received many e-mails from parents, teachers, and members of our Catholic community who have expressed their displeasure and incomprehension about this important decision that goes against the teaching of the Church,” the archbishop wrote in a May 28 statement.

“As Archbishop, I must exercise my leadership with wisdom and serenity. It seems to me essential to take actions that will give life and not destroy it. Therefore, I need time. Time to calm the emotions and time to acquire the facts to better understand the state of things. Time to consult and ask all the necessary questions.”

“For those who feel discouraged by these facts, do not allow yourselves to be drawn into the pit of despair. Instead, turn your attention to the good that exists. How can we nurture and strengthen that which is good?”

“Let us remember that as a Church we have a mission to see to the well-being of all souls. The thousands of young people in our Catholic schools are among those souls and deserve the best. I believe that more than ever they need our presence and witness to grow in faith,” the archbishop wrote.

“It would be easy to give up and declare defeat. Instead, the Spirit of Pentecost gives us courage, guidance and wisdom to bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ never told us that it would be easy.”

On May 25, the archbishop told the Ottawa Catholic School Board that “the Gay Pride flag is not just about inclusion. It is a political statement that endorses behaviors and lifestyles contradicting the Catholic Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person. Our Catholic schools, and those who represent the participants in our Catholic schools, have a duty to uphold and promote what the Catholic Church teaches.” 

“Everyone in the Catholic school system has made a conscious choice to be part of it knowing what our values are and what they entail. We contradict our values and undermine the distinct identity of the Catholic school system if we pretend to endorse political ideologies at odds with our Catholic faith. This causes division. I am really concerned about the spiritual well-being of our community.”

The board nevertheless voted 9-1 in favor of the proposal.