Are We Failing Them?

Being Gay and Lesbian in a Catholic High Schoolby By Michael Maher Jr.Harrington Park Press. 172p ($49.95 hardcover) ($17.95 paper)

Though it has its flaws, this book should nevertheless be read and pondered by every Catholic educator. It is flawed because it fails to overcome the limitations of the sociological genre. Despite that, it is important reading because it is faithful both to church teaching and to the testimony of the students whose lives it describes.

Michael Maher currently serves as chaplain to the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago. Before coming to Loyola, he worked as a campus minister and parish director of religious education in Missouri.

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In 1995 and 1996, he interviewed 25 gay and lesbian adults who had attended Catholic high schools in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He also conducted two student surveys. On average, he spent about two hours with each interviewee. Excerpts from the resulting transcripts constitute the heart of Maher’s book. As Maher remarks, the students shine through in their stories.

The interviews demonstrate the courage it takes to be a gay or lesbian student in a Catholic high school. They also document Maher’s conclusion that the goals of Catholic education are not being fulfilled for gay and lesbian students.

Maher organizes his book’s seven chapters around the twin themes of integration and disintegration. He does so because, as he points out in the book’s introduction, One theme that runs through Catholic educational philosophy in the statements of the magisterium is integration. Things are supposed to fit together as a whole in Catholic education.

In successive chapters, Maher examines the themes of family-school integration, community-school integration, cultural and institutional integration, spiritual integration and integration of personal identity. He begins each chapter with an examination of the teaching of the church magisterium, supported by copious documentary references. He then provides excerpts from his student interviews to illustrate the topic at hand. At the conclusion of each chapter, he adds some reflections of his own.

The formality of this chapter structure makes Maher’s book somewhat wooden and ponderous. What saves the day is the honesty, clarity and humanity of the student interviewees. No one can read what these students have to say without concluding that Catholic high schools are seriously failing in their educational mission when it comes to gay and lesbian students. The pious admonitions of the Catholic magisterium are being lost in a vast sea of homophobia.

Some gay and lesbian students survive better than others. Some find good role models. Some recall their high schools with fondness, but some look back on an educational experience characterized by constant verbal and physical harassment that faculty members did nothing to stop.

Many of the students no longer practice their faith. As Maher puts it, The experiences in Catholic high schools of many of the people I interviewed left them not just out of the Catholic Church but also very angry with it.

The church owes better treatment to the one student in 15 or 20 who is gay or lesbian. First, says Maher, the silence on this topic [of homosexuality] must be broken. As he points out, the bishops stress that the topic cannot be ignored. Second, quoting the United States Catholic Conference, Maher urges Catholic schools to become much more vigorous about teaching respect for every human person, regardless of sexual orientation.

The clear, honest voices of Maher’s student interviewees show how far Catholic schools have yet to go to achieve that ideal.

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