The Australian Diocese of Parramatta has split with other Catholic leaders in responding to a new bill that would ban the discussion of “gender fluidity” in classrooms.

The bill - Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 - is sponsored by Mark Latham, a member of the legislative council of New South Wales (NSW). Latham is also affiliated with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, a nationalist political party. 

The legislation would remove “gender fluidity” as part of education curricula, and would mandate that schools inform parents about all discussions of gender and sexuality, as well as discussions on other matters.

Latham said that his bill aims to “re-establish the primacy of parents in shaping their children’s development and sense of identity.”

Both the Archdiocese of Sydney and Catholic Schools New South Wales, a governing body which represents all 600 Catholic schools in the state, support the legislation.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, vice president of the Australian bishops, said the bill upholds the primacy of parental education of children. 

“We know that parents are the primary and principal educators of their children, and schools exist to support (and not supersede) this role,” he stated in a Feb. 3 Facebook post. 

“Such a law shows respect for the role of parents as primary educators by giving them the right to choose whether or not their children attend these classes,” he said.  

However, the Diocese of Parramatta – located in the western suburbs of Sydney – opposes the bill, saying that it runs “counter to promoting and respecting the human dignity of all.” 

The diocese said it was concerned that students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender could be harassed because of the bill’s prohibition on teaching gender fluidity.

The bill’s “prohibitions on what can be discussed within the learning process can stigmatise these matters and people whose life experiences are connected to them,” the diocese said.

Furthermore, the bill upsets a balance between the rights of parents and the authority of schools as educators, the diocese claimed, and is “an unacceptable incursion into the professional judgment of Catholic schools and school systems.”

“The concept of ‘parental primacy’ is akin to ‘parents rights’ and this concept has long been discarded in Australia,” the diocese stated in its written submission on the proposed legislation.

“It should never be the case that children’s rights become subservient to an overarching concept of ‘parental primacy’,” the diocese said. The legislation’s censorship of gender fluidity could even affect discussions of Shakespearean plays where women characters disguise themselves as men, the diocese argued.

However, Catholic Schools NSW said that it is important for parents, not schools, to have conversations with children about gender.  

Dallas McInerney, the chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW, told Australian media that he does not believe the bill is anti-transgender, and that schools should be able to offer pastoral care to students of all gender identities. 

“[The bill] is more focused on learning and curriculum and less on the culture wars or individuals,” said McInerney. “It is around what belongs in scholarship and school instruction and what doesn’t.”

“Our support for the bill is contingent upon our schools being able to extend all support – pastoral, physical, counselling - [to] these kids in our schools,” he said.

Greg Whitby, executive director of Catholic education for the Diocese of Parramatta, disagreed; he told Australian media that efforts to ban discussion of gender diversity send the wrong message. 

“If you seek to codify those things, you are putting a personal perspective on what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Whitby. He said that Catholic Schools NSW has “an ill-informed approach to what the issues may or may not be.”

In 2017, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, O.F.M. Con. of Parramatta diverged from other Australian bishops when he did not encourage Catholics in the diocese to vote against the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Instead, he instructed them to “vote their conscience” on the matter. 

In 2020, the diocese was criticized for its new religion curriculum which taught students about gender fluidity and atheism while supposedly fostering a culture of inquiry. A draft version of the curriculum contained questions about sexual identity but the curriculum did not list definitive answers to the questions.

The diocese defended itself against claims it had a “woke agenda,” and said that Catholic answers to the questions would be covered in the curriculum.

“Our Patron, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, is famous for saying ‘never see a need without doing something about it’: there’s nothing new or woke in that,” the diocese said in August 2020.

The schools “remain strongly Catholic and proudly so,” said the diocese, adding that “We are working together to strengthen the faith of our young people, encouraging them to become attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible adults. The real news here is ‘Good News.’”  

In a June 2019 document “Male and Female He Created Them,” from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican criticized the confusion brought about by gender ideology.

“The Christian vision of anthropology sees sexuality as a fundamental component of one’s personhood,” the Vatican stated. 

“The effect of [the emergence of gender ideologies] is chiefly to create a cultural and ideological revolution driven by relativism, and secondarily a juridical revolution, since such beliefs claim specific rights for the individual and across society,” the congregation wrote.