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Church voices weigh in on confusion over some Catholic schools teaching gender-neutral prayers

Student in a classroom
Gender confusion: “If we are praying the liturgy we are praying with an orthodox faith, the Catholic faith, but when we change those words to suit ourselves, well, we are going beyond what the Church has given us how to pray.”

A CANON lawyer has spoken out about the correct form of prayers, after a mainstream media furore about some Brisbane Catholic girls’ schools teaching gender-neutral descriptions to replace traditional terms like “Lord”, “Father”, and “Son” during prayers.

“My observation is that many teachers in Catholic schools don’t know the Catholic faith, and Catholics among them don’t practise the Catholic faith, and so it’s no surprise they do these sorts of things,” canon lawyer and Oratory in Formation moderator Fr Adrian Sharp (pictured) said.

“They don’t know the Catholic faith – how can they pass on the faith properly?”

While Fr Sharp points to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are many voices in the gender-neutral conversation. 

“God is above all that” is how long-time educator Presentation Sister Elvera Sesta reacted to the latest media reporting.

“It’s an historical fact that Jesus was a man – that’s the form that Jesus took,” 81-year-old Sr Sesta, who was a student, teacher and principal at St Rita’s College, Clayfield, said.

“But when I think of God in general, God is all surpassing, God is bigger than that.”

St Rita’s and several other religious institute Catholic schools – All Hallows’, Brisbane; Loreto College, Coorparoo; and Stuartholme School, Toowong – were singled out in a Sunday Mail story on June 2 as “leading a push towards a feminist interpretation of the Christian Bible”.

Stuartholme has replaced the word “himself” with “Godself”.

The issue was picked up by national papers and on radio, and did not sit well with Australian Christian lobbyist Lyle Shelton who described gender-neutral prayers as “political correctness gone mad”.

 “This is part of some PC (politically correct) narrative that wants to present masculinity and fatherhood as somehow toxic,” he said.

The Sunday Mail reported that students at All Hallows’ School made the sign of the cross in the name of “The Creator, Jesus and the Holy Spirit’’, and Loreto College had stripped the word “Lord” from its prayers, as it was regarded as a “male term”.

St Rita’s uses gender-neutral terms for God, but the school still uses traditional prayers such as the Our Father.

“Having been taught at St Rita’s, gone here and then been here for most of my life I just take it for granted we’re all on an even keel – both male and female,” Sr Sesta (pictured right)  said.

“And it strikes me as odd when people seem to think that males are above us.”

In 2001, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was clear in directing principals: “Calling God Father and Lord must remain in Catholic liturgical prayer, but should be balanced with other non-gender-specific forms of address”.

Fr Sharp said the Catechism of the Catholic Church offered the final word.

“If we are praying the liturgy we are praying with an orthodox faith, the Catholic faith, but when we change those words to suit ourselves, well, we are going beyond what the Church has given us how to pray,” he said.

“On the sign of the cross – the Catechism explains quite clearly what ‘in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ means. 

“On whose authority do people change that?

“This has been going on for years, and it’s being tolerated.

“People should have been upset years ago, and it’s been going on in parishes too – people changing the language, people not saying what is actually in the missal, and that’s a real problem, because the way we change things affects our belief.

“Canon law is clear. In all schools in the diocese, even non-Catholic schools, the bishop has the right to look into who is teaching the faith and make sure they are sound in what they are teaching.”

St Rita’s College assistant principal for mission Richard Rogusz said The Sunday Mail story had created “a veritable storm in a tea cup”.

“The Sunday Mail had the opportunity to engage its readers in a constructive dialogue about gender and religion. It missed that opportunity, and sadly, has sought to sensationalise and divide,” he wrote in a message to staff.

“That aside, questions of how we speak about God is nothing new for Catholic schools. 

“It has been part of our theological thinking for some decades now. 

“In fact, to define God by gender, fails to grasp the mystery of God.”

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