Our schools are under pressure to accept radical new ideas. Will they succumb?

Two months ago, parents at Sacred Heart girls’ school in Hammersmith received an unexpected letter. “In recognising Jesus as our teacher through the Gospels,” wrote headteacher Marian Doyle, “the first impulse for us as a Catholic school must be to promote greater wholeness for transgender individuals.” That includes “using the young person’s preferred pronoun” – i.e., if a girl identifies as a boy, calling the pupil “he” – and “refraining from any judgement”. These guidelines were the consequence of the school’s Catholic values of “listening, caring, supporting and offering community”, Doyle explained. Conveniently enough, they were also in accord with the Equality Act 2010, which obliges schools to help “eliminate discrimination”.

The letter was vague, but for some parents it was deeply alarming. What were their children going to be taught about gender? What would happen to dissenters from the new idea that girls can, if they wish, be regarded as boys? It was “a very dangerous letter”, said one – who didn’t want to be named, like every parent or teacher I have spoken to on this subject. That won’t surprise you if you have followed the news in this area. Last year a Catholic school in Kent had to apologise to a transgender pupil who had originally been refused the right to wear girls’ uniform and use the female changing rooms. The pupil set up an online petition and hired a solicitor: in the current atmosphere, there was only going to be one outcome.

The Christian Legal Centre says it has encountered “a large number” of cases of teachers being disciplined or silenced. The most prominent recent example is Joshua Sutcliffe, a maths teacher in Oxfordshire who unthinkingly addressed a group of pupils as “girls” although one identified as a boy. He apologised, but the pupil went to the school authorities. Sutcliffe was suspended by the school for “insensitive comments” and a failure to recognise “the sexual and cultural diversity of students”.

Many will sympathise with Sutcliffe’s story, because he was trying to walk the tightrope: he couldn’t in good conscience refer to the pupil as “he” because he didn’t believe it was true, but he was prepared to use the pupil’s new (male) name. And then the tightrope snapped. This is what Christian teachers – and others who feel bound by their consciences – fear: that they are just waiting for the authorities to put them in an impossible position.

Teachers, along with doctors and others, are on the front line, but nobody can be indifferent to these questions. It is not just a matter of whether teenagers are being rushed into processes with huge irreversible consequences; not just of whether the system could be exploited by predatory men; it is a destabilising of our world picture, to which the images of male and female have always been essential. As one parent remarked to me: “You don’t know anything about how your child will turn out: whether they’ll be sporty, or extraverted, or even whether they’ll be healthy; the one thing you know, from the moment the baby is handed to you, is whether it’s a boy or a girl. And now even that is being taken away.”

But no less anguished are those who suffer from gender dysphoria, whose stories are often of extraordinary courage and suffering. Yes, some of them may be caught up in a momentary phase; but for others, this will be a problem for the rest of their lives.

If ever there was a time for a reasonable attempt at pluralism, it is now. In an exceptionally diverse society where we are not going to be won round to each other’s point of view any time soon, we need to find a way to live together. Instead, the attitude towards those of traditional beliefs tends to be: if you don’t accept people’s requests to change gender, you are on the wrong side of history and the law will justly punish you.

Even Ofsted, the school inspection body, has sometimes seemed unwilling to listen to concerns – particularly from religious schools. Last year, it marked Vishnitz Girls School, an Orthodox Jewish establishment for infants and primary school, as “failing” because its curriculum omits any mention of homosexuality or gender reassignment – two “protected characteristics” under the 2010 Equality Act. “Therefore,” the Ofsted report concludes, “the school does not encourage pupils to have respect for other people.”

Orthodox Jews were taken aback – all the more so when a Freedom of Information request showed that Ofsted were taking an oddly close interest in their schools. There are only 10 in the country, but three had been subject to unannounced inspections – a very rare tactic Ofsted uses only when there is “serious concern”.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Rabbi Abraham Pinter, a leading figure in the world of Jewish education, threw down the gauntlet. “Tolerance works both ways,” he said. “Ofsted shows none to people of faith.”

Ofsted doesn’t accept that. “Of course parents have the right to expect an education that conforms to their religious beliefs,” says a spokesman, “but it must comply with the law. And it is possible to do both, as we see in faith schools up and down the country.”

But isn’t there a risk that the demands of the law will overstep the mark? “Schools are not required to teach pupils in detail about homosexuality or gender diversity,” the spokesmen says, “only that they encourage respect for people with different lifestyles, beliefs and faiths. And, crucially, develop pupils’ awareness that those people have the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.”

Put like that, it sounds simple enough, but the experience of teachers suggests that there may be trouble ahead. At a press conference last week, Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster diocese, said the bishops have “concerns … about the law”. Without going into detail, he said that “not everybody” accepts Catholic teaching on sex and gender, “and we need to find ways to communicate the teaching and at the same time pastorally accompany” young people.

For Catholics, all this may summon the distressing memory of Tony Blair shutting down Catholic adoption agencies, which were performing a valuable service but refused to place children with same-sex couples. The government would be crazy to go to war with thousands of Catholic schools in the same way. But there are likely to be disputes and compromises ahead – in the courts, in negotiations with Ofsted, in individual teachers wrestling with their consciences. Here the Church faces a threefold challenge: pastoral, theological and political.

The pastoral challenge almost goes without saying: people suffering from gender dysphoria experience terrible struggles and frequent discrimination, and the Church should be the place where they find they are loved.

But there is no love or peace without truth – and that leads to the theological challenge. Catholic theologians seem to agree that a genuine male-to-female transition is impossible. Nevertheless, that needs to be elaborated into a full understanding of gender. And it must consider the experience of gender dysphoria, and the fact of intersex people, whose sex is genuinely difficult to determine. We also need some guidance on whether surgery might, in extremis, be a necessary intervention. (I have spoken to trans people who feel that they could scarcely have kept their sanity without having surgery.)

Another theological question is more direct: it is the question faced by Joshua Sutcliffe and by scores of teachers when they enter the classroom. They must ask themselves: when am I culpably colluding with a lie? If Jack asks me to call him Jill, is it morally wrong to do so? What if he asks me to refer to him as “her”, or by the gender-neutral “ze”? What if he asks to use the girls’ changing rooms, and I’m not sure whether this is a good idea, but saying so could put my career in peril?

The last two popes have made some informal remarks, but there is nothing approaching authoritative teaching on this difficult subject (the Catechism, for instance, was promulgated long before these questions became pressing) – and neither vague talk of “acceptance”, nor trumpet-blasts against “the trans agenda”, will be a satisfactory answer to the immense philosophical and theological complexities here.

Meanwhile, the pastoral and theological challenges are intensified by the political climate. The Government is considering a Bill which would make it much easier to change one’s gender. There is considerable opposition, especially from medical professionals and feminists, but if it passes, the atmosphere may become newly hostile to Catholics in the workplace. One experienced teacher remarks: “Teachers love young people. They’re committed to their lives. But they’re very nervous about yet more legislation that might impose beliefs on them.”

I would not venture to tell the bishops how to do their job, but one thing I have concluded from speaking to anxious parents and teachers is this: teaching doctrine and giving guidance can be a work of mercy, and at times like these it is an urgent one.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald

This article has been amended online to give a longer quotation from Marian Doyle. It first appeared in the November 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here