The open letter (here) penned by retiring separate school trustee Patricia Grell has promoted an important conversation about the future of separate school education. The letter has also brought into the open some misconceptions or misstatements that are promoted and shared by ecclesial leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Edmonton Archdiocese released a statement, not yet posted to their web site, that contained the following representation (as quoted by CTV, Edmonton): "The fact is that Catholic school trustees do have two lines of accountability, one to the Provincial Minister of Education and one to their Catholic Bishop. This dual responsibility... has long been well understood by most trustees."
It is factually incorrect to say that separate school trustees are accountable to their Catholic Bishop. Separate schools are a civil institution. In law they are only Catholic by virtue of the fact that the electorate is exclusively Catholic. Separate school systems were not (are not) created by, or owned by, the Roman Catholic Church. They are not funded by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, they are funded by all Albertans, including the many Albertans who are not Roman Catholic. The laws that frame the existence and operation of separate school systems do not assign any responsibility to the Bishop(s). Those laws do not create, allow or enforce any responsibility of separate school trustees to Bishops. Trustees are not appointed by the Bishop(s): they are elected by citizens, according to provincial legislation.
It is said that a person cannot serve two masters. That is certainly true of separate school trustees. Albertans have seen ample evidence in recent years of separate school trustees torn by the conflict between the reality of their responsibility to the civil community and the myth of their responsibility to the Bishop(s).
Minister of Education David Eggen could put an end to this with a simple statement that would not imperil separate school education and would facilitate clarity of thought and action by separate school trustees, greater cooperation with public school boards, and benefits for all students. The Minister should make a very brief declaration: "Separate school education is a constitutional reality in Alberta, and it is a civil institution. Canon Law 803 of the Roman Catholic Church does not apply to separate school education in Alberta. Separate schools in Alberta do not meet the test of Canon Law 803. Separate schools are not directed by a "competent ecclesiastical authority" (emphasis added), and the trustees of a separate school jurisdiction are not a "public ecclesiastical 'legal' person" (corporate entity).
With such a statement, the Minister could prevent the recurrence of any tug-of-war between public policy and Church doctrine, such as Alberta has seen many times in the past few years. The Minister could end the tension experienced by many separate school trustees as they attempt to satisfy two masters with quite divergent views. The Minister could significantly encourage greater cooperation between public and separate school boards. The Minister would leave the Roman Catholic Church free to endorse what happens thereafter, or create parochial schools (such as are found in most Canadian provinces).
Thanks to Ms. Grell for encouraging an important conversation. Particularly, thanks as well for highlighting the pernicious role of Canon Law 803 in this confusing and distracting some of the conversation.
Canon Law (of the Roman Catholic Church) 803 §1. A Catholic school is understood as one which a competent ecclesiastical authority or a public ecclesiastical juridic person directs or which ecclesiastical authority recognizes as such through a written document.