DENVER — After administrators of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Boulder, Colo., discovered that a preschooler’s parents were lesbians, they declared that the child would not be able to continue in the school.

The lesbian couple was informed that their child would only be permitted to complete kindergarten, but not advance to first grade at the school. Both the Archdiocese of Denver and the pastor with direct responsibility for the parish school issued statements defending the Church’s position.

“Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment,” said a statement issued by the Archdiocese of Denver.

“To allow children in these circumstances to continue in our school would be a cause of confusion for the student in that what they are being taught in school conflicts with what they experience in the home,” the statement continued.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed the issue in his column in the March 10 edition of the Denver Catholic Register.

As same-sex “marriage” slowly gains legal and social approval, opponents increasingly must address efforts to establish the moral and practical equivalence of same-sex couples with traditional unions that provide children with a mother and father.

In February, the Archdiocese of Washington failed to block the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in the District of Columbia, and elected to close its child-placement agencies that could not accommodate city contracts that incorporated a redefinition of marriage.

The Denver Archdiocese’s stance prompted a protest outside of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church March 7, and drew generally negative media attention. But the story confirms that the challenge posed by same-sex unions goes well beyond the issue of “marriage equality” to cover a host of related concerns that will require a more sustained, in-depth response from Catholic leaders.

Further, child development experts, who contend that children could suffer if society downplays the unique roles played by mothers and fathers, are eager to move beyond debates over religious freedom to address the basic needs of children — an issue various polls confirm to be a central concern of voters.

Same-sex “marriage” isn’t even legal in Colorado, yet Archbishop Chaput felt compelled to publicly clarify his policy for parochial school admissions. And, in a March 8 column posted on his archdiocesan website, Archbishop Chaput noted that Church teaching on marriage and sexual morality is “central to a Catholic understanding of human nature, family and happiness, and the organization of society.”

For the most part, the statements issued by the archdiocese and the pastor of Sacred Heart in Boulder focused on the religious freedom of Catholic schools and challenged efforts to treat “the cultural interpretation of what tolerance has become as more important than the teachings of Jesus.”

“Our response has focused largely on religious liberty and tolerance because that is the way we are most being criticized,” acknowledged Jeanette DeMelo, director of communications for the Denver Archdiocese. “It is difficult to articulate the Church’s teaching on marriage, family and the meaning of sexuality in a sound bite. The teaching makes sense on a natural level but often it isn’t heard because the debate surrounding these issues is so hot.”

Media Sound Bites

The Archdiocese’s response echoes similar themes raised by the Archdiocese of Washington during the public debate over same-sex “marriage.” The Maine same-sex “marriage” fight also stirred parental concerns about how a redefinition of marriage might influence public school curricula dealing with family life. Scholars suggest that the growing divide between mainstream culture and Catholic teaching on the deeper purpose of sexual complementarity within marriage and family life has hamstrung the Church’s articulation of Christian anthropology.

David Schindler, the provost/dean of the Washington, D.C.-based John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, observed that public ignorance of natural law precepts, combined with lay Catholics’ ignorance of ground-breaking developments like John Paul II’s theology of the body, have complicated the U.S. bishops’ task.

“Saying more than the culture understands turns the Church into a lightning rod,” said Schindler. Still, he argues that Catholics can’t allow media sound bites to govern the Church’s public response, unnecessarily restricting the full expression of Catholic teaching.

“It’s important for the Church to defend its position in a way that goes beyond claims of religious freedom, the right to conscience and protecting the integrity of Catholic institutions. All of that is granted,” said Schindler.

“The dominant culture looks at this restriction of marriage as a millennial-old bias that has no roots in the nature of things. It seems very important that the Church take the occasion to show how the Church’s position is anchored in the roots of the human being,” he said. “Gender differences rooted in the body are embraced in the marriage between a woman and a man. This unity in difference between spouses in marriage is basic for the child’s gender identity and capacity to love in an integrated fashion.”

The narrow focus of the public debate has worried experts on child development who argue that the traditional family structure, for all its limitations, generally provides the most stable environment for raising well-adjusted, productive individuals.

“All the sociological and psychological science demonstrates that the gold standard for raising children is a home in which the mother and father are married and have low conflict,” said Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, who teaches “Psychological and Neurological Sciences: Gender, Marriage and Family” at the John Paul II Institute.

However, as homosexual-rights activists press their case for marriage rights, a number of well-publicized studies suggest there are no substantive differences in outcomes for children reared by same-sex couples as opposed to those raised in traditional families.

In the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, sociologist Timothy Biblarz of the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Judith Stacey of New York University concluded there were no gender-specific parenting abilities, with the “partial exception of lactation.”

But many experts in the field express skepticism regarding studies that seemingly contradict decades of social science research on the impact of family structure and the existence of innate sex differences.

Asked to comment on the contradictory positions issued by various scholars in the field, Dr. Michelle Cretella, a member of the board of directors of the American College of Pediatricians, pointed to an article posted on the ACP’s website.

“Children navigate developmental stages more easily, are more solid in their gender identity, perform better academically, have fewer emotional disorders and become better functioning adults when reared within their natural family,” states one ACP report, “Homosexual Parenting — Is It Time for a Change?”

“Studies that appear to indicate neutral to favorable child outcomes from homosexual parenting have critical design flaws,” says the ACP report. “Therefore, it is impossible for these studies to provide any support for the alleged safety or potential benefits to children from same-sex parenting.”

The ACP’s sober assessment is contested by scientists who dismiss the importance of gender differences within marriage and childrearing.

The U.S. bishops, following the lead of Pope Benedict, have spoken repeatedly against same-sex “marriage,” most recently in their 2009 pastoral letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” As media pressure intensifies, however, the skills of individual bishops at communicating Church teaching in a clear and understandable way will be ever more pivotal. Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Fla., provided just such teaching in his 2003 pastoral letter “Marriage: A Communion of Life and Love.”

As they strengthen their articulation of moral and social components of Church teaching, the bishops might find some allies among the many experts in medicine and neuroscience who have confirmed the strong relationship between gender, family structure, and the future happiness and stability of children.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.