TOLEDO, Ohio — When students from a Catholic girls’ school went to see The Nutcracker as part of a class trip to Chicago last month, no one would have expected it to end in controversy.
But upon learning that Clara’s parents were to be portrayed as a same-sex “married” couple in a House Theatre of Chicago production — information that previously had been published in a Chicago Sun-Times review — chaperones for the eighth-graders from Notre Dame Academy in Toledo, Ohio, decided to escort the girls from the performance before it began.
An alumna of the school heard what happened and voiced her objections on Twitter, leading Kim Grilliot, the school’s president, to apologize on both Twitter and Facebook. Grilliot said what was done had violated the school’s “Spirit of Inclusion” statement, adopted by the board of trustees in 2014.
The inclusion statement, Grilliot said in her Facebook apology, affirms that “we in the Notre Dame Academy community welcome all into our Gospel community, including, but not limited to, people of all colors, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender expression, abilities, economic classes and nationalities. This mistake offers us the opportunity to reaffirm that we are all God’s children and reflect on how we can better show that through our actions.”
But Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education, called the incident a tragic example of an inclusion statement causing serious harm, despite good intentions.
“The chaperones did exactly what any Catholic educator should do: removing students from a scandalous situation without discriminating against anyone,” Reilly said. “The school leadership’s response was shameful and raises serious questions about the authenticity of the formation at this school.”
Indeed, after the incident, Notre Dame students painted their “spirit rock” in rainbow colors and added the words, “God Loves U” and “Matthew 5:43-48,” which talks about loving one’s enemies. Additionally, in social-media posts, many claiming to be graduates of the school said that they were ashamed to be alumnae and thought the president’s apology insufficient and worthless.
One 2016 graduate said on Facebook, “You can write all of the inclusion statements you want, but you need action to back it up. The LGBTQ+ community needs to be not merely tolerated but celebrated!”
A post on Twitter from a student who called herself bisexual said, “To be associated with this homophobic decision makes me sick.”
Likewise, most of those identifying themselves as parents and commenting on the incident on social media thought the school had erred in removing students from the performance. The few whose posts supported the chaperones’ decision were excoriated.
Missed Teaching Opportunity?
Paul and Joan Miller, whose daughter is a sophomore at Notre Dame, posted a comment on Facebook, saying they were disappointed that the school was not using what had happened as an opportunity to explain Catholic teaching on same-sex attraction.
They also asked whether students at the school who believe in God’s plan were included in the inclusivity policy, adding that the Church guides everyone, regardless of sexuality, to put God first, grow in virtue and develop chaste relationships.
A post criticizing theirs and suggesting they had further marginalized “the valid experience of an entire population” ended with, “Don’t worry, we see you.”
Paul Miller told the Register that he thinks the school should have done a better job on the front end of vetting the performance in Chicago, but that, ultimately, it was right for the students to leave before it started. Miller said he believes most parents with daughters at the school support the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction, but that the students voicing their opposition are doing so because they have never been taught correctly what the Church says.
“Therefore, they’re believing the loud voices of dissent out there, and the social pressure for these kids to go along with it is profoundly huge,” he said. “If they’re not taught the truth, then they’re not equipped to deal with it in any way other than the way they’re doing it — things such as painting a rock, yelling or posting their comments on social media.”
Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society said that in today’s climate, Catholic schools should be aware that nondiscrimination and “inclusion” statements can be dangerous because they easily can be wielded as weapons against a school’s Catholic identity.
“Terms like ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity or expression’ are part of the culture vocabulary and will normally be misinterpreted as pledging support for ideologies and behaviors that have no place in Catholic schools,” he said. “Worse, such statements can unduly influence Catholic educators to retreat from truly faithful, Catholic formation of their students.”
Although Notre Dame’s “Spirit of Inclusion” statement uses such terms, it ends by saying the school wants to create an environment “in which all may flourish according to God’s plan as articulated through the teachings of the Catholic Church,” something the school president’s social-media apologies failed to mention. Nor did Grilliot state that the school has included in its handbook the Diocese of Toledo “Policy Statement on Gender-Related Matters,” which was developed at the behest of Bishop Daniel Thomas in response to requests from school administrators.
That statement makes clear that it would be inconsistent with the Church’s mission to teach, promote or encourage anything contrary to Catholic teaching.
Grilliot, Principal Sarah Cullum and Margaret Fitzgerald, director of marketing, did not respond to calls and emails from the Register seeking information about the genesis of the “Spirit of Inclusion” statement and how it has been applied.
However, according to a report in the local newspaper, The Blade, about a year before the statement was approved, the school administration was criticized for rescinding an invitation to an alumna who was to have spoken at the academy’s May Crowning. The woman was engaged to another woman and was known to be an advocate of same-sex “marriage.”
Matthew Daniels, senior director of Catholic education for the Toledo Diocese, said inclusion statements like the one Notre Dame Academy has are not something his office suggests schools implement. That said, schools in the diocese do have nondiscrimination statements, which are required by Ohio law so that they can offer state scholarships. These say that the school will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, disability and age.
Such statements differ from the diocese’s “Policy Statement on Gender-Related Matters,” which all ecclesiastical institutions in the diocese, including 62 schools, have been urged to adopt.
Daniels said the gender-inclusion policy statement is intended to help parishes and schools deal with gender-related questions in a way that is welcoming, but without compromising Church teaching. The policy states that a person’s gender is determined by his or her biological sex and requires that names and pronouns, uniforms, dress, bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, sponsored activities and participation on athletic teams and extracurricular activities be based on biological sex. It also includes a section containing catechesis on human dignity and gender-related matters.
In a time when gender and sexuality issues have introduced new challenges to Catholic education, policies like the one developed by the Toledo Diocese seemingly are becoming more common.
In 2016, the Cardinal Newman Society released a resource guide to human-sexuality policies for Catholic schools to help Catholic school leaders develop policies that present and uphold the truth of Catholic teaching. Dan Guernsey, co-author of the Newman Society resource guide, has said that rather than avoid the issues or embrace a false compassion inconsistent with Church teaching, schools do well to clearly and comprehensively articulate their unique religious mission and identity, anchoring their policies in that mission.
Daniels considers Toledo’s policy to be robust and detailed. He said it addresses first that a person with gender dysphoria is made in God’s image and loved by God.
“If they’re willing, we want to be part of how they better understand how they are made in God’s image,” he said. “Our job is to make God known, loved and served, and we want to teach our children to do that.”
In the future, Daniels said, he expects schools and churches to be increasingly tested in this area. When and if that happens, he said he is thankful that the Toledo Diocese has a policy in place.
“In terms of the culture we live in, we have to know why we believe what we believe, be unafraid to proclaim it, and, at the same time, we have to love people and meet them where they are,” he said.
Reilly said policies like the one in the Toledo Diocese are helpful in clearly explaining Catholic teaching on gender and sexuality and providing guidance on how it impacts school activities.
“This sort of statement helps families and employees understand the school’s commitment to Catholic teaching and forming students in the faith and why this does not constitute discrimination,” he said. “Such clarity may be jarring to those who disagree with Catholic teaching, but, ultimately, it avoids confusion and lawsuits.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.