Catholic Schools Tiptoeing the Line on Gender Identity
Bishops and educators are seeking to understand how best to love the student and extend pastoral care to families without affirming the crisis.
What happens if a student at a Catholic school declares he is now a she or she is now a he?
The Church’s teaching is clear: “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (2333). Pope Francis, in his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, said: “Beyond the understandable difficulties which individuals may experience, the young need to accept their own body as it was created …” (285).
But what if a student doesn’t? How are Catholic schools dealing with it, and how should they deal with it?
These aren’t questions many in the Church are eager to address.
The Register contacted Catholic school officials in about 90 dioceses in the United States during the past few weeks, asking what they do when they are approached by a student who has gender dysphoria. The vast majority did not respond. Several said they can’t talk about it because the diocese doesn’t have a policy yet. Others commented privately but said they don’t want to do so publicly.
It’s dangerous territory. In August, Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, issued a policy requiring that school employees and parents “act toward a person in accordance with his or her biological sex at birth” and saying that failing to abide by the policy could lead to dismissal. Six days later, after a backlash, he rescinded the policy, pending forthcoming revisions.
A representative for the archdiocese at the time said the new version, which is to go into effect during the 2023-2024 school year, “will come back substantially the same policy,” adding that Church officials want to work out some of the details.
Policy or No Policy?
The details can be tricky.
Timothy Uhl, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, told the Register about a situation he encountered elsewhere: A high-school junior announced a gender shift. The student’s family had long-standing ties to the local Catholic community — the parents had graduated from the same school, as had three of the student’s older siblings. Soul-searching conversations provided no easy answers.
“That’s just a difficult thing, because it’s not a problem that walks in your door. That’s a real person, with a real family,” Uhl said in a telephone interview. “It’s a real struggle.”
Nationwide, gender dysphoria appears to be increasing. A study released in June 2022 by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute estimated that about 1.4% of all youths ages 13 to 17 in the United States — or about 300,000 kids — identify as transgender. That’s nearly double what researchers found five years ago.
Yet open transgenderism isn’t common in the Diocese of Buffalo’s schools. Out of about 12,000 students, Uhl said, he can think of only three or four cases a year. Some principals in the system have never dealt with a case.
Even so, the gender-identity situations he has seen are so particular that he doesn’t want to lay down hard-and-fast rules about them.
“We’ve shied away from developing any type of diocesan policy and procedures because we feel like each scenario is unique. … I think sometimes when we come up with diocesan-wide policies, it communicates that students are not unique. It communicates a sense of exclusion and a non-listening posture that we don’t want to communicate. We want to walk with families as they encounter these unique struggles,” Uhl said.
Engaging With Parents
As the Register reported earlier this year, parents have filed lawsuits in several states saying that public-school officials encouraged their child to transition to a different gender without informing them.
But Uhl said he emphasizes engaging with parents.
“I think Pope Francis has given us good direction in listening and encountering and walking with people. One of the things I ask principals is, ‘Where are the parents in this situation?’ I say, ‘Let’s start with the parents. Where are they? Are they supportive of this? Are they surprised by this? Are they divided by this?’ Because I’ve seen it all,” Uhl said. “In a Catholic school the parents are the primary educators, so we want to listen to them and make sure they’re involved in the conversation.”
David Perda, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, told the Register that Catholic schools there treat gender-identity cases one at a time.
“These students are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, which allows for a pastoral approach to the needs of each family,” Perda said by email.
In the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, the emphasis is both personal and doctrinal, said Vince Cascone, the superintendent of schools.
Catholic schools there will not encourage transgenderism or make special accommodations for it, he said, but they won’t kick students out over it either.
“We don’t want to say, ‘Well, that’s not something our Church believes in, so you’re not someone we want in our school.’ We want to respond to the dignity that each person has,” Cascone said in a telephone interview. “The second part of our response is that, as Catholic schools, we’re absolutely going to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. We respond in a pastoral way: ‘This is what the Church believes and why it believes what it believes.’”
Showing God’s love and compassion “towards a student struggling with gender dysphoria” is “a privileged place of accompaniment,” Bishop Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, told the Register.
“This is the place where the Christian disciples leading and teaching in our schools stand ready and willing to tenderly listen to them, to walk with them, and to love them. It is important to help them truly understand they are a beloved daughter or son of God. This may not be an easy task or a quick journey, but one God is asking of us,” said Bishop DeGrood in an email message.
Yet the bishop, who published a letter to the diocese in August 2022 that criticized what he called “transgender ideology,” also said that Catholic schools have to stay true to Church teaching on human sexuality, even if that means losing students because of it.
“It is of course possible that not all persons would wish to be formed in the environment of a Catholic school. At the same time, we have an obligation to all other students in our Catholic schools to foster a culture of discipleship that loves the truth that God has revealed to us and accepts it not as a burden, but a pathway to happiness and holiness,” DeGrood told the Register.
The Sioux Falls diocesan schools policy on human sexuality, issued in July 2022, calls for what it describes as “strict limits” on accommodations for students with gender dysphoria. Students must dress in accord with their biological sex and can’t use bathrooms or locker rooms designated for the other sex. They also can’t be addressed by pronouns that correspond to the opposite sex, and school administrators “are not to provide material or other forms of assistance to youth in furtherance or support of a transitioning process or a transitioned status.”
Catholic-school policies elsewhere obtained by the Register aren’t as detailed, but they generally seek to nurture students who experience gender dysphoria without nurturing their confusion.
The Archdiocese of New York’s Catholic schools “will identify where reasonable accommodations can or should be made as well as where they cannot for non-conforming persons” — which includes students with gender dysphoria — while also pointing students toward the Church’s teachings, according to the archdiocese’s guidelines for gender identity.
Rejecting the gender that corresponds to someone’s biological sex is rejecting reality, the policy says.
“Assisting the person in his or her disconnect with this reality, however sincerely experienced, by agreeing to participate in any efforts to change natural gender expression is contrary to the pursuit of truth,” the New York policy states. “Authentic love, a gift of the self for the good of the other, requires that we compassionately dwell in the truth and assist those we love to do the same.”
In eastern Tennessee, labeling students in Catholic schools as “transgender” is not acceptable, according to a policy the Diocese of Knoxville issued in April 2021, because labels “can falsely promote a lasting identification or enduring notion of self.”
Sex (maleness and femaleness) and gender (masculinity and femininity) can’t be treated as optional components, the policy says, because that’s not how God designed human beings.
“One’s biological sex and gender expression are not to be disaggregated but should be seen in harmony, according to God’s plan,” the Knoxville policy states.
The policy envisions a dialogue with parents and students who disagree — to a point.
“Sincere questioning of the practices of the Catholic faith in order to more deeply understand them are welcome, but openly hostile, public defiance and challenge of Catholic truths or morality are signs that a student, parent, staff or faculty member may not be a fit for our school’s primary evangelical mission and, thus, may be denied admission or may be asked to leave the school,” the Knoxville policy states.
In Vermont, the approach is supportive but also meant to determine if a Catholic school is the right place for the child, said Bishop Christopher Coyne, whose Diocese of Burlington covers the entire state, in a statement emailed to the Register by diocesan Superintendent of Schools David Young.
“When a student and/or a student’s family shares with a school employee information relative to a student’s sexuality and/or gender issues, our first response is to support the child and/or the family with care and concern for them as loved by God,” the Vermont bishop’s statement says. “It doesn’t cost us anything to accept the child as he or she is presenting themselves to us and seek to understand what is happening in his or her life. We treat each situation as unique, and we strive to begin to walk with the child and/or the family on a path of discernment that would be most helpful for the child.”
The diocese will offer optional counseling for students and families, the bishop said.
He added, “Dialogue will take place with the family, asking them what they are seeking from the school and counseling them as to what we as a Catholic community can or cannot do by way of support and accommodation. Our hope is that the family may come to understand what is best for their child as to remaining at our school or withdrawing.”