Jefferson City School Guidelines Spark Debate Over ‘Nontraditional’ Families

The guidelines, issued last month, are called ‘A Pastoral Process of Accompaniment and Dialogue: Addressing Children and Youth in Relation to Gender Concerns and Nontraditional Families.’

St. Joseph Cathedral in Jefferson City, Missouri. Below, Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City.
St. Joseph Cathedral in Jefferson City, Missouri. Below, Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Karljhaake; 2006 AP photo/News Tribune, Julie Smith)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Four years after Pope Francis presented his vision of the Church as a “field hospital” for sinners, and urged pastors to go to the “peripheries,” an increasing number of Catholic schools are moving into previously uncharted territory: enrolling students raised by same-sex couples and applicants with gender-identity issues.

Much of this activity has occurred at the local level, with pastors and principals quietly making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

But that changed last month, when a document recently developed by the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri — “A Pastoral Process of Accompaniment and Dialogue: Addressing Children and Youth in Relation to Gender Concerns and Nontraditional Families” — was posted on a website that attacked the guidelines as a betrayal of Catholic education, for failing to clearly lay out Church teaching on human sexuality while appearing to promote the enrollment of children who consider themselves “transgendered” or whose parents are in open conflict with Church teaching.

Representatives of the Diocese of Jefferson City, in interviews with the Register, acknowledged that they had not planned to make the document public. But they defended the guidelines as an important and necessary support for local administrators who want to adhere to Catholic doctrine, while attempting to meet the needs of students in a variety of difficult circumstances.

The guidelines create an “opportunity” for principals and pastors “to have a conversation with families that are nontraditional and with children that might have issues,” said Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Elizabeth Youngs, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Jefferson City, who was part of the leadership team that developed the guidelines.

The goal is “to see if the Catholic Church can minister to them, have a conversation with them and bring them closer to Jesus Christ,” said Sister Elizabeth, who added that the diocese would advance these goals without diluting the religious mission of Catholic schools or Catholic moral teaching.

The guidelines could affect school admissions and enrollment policies at the diocese’s 37 Catholic elementary schools and three high schools that educate about 7,000 students.


‘Case-by-Case Basis’

Parishioners throughout the diocese have raised concerns.

“You have to make a judgment on a case-by-case basis, certainly,” Charles Presberg, the chairman of the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Missouri and a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Columbia, told the Register.

“Yet the document says that, ‘wherever possible,’ schools should enroll these students,” noted Presberg.

“Instead, the goal should be to uphold Catholic education and to protect children in these households from harmful, impossible circumstances of divided loyalty, forcing them to live and learn at school the exact opposite of what they live and learn at home.”

Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City has rejected such criticism and defended the guidelines in a May 11 letter to his priests as “fully in accord” with Pope Francis’ call for pastoral accompaniment of “same-sex families and other nontraditional families” in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

“An important part of our process is a dialogue between the parish leaders and the parents regarding their understanding of, and agreement to support, the teachings of the Church,” Bishop Gaydos told the Register in an email message. “If the parents can’t or won’t [fulfill this obligation], the child won’t be enrolled.” 

“If it becomes apparent that the family of an enrolled student isn’t continuing in partnership with the parish leadership on what they have agreed to do, the student will have to withdraw,” he added.


‘Enrollment Is the Goal’

The 17-page document developed by the diocese is divided into two parts.

The first section outlines a process for working with “nontraditional” families and students and describes various scenarios that require special attention from school leaders and possibly diocesan administrators.

The document provides a flow chart to explain the process of evaluating applicants for parochial schools and CCD programs who are raised by Catholic and non-Catholic cohabitating couples, divorced-and-civilly-remarried parents, and same-sex partners.

“When a family falls into one of these special categories, the DRE [director of religious education] and pastor/P.A. [pastoral assistant] should use the following process. Wherever possible, enrollment is the goal [emphasis original].”

According to the approved framework, school officials first meet the family and student, with the goal of determining whether the parish school “would be a welcoming environment” for the student. If the child appears to be a good fit, the leadership team uses a shorter document, the “Covenant of Trust,” as a “starting point” for a dialogue about the mission of Catholic education and the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics.

The framework is designed to help the school and parish evaluate the parents’ “ability to respect and help their child respect [Church] teachings and support the moral and social doctrine of the Church.”

Separate directions are provided for discussions that involve same-sex couples who are members of the parish and those who are “distanced from the parish,” and so do not directly assist with subsidies that keep parochial elementary schools afloat in the diocese. All parishioners underwrite the tuition for their school, and parents who are not in the parish must pay tuition.


School’s Expectations

The pastor is asked to help both groups of parents understand the school’s expectations for them. But the objective disorder of same-sex relationships and the conflict with Church teaching that poses for the prospective student and family who must pledge their respect for Catholic doctrine is not squarely addressed in the document, and that unstated conflict has disturbed some local Catholics.

“I don’t want people to think that those of us who oppose the guidelines are against reaching out to these families. We are concerned about how this is being handled,” David Barton, a parishioner at Mary Immaculate Church in Kirksville and the grandparent of three children at the parish school, told the Register.

As Barton sees it, the guidelines seem to emphasize “how the school can change” in order to welcome “nontraditional” students and families, “but there is nothing on how they should change. The truth is you have to work on the sin and get that out of your life.”

Barton wants the local Church, through its pastors, to lead the process and assess the applicants’ sincere desire to adhere to Catholic teaching and take part in a parish-school community. 

The document also helps school officials dialogue with cohabitating couples and divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics.

Pastors are asked to initiate a discussion about their relationship and marital history, to better understand the situation and, hopefully, to help them resolve any obstacle that bars them from legal marriage or the sacrament of matrimony.

Further, the document explains how schools should respond to enrolled students who have begun to deal with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.

While school officials are directed to address the immediate emotional needs of the students, the guidelines also call for a practical evaluation of the “common good.”

The guidelines do not offer a holistic Christian vision of the meaning and purpose of the human body and sexuality. In fact, a “suggested glossary of terms drawn from credible sources” includes terms and definitions approved by the American Psychology Association, which no longer views gender dysphoria as a psychological disorder and describes biological sex as “sex assigned at birth.”

But the document does list a broad range of doctrinal and pastoral texts for further study. And it features a number of support groups and ministries for persons with same-sex attraction and gender-identity issues.

The second part of the document centers on the “Covenant of Trust,” a statement designed to ground a dialogue about the mission of Catholic education and the responsibility of parents “to be, in word and deed, the first and best teacher of their children in the faith.”

Every student enrolled in a diocesan school, along with their parents, must sign the covenant. They are already required to sign a handbook, which outlines the “hierarchy of consequences” for violations of school policy.


Question of Implementation

However, it is not yet clear how the guidelines will be implemented at local schools.

Father Greg Meystrik, pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish and school in the blue-collar suburb of Taos, told the Register that he had initially viewed the guidelines as a draft document that would prompt further conversations between pastors and principals, and he further suggested it would have little relevance for the “traditional” community he serves.

Still, the pastor singled out the document’s treatment of cohabitating couples and speculated that it might inspire local parish schools to rethink what he sees as a pattern of either rejecting such families as unsuitable or accepting them “without helping them to resolve their situation.”

The diocese, for its part, has framed the guidelines as a “tool,” not a “mandate.” And Sister Elizabeth told the Register that two situations that surfaced in the 2015-2016 year — a same-sex couple who sought to enroll their child in a parochial school and a previously enrolled child who now identifies with the opposite sex — underscored the need for advance planning.

She noted that, in the first case, the parents opted not to apply to the school, after they better understood its religious mission, and, in the second case, the student decided to leave.


Open Challenge

In recent years, a growing number of dioceses have grappled with more high-profile disputes that involve students and faculty openly challenging Catholic teaching on marriage, sexual ethics, life issues and assisted reproduction, as well as Church policies that limit accommodations for gender-identity issues. The subject is so sensitive that five other dioceses contacted for this story declined to discuss whether they had guidelines in place to address such matters.

Asked if he is worried that the Diocese of Jefferson City could find itself in the crosshairs of “LGBT” activists, Bishop Gaydos said he isn’t concerned about outside interference with the schools’ internal policies.

“We’re a rural diocese, and we don’t have, nor do we expect, a lot of LGBT advocacy here,” he said.

“If there is any indication that a family isn’t sincere about obtaining a Catholic education for their child, or is part of some plan to bully the school or parish into admitting a child, the child will not be enrolled.”

Meanwhile, Nashville Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Education, told the Register that her office has encouraged diocesan school superintendents to “draw together major stakeholders — parents, teachers, principals, canon lawyers and the bishop — and begin that conversation [about emerging challenges to Catholic education] before they launch into school policy.”


Evaluation of School Policies

School mission statements, as well as established and proposed policies, should be evaluated for “clarity” and “consistency,” said Sister John Mary, and she recommended “soft skills” training to help schools handle new and difficult discussions with parents and students.

“How do you have a conversation that is not isolating or alienating, yet true to the teaching of the Church?” she explained.

Asked to comment on the advisability of enrolling students dealing with gender dysphoria, Sister John Mary said that schools should carefully evaluate each case, but stressed that they cannot “condone hormone therapy,” an approach that is now recommended by mainstream medical authorities for children as young as age 14 who believe that they are “trapped” in the body of the wrong sex.

Likewise, John DiCamillo, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said that Church schools “should never accept or implement any ‘gender affirmation’ for a child with a clearly identified bodily sex who believes he or she has a different gender identity.”

“The school should not admit a child into the bathrooms of the opposite sex on the basis of a gender-identity claim, allow the child to adopt the dress code of the opposite sex, or require other students and teachers to use the child’s ‘preferred pronoun,’” said DiCamillo, though he noted that single-occupancy bathrooms could be acceptable. “Generally speaking, any counseling or support that would help the child to accept and love his or her body and the sexual identity it manifests should be encouraged.”

The Jefferson City guidelines do not clarify these points. And legal specialists like Eric Kniffin, who advises dioceses that want to fine-tune school mission statements and protect their institutions from litigation, say clarity is key.

“The religious school controversies that make headlines or wind up in court typically involve muddled or poorly communicated policies,” said Kniffin, the author of Protecting Your Right to Serve: How Religious Ministries Can Meet New Challenges Without Changing Their Witness.

“When policies related to religious faith and conduct are not carefully written and consistently implemented, students, parents and employees can plausibly claim they didn’t know what the standards were,” he said. “Mixed messages make controversies over religious standards more likely to arise and harder to defend.”

The process of developing strong guidelines “begins with a high-level conversation that asks, ‘What is a Catholic school?’” he added.

“Once the mission is clear, dioceses need legal counsel to decide how best to achieve these pastoral goals, taking into account the ever-changing legal landscape. Undertaking this review is crucial — as a matter of stewardship and prudent pastoral leadership.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.