To help Catholic schools protect their Catholic identity while compassionately addressing issues of human sexuality — including the sometimes thorny issues of same-sex attraction and gender identity — The Cardinal Newman Society has released a new resource with valuable guidance on forming policies in these areas. Fully consistent with Church teaching, the guide can help schools prevent confusion and even litigation while strengthening their important work of evangelization.
“Human Sexuality Policies for Catholic Schools” was developed by Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey, deputy director and director (respectively) of K-12 programs for the Newman Society. Their work draws partly upon the counsel and policy recommendations of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization of top legal experts on religious freedom, and the teaching documents of several popes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and key Vatican congregations.
“Human sexuality policies should, to the degree possible, not single out any particular group or behavior,” the authors write, “but be placed in the larger context of assisting all members of the school community in virtue formation, furthering of the common good, and the Catholic evangelical mission of the school.”
Even so, Catholic educators today have an urgent need for policies that help them teach and uphold truth while avoiding lawsuits by students or employees, as well as violations of religious freedom by local, state and federal agencies. Fueled by social media and an unsympathetic press, Catholic schools face intense pressure to compromise their teaching and mission rather than be charged with discrimination based on “gender identity,” “gender expression” or “sexual orientation.”
But standing firm against the culture can also cause problems for Catholic schools, if their policies aren’t well-crafted. In early March, a Catholic school in Rhode Island made national headlines after refusing to accept or enroll students who claimed an opposite-sex gender because the school’s facilities were designed according to biological sex. Following intense scrutiny and accusations of hate and intolerance from some alumni, the ACLU, other activists and the media, administrators reversed the policy.
Both public and private schools are being asked to accommodate “transgender” students in restrooms, locker rooms and showers by, for example, allowing a biologically male student who identifies as a female to use the girls’ restroom and showers, or designating “gender neutral” facilities. Such options might avoid public criticism, but they are inconsistent with a Catholic view of sex and gender.
Last January, Nebraska’s high school athletic association considered a new gender identity policy, but the state’s bishops expressed concerned about spiritual harm to students. “It would be unjust to allow a harmful and deceptive gender ideology to shape either what is taught or how activities are conducted in our schools,” the bishops stated. “This would certainly have a negative impact on students’ and society’s attitudes towards the fundamental nature of the human person and the family.”
These sorts of conflicts have led to many questions and concerns surrounding the gender identity issue.
Clearly schools and dioceses face serious legal issues when implementing human sexuality policies. But more important are the moral and spiritual issues to consider. Catholic educators must rightly guide students and their parents to a healthy understanding of sexuality, and away from false but popular assumptions that are at odds with Church teaching.
The Newman Society’s guide includes recommendations for mission statements, faith statements and policies related to sexuality generally, and particular policies for special areas like athletics, dances and clothing.
The guide also provides a selection of Church teachings on human sexuality, a sample letter for prospective employees and parents seeking to enroll their children, and a sample handbook agreement for parents and students.
The Newman Society calls on schools to maintain their integrity with regard to their Catholic mission, while remaining as welcoming as possible to individuals who are confused but sincerely trying to live as God has called them to.
“Sincere questioning of the practices of the Catholic faith in order to more deeply understand them are welcome,” proposed policy language on mission integrity reads, “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.”
With regard to gender, the guide recommends that schools be clear: “One’s biological sex and gender expression are not to be disaggregated, but should be seen in harmony, according to God’s plan.”
“Our given biological sex is part of the divine plan,” the guide reminds school leaders. “The Church teaches that sexual identity is ‘a reality deeply inscribed in man and woman,’ it constitutes but is more than one’s biological identity, and a person ‘should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.’”
If this is taught to all members of a school community, solutions to particular challenges become more obvious to everyone.
“A member of the school community who wishes to express a gender other than his or her biological sex is understood as operating outside of the ‘reality deeply inscribed’ within,” reads one suggested policy. “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 the truth.”
This is the opposite of discrimination; it requires great concern for the good of the student.
“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,” the guide explains.
In instances where students are actively dressing, acting or manipulating their bodies in ways “contrary to God’s plan,” the Newman Society suggests that schools implement language stating: “[Y]oung people, working with their parents, [should] bring these types of issues to their pastor as well as to other trained professionals who might best assist them in clarifying and defining issues of self (and sexual) identity in accord with Catholic teaching and God’s natural plan. The school’s pastoral and counseling services are available to all members of the school community.”
There are numerous notes in these sections and throughout the document for further reading on Catholic teaching.
Public pressure on Catholic schools and legal threats related to sexuality are likely to continue and increase. The Newman Society hopes school administrators and dioceses will find “Human Sexuality Policies for Catholic Schools” a helpful resource in further strengthening and protecting the Catholic identity of their schools, for the purpose of leading students to the Truth in Christ.