Australia’s bishops have published a new guide about gender in Catholic education that, while adhering to transgender-negative beliefs, presents a more nuanced approach than similar diocesan policies in the United States.
The guide, “Created and Loved: A Guide for Catholic Schools on Identity and Gender,” was released by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference this month. It acknowledges the presence of “gender variant” individuals within schools —students, families, and staff—and that they require a pastoral response.
That response, however, comes from anthropological commitments rooted in gender complementarity, or the idea that there is a male-female binary and one’s assigned sex is their true identity. However, the text does admit a difference between gender and sex, though they assert these cannot be separated. The text reads:
“[G]ender can also change over time and vary both between individuals and across different cultures. Rigid cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are thus unfortunate and undesirable because they can create unreasonable pressure on children to present or behave in particular ways.”
Having outlined these philosophical and theological commitments, the guide names pastoral principles and practical protocols. The document describes a variety of pastoral approaches, some affirming and some non-affirming. One non-affirming recommendation is to limit interventions like social transitioning and puberty blockers. The guide’s support for such ideas are based on claims largely rejected by mainstream healthcare professionals.
For practical protocols, the guide identifies key tenets of Catholic Social Teaching which should be employed, such as solidarity, participation, and subsidiarity. Other areas include:
- Legislation: the guide calls for Catholic educators and institutions to protect human rights, not discriminate on the basis of an LGBTQI identity, and stay informed about relevant government policies.
- School leadership: administrators should ensure that staff are being formed in church teachings, “health literacy,” and their proper roles, as well as ensuring good communication and accurate language on the topic.
- School programming: curricula should promote a “Christian anthropology” and be integrated across topics to “use shared understandings and language,” while providing a “hope-filled worldview.”
Notably, the Australian document does provide a more compassionate approach to some of the most controversial areas regarding gender in Catholic education today. Some examples:
- Schools should provide gender-neutral restrooms and locker rooms “that is private and not aligned with biological sex” to increase “the access and safety options of vulnerable students and may alleviate anxieties.”
- There should be “flexibility with uniform expectations” to meet the needs of a diverse student body.
- Enrollment should be handled on the basis of assigned sex and documented in school records as such, though it is permissible to note a student’s preferred name, identity, and pronouns in those records.
- Regarding sports and physical education, the guide states it is “paramount that close attention is paid to providing access and participation for all students” to ensure “environments are inclusive, safe, fair, and free from discrimination.” It does allow for students over the age of 12 to be excluded from single-gender sports “where the strength stamina or physique of competitors is relevant.”
- In terms of school camps and events, “there needs to be an awareness of the unique needs of the gender variant student, thus providing appropriate bathroom and sleeping arrangements where all students feel safe and supported.”
Finally, the guide concludes with two pages of definitions and a resource section. The “importance of language cannot be overstressed,” and both what is included and not included “is highly significant in this specialised area.” Disappointingly, the definitions page discourages the use of the term “transgender” in favor of “gender dysphoria” or “gender incongruence,” so as not to make claims about a fixed identity.
While ultimately the Australian bishops’ guide fails to fully affirm trans and nonbinary students, the tone of this document is remarkably different than the harsh, even punitive policies proposed by U.S. dioceses in recent years. The Australian guide stresses repeatedly that compassion, non-discrimination, and pastoral care are priorities. It makes allowances for some supportive actions, like the provision of gender-neutral facilities, even while proposing pseudo-scientific ideas about gender transitions. And it encourages educators at Catholic institutions to be constantly learning as questions of gender identity develop in society, in government, and in the church.
In short, Australia’s bishops show they understood that dealing with trans, nonbinary, and intersex youth is complex—and that church officials must be willing to engage these issues with nuance. Nothing in this guide mandates how any educator must act, again a striking difference from U.S. policies. Hopefully, officials in Catholic education will embrace the document’s spirit to make localized decisions which are more affirming than the bishops were willing to be.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, September 23, 2022