Catholic educators are saving lives as they build communities of welcome for LGBTQ+ students despite some dioceses’ attempts to enact transgender-exclusionary policies.
While some Catholic dioceses have created exclusive and restrictive policies in schools and parishes, educators and campus ministers have been responding to a “culture of fear” that many of these policies have cultivated. The National Catholic Reporter recently published an in-depth investigation of the effect these policies are having and how educators are trying to minimize harm to students.
David Palmieri, a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, told the newspaper:
“There is a disconnect between the legalism of many policies and the lived experiences of the human person. They are not creating schools of encounter. They help create a culture of fear.”
Two years ago, a gay student told Palmieri that he was considering suicide because he felt “a relentless sense of otherness and isolation at school.” This encounter “was a powerful moment,” Palmieri told NCR, “an experience that made me say to myself, ‘Something has to be done.’”
Palmieri has conducted extensive research on the policies and created a public folder containing copies of these policies from dioceses around the world. Most troubling is that, as NCR reported, the newest policies released this summer are among the harshest, including those by the dioceses of Green Bay, Wisconsin; Lafayette, Louisiana; Memphis, Tennessee; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.
Yet, despite a rising trend in anti-LGBTQ+ policies, hope remains. LGBTQ+ students are finding educators who offer encounters of grace amidst the “culture of fear.” Mason Freeman, a high school senior and transgender student, told NCR that he recalls “the first time someone at school really listened to me, saw me” when he was accepted as a transgender student by an Augustinian priest who is the president of his Illinois Catholic high school.
Freeman admitted that he is fortunate in his circumstance. Discussing the inclusive welcome he received, Freeman shared, “I’m not sure if I would be alive today.” Catholic schools run by religious orders tend to have more independence than diocesan-administered institutions in ministering to LGBTQ+ students, according to the news report. The Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, home to Freeman’s Augustinian-run high school that accepted him as a transgender student, maintains a policy stating, “diocesan schools will interact with students according to their biological sex as based upon physical differences at birth.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national organization for LGBTQ+ Catholics, reports that only an estimated 15% of U.S. dioceses have policies addressing gender identity. Duddy-Burke says the fear of harmful policies has people worrying if this trend will spread. “We get calls from Catholic school parents all over the country,” Duddy-Burke shared, “who have heard about a policy that they know would be harmful to their kid. They ask, ‘Could it be coming here?’”
The harmful and “often draconian” policies, as Jesuit Fr. James Martin described them, share an ignorant understanding of the human condition and lack basis in modern science. Sr. Luisa Derouen, a Dominican Sister of Peace who has ministered among the transgender community since the 1990s, shared with NCR:
“The Catholic Church teaches that the first 12 chapters are not historical and not science, yet many treat Genesis 1:27 (‘male and female he created them’) as though it were science.”
As Derouen explained, the church’s reliance on the idea of two binary genders is “extremely simplistic” and ignorant of current scientific views. She points towards recent studies that suggest “sex is determined by a complex interplay between sex chromosomes, gonadal hormones, internal genitalia, external genitalia and gender identity, which some refer to as ‘brain sex.’”
Catholic education policymakers must be mindful of both faith and reason. Derouen warned:
“Policy positions that follow from the erroneous premise that transgender people don’t exist are downright dangerous to the lives of trans people.”
Ish Ruiz, who researches LGBTQ+ issues in Catholic Education, told NCR:
“‘Human sexuality and gender are incredibly complex, and absolute certainty in either direction is problematic. . .We need to be humble enough to know we don’t know everything about this, and Catholic schools must teach students how to properly form their conscience by seriously considering the teachings of the church while also wrestling with different perspectives and overall uncertainty on these matters.'”
Looking toward the horizon with hope, it is important to uplift the work of educators like Palmieri and the group he founded, “Without Exception,” that networks Catholic school teachers concerned with LGBTQ+ students. Data from the Trevor Project indicates a relationship between unwelcoming environments and poor life outcomes for LGBTQ+ teens. Palmieri warned, “we would be foolish not to recognize the inhospitable tenor of these policies as a contributing factor to young people feeling unwelcome in formative places like home, school, and church.”
Catholic schools form the identities of young people. The love students feel from Catholic educators forms their image of, understanding of, and ability to feel love from God. Despite the “culture of fear” established by many anti-LGBTQ+ polities, Catholic educators are still inspiring a culture of agapic love for their students. We pray that all students may feel that love.
—Bobby Nichols (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 12, 2022