In Reversal, Saint Mary’s College Ends Policy Welcoming Transgender Students

Katie Conboy

A Catholic women’s college has reversed its decision to admit transgender students after facing backlash from the local bishop.

Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, announced in November that its board had approved an updated non-discrimination policy to allow students “whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women” to be admitted. Yesterday, Katie Conboy, president, and Maureen Karnatz Smith, board chair, released a letter upending the trans-positive policy.

In the letter, the two leaders explained that the Board of Trustees met to reconsider the non-discrimination policy changes given “the sense of division we have experienced in our campus community and among our extended alumnae family.” Conboy and Karnatz Smith stated that, while the board considered its initial pro-transgender stance “a reflection of our College’s commitment to live our Catholic values as a loving and just community,” some worried this “was a dilution of our mission or even a threat to our Catholic identity.” They apologized for having “lost people’s trust and unintentionally created division.”

Maureen Karnatz Smith

Conboy and Karnatz Smith’s letter states that the reversal of the transgender-affirming policy is really about community and the striving “to preserve the fabric of our relationships,” and that the future “is profoundly informed by our journey toward equity, inclusion, and justice.” The next step is for campus listening sessions in January “to work toward understanding how a college like ours can become a true home, a place of open doors and open arms, where everyone, with all their differences intact, belongs.”

On campus, sophomore Macy Gunnell, who organized anti-transgender students, told the National Catholic Reporter the policy reversal was “a huge victory for truth and faith” that shows “just how powerful our voices can be. . .This is a true story of David and Goliath.” Previously, Fort Wayne-South Bend’s Bishop Kevin Rhoades had sharply criticized Saint Mary’s, which is in his diocese, for its initial transgender-affirming policy, saying the policy was “at odds with Catholic teaching.”

Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, at Saint Mary’s College event.

A large part of the Saint Mary’s community, however, was supportive of admitting transgender women—and are now disappointed that the college’s leaders did not abide by their initial decision. Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, a theologian who is director of Saint Mary’s Center for Spirituality, was quite critical. NCR reported:

“‘As a Catholic women’s college, we are now the only institution of our peer group that does not welcome trans women into our community,’ said Horan, citing an Inside Higher Education article that said that of the eight Catholic women’s colleges in the U.S., St. Mary’s was the last to admit trans women.

“‘I believe that this reversal of the nondiscrimination policy in fact goes against our identity as a Catholic women’s college in the Holy Cross tradition and establishes a policy of discrimination and exclusion rather than the community of inclusion, hospitality and welcome that we say we are,’ said Horan.”

Horan is an outspoken proponent of transgender inclusion, having repeatedly challenged U.S. bishops for their non-affirming policies and right wing partisanship. (To read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of Horan’s writings, click here.)

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, commented on Saint Mary’s decision to the National Catholic Reporter:

“‘I feel so very sad that a Catholic institution squandered an opportunity to hold up the basic Catholic value of dignity and respect for the human person. As St. Mary’s embarks on a series of listening sessions, how much more fitting it would be to hold up the public statement of what we are trying to achieve: accepting the Gospel principle of respect for the human person.'”

Before the policy reversal was announced this week, one alumna wrote a letter to the editor in the South Bend Tribune encouraging Saint Mary’s College to persevere in welcoming trans students despite criticism. Gail Porter Mandell’s letter extolling gender diversity and inclusion may even be more relevant now:

“When I was a student, the hot button issue was race. Many considered it ‘unnatural’ to mix races, and the admission of ‘colored’ girls to residential ‘white’ colleges caused a firestorm. It had that effect at Saint Mary’s in the early 1940s when then-president Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff admitted the first woman of color to campus. A single bishop spoke out in support of her, advising her to ‘stick to her guns.’

“I’ve grown to see the violence done to God’s evolutionary plan when any one of us is reduced in the minds of others to a single facet of our identity. Learning to appreciate and accept the diversity and complexity of our God-given world and of ourselves is our challenge as compassionate human beings — and certainly as children of God and followers of Jesus. And so, I pray that our bishop, echoing another long ago, may eventually find it possible to say to President Katie Conboy and Saint Mary’s, ‘Stick to your guns.’ Amen.”

Sadly, Conby and Saint Mary’s College’s did back down this time. Hopefully, January’s listening sessions will help Saint Mary’s leaders understand their error and the harm they have caused LGBTQ+ and ally students—and then propel the leaders to re-affirm trans students.

Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, December 22, 2023

4 replies
  1. Lorraine Kirker
    Lorraine Kirker says:

    I’m stunned. As a Holy Cross alum from Cardinal Cushing College, Brookline, MA. I applauded the initial welcoming decision and hope that with further consideration and discussion, ignoring the unloving attitudes of many of our American bishops, the college will return to the initial decision.

  2. Mary Cullen
    Mary Cullen says:

    Very disappointing. I was so thrilled to have seen this inclusion especially since I have family members who attended the university and I have a trans daughter. I expected better.

  3. Barbara Farmer
    Barbara Farmer says:

    “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” —Matthew 25:40

  4. Nancy H Corcoran
    Nancy H Corcoran says:

    I’m disappointed in St. Mary’s. REALLY…all your sister schools understand the difference between Gender and Sex…and you don’t????


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