Cardinal Newman Society school guidelines reject transgender identity

by Peter Feuerherd

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A transgender student wants to enroll in a Catholic high school.

What would Pope Francis do?

The answer, according to the Cardinal Newman Society, is to show him or her the door, if persuasion to change back to one's birth gender doesn't work.

The Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based organization known for opposing Catholic colleges and universities that do not adhere to its vision of church teaching, has expanded its scope to Catholic elementary and secondary education. In March, the society released a model set of guidelines titled “Human Sexuality Policies for Catholic Schools.”

Citing Pope Francis, the recent guidelines urge schools and diocesan officials to expel transgender students who do not conform to their birth gender. The standards urge the dismissal of teachers in same-sex civil marriages as well, describing same-sex attraction as "inherently disordered," and also addresses other issues regarding sexual morality. They suggest that dioceses make clear statements on policies to enforce claims to religious liberty.

"The school will interact with students according to their biological sex as based upon physical differences at birth," the suggested guidelines state. It adds that those who encourage students in their expression of transgender identity act contrary "to the pursuit of the truth."

The guidelines acknowledge that schools can recognize that some students may be attracted to a transgender identity.

"Some young people might feel drawn to dress, act, and even manipulate their physical bodies in ways contrary to God's plan. The school advocates that young people, working with their parents, 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 guidelines state.

A spokesman for the Cardinal Newman Society declined to specify if any dioceses have implemented its policy suggestions. But, whether by design or coincidence, at least two dioceses have embraced similar viewpoints on transgender identity early this school year.

In the Camden, N.J., diocese, a transgender student sought admission to Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., and was rejected.

Mason Catrambone, 14, was admitted to the school as a girl named Madelyn Catrambone, but Catrambone's admission was rescinded after school officials were told that Mason was a transgender boy. The publicity about the case resulted in an online petition circulated by students and alumni of Camden Catholic in support of Mason. According to press accounts, Catrambone is now being homeschooled.

The diocese, and the school, said at the time that transgender transitions are against church teaching.

Michael Walsh, diocesan spokesman, told NCR that the decision reinforced Francis' teaching in Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on family life.

"In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explained that accepting our bodies as gifts from God is vital for accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father, while 'thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation,' " Walsh said.

The Camden diocese, said Walsh, has no formal policy on transgender education issues but supported the decision by administrators at Camden Catholic.

"While there is no formal diocesan policy, we do expect our Catholic schools to meet with families individually to understand their concerns and those of their child, to discuss Catholic teaching on the issues, and to determine what course of action is most appropriate," he said.

Walsh noted that "some families may not agree with Catholic teaching and will choose to find another education venue for their child."

A new policy on LGBT issues for the Little Rock, Ark., diocesan schools became public early in the new school year. Bishop Anthony Taylor said the policy only allowed for expulsion of transgender students, but did not require it.

In an interview on his diocesan website, Taylor said that only students who are disruptive and opposed to Catholic teaching will face expulsion.

The new policy, said Taylor, does "not discriminate based on LGBT students as persons, but the policy does set out what kind of conduct will and will not be permitted in our Catholic schools."

Vernell Bowen, superintendent of schools for the Little Rock diocese, said that the policy was implemented in response to discussions last year about U.S. Department of Education policies on transgender concerns. In an email to NCR, she said that the diocese drew upon both the Cardinal Newman Society and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of General Counsel for advice in formulating the policies.

While Taylor quoted Francis in support of the policy, some, such as Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, argue that the pope thinks differently.

In a press conference Oct. 2 on the papal plane returning to Rome after a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Francis said that each situation should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Francis praised the welcoming actions of an elderly Spanish priest who ministered to a transgender person who had been publicly castigated by a new pastor and told he was going to hell. The older priest encouraged the transgender person to "come and confess so you can have Communion," said the pope.

Francis urged church ministers to accompany transgender people and gays in their spiritual journeys, and said he had done so himself as a spiritual counselor.

"This is what Jesus would do today," he said.

DeBernardo said that Catholic school officials who interpret Francis as encouraging the expulsion or non-enrollment of transgender students are missing the point.

"Expelling a student is not pastoral accompaniment," said DeBernardo, adding that Francis “makes the important distinction between theory and practice. In practice, he has encouraged church ministers to be welcoming."

[Peter Feuerherd, correspondent for the Field Hospital, NCR's blog on parish news, is an adjunct professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York. He formerly was communications director for the Camden, N.J., diocese.]

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