'It's a competition of Catholic values:' Suburban Catholic school conflicts over gender pronouns, same-sex marriage highlight tension between church and flock

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

Bryce Hughes, an assistant professor of education at Montana State University, has studied LGBT life at a Catholic university. He said policies at such schools are tolerant partly because of market dynamics.

“A lot of them are competing with secular universities for the same pool of faculty, students, administrators and so on, and they’ll adhere to a lot of similar practices,” he said.

The pronoun dispute at St. Francis might be even more tangled than Benet’s discord over same-sex marriage. Students spoke out in August when the school issued a letter saying that in keeping with church teaching and Diocese of Joliet policy, “we have explicitly made it our policy not to ask students for their preferred pronouns.”

More than 12,000 have since signed a petition opposing that policy; about 20 people, most of whom were not St. Francis students, participated in last week’s protest. School administrators did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment.

DeBernardo said while the Vatican has issued guidance on gender, maintaining that trans or nonbinary identities “aim to annihilate the concept of nature,” it is not doctrine, meaning schools have leeway in their interpretations.

Though many have taken an approach similar to St. Francis, he said, there have been exceptions: His organization has done workshops in the last year with schools that took it upon themselves to use students’ preferred pronouns.

“It’s a competition of Catholic values that’s going on, and which should rule the day — the sexual and gender ethics tradition or the social justice tradition,” he said.


Back at Benet, the abbot’s statement taking issue with the coach’s hiring cast gloom over alumni who days earlier were celebrating a victory. Tim Jacklich, 24, who is gay, said it’s hurtful and futile to ask people to suppress their identities, comparing it to the church’s reputed former bias against the left-handed.

He predicted the confrontation at Benet could force the school’s lay leaders to choose between the church and inclusive values; a similar dispute in Indianapolis two years ago ended with the archdiocese breaking ties with a Jesuit high school that refused to fire a gay teacher.

If the reckoning even led to Benet’s closure, Jacklich said, he’d be all right with that.

“I would rather see the school come to an end than embrace a brand of discrimination,” he said. “I think ending on the note of standing for human rights and civil rights is better than surviving but sending a message to students that when it comes down to it, the Catholic church is very determined to make them feel as if they are not welcome at that institution.”


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