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'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

CHICAGO — Ora Amber, a 16-year-old ex-Catholic, stood across the street from St. Francis High School in suburban Chicago last week lofting a yellow, white, purple and black flag that represents people whose gender identity is outside the male/female binary.

Amber, who uses they and them as pronouns, was part of a small crowd rallying against the Wheaton, Illinois, school’s refusal to use such nontraditional pronouns for its students. It was the second protest in a week targeting the LGBT policies of suburban Catholic schools, and Amber, who left the church over its political stances, said its resistance to change was endangering its future.

“It’s incredibly depressing to see because the church has the capability to do some wonderful, amazing things, but they’re using it in the wrong way,” Amber said as honking cars passed by on Roosevelt Road. “I feel that if the Catholic Church wants to survive, it needs to get with the program.”

The discontent at St. Francis and Benet Academy, a Catholic high school in nearby Lisle that provoked outrage when it rescinded a job offer from a lacrosse coach in a same-sex marriage, is the latest sign of a church struggling to bridge the gap between old doctrines and evolving attitudes.

Pope Francis has taken a more liberal view toward gay Catholics than his predecessors, endorsing civil unions and saying homosexual “tendencies” are not sinful. He has drawn the line at same-sex marriage, though, recently telling reporters, “These are our brothers and sisters and we need to be close to them but marriage as a sacrament is clear.”

That position appears out of step with the faithful. Gallup polling, which tracks views toward same-sex marriage, found last year that nearly 7 in 10 U.S. Catholics — a higher proportion than the general population — believe it should be recognized as valid.

Observers say young Catholics are especially eager to safeguard the rights and dignity of LGBT people, making schools a natural battleground.

“Kids who are in middle school and high school today have grown up in a world where queer people and gay people are more accepted than not, and are visible in every aspect of society,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, a group that advocates for LGBT Catholics.

“They understand that discrimination is not in keeping with Catholic values, and they don’t have the same reticence that people of my generation have in challenging the church.”

Gay Catholic school employees have often been fired when their employers learned of their sexual orientation. Litigation has usually been fruitless as courts have cited religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

Student and alumni activism hasn’t fared much better, said Francis DeBernardo of the advocacy group New Ways Ministry. Aside from Benet, which reversed its decision in the face of fierce protest, he could think of just one Catholic school that yielded to a pressure campaign.

Benet’s board members have said little about their deliberations, but DeBernardo guessed their change of heart might have been prompted by a recent court case in North Carolina in which a judge ruled that a Catholic school was wrong to dismiss a gay substitute teacher since the man did not teach religious subjects.

Then again, he said, the board might have just seen the writing on the wall.

“Not only is the generation attending the school LGBTQ friendly, but so are their parents,” he said. “That’s only going to be increasing as time goes on. There might be an awareness among administrators that it’s a losing proposition.”

Benet’s U-turn on hiring coach Amanda Kammes laid bare a division within the school. On Tuesday, Abbot Austin Murphy of St. Procopius Abbey, which founded and financially supports the school, issued a public letter saying he was “deeply troubled by the school’s decision which calls into question its adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic faith.”

The statement drew applause from Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes what it calls “faithful Catholic education.” He had earlier blasted Benet’s “wokeness” in a column for the National Catholic Register.

“Abbott Murphy strikes exactly the right notes of fidelity to Catholic teaching and love for those who disagree with Catholics,” he told the Tribune. “No one is happy with such a situation, but the simple fact is that a Catholic school exists to teach the Catholic faith, and its employees undermine that mission if they publicly reject Catholic moral principles.”

 

Others, though, say it’s common for religious institutions to pick and choose the aspects of their faith they find most important. Emily Fisher, an education professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who has written about LGBT issues in Catholic schools, said divorce is generally not the employment deal-breaker it once was.

“Churches and schools decide all the time what to emphasize and what their values are,” she said. “Even people who practice a religion don’t follow every rule that has been written.”

There is also a clear division between Catholic universities and their K-12 counterparts. Schools such as Notre Dame and Boston College not only allow employees who are in same-sex marriages, they provide spousal benefits.

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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