An all-female Catholic college will admit trans women. Bigots can't handle it.
Saint Mary’s College in Indiana cited Pope Francis in defense of the inclusive admissions policy
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Saint Mary’s College, an all-women’s Catholic school in Indiana, is facing significant backlash after announcing that it will begin accepting transgender women beginning next fall.
Back in June, the school, whose mission is to “empower women, through education, at all stages in life,” announced that it had updated its non-discrimination policy so that admission would be considered for anyone “whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women.” In short: They would start to admit trans women.
That in itself isn’t as shocking as it might seem. Private Catholic schools routinely open their doors to students who aren’t Catholic, who openly oppose Catholic doctrine, and who don’t fit the Church’s idea of a True Catholic™. (Hell, I got my graduate degree from a Catholic institution.)
That may seem hypocritical but it’s how Catholic institutions often work in practice. There’s a huge divide between them and the Church hierarchy. It’s necessary, too, given that the pews would be pretty damn empty if the Church kicked out people who opposed its doctrine. Most practicing Catholics are far more tolerant than the pope or the Vatican. In the United States, 61% of Catholics support marriage equality while 76% believe society should be accepting of homosexuality. That’s true despite the Church saying homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and refusing to celebrate or recognize same-sex marriages.
When it comes to trans people, the Church is even more pronounced in its bigotry: The Vatican says trans identities seek to “annihilate the concept of nature.“ Yet 37% of U.S. Catholics acknowledge the existence of trans people, which is low but in line with Americans as a whole. It’s also 37% higher than the Vatican wants to see.
The point it: For this women’s college to admit trans women simply isn’t that radical, even for a Catholic institution. It’s certainly not unique. According to Campus Pride, “22 historically women’s colleges have formal policies that admit at least some trans students.” That number includes all-women’s Catholic schools like the College of St. Benedict and St. Catherine University, both in Minnesota, and Mount Mary University in Wisconsin.
Saint Mary’s President Katie Conboy indirectly referenced those schools when announcing the policy change:
Earlier this year, Conboy assembled a President’s Task Force for Gender Identity and Expression that will present recommendations for housing considerations and on community education around both Catholic identity and women’s college identity.
“We are by no means the first Catholic women’s college to adopt a policy with this scope,” Conboy wrote. “In drafting the language for this update, I have relied on the guidance of the Executive Team and others to ensure that our message is not only in line with best practices for today’s college students, but that it also encompasses our commitment to operate as a Catholic women’s college.”
It wasn’t a unilateral decision, either. Conboy said the school’s 33-member Board of Trustees “fully supports” the change. They’re the ones who approved the amended non-discrimination policy over the summer.
If anything, Conboy suggested she was just doing what Pope Francis would want her to do. Her letter to students mentioned that the pope “advocates for love as the appropriate approach to those who are different from ourselves” (emphasis hers).
While the pope is, indeed, Catholic, and promotes and accepts the anti-trans doctrine and even said earlier this year that “gender ideology… is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations,” he also said in October that trans people (in certain situations) could be baptized, become godparents, and serve as witnesses for Catholic weddings. While that’s hardly acceptance or affirmation, it’s also a far cry from the Catholic playbook that denies trans identities altogether.
Is that hypocrisy? The school doesn’t think so. After all, the pope has repeatedly differentiated between caring for people who are LGBTQ (“Who am I to judge?”) and affirming their gender identities or sexual orientations. And if you’re running a Catholic college, then allowing trans people into your community doesn’t violate the doctrine.
(Why would trans people want to go to a Catholic school? That’s a separate discussion, but everyone has their own reasons for choosing what school they attend, whether it’s the professors and programs, a preference (in this case) for being around other women, the kind of scholarships available, the fact that their parents will only pay for certain kinds of schools, or something else entirely.)
Predictably, Catholic traditionalists aren’t handling this well.
That includes Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who runs the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and thinks the sky is falling.
It is disappointing that I, as bishop of the diocese in which Saint Mary’s College is located, was not included or consulted on a matter of important Catholic teaching…
The desire of Saint Mary’s College to show hospitality to people who identify as transgender is not the problem. The problem is a Catholic woman’s college embracing a definition of woman that is not Catholic.
I urge the Board of Trustees of Saint Mary’s College to correct its admissions policy in fidelity to the Catholic identity and mission it is charged to protect and to reject ideologies of gender that contradict the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the human person, sex and gender.
It bears repeating that Catholic colleges regularly accept students who openly oppose Catholic doctrine, just like churches. This attempt at purifying the school by purging those who oppose certain Church teachings would only make it harder for the school to exist at all. Of all the ways the Church can bring new people into the larger Catholic family, offering a first-class education seems like a pretty solid plan. Students who attend must abide by the school’s faith-based policies, but the looser they are, the more welcoming and useful the school becomes. If young people want a connection to the Catholic Church, I’d bet good money they’d prefer the kind of faith promoted by Conboy (inclusive, centered around love) than Rhoades (exclusive, bigoted, centered around The Rules).
That doesn’t mean Rhoades is powerless, though. If he wants to punish the school over this, he has options, according to the The Pillar (a Catholic publication):
… After a formal warning, he could prohibit the university from identifying itself as Catholic, or he could prohibit the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in some campus chapels, or public celebration of the Mass at the university.
It’s not clear if he’ll do any of these things. He’d be shooting himself in the foot if he tried, though. The school, with around 1,600 students, has an endowment of over $200 million. They’re doing just fine. The students who aren’t as rigid when it comes to being around trans women are probably not going to seek a transfer if the school can no longer identify as Catholic or offer religious rituals.
There are plenty of bigoted graduates who share his feelings, too, but you have to imagine the school already took potential donors into account when making this decision and saw admitting trans women as either a net-positive or net-neutral move. A spokesperson for the school said responses to the decision have come from those have “support the more-inclusive policy” as well as critics who oppose it.
Maybe the most telling kind of comment is this one, claiming that the school has “betrayed its Catholic mission.”
That’s only true if you believe the mission of the school is to enforce Catholic doctrine rather than use Catholicism as the foundation for a quality education. But this is a college, not a seminary. The rules are not the same. That’s why many students at Catholic schools simply don’t care about the connection to the faith. They just want the degree. And if it warms them up to the faith itself, religious leaders should consider it a bonus.
Conboy said on Friday that she and the president of the Sisters of the Holy Cross (the order that established the school) will soon meet with Rhoades to “discern and learn more about his concerns, as well as to share with him the considerations that went into the Board’s deliberation.”
It’s not like they’ll be flying blind here. Saint Mary’s has opened its doors to LGBTQ students in a way that goes beyond merely tolerating them. In 2021, the school even unveiled its “LGBTQ+ Center,” meant to be a place for LGBTQ students and allies to “gather safely and create community”:
“A recent Saint Mary’s College student climate survey revealed that our LGBTQ students had more difficulties making friends and did not always feel welcome,” [Redgina Hill, vice president for inclusion and equity,] said. “These findings pointed to a dire need for a safe space at Saint Mary’s for our LGBTQ+ students.”
The opening of the Center marks the campus’s first official safe space for LGBTQ students since the College’s inception in 1844. Although this introduction comes late in the school’s history, Hill hopes the new space will impact the College’s LGBTQ alumni in addition to current students and campus community members.
In other words, Conboy is well versed in what the school needs and why accepting trans women won’t change anything substantive they do.
While plenty of conservatives will argue the school is “woke” or whatever epithet they want to use to shield their own hate and ignorance, it should also be noted that the school is still conservative in many other ways. For example, while the school allows an anti-abortion club on campus, consistent with Catholic doctrine, they rejected recognition of a pro-choice group in 2019 (and again in 2022), claiming that the group’s goals were inconsistent with the school’s mission.
[Vice president for mission Julianne] Wallace commented via email on the Smicks for Choice group, saying the final decision on its club status was a matter of adhering to the school’s Catholic identity.
“Saint Mary’s College encourages education and discussion around women’s reproduction and sexual health both inside the classroom and in broader discussions throughout our campus community,” she said. “However, when discerning the application for Smicks for Choice, our Catholic identity necessitates we affirm a limit about what can be done in the College’s name and with the College’s resources, therefore the club cannot be officially recognized by the College.”
I would argue that was a mistake. There’s nothing inherently anti-Catholic about promoting accurate information about abortion (especially in the face of constant lies from the anti-abortion crowd) and advocating for the importance of bodily autonomy. As one student noted, promoting choice isn’t the same is encouraging abortions. But the school still prevented the group from having access to its resources.
I’m not sure why the school would reject a club like that, but accept trans women now, but at least they’re finally moving in a better direction.