In August 2022, Catholic educators in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, were excited to welcome their students back after more than two years of online learning. The pandemic had been challenging, and reacclimating would be tough. But the return to in-person classes meant that teachers could resume doing the kind of ministerial work that Catholic schools are known for: caring for their students as whole people and providing a place where they could feel safe.
Instead, the school year was “awful,” according to one educator. What made things particularly rough was the surprise dissemination, just a few weeks before classes began, of a controversial document issued by the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office. At a summer meeting, it had announced a set of policies on gender and gender identity (called the “Policy on Human Sexuality”) that would need to be adopted by administrators, faculty, and staff at approximately seventy Catholic schools. The language of the documents was blunt:
Committed to spreading the Gospel’s values and forming our faith in Christ’s teachings, and in conformance with the Magisterium, [Catholic schools] shall not sponsor, endorse, facilitate, host or provide accommodation to any person, group, entity, event, or activity that would condone or promote a view of sexual identity that is contrary to the Church’s teachings, including views of gender and sexuality contrary to Catholic Church teachings.
Despite affirming that students experiencing gender dysphoria could still be admitted to its schools, the Archdiocese of Omaha nevertheless designated ongoing LGBTQ+ expression as a possible cause for expulsion. According to the policy, if “a student’s expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should cause confusion, disrupt the educational integrity of the Catholic education program, or cause scandal” school officials were obligated to work with parents and guardians to ensure that the student ceased behaving in any way that affirmed their LGBTQ+ identity. If families failed to comply, the student was granted the right to “withdraw” from the school. Otherwise, the policy required administrators to “dismiss” the student.
The Archdiocese of Omaha is not an outlier. In September, officials in the Diocese of Cleveland in Ohio handed down a similar set of policies designed to curtail the self-expression of LGBTQ+ students in Catholic schools. The rules expressly prohibit students from “transitioning” or receiving gender-affirming care. They also ban the use of “preferred pronouns” and some nicknames, require students to use bathrooms corresponding with their “God-given biological sex,” and bar them from displaying “sexual attraction to or romantic interest in members of the same sex” at school-sponsored dances and mixers.
At the root of such policies is much of the American hierarchy’s vehement rejection of the amorphous concept of “gender ideology.” In Catholic circles, the phrase is invoked primarily (and pejoratively) by staunch traditionalists, who hold that sex and gender are binary, permanent, and mandated by God. Deviating from or questioning this belief, regardless of the findings of current psychological and medical research, is viewed with intense suspicion. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly expressed concerns that gender-affirming care threatens the Catechism’s teachings regarding the unity of the human body and soul. In their view, the range of treatments that for many Americans constitutes “health care” amounts to a usurpation of God’s role as “loving creator” and a negation of the “natural order.” (Pope Francis, in his 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris laetitia, recognizes that gender expressions are culturally contingent and vary based on historical context.)
When translated into educational policy, such views can present serious challenges for LGBTQ+ students. Everything from their clothing and hairstyles, to which sports teams and clubs they can join, to their recommendation letters, diplomas, and transcripts reinforces a rigid gender binary that many in the scientific community believe to be out of date. The Trevor Project, a nonprofit research, advocacy, and suicide-prevention organization, releases annual data concerning the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people. In 2023, they found that when transgender and nonbinary young people find their school to be gender-affirming, they report lower rates of suicide attempts than those in schools that do not affirm their gender identity and expression. Gender-affirming school environments do not just contribute positively to the mental health of transgender and nonbinary students; they actually save lives. It’s ironic, then, that the Church’s education ministry—designed to promote the life and flourishing of its young people—could also be responsible for placing vulnerable LGBTQ+ lives at greater risk.
Almost immediately after disseminating its original gender policy, the Archdiocese of Omaha received significant pushback. Drew Gerken is an Omaha firefighter, founder of the nonprofit The Furniture Project, and organizer of the St. Cecilia Cathedral School’s micro-soccer league. He’s also the father of several children who attended Omaha Catholic schools and the husband of a teacher at St. Cecilia’s. His voice was among the loudest in initially opposing the Policy on Human Sexuality. He organized an act of resistance, handing out t-shirts featuring heart-shaped rainbows at the cathedral’s annual parish festival. “I think it’s important that we stand up for vulnerable people. That is what I have tried to dedicate my life to, and I am trying to teach my children that this is the way to live in the world,” Gerken told me. His efforts appeared to pay off. On August 31, 2022 the Archdiocese put the initial policy on hold and began working on revisions.
Gerken was also one of the many signatories of an October letter penned by Catholic Families for Love (CFL), addressed jointly to Archbishop George J. Lucas and Vickie Kauffold, the archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. Organized in response to the Policy on Human Sexuality, CFL describes itself as a grassroots group of “parents, grandparents, and Omaha Catholic schools alumni that loves our Catholic schools and wants to ensure they remain a loving, inclusive, and Christ-centered learning environment for our precious children.” CFL’s letter asked the Archdiocese to revise its policy based on the values of transparency, authentic dialogue, inclusion, care for the most vulnerable, and review of the research literature. It also asked a series of questions:
Who is writing/drafting this policy? Who has been invited into the process and what are their credentials/qualifications? Are Catholics who identify as LGBTQIA+ being asked for their input regarding this policy? If so, how? How is the Archdiocese taking into account its own synodal report that underscores the need to welcome the LGBTQIA+ community, who often feel alienated from the Church?
These inquiries were never answered. I asked Omaha’s Catholic Schools Office similar questions, and it was hardly forthcoming. A representative responded by referring me to the Archdiocese’s newly revised policy on the internet, along with a brief statement affirming that “the spirit and protocols in the archdiocese’s gender policy follow Christ’s command to love God and our neighbors and adhere to the teachings of His church.” The FAQ posted online states that the archdiocese consulted “up to 150 individuals with varying levels of professional backgrounds, demographics, and competencies,” as well as “over 40 documents, policies, and guidelines about gender identity from other dioceses and professional organizations.” It declines to give any further specifics.
The revised policy went into effect in August 2023, and is significantly shorter (and less specific) than the original. Yet in essence it remains the same. It still states that “if at any time, parents, guardians, or students desire accommodations or accompaniment that do not follow this policy, it may be necessary to begin the school transfer process for the good of the student and the school community.” This “process” will include an invitation to the student’s local parish for “pastoral support.” Such support is not unconditional. It is instead designed to help transgender and nonbinary students “conduct themselves in accord with their God-given biological sex,” both in the classroom and at all school-sponsored activities.
One Catholic educator who spoke with me believes that the Archdiocese of Omaha’s gender policy could be “the last straw” for people considering leaving the Catholic Church. She noted that many Sunday homilies in her parish refer to the “disorder” of LGBTQ+ persons, which many parishioners find alienating and discriminatory. “The Church is losing people at a rapid rate, but I don’t see it coming back with policies like this,” she continued. “I’m a cradle Catholic, and I worry about the future of a Church that has decided that this is their future.”
The Synod on Synodality, convened by Pope Francis and taking place in Rome this October, could potentially bridge some of the divisions currently engulfing the Church, especially in the United States. Catholic theologians here are sharply divided on LGBTQ+ issues, mirroring the country’s divergent ideological political poles. In such an environment, how possible will it be for American Catholics to “journey together”?
Retrieving an image from the Book of Isaiah, the “Working Document” for the Synod’s Continental Stage called on participants to “[e]nlarge the space of your tent!” “This tent is a space of communion,” the document explains. It’s also “a place of participation, and a foundation for mission.” At the heart of this participatory ethic is the practice of “listening,” which is not merely perfunctory or instrumental. In theological parlance, this means incarnating the way God lovingly attends to the cries of God’s people. Concretely, it means seeking out and welcoming other perspectives with humility and fidelity.
What could such “listening” look like in practice? How could authentic synodality have helped in the Archdiocese of Omaha? It is clear that the Archdiocese, both in the creation of its original Policy on Human Sexuality and in its revision process, failed to listen to a broad range of voices across its schools, parishes, and other institutions. Its reticent, top-down approach is the opposite of the kind of openhearted expression, listening, and “journeying together” that Pope Francis is calling for.
Another kind of response is certainly possible. Omaha’s Creighton Preparatory School, governed by the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus, declined to adopt the Archdiocese of Omaha’s gender policy after it was released. Officials from the school, which operates according to its own governance structures and has different procedures for adopting official policies, stressed that Creighton Prep shares the same goals as the Archdiocese, especially since they collaborate on community projects and educate similar populations. But they also offered reflections on what a synodal process in education could look like in the future.
Catholic education should stress a “culture of encounter,” said Kellie Wostrel, Creighton’s Chief Communications Officer. The school’s president, Fr. Matthew Spotts, SJ, expanded on this, citing the school’s Jesuit charism and its roots in Ignatian spirituality. Despite the “practical limitations imposed by the massive amount of work in front of all of us,” Spotts believes that “slowing down, listening, and praying our way through” the issues faced together by the archdiocese and Catholic schools could help them find common ground.
Gerken, for his part, remains hopeful. “Those of us who can, must stand up. That’s what all of our Catholic heroes have done, up to and including Jesus Christ, who stood up for vulnerable people. That’s the Catholic Church that I grew up in.”
On October 4, the Archdiocese of Davenport in Iowa, a state that borders Nebraska, published a new document on LGBTQ+ students in Catholic schools that many found encouraging. The “Guidelines for Pastoral Accompaniment of Sexual and Gender Minorities” cautions against “blanket policies,” which “may prove ineffective and may risk doing greater harm.” Instead, the Davenport document stresses acceptance of sexual and gender minorities, offering a framework for discernment on a “case-by-case” basis. The language of synodality—terms like “consensus,” “fruitful dialogue,” and “collective wisdom”—appears throughout:
Who are the people involved? What is their situation? What brings them to you? What is their concern and/or request? What are your biases or blind spots? What experience or expertise do you bring to the table? Who else should be consulted to help build understanding? Looking at the full picture, what response is needed? What accommodations could be made, if appropriate? What professional resources (ex. counseling) may be helpful?
Most importantly, the Davenport document affirms a key point that has been glaringly absent in diocesan gender policies thus far: we must listen to and trust our LGBTQ+ students. Embracing the synodal call to journey together, the Davenport document asks educators and ministers to “listen first to people who experience differences in sexual orientation or gender discordance and their loved ones or caregivers. They know themselves and their loved ones…more intimately than anyone else.” The document emphasizes:
The most basic and first expression of our love should be to listen. This is not a listening to refute or with an agenda, but to truly understand people—their experiences, needs, and concerns. This requires humility, patience, and self-control. The more we understand someone, the better we can accompany them.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of words like these. They’re evidence that the work of the Synod—and the courage of LGBTQ+ students and their families—is already bearing fruit. Pope Francis and the Archdiocese of Davenport have given us a model. What would Catholic schools—and our entire Church—look like if we followed it?