In September, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released “Created and Loved: A Guide for Catholic Schools on Identity and Gender.” While the document has thoughtful and salient points regarding gender identity, it also recommends that Catholic schools use the preferred names and pronouns of children suffering from gender dysphoria, providing “flexibility with uniform expectations.”
As a lifelong Catholic educator, I have deep concerns about this approach, which is fundamentally at odds with the mission of Catholic education. The challenge for Catholic schools today is not that we work with gender-dysphoric children, but how. Children suffering from gender dysphoria can be admitted under certain conditions: The gender dysphoria is acknowledged as a disorder; the child’s family obtains proper counseling and treatment; and the child is able to function in an environment where gender expression is expected to match biological reality. However, Catholic schools do great harm by allowing children suffering from gender dysphoria to externally represent and even celebrate that disorder and requiring that others in the school support and participate in it.
The document’s injudicious recommendation stems from three misconceptions.
The first misconception is that it is unacceptable to ask children suffering with gender dysphoria to follow gender norms while in a Catholic school. It is, in fact, necessary for the good of the child as well as the integrity of the school. Eighty-four percent of children experiencing gender dysphoria will not continue to experience it through adolescence and adulthood, according to an oft-cited 2011 study from Sweden. We must therefore love such students through the challenge on our terms, not theirs. This is not unlike how we deal with children with anorexia who have a dangerous distortion of their sense of weight. We admit them to school but require that they receive care, and we refrain from supporting their bodily disorientation through false affirmation.
The second misconception concerns the implications of Christian anthropology and respect for the human person. The Australian bishops’ document correctly notes that Christian anthropology “demands that we respect the worth of each person at every moment of their existence—from conception to death—regardless of who they are or how they present themselves in the world. It also asks us to see each person holistically rather than seeking to define them by just one aspect of their identity.” It continues: “Any relevant educational programme and the care of individuals in a Catholic school must be faithful to this Christian Anthropology.”
However, the document goes on to mistakenly conclude that being “faithful to this Christian Anthropology” and promoting “a fundamental attitude of charity and respect, of care and compassion,” requires Catholic schools to conform their activities and policies to reinforce gender dysmorphia. This is neither caring nor compassionate. We must interface with children “holistically” as integrated beings, a unity of mind, body, and spirit, and not reduce them to “just one aspect of their identity.”
The third misconception is the assumption that, since Christian anthropology provides a basis for human worth and dignity—we are loved by God and created in his image—and since we are made for communion and flourishing in community, any exclusionary activity is an affront to Christian anthropology. With this argument, the Australian bishops compel Catholic schools to accept and placate children who have “transitioned” to a new name, pronouns, or way of dress.
The natural order has supplied children the family as the primary social unit and source of belonging and wellbeing. Formal institutions can assist in creating other environments of belonging, but a child not being admitted to a certain school, for whatever reason, is not deprived of human dignity or worth, nor of family, church, friends, or love.
We must not conflate attendance at a Catholic school with membership in the Church. Most Catholic children worldwide do not attend Catholic schools but are full members of the Church. The modern Catholic school itself has only been widely available for less than 10 percent of the Church’s history, with catechesis and Christian socializing taking place in the home and parish for most Catholics.
Catholic schools are in the business of integrally forming children in mind, body, and spirit. It is what we do, it is all we do, and we do it one way: in conformity with the will of God and with respect for children as mind-body-spirit unities. Those who seek a different type of formation are free to do so—but they cannot demand that we adapt to their differing goals and conceptions of reality and of the human person.
Using students’ preferred names and pronouns goes against the nature and goals of Catholic education. It casts Catholic schools as active participants in the child’s catastrophic quest for emancipation from the body. It has us (knowingly or unknowingly) participating in relativism, gnostic dualism, materialism, and the toxic fluidity of the modern world. It implicates us in destroying the differences between male and female and the dignity of sexual distinctiveness. It involves us in eroding the roots of the family, severing God from his creation, and distorting the nature of reality itself. And worse yet, by our personal example in forming those under our direct care, we invite our students and families to do the same.
Dan Guernsey is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and a 30-year veteran of Catholic education.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the online edition of First Things on February 3, 2023.