CNA Staff, Nov 27, 2023 / 15:15 pm
Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana — historically a school for undergraduate women — will now be accepting men who identify as women.
The school’s president confirmed the change to students and faculty in an email last week. The college also updated its nondiscrimination policy in June and referenced the new policy there.
The nondiscrimination policy, which was approved by its board of trustees, says that Saint Mary’s “considers admission for undergraduate applicants whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women.”
There are 32 individuals listed on the school’s board of trustees, along with one trustee emeritus. The list includes six religious sisters of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the order that founded the college in the 1840s. Additionally, two priests, one Jesuit and one Congregation of Holy Cross father, also serve on the board.
The policy says that graduate programs are “open to all” and that the school’s admission policies “are informed by Title IV of the Education Amendments of 1972, which allows for single sex admission policies in institutions that have historically served women.”
The school’s mission is to “empower women, through education, at all stages in life,” the school says. “Essential to this mission is fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus experience.”
In a Nov. 21 email, the college’s president, Katie Conboy, said to students and faculty that the school is “by no means the first Catholic women’s college to adopt a policy with this scope,” the Washington Examiner reported.
She added that admitting men who identify as women “encompasses our commitment to operate as a Catholic women’s college.”
The school is still determining the “practices that will follow from the policy,” the email reportedly said.
Conboy put together a “President’s Task Force for Gender Identity and Expression” earlier this year that will be making recommendations for housing policies, the school’s student paper, The Observer, reported last week.
In a statement on Monday, Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades said he had learned of the policy change last week and that he found it “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.”
“To call itself a ‘women’s college’ and to admit male students who ‘consistently live and identify as women’ suggests that the college affirms an ideology of gender that separates sex from gender and claims that sexual identity is based on the subjective experience of the individual,” Rhoades said. “This ideology is at odds with Catholic teaching.”
“The desire of Saint Mary’s College to show hospitality to people who identify as transgender is not the problem,” the bishop said in the statement. “The problem is a Catholic woman’s college embracing a definition of woman that is not Catholic.”
The prelate urged the school to “correct its admissions policy in fidelity to the Catholic identity and mission it is charged to protect.”
When news broke last week of the policy change, meanwhile, the school received backlash online.
“Just found out my alma mater [Saint Mary’s], an all-women’s Catholic college, will be accepting BIOLOGICAL MEN starting next fall,” one online post on X said. “This decision is blasphemous & a complete rejection of the Church and its teachings on gender and sexuality.”
“[Catholics] we have an issue here!! Don’t allow your child to go to this school!! [Saint Mary’s] Shame on YOU!” another post said.
“My Alma Mater. I’m disgusted,” another post said.
Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to promoting faithful Catholic education, told CNA Monday that Saint Mary’s College “needs to reverse course” on its policy.
“Catholics, and most especially Catholic educators, need to have the courage to speak the truth about gender and even to suffer for it,” he said.
“The consequences of false gender identity and bodily mutilation are dire, and we need our bishops and laity to firmly oppose institutions embracing gender ideology, especially schools and colleges that claim to be Catholic,” he continued.
“Saint Mary’s needs to reverse course for the very same reason that presumably led to its misguided policy: compassion for confused students. Embracing false gender identities does students great harm, and a school or college that does so is no less confused and perhaps deliberately false about its Catholic identity.”
Reilly also said that the college is being “disingenuous” in its citing of federal law, “which has strong exemptions for religious education and is subject to the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.”
“It is almost as if Saint Mary’s wants to publicly acknowledge it is not in fact religious, or at least it has no intention of upholding and teaching Catholic doctrine. Perhaps the college should be forthright in saying so to its bishop and Catholic families,” he said.
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In a statement to CNA on Monday, Lisa Knox, a spokeswoman for the college, said that “in today’s environment, we needed to clarify our nondiscrimination policy to be more inclusive.”
“When the college’s board of trustees approved an update to the school’s policy in June, it included a shift in our language about who we will consider for admission as well as about how we will support employees across the continuum of gender expression,” she said.
Knox said that the timing of the decision was “driven by changes” to the College Board’s Common Application, which is an online form that prospective college students can fill out to apply to many different institutions.
Some of those changes in the application include the ability for students to choose “F, M, or X” for one’s legal sex, Knox said.
She added that the change has “created challenges” for single-sex colleges “that are trying to be inclusive while maintaining their status as women’s or men’s institutions.”
Knox said that the board of trustees “reflected carefully” on its role as a Catholic institution and “what it means to be an inclusive educator of women in society today,” adding that it sought guidance from other female-only Catholic colleges “that had already updated their own policies.”
“We are not on the leading edge for a change of this type,” she said.
Knox said that the board of trustees and college leadership foresaw disagreement that would come from some parents, alumnae, and current students, adding that “many have reached out to express their concerns and others who support the more-inclusive policy have written and called to let the college know.”
“Our leadership will always go back to our founding mission, to respond to the needs of the times. In today’s environment, we needed to clarify our nondiscrimination policy to be more inclusive,” she said.
Saint Mary’s College isn’t the only single-sex Catholic college that has announced it will be accepting individuals of the opposite sex.
The all-female College of Saint Benedict and the all-male Saint John’s University in Minnesota say on their joint website that they “support every student’s right to self-identification” and are dedicated to “creating spaces that allow women, men, and those who do not identify within the binary,” including “transgender, nonbinary, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming individuals.”
The College of Saint Benedict will accept applications from males or females who “consistently live and identify as female, transgender, gender fluid, or nonbinary.”
Saint John’s University, meanwhile, will accept applications from males or females who “consistently live and identify as male, transgender, gender fluid, or nonbinary.”
In March, Pope Francis called gender ideology “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations.”
“Why is it dangerous? Because it blurs differences and the value of men and women,” he added.
“All humanity is the tension of differences. It is to grow through the tension of differences. The question of gender is diluting the differences and making the world the same, all dull, all alike, and that is contrary to the human vocation,” he said.
This story was updated at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 27 with a statement from Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades.
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.