A pair of single-sex Catholic colleges in Minnesota are allowing males and females to openly apply to either one of the respective opposite-sex institutions — a rule change the schools say is in response to their “evolving understanding of gender and gender identity. ” 

The rule changes come as leaders in the Catholic Church, including Pope Francis, have warned of the dangers of the recent popularization of transgender ideology.

The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, two schools for women and men, respectively, 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 St. Benedict says it will accept both female applicants as well as male applicants who “now consistently live and identify as female, transgender, gender-fluid, or nonbinary.” 

St. John’s University, meanwhile, will consider female applicants who “consistently live and identify as male, transgender, gender-fluid, or nonbinary.”

Both schools will continue to utilize “gendered language” reflective of their respective historical single-sex missions. The policy continues what the schools say is a “long-standing practice of accepting persons with the gender and gender identity they present to us without further substantiation.”

School spokespersons Katie Alvino and Michael Hemmesch did not respond to several phone calls and emails seeking more information on the new policy, including clarification of the transgender-related terminology used to describe the admissions rules.

It is unclear when the policies went into effect. The policy website says the rules were updated in July of this year.

Within a series of “frequently asked questions” on the policy website, the school says the rules came about after “a thoughtful, well-vetted process that engaged community stakeholders” on questions of Catholic faith and gender identity. 

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Addressing the question of “what [it means] to consistently live and identify as a woman or a man,” the school does not directly answer, writing instead: “All applicants must identify themselves as a man or a woman, and their application materials must support their self-identification.”

St. John’s University was founded in 1857; the College of St. Benedict was launched in 1913. 

The schools on their website state they were “founded and enriched by St. Benedict’s Monastery and St. John’s Abbey.” 

The sisters of the Order of St. Benedict and the monks of St. John’s Abbey “serve as corporate members and partner with the board of trustees in the governance” of the two schools, the universities say, adding that corporate members “preserve, protect, and promote the Catholic and Benedictine character, identity, and mission of the institutions.”

Charity ‘has to be grounded in truth’

Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has been highly critical of gender ideology. The Holy Father earlier this year called it “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations,” one that “blurs differences and the value of men and women.”

The U.S. bishops in June approved a major revision to their health care guidelines regarding transgender-identifying individuals, with the bishops moving forward with guidance that forbids Catholic facilitates from performing procedures that “aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex.”

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Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, meanwhile, in May published a pastoral letter in which he noted that while transgender-identifying individuals suffer “immense pain,” they nevertheless must be helped to “surrender to the truth” of biology.

“Through their trust in Jesus Christ, they can receive assurance that despite the challenges and pain of bringing gender into alignment with one’s God-given sex, it will ultimately be for their happiness, holiness, and peace,” Coakley said. 

John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that the “nonbinary” admissions policy of the two schools was “a flawed and problematic anthropology that’s at odds with the Catholic faith itself.”

“It’s in the name of being charitable and welcoming, which is great,” Grabowski said. “Of course, we’re supposed to be charitable and welcoming. But it has to be grounded in truth, in the truth of what we know about the human person that’s given to us both in revelation and in science.”

The policy “doesn’t help” those who are struggling with gender dysphoria, Grabowski said.

“There’s growing evidence that the conventional wisdom — of allowing people to self-identify a gender identity and then opt for whatever medical or social changes they want to better reflect that — actually leads to bad outcomes, both medically and psychologically.”

Jason Evert, the founder of the Chastity Project and the author of “Male, Female, Other? A Catholic Guide to Understanding Gender,” pointed toward the 2019 Vatican document “Male and Female He Created Them,” issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education. That document, Evert noted, stresses the importance of offering “care and tenderness” for those experiencing gender dysphoria. 

Gender ideology, the Vatican document says, represents a “confused concept of freedom” stemming from a “disorientation regarding anthropology,” one that has “helped to destabilize the family as an institution, bringing with it a tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women.”

Evert said school policies that embrace and promote transgender ideology are “an open endorsement to confusion and sin.” But “it is important that individuals who experience gender dysphoria understand that they are not a walking abomination to God because of the tension they experience between their identity and their anatomy,” he said. 

Catholic schools, he said, should “realize that individuals who experience gender dysphoria often doubt that there is any space within the Catholic Church for them to wrestle with the question of their sexual identity.” 

“Charity and clarity are not opposed to one another,” he said, “and it is the job of Catholic intuitions to make sure one is not compromised for the sake of the other.”

The schools on their website say both remain rooted in their “historic mission[s]” as Catholic and Benedictine liberal arts colleges. 

Grabowski said it’s up to a local bishop to determine if a Catholic institution is meeting the requirements to call itself Catholic. 

Parents and students, he said, can also play a role in that determination.

“If you’re choosing a college in part because it’s Catholic,” he said, “because you want a specifically Catholic education, then it’s right for parents and students to say, ‘Is this institution delivering a Catholic education and operating in accord with its Catholic identity and mission?’” 

“I hope this doesn’t prove to be a trend for more and more Catholic colleges,” Grabowski added. “I don’t think it bodes well for Catholic institutions and Catholic education in this country to be putting ideological conformity over integrity in terms of a Catholic witness to the truth.”