So, the bishop of Worcester is at it again.
Last year, Robert McManus went after a stellar, Jesuit-run school, serving mostly disadvantaged Black and brown students, for flying the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags. McManus argued that the flags represent ideologies that are contrary to Catholic teaching. When Nativity School of Worcester refused to take the flags down, McManus said it could no longer be called a Catholic school, and stripped Nativity of the right to celebrate Mass and the sacraments.
Now he has issued an official policy essentially victimizing Catholic school students who dare to express themselves in a way inconsistent with the sex they were assigned at birth. The policy forbids students in the 21 schools in his diocese from dressing or conducting themselves in any way except a manner consistent with their biological sex. Transgender and non-binary students may not use the pronouns or names of their choice, and schools may not use them either. To do otherwise would be “falsifying the truth,” the policy states.
Also: “If a student’s expression of gender, sexual identity, or sexuality should cause confusion or disruption at the school, or if it should mislead others, cause scandal, or have the potential for causing scandal,” a student may be expelled.
It also states that such students should never be bullied or harassed, but nothing enables harassment like a bishop putting the full force of his church behind notions that gender non-conforming people are living lies.
Gender has been a particular fixation for McManus. In 2019, the bishop gave a speech at Holy Cross in which he condemned what he saw as the college’s support for transgender rights, calling transgender identity “rooted in unsupportable science,” and threatening to remove the college’s Catholic accreditation.
But he is not alone. Similar policies have been issued by conservative Catholic bishops all over the country. As a whole, the group takes a dim view of Pope Francis, who has been more progressive than they’d like.
“[McManus] has got a whole lot of company,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, head of DignityUSA, a national organization supporting the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Catholic church. “It is just tragic.”
In fact, McManus seems to have cut and pasted his policy on gender from one issued by the bishop of Little Rock, Ark., in 2016, said David Palmieri, a high school theology teacher who is writing a doctoral thesis on LGBTQ students in Catholic high schools. The Worcester policy even repeats the misspelling of Pope Francis’s name in the Little Rock document, Palmieri said.
Both Palmieri and Duddy-Burke said the number of kids presenting as trans or nonbinary in Catholic schools is vanishingly small: In 25 years of teaching, Palmieri said he had not knowingly encountered a student who did so, and in conducting research for his dissertation, he has struggled to find transgender students in Catholic schools. But, as the Republican crusade against trans rights has shown, actual facts aren’t as important as the political points gained by conjuring the specter of some terrifying trans invasion.
“There are tiny numbers of people impacted directly by this,” Duddy-Burke said, “but the larger effect is to create this climate of unwelcome and division and scapegoating.”
That’s not to say the rest of the official church has embraced rights for trans and nonbinary people. The pope takes a more compassionate approach, and has had conversations with transgender people, but his official line is still that gender is binary. Those who watch him closely see grounds for optimism that Francis will evolve, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Still, to impose such a hard line in Catholic schools, of all places, seems particularly unjust. For many decades, those schools have offered an education to all who need it, “especially the weakest,” according to official Vatican policy. That includes students of other faiths, and of no faith at all.
“If our schools are open to students who don’t even believe in Jesus Christ,” Palmieri said, “how can we implement policies that say these students are unwelcome?”
One might ask why any student dealing with issues of gender, or anyone who believes in their rights, would want to attend a school with such an official policy. The answer to that question is the same one Duddy-Burke and others give when asked why they choose to stay in a Catholic church whose leaders routinely reject them.
“The bishops in this country are 400 people, and Catholics are about 26 million people,” she said. “The church lives in the people.”
People who continue to belong to a church whose officials exclude them “realize there is still something good and beautiful about the Catholic faith, and so they want to stay,” Palmieri said. “But it makes it awfully hard.”
Perhaps theirs is the strongest faith of all.