Catholic universities should welcome discussion of gender issues

Views Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. / May 31, 2022 Print this:
Father Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities since 2019, instituted an LGBTQ Studies minor during his tenure as president at Chicago’s DePaul University, pictured above. (Photo courtesy of DePaul University)

Playwrights have long made hay of dressing male characters as women, or women as men, and then letting the comedy ensue. In the end, identities are revealed and no small amount of truth is conveyed to the chastened about their gender expectations. Until that climactic moment, however, confusion reigns supreme. 

In the present age, more than a few people know that same confusion as they meet individuals who tell them, “You think I’m a certain gender, but I’m not.” 

Those of us who work in universities are regularly on the front lines of society’s confusions and questions. That’s partly because our institutions are filled with humanity, and therefore, with the breadth of human experience that one finds in the larger population. It’s also because universities invite such questions. 

We study the world; we seek to understand the complexity around us. In the early 21st century, gender is being reconsidered as a more complex matter than some had assumed. It should be no surprise that our universities have made this an item of study and reflection. 

At Catholic universities, such questions are not simple to engage. Our creation story offers two options when it comes to the genders of human beings, and it generally assigns only one to God: “Male and female He created them.” (Gn 1:27; 5:2)

Catholicism’s long history of assigning religious significance to traditional gender roles was already upturned during the women’s movement of the last century, but Catholic perspectives on gender are coming into question again as individuals with more fluid experiences of gender insist on recognition and understanding.  

Most Catholic universities engage the issue because of a bedrock intellectual commitment to searching out the truth of any matter that presents itself, but also because, in many cases, we know some of these individuals by name. They are among our students, our colleagues and our alumni. 

For me, too, it was a series of personal experiences that shaped my thinking about how and why Catholic universities can understand the lives of transgender and non-binary people.

Two Requests

I had been president at Chicago’s DePaul University for barely eight weeks in 2004 when six students came to see me. One student introduced himself and said that he had spent his life trying to get people to recognize him as male. He told me that he needed help with two things while at the university.

“In the early 21st century, gender is being reconsidered as a more complex matter than some had assumed. It should be no surprise that our universities have made this an item of study and reflection.”

First, he asked if we could create some single-person bathrooms that he could use. Secondly, he asked if there was any way we could add a line in our classroom rosters for a student’s “preferred name.”  He said that every time he took a new course and the professor called out an obviously female name, it was hard to answer while his classmates looked at him with a range of reactions.

That was it—two requests. I told the young man and his supportive friends that I needed a little time to look into these suggestions and see what was possible. I asked them to come back to me in a week.  

We learned we could turn a utility closet between the men’s and women’s bathrooms into a very nice, single-use bathroom. I also promised that every new building project or major renovation on campus would incorporate single-use bathrooms into their designs. Happily, the bathroom solution was inexpensive and it was easy to add another line to the professors’ class rosters with students’ preferred names.

Surprisingly, it was the parents of young children who most praised the new single-use bathrooms. Many students, including our international students, were grateful to tell their professors their preferred names. I had wondered if accommodating a transgender student would lead to campus upset, but the explosion never came. Kindness towards one group turned out to cause kindness for more. 

The following spring, a recently accepted high school senior who couldn’t honestly identify at either end of the gender spectrum came with parents in tow and asked how to manage campus housing. Our dorms were mixed gender overall, but individual apartments were single sex. We offered the senior a single room, and the student was happy. No explosion there either.

Those situations were new to me, but in time, these students educated me.  They told me stories of how, at a very early age, they felt that they didn’t fit.  I heard stories from their early childhood days of resisting the ways their families wanted to dress them, or wanting to play with children whose genders did not match their own.  I heard about childhood loneliness. These students are the ones who taught me to separate out gender identity from sexual attraction:  two utterly and completely different things.

One thing I never heard from students was the term “ideology.” It was only later that the faculty introduced me to queer theory.  I read some of it, finding it overwhelmingly and needlessly jargonistic; too much verbiage for too few insights, at least as I saw it. Pretty quickly, I got the main points and stopped reading the genre. But I did know that the students were asking for the most basic of kindnesses, and I didn’t need theory to be kind.

When Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, once asked me about these students, I remember reflecting that this was a social debate without much available scientific research, and that it was going to require time for the church and society to think through. In the meantime, it seemed to me that helping a human being use a bathroom in peace or feel respected or safe on campus wasn’t unreasonable, even as the larger issues were welcomed, studied and debated. I still feel that way.

Witnessing Intellectual Humility

This past spring, I was invited to observe the final morning of a three-day international gathering of scholars. The room was filled mostly with scientists, physicians and developmental psychologists. A few philosophers and theologians were also present. 

The meeting’s overall purpose was to summarize what was known to date about the transgender and non-binary gender experience and propose a list of what wasn’t yet known. In other words, they sought both what could be said with confidence and what claims required caution until “more is known.”  

Examples abounded. Little is known genetically about the phenomenon. We don’t know the prevalence of transgender or gender-nonconforming identities in the worldwide population, though studies place it at around 0.6% in the U.S.  Historians have found evidence of gender-variant people going back millennia. Sociologists have documented multiple cultures that organized for inclusion of such individuals within the body politic.  

“It seemed to me that helping a human being go to the bathroom in peace or feel respected or safe on campus wasn’t unreasonable, even as the larger issues were welcomed, studied and debated.”

We know the startling suicide rates of young people who aren’t provided gender-affirming support.  We also know that young children who report gender-nonconforming feelings may not continue to report such experiences after puberty, but we do not know how to predict such outcomes in advance. 

We know that adolescents are far more likely to continue to report such as adults. We know that the vast majority of adults who go through sex-reassignment (or gender-confirmation) surgeries of any kind remain grateful that they did so, years into the future. There is also a very small minority of people who regret these surgeries later, concluding that their inner dissatisfaction was not resolved by medical intervention. We don’t know how to help individuals predict those outcomes in advance, so medical intervention relies primarily on informed consent for now.  

These were only some of the many topics discussed. 

What fascinated me more than the statistics and studies was that the participants—representing a broad spectrum of conservative and liberal viewpoints—came to an agreed-upon conclusion regarding how little is scientifically known about gender at present. The moral theologians and philosophers in attendance ventured tentative ethical analyses, but even they admitted that additional scientific knowledge could shift these preliminary conclusions.  

It was inspiring to watch great scholars stand honestly before their ignorance and humbly admit the limits of their knowledge. It modeled the intellectual humility I think all of us in higher education must show in the early stages of a phenomenon that is not yet well understood.  

There are two sides to the coin when it comes to intellectual humility, however. The first is knowing what can be said based on the evidence and, therefore, what judgments cannot be leveled without further evidence. The second is the requirement that universities—and the scholars who inhabit them—can never look away from what is real.  

A Third Request

Barely a month after the student group came to my office in 2004, one of the deans called to convey a faculty request to establish a LGBTQ Studies minor. I asked for a few days to think on it. I consulted Cardinal George, who asked for one condition (to which I will return), and then I gave the faculty my approval. 

Ten years later, still president, I was invited to an “anniversary party” and asked to explain the reason I supported this controversial academic program—the first of its kind at any Catholic university in the world. To answer the question, I brought my copy of literary scholar Helen Vendler’s commentary on Shakespearean sonnets. I had purchased it in my early 30s and learned, to my embarrassment, that when I read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I was gravely mistaken about who “thee” was.  

You may know that many of the first 126 sonnets are written to a young man with whom the speaker is clearly infatuated, and that the latter sonnets refer to a woman who has entered both their lives. These are poems of love’s “infatuation, idealization, and dissolution,” writes Vendler. They are beautiful, and often achingly so.  

In high school, my classmates and I were shown only the sonnets with gender-neutral pronouns or ones that referred to the woman. When we read in Sonnet 29, no one told us those lines were written by a man about a man.  

For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings

In Sonnet 18, when Shakespeare writes that the very purpose of this poem is to preserve his lover’s memory in literature for all time, we discussed the lovers’ as if they were heterosexual, and our teachers let us do so.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 

When the speaker expresses his self-absorbed fears of being in a love triangle with both a man and woman in Sonnet 144, whose opening line addresses two loves “of comfort and despair,” the letter ‘B’ in LGBTQ was never mentioned.  

My high school teachers must have known the actual love objects of these sonnets. Whether out of prejudice or fear, they shaped their teaching so we wouldn’t know. To be especially effective, they assigned “anthologies” in which the editors’ careful selections colluded in the cover-up.

That day I told the faculty that I had agreed to an LGBTQ Studies minor because I didn’t want the largest Catholic university in the U.S. to cooperate in the world’s cover-up. Any university of stature must show its students the entire world, including those whom society had been ashamed to acknowledge for millennia. Intellectual honesty requires looking at the real as its starting point.  

I think this is also true for the ‘T’ in LGBTQ. A true university can’t pretend that the complex life experiences of our transgender and gender non-binary populations don’t exist. A university’s role is to understand phenomena, not explain them away or turn a blind eye.  

Sound Thinking

Last year, I was asked to quietly review for release a white paper prepared for a Catholic organization on transgender matters. The draft was not adopted for use, but its text was fascinating.  It began by quoting Genesis 1:27 (“Male and female God created them”), went on for several pages with a rather tortured exposition, and then concluded, “Therefore, people are only male or female.”  

Students of logic, of course, will recognize that the conclusion is no more than the starting assumption (E.g., Assume all oak trees are solid gold; therefore, all oak trees must be solid gold.)  Not exactly the stuff of convincing rhetoric, much less moral theology.  The implications were stark, however:  If all lives need fit into a male/female binary, transgender lives were either intentional acts against nature or delusions.  Clearly, more thought was required.  

I was relieved that this circular logic was seen for what it was. The church has been insisting for over a century now that any proper interpretation and use of Scripture must take into account the historical context of the original material and the literary genre of the writing. It’s a leap to imagine that the source material of Genesis had transgender questions in mind when writing about creation. There are thoughtful ways, both conservative and liberal, to think about these questions, but stretching ancient texts to fit modern purposes is not among them.  

This was the reason I respected Cardinal George’s sole condition when he agreed for the university to establish an LGTBQ Studies program. He never once employed biblical proof-texting. He simply reminded me that the Catholic Church has a theological anthropology that greatly values the complementarity of male-female relationships, and he asked that we make sure students learned the Church’s rather layered and sophisticated thoughts on the subject. 

“It is no “institutional failing” in the present day if students and faculty debate questions of sexual orientation and gender on a Catholic campus. Quite the opposite, it is to be expected.” 

In short, he was concerned about another famous logical fallacy of the “straw man,” where people criticize ideas they don’t like by first simplifying them and then rejecting the simplification. Cardinal George was regularly frustrated when people would criticize Catholic thought that they clearly hadn’t taken the time to learn. 

Asking a university to teach students complex ideas in their full complexity seemed fair to me, and the faculty leadership agreed, which then enabled me to approve the program’s establishment. To his credit, Cardinal George told me he was perfectly comfortable if the faculty then went on to criticize these long-held church teachings, so long as those teachings were “fully and fairly” taught first. 

This approach seemed worthy of a university that wants to be a university. 

Being a University for These Questions

It is no “institutional failing” in the present day if students and faculty debate questions of sexual orientation and gender on a Catholic campus. Quite the opposite, it is to be expected. The church and its universities have always been places where the issues of the day are debated. Several centuries of heated intellectual and theological battles surrounded differing conceptions of Jesus’ participation in Godhead occurred before acceptable language was codified. 

The ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, incorporating Greek and Muslim thought into church teaching, were so controversial that one pope condemned him before another exonerated him. Church teachings on any number of moral issues, ranging from slavery to usury to marriage and more, have evolved over time, with no small amount of controversy along the way.   

That said, replicating miniature versions of the world’s debates on our campuses is hardly a contribution. Our Catholic universities are more helpful when they bring the expertise of scholars to bear on the questions before us.  In short, we are at our best when we add light rather than heat.  

To be a university for controversial questions requires a starting point that accepts complexity where it finds complexity, and resists simplification where that would be a lie. It invites and listens deeply to the opposing idea.  It takes a vastly slower approach by designing new studies, or even hiring new faculty experts so that the questions might be studied in the manner they require. 

It accepts the discomfort of long periods of uncertainty when prevailing ideas are put at risk by emerging ones. It humbly acknowledges that new ideas can have their own arrogance and risk in setting aside valuable wisdom, throwing out the proverbial baby in the bathwater. At Catholic universities, one hopes that we do this with characteristic love and grace for the other. A mantra: Kindness first, foremost and always.  

These days, I’m encouraging my colleagues along all three lines: (1) To be a university for the questions of gender variance rather than one more loud platform for exchanging uninformed opinions; (2) To act with a fullness of intellectual humility that admits what we do and don’t know, remaining slow to judge; and (3) To remember that we are speaking of human beings created by God, and that love and kindness must be both the starting and ending points of all we do.  

If we manage that, a certain nobility of university life is realized, people are cared for, and more fulsome ideas emerge in their good time.  

Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

The Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Previously, he was president of DePaul University in Chicago from 2004 to 2017.

All articles by Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

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  1. Rev. Holtschneider – Thank you for this post that gives me hope. I’m a born and raised Catholic with a child – a blessing from God – who is transgender. As soon as she could express herself, my child told me as early as age 1 — first through choices and, ultimately, with words — that she was a girl. My daughter, now 9, is doing very well and is happy, but I am very anxious about her future since I know how hard life can be even for those of us without significant differences. More than anything, I pray that the world treats her and other transgender people with kindness. I am grateful that you are helping to lead in the Church and our Catholic universities with kindness and acceptance…and with the basic principle that just because we can’t always fully understand doesn’t make something “untrue”. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe.”

  2. Well said brother. Especially your ability to account for wisdom over all else. As a trained professional in logic I can’t tell you how many times truth / false expressions would have me scratching my head. “How can this be true?” “How can this be false?” “How can this be both true and false?” “How can this be neither true nor false?” The questions before us are seated in the creative nature of God. I am but a carpenter I will work with God has given me. I am worthy of death. Grace has saved me.

  3. Thank you, Dennis, for a wonderful contribution to a very sensitive and complex issue. You had to navigate some tricky waters to come up with this helpful piece. It is full of intellectual honesty, and challenges readers–and hopefully especially those in authority both church and state–to consider the issue with moral courage and nuanced thinking.
    The ending is powerful: we must remember we are dealing here with real people–like us in so many other ways that count–and treat them with the kindness and human dignity that every person deserves. I’m proud that a Vincentian wrote this.