Transgender Teachers in Catholic Schools?

On May 11, the administration of Mercy High School in San Francisco announced that a Jewish woman who was finishing up her fourth year as an English teacher at the Catholic school would now be accepted as a man and could keep her job.

The Mercy Sisters who run the school offered counselors to help the students of the all-girls school accept the biologically female teacher’s new gender identity as a man. In a letter to parents, the school explained how important quality relationships are for the school: “[W]e strive to witness to mercy when we honor the dignity of each person in a welcoming culture that pursues integrity of word and deed.”

The fact that this tragedy is unfolding in San Francisco is important. Just last year, unionized teachers in four high schools owned by the San Francisco Archdiocese—which do not include the independent Mercy High School—threatened to strike when Archbishop Cordileone sought contracts requiring teachers to witness to the Catholic faith in both their teaching and their behavior. Some of teachers were concerned that their private lives might be unduly scrutinized by the archdiocese, but eventually the archbishop got the contract he wanted.

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In fact, the Vatican has taught for decades that Catholic school teachers are expected to uphold the Catholic faith in both word and deed, and so the situation at Mercy High School presents a public test case amid the growing acceptance of a false “gender ideology,” as Pope Francis describes it. Does a teacher who claims a gender that’s not her biological sex go against Catholic values? And does this impact the teacher’s ability to teach?

False Witness
The sisters who run Mercy High School clearly think it does not. Sister Laura Reicks, president of the 16-state region of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Their personal lives are completely separate from their qualifications as teachers. We are concerned about the education of young women, and we do not consider personal criteria when we hire the best person for each position.”

This unfortunate position violates Canon Law, which requires that “teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life.” Further, the National Directory for Catechesis instructs Catholic school administrators to, “Recruit teachers who are practicing Catholics, who can understand and accept the teachings of the Catholic Church and the moral demands of the gospel, and who can contribute to the achievement of the school’s Catholic identity and apostolic goals” (p. 231).

The sisters’ position also violates common sense. Even secular schools and the Supreme Court have acknowledged that all teachers are role models. Catholic schools have not only the right but the duty to ensure that their teachers are appropriate role models for the faith.

Nevertheless, ultimately the sisters and the board that runs the school employ the teachers. If they want to employ inappropriate role models and scoff at the Church’s expectations for teachers, there is surprisingly little anyone can do about it, except to choose and support other schools where there is a firm commitment to the Catholic witness of teachers.

It’s urgently important that bishops and Catholic school leaders around the country put sexually appropriate policies and procedures in place, and marshal their theological and anthropological positions now, before the rest of the country similarly embraces radical positions on gender and sexual identity. Toward this end, The Cardinal Newman Society has created policy guidance in areas such as teacher morality agreements and on the complex issues of human sexuality in Catholic schools.

With a broad understanding of the unique mission of the Catholic school—and a specific understanding that a school’s religious mission protects it from employees not aligned with that mission who might seek legal action—it is possible to draft a principled policy about the employment of individuals in Catholic schools experiencing gender confusion.

Disqualified to Teach
The case can be made that it is never appropriate for a transgender person to serve as a Catholic school teacher. While all human beings deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, there are many people who would not be considered qualified to serve as Catholic school teachers. Among them might be included: atheists, Christian fundamentalists, painfully shy introverts or even someone who can’t pass the math section of a state teachers’ test.

This is not a reflection on anyone’s individual human dignity, worth and freedom, only on their suitability to assist Catholic schools in their mission of leading students to their final good, while also in service to the common good—both of which must be understood in a Catholic context. All humans have fundamental rights, but there is no fundamental right to serve as a Catholic school teacher.

In fact, it is a fundamental human right for Catholics to freely associate and employ teachers to educate their children according to their faith. It is a violation of human freedom, dignity and choice, as well as supremely unmerciful, to deny Catholic children an education that will lead them to their final end and assist them to serve the Church and the common good. Only those who have the skills, dispositions and abilities to teach and model that which Catholic schools want to communicate to Catholic youth are suited for employment in a Catholic school.

Pope Pius XI articulated this unique purpose of a Catholic school as “securing the Supreme Good, that is, God, for the souls of those who are being educated, and the maximum of well-being possible here below for human society.” Both goals are accomplished by integrally and harmoniously developing the students’ minds, spirits, morals and bodies so that they might use their freedom properly. Additionally, according to Vatican II, “[I]t depends chiefly on them [the teachers] whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose.” It is therefore the right and responsibility of Catholic school administrators to hire only mission-friendly and mission-supportive teachers.

Individuals exhibiting gender confusion are not properly suited to assist in this task due to their ongoing and public denial of their God-given biological sex. There is no chance for these individuals to separate the personal from the private in a classroom setting. A competing vision of human sexuality is out in public for all to encounter. It is not just a private decision for a female Catholic school teacher to manifest as male. The situation puts public demands on her Catholic school students, and it requires them to deny biological reality and replace it with an individual teacher’s chosen social construct—the product of a non-Catholic worldview.

Catholic schools understand truth to be when the mind is in accord with reality. Now, clearly, here is a case of competing realities. A Catholic school must be able to freely present its understanding and approach to reality and the human person through employees who authentically support and witness to that understanding.

Pope Francis calls gender theory or gender ideology a “mistake of the human mind” in “not recognizing the order of creation.” “With this attitude,” he says, “man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator.”

A teacher who models a mistake of the mind and commits a sin against the Creator should be lovingly and charitably counseled and assisted to grow in truth and holiness. A Catholic school teacher who knowingly persists in this situation should be assisted to find a school which more closely models her worldview, and does not conflict with the Catholic school’s differing vision of reality or of the human good.

According to Vatican II, a Catholic school is a place where students order “their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth; also that they develop into perfect manhood.” These fundamental concepts of truth and the perfection of humanity, which the Holy Father says teachers are to model, are precisely what is at stake in the conflict with gender ideology.

Fundamentally Different Worldview
In the present case at Mercy High school, is this female teacher who now identifies as a man living out what it means to be fully a woman? Can she model the dignity of women and the feminine genius extolled by Saint John Paul II and recently called for by Pope Francis? Can she live out what it means to be fully a man? What understanding of the integrated human person is she witnessing to? Is she living out the Church’s teaching, most recently articulated by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, citing the Synod fathers, that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated”?

Or is she possibly, willingly or unwillingly, engaged in what Pope Francis called the “ideological colonization” of gender theory, which he has repeatedly warned threatens to destroy families and society?

It is not just Pope Francis who has warned about the dangers of animating a worldview that embraces gender ideology. Pope Benedict XVI called such a worldview a “profound falsehood” at the heart of a false “anthropological revolution” whereby humans “deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.” The pope emphasized that this issue involves an “essential aspect of what being human is all about.” He said it calls human nature itself “into question” and falsely disembodies humans and reduce them to “merely spirit and will.”  The pope decried that by denying the “pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation” the reality of the family itself is attacked.

The Church reminds teachers that, “Conduct is always much more important than speech; this fact becomes especially important in the formation period of students.” Pope Francis insightfully notes that teachers’ words “will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency it is impossible to educate!” In this he echoes the Church’s stance that, “The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated. For it will then be seen as something reasonable and worthy of being lived, something concrete and realizable.” The Church, parents and students have a right to be instructed in communities of integrity by people who fully support the culture of that community.

A teacher publicly expressing gender dysphoria is modeling before students a fundamentally different worldview than what the Catholic school seeks to instill. This is a significant difference of theology, philosophy and anthropology about foundational principles of the human experience. It is a different worldview about the nature of humanity, our relationships to our bodies, our relationships to our souls, our relationships to nature and our relationships to God. Again, as a free human person with all the dignity and freedom that entails, she is entitled to hold that different version of the good, with all of its consequences.

One consequence is that such a worldview disqualifies her from being a model to Catholic school students and in contrast to the competing notion of humanity. We have a different version of the good. The stakes are high. Mercy for students, parents, and for teachers demands truth, honesty, and integrity.


  • Daniel Guernsey

    Dr. Daniel Guernsey is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society.

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