Pope Francis is an outspoken critic of gender ideology, recently calling it the “ugliest danger of our times.” Cardinal Victor Fernandez, Pope Francis’s head of doctrinal orthodoxy, just put that condemnation in writing, stating in the newly released Vatican document, Dignitas Infinita (On Human Dignity), “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes . . . amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God.” The Cardinal adds, “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.”

The Catholic Church has spoken unambiguously here: the idea that men can become women or women can become men—or any other “gender”—is not only confused; it is evil.

It’s also an idea that the Biden administration has just codified into law. Revised Title IX rules released by the Department of Education now interpret “sex discrimination” to include “gender identity.” While the new rules table, for the time being, the issue of men participating in women’s sports, they are clearly aimed at making single-sex private spaces, like locker rooms and bathrooms, a relic of the past. Moreover, by defining “misgendering” as a form of sexual discrimination, the Biden administration is now coercing students, faculty, and staff into calling a “he” a “she” under pain of investigation and, potentially, dismissal. This is the new reality for all schools that receive federal funding, which includes most colleges and universities.

How should Catholic institutions respond? First, any Catholic college or university that complies with the Department of Education’s new regulations will put itself in direct violation of Catholic moral teaching and at odds with Pope Francis and the Vatican. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “an unjust law is no law at all”; Title IX’s new provisions are a paradigmatic example of an unjust law.

Second, some Catholic institutions saw the writing on the wall and previously applied to the Department of Education for religious exemptions to parts of Title IX. The president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, for example,  stated in response to the new regulations that the school would not have to comply because it already has such protections in place. A small number of Catholic schools, including Christendom College in Virginia, have also preemptively protected themselves from Title IX interference by opting out of federal funding altogether.

These two recourses—seeking exemptions and opting out—may be a prudent means for Catholic schools to shield themselves from the government. But this approach also has sharp limitations. Securing an exemption can be a lengthy process, and the outcome is not guaranteed, especially in the current political environment. The government could begin harassing Catholic institutions with Title IX investigations long before any exemption is granted. And while opting out of federal funding may be a faster way to avoid state interference, most Catholic schools cannot stay solvent unless they accept students who pay tuition with federal student loans.

Ultimately, these two strategies of avoidance fail to address the deeper problem: the Biden administration has now made gender ideology the de facto legal and moral norm of the federal government. Laws are supposed to embody principles to which everyone can consent because they are grounded in shared rationality. That’s what distinguishes a civil law from a religious precept, in the narrow sense of “religious.” However, in appealing to religious freedom to avoid compliance with Title IX, Catholic institutions are only emboldening the state’s embrace of gender ideology by tacitly granting the premise that rejecting transgenderism is a matter of religious faith rather than rational principle. That’s exactly where the gender ideologues want their opponents: asking for permission from the state to practice their “religion” of living in accordance with biological reality. This is not a durable solution. If we give the state the power to redefine sex, it will use that same power to redefine religious freedom as well.

Another issue with Catholic institutions sheltering within a religious exemption is that doing so abandons students, faculty, and staff without institutional protection to twist in the legal wind. At its core, Title IX is a social justice issue. The Biden administration is systemically oppressing women and men—with especially deleterious consequences for women—by legally defining them out of existence. Hiding behind the walls of an exemption is thus not only strategically naive; it is also cowardly. Just as Catholic institutions advocate for the protection of all unborn children and not merely the right not to perform abortions, they should also push for the rights of all women and men to retain their legal status, not just for the right not to abide by gender ideology. In the name of safeguarding the freedom of conscience that emanates from our inherent human dignity, Catholic institutions should also oppose Title IX’s compelled-speech provisions, fighting to ensure that no person is ever forced to say something he believes to be false.

Catholic institutions can take two immediate actions on this front. First, they can support states like Florida and Oklahoma that are refusing to abide by Title IX’s new regulations. Second, they can publicly declare their campuses sanctuaries for all students, faculty, and staff who respect biological reality. Catholic schools should present themselves as unapologetically pro-woman, pro-man, and pro-freedom-of conscience, even if it costs them federal funding.

Pope Francis is right: gender ideology is one of the great evils of our age. Catholic institutions should do more than take shelter from the state’s overreach, hoping that the authoritarian gender scolds will consume them last. They have a duty to get into the fray and push back against gender ideology—wherever it is found. 

Photo by Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images


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