NEW YORK – When the San Domenico School in San Francisco grabbed national headlines in 2017 for cutting its ties to the Catholic Church, the move may have stunned some in the Bay Area but it came as no surprise to Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, who’d spent almost 20 years in archdiocesan schools and said he’d watched San Domenico “moving in that direction for a long time.”

The situation, Daly said, shows what happens when a Catholic school begins to concede its mission.

“The loss of Catholic identity, the loss of a mission, is not like a blown-out tire, it’s like a slow leak,” said Daly, the U.S. bishops’ conference’s education committee chair. “You begin to compromise – the teaching, the classes offered, hiring practices, leadership of your board – and more and more the mission becomes not even secondary, and then you cease to really be Catholic.”

Daly made the comments in a recent conversation with Crux on gender policies being implemented for educational settings –  both in diocesan schools and Catholic universities – as the conversation around gender has become more prominent and debated nationwide, both in secular and religious circles.

Last month, the Archdioceses of Omaha, Nebraska, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota published policies that promote the church’s teaching on sexual identity. In part, the policies require students to identify and behave in accordance with their biological sex.

The policies are similar to those published by the Dioceses of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Lafayette, Louisiana in July, along with those of a number of other dioceses in recent years.

Meanwhile, some Catholic universities have gone the other way, issuing gender policies that contradict church teaching. The most recent is Villanova University, which published a “Gender Inclusive Practices Guide” earlier this month to promote gender inclusivity and encourage the use of people’s preferred pronouns in the classroom.

In a statement to Crux, The Augustinians of Saint Thomas of Villanova Province, the religious order that runs the university, said, “Villanova University seeks to be a welcoming and inclusive community that respects members of all backgrounds and faiths,” further noting that “calling someone by their name and pronouns is a show of respect for them as a person, a fellow Villanovan and child of God.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where the university is located, declined a Crux request to comment on the policy, citing the university’s independence.

What follows is more from Crux’s conversation with Daly about the policies being implemented by both dioceses and Catholic universities, and the challenges a lack of policy uniformity creates for the church.

Crux: What do you think of the gender policies that dioceses are issuing?

Daly: Certainly, not all dioceses have issued a statement. Some are waiting to see what happens in other dioceses. Others, it’s not a big issue so they’re dealing with it one on one. But my experience here in Spokane and dealing with other dioceses – Arlington, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are some examples – we felt it was important that we had a policy.

I think it’s important for us to know that we have to always be compassionate towards the student and their families who might be experiencing what is not an easy thing. However, the approach that’s being taken in certain medical circles, certain public schools, we believe is contrary to Christian anthropology.

I would say that dioceses are addressing this in a standardized policy. Not every diocese, but many dioceses are doing so, most of the time it comes from basic issues raised by the schools.

How concerned are you that these policies can divide and steer people away from Catholic schools? 

It’s a pastoral line that has to be clear that we are concerned about the students who may experience gender confusion, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that there are certain non-negotiables in Catholic schools. I think this is an important thing that often gets forgotten: People don’t have to go to our schools, and this is not something that is a minor issue. It’s something we can’t shy away from. I think we try to understand, but when it’s all said and done we as Catholic schools have a mission that is given to us by the church and we have to be faithful to it.

My experience, whether it’s Catholic education, or health care, or social services, and I often say this, when there is a parallel in the secular world, parallel to the sacred, we have to be very careful that the attitudes and the teachings and the trends of the secular don’t influence, overcome, and overwhelm the sacred.

We’re clear on our mission because we’re not for everybody. And yes we are called to be compassionate, but we’re also called to the truth and people don’t have to come to our schools. That may sound harsh, but I think when we’re clear at the very beginning it ends up eliminating a lot of future conflicts.

There are also gender inclusive policies implemented by some Catholic universities. What are your thoughts on Catholic universities and their decision to go the other way on this in some cases?

It creates a huge contradiction.

When universities adopt what you find in a secular school I think they have clearly moved away from their Catholic mission. In a pluralistic country and pluralistic society you can remain faithful to your Catholic mission without this adaptation and adoption of what you would find [in a secular institution].

We’ve seen, unfortunately, Catholic universities, and they’re not the only institutions but it seems to be more prevalent in higher education, where under the guise of being inclusive they go in a direction that is really contrary to what their mission is. It makes it difficult for the bishop. We’re supposed to be the teachers of the church in the diocese.

I think there’s some leadership at Catholic institutions of higher learning where it’s almost an embarrassment that the church calls people to truth. I’m not prepared to give up on the fact that Catholic colleges can be more faithful to their mission and at the same time have academic excellence, but I don’t hold a lot of hope out for certain places that have become so secular that I don’t know if they even care.

What is the role of the bishops with Catholic universities, and what challenges exist with the autonomy that most of the Catholic universities have?

When St. John Paul II promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “From the Heart of the Church,” in 1990, there were certain benchmarks that spoke about the unique relationship that the Catholic university has to pursue truth, and also making clear that faith informs reason. More and more, sadly, the voice of the church is sidelined, if not ignored, in certain Catholic universities.

So the accountability to something greater, whether it’s to the provincial of a religious order, the diocesan bishop, even to the Congregation of Catholic Education in Rome, the accountability factor seems to be nil in a number of schools. When you separate yourself from the life of the church, then you run the risk of going so far down a path that you can’t even get back.

There is the role of the bishop and of the hierarchy of the church to help colleges and universities remain faithful to their mission, always keeping in mind that there is a pluralistic society, there is a diverse student body, but I believe that you can be both faithful to the church’s mission, and allow students to pursue truth, to listen to arguments, to listen to both sides, striving always to find truth.

Going back to diocesan schools, do you think there will be some sort of national guidance for dioceses to follow, or use as a guide, as these issues become more prevalent?

I think there will be because of how we’re just seeing how extreme this is becoming, just the question is what will it be next? When will it stop? So I think it does warrant a discussion and beyond a discussion, action. Now, bishops are autonomous of their own dioceses, but I think it warrants a discussion first, I would imagine, in the regions.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg