Mission Fit: Working with Nontraditional Families

Editor’s Note: The article below is included in the forthcoming winter 2021 edition of the Newman Society’s Our Catholic Mission magazine.

Last year, when the child of a same-sex couple was denied admission to St. Ann Catholic School in Prairie Village, Kan., the incident sparked public debate over Catholic school admissions policies.

It also revealed disagreement in dioceses across the country about standards for Catholic school enrollment, particularly when students’ family relationships are taken into account. Disagreement in the Church regarding nontraditional families—the growing variety of home situations beyond a faithfully Catholic family with a married mother and father—may leave schools more vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits and to vilification by the media, politicians and social activists.

Following the incident at St. Ann’s, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., issued a statement, which read in part:

The Church teaches that individuals with same-sex attraction should be treated with dignity. However, the challenge regarding same-sex couples and our Catholic schools is that same-sex parents cannot model behaviors and attitudes regarding marriage and sexual morality consistent with essential components of the Church’s teachings. This creates a conflict for their children between what they are taught in school and what is experienced at home. It also becomes a source of confusion for the other school children.

Critics pounced, accusing the Archdiocese of discriminating against homosexuals while admitting children whose parents are divorced and remarried. Other dioceses disregard parents’ sexuality when making admissions decisions. Some argue that Catholic schools should welcome students from any family situation, so that at least the children can be taught the Catholic faith.

What policies best serve the mission of Catholic education? While it may take some time to reach consensus, The Cardinal Newman Society, through its Catholic Identity Standards Project, is working with educators to develop guidance on this critical but complex issue.

Not Every Family

As a key means of evangelization, Catholic schools serve the Church’s mission to teach the nations about Christ and all truth. In principle, they should be eager to teach every young person who seeks admission, although that is not possible or wise in every situation.

In practice, it is rare for a Catholic school not to limit enrollment for practical reasons as well as concerns about a student’s behavior and impact on other students’ education.

Enrollment decisions should also look at a student’s family situation, not because it is a school’s primary mission to address the moral life of parents—although the school can do much to witness to moral truth and help parents get the pastoral care they need—but because family circumstances may make it impossible to fulfill the mission of Catholic education without conflict, confusion and scandal to the students who are enrolled in the school.

Denying admission because of family situations, often no fault of the child, is difficult. But it is critical to the mission of Catholic education to prevent situations that could unintentionally lead other impressionable students away from virtue and holiness, which directly contradicts a Catholic school’s purpose.

A Catholic school is more than a service; it is a community committed to the mission of Catholic education, and participating families need to be a part of that commitment. Enrolling Catholic families should be a school’s first priority, because of the right of baptized Catholics to formation in the faith and the Church’s obligation to serve this need.

Family Circumstances

In today’s culture, schools increasingly are faced with students whose parents or guardians are not Catholic, unwed and cohabiting, remarried outside the Church, in a same-sex union, or identify as transgender.

In many of these instances, families may be safely invited into a Catholic school if they agree to support the mission of educating and forming students in the truths of the Catholic faith and do not interfere with that mission. Every such family seeking a Catholic education should be addressed with compassion and a desire to help parents reconcile with Catholic teaching, usually by referring them to a priest or other parish ministries for pastoral care.

Still, with its purpose of teaching truth, a Catholic school must be prepared to delay admission or turn away or dismiss a student whose family situation causes moral confusion and scandal among other students in the school’s care. This requires courage. A Catholic school must have the conviction that upholding its mission, protecting its students from confusion and scandal, and guiding families to moral truth even by denying enrollment is true compassion.

In some cases, a school could attempt to help a family regularize a home situation, as long as the problems are not so publicly visible and confusing to other students that they conflict with the mission of Catholic education. A school must avoid appearing to condone parents’ immoral choices and compromising the school’s reputation for teaching truth.

It must also consider the potential damage when parents openly and strongly oppose the moral lessons at a Catholic school. Children naturally rely on their parents’ emotional and physical care, and in cases in which the parents are so strongly opposed to what a Catholic school teaches, a school could cause the child to become alienated from the parents or, more likely, alienated from the Church. In such cases, it may be imprudent to enroll the child in Catholic education until they have the maturity to sort through such painful and complex realities.

For Catholic educators today, the most difficult situation to handle may be when it is discovered that a current or prospective student’s parents or guardians are in a homosexual relationship. This is not identical to other irregular and immoral circumstances, because the Church teaches that same-sex unions are fundamentally in opposition to marriage and allow no possibility of regularization, as is possible in most male-female relationships. It is always the case that a public same-sex union brings moral confusion and scandal into the school community.

For deeper discussion of these issues, the Newman Society recommends two papers: “Not All Families Are a Good Fit for Catholic Schools” and “Working With Nontraditional Families in Catholic Schools,” both by Dr. Dan Guernsey. These were circulated among Catholic educators, diocesan leaders, and theologians for comment before publication.

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