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A pair of Catholic institutions in Minnesota—the College of St. Benedict, a women’s college, and St. John’s University, a men’s college—instituted a new admissions policy over the summer that will allow students who identify as nonbinary to attend either college, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth.
Transgender men and women had already been allowed to attend St. John’s and St. Benedict, respectively, since 2016. But the new policy, which was updated in July according to the colleges’ joint website, explicitly welcomes students who “consistently live and identify” as “gender fluid or nonbinary” to study at either college.
“The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University supports every student’s right to self-identification,” wrote Michael Hemmesch, associate director of media relations for the institutions, in an emailed statement responding to an interview request. “We are dedicated to creating spaces that allow women, men, and those who do not identify within the binary including transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming individuals to thrive at our institutions. This reflects our Benedictine value of respecting the dignity of all people.”
Hemmesch did not respond to follow-up questions.
The new policy comes at a time when religious institutions are grappling with how best to accommodate students who identify as neither male nor female, rethinking their approaches to admissions, housing, bathrooms and more.
“As trans issues … have become more prominent in national conversations, I think an increasing number of schools are catching up and being inclusive in their policies,” said Jonathan Coley, an Oklahoma State University professor who has studied LGBTQ+ students within Catholic and Christian higher education.
According to Coley’s research, the majority of Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. did not have any policies pertaining to gender identity a mere 10 years ago. Now most do, with the majority—nearly three-quarters, as of 2022—including gender identity or gender expression in their nondiscrimination policies.
Fewer have policies in place to support students once they are on campus; by Coley’s count, only 11 percent allow students to live with individuals of different genders, which can be important to accommodating nonbinary students who are uncomfortable living in strictly male or female dorms. Seventy percent of Catholic higher ed institutions also place restrictions on men entering women’s dorms and vice versa—policies that seem to assume all students identify as either male or female and are always attracted to the opposite gender.
“Catholic colleges and universities don’t tend to have these really exclusionary policies to trans or nonbinary students even if they’re not usually going out of their way to accommodate trans and nonbinary students in their campus housing,” he said.
DePaul University, a Catholic university in Chicago, is introducing all-gender housing for the first time this academic year, following the lead of some of the nation’s most progressive secular universities. For the first time this year, the university will set aside dorm space where “residents with gender expansive identities, who identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, nonbinary, as just a few examples,” will have “the ability to share a housing unit with a student of any gender or gender expression,” according to the website.
“At DePaul we work to provide a welcoming environment where all students feel they belong,” university spokesperson Mary Hansen told Inside Higher Ed in an email. “We support and enforce policies and state and federal laws that ensure no one is discriminated against on the basis of sex in the university’s educational programs or activities … We also want to promote ways for students to express their identity, if they choose to do so.”
She noted that DePaul also offers students access to gender-neutral bathrooms, the ability to select their own pronouns and an LGBTQA Resource Center.
Evolving Vatican Views
The Reverend Dennis Henry Holtschneider, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and a former president of DePaul, said that all Catholic higher ed institutions are currently working to figure out how best to meet the needs of nonbinary students, both in housing and across the operations of the university.
“There isn’t one answer to how Catholic schools are dealing with this in the United States,” he said. “It varies by state, and it varies by bishop.”
The Vatican’s stance on nonbinary and transgender identities has evolved in recent years. In a documentary released in 2023, Pope Francis stated that he knew and accepted nonbinary people into the church. That was a marked shift from four years earlier, when the Vatican released a document directed at Catholic schools stating that nonbinary gender identities were “fictitious” and a threat to the structure of the traditional family.
A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute earlier this year showed that Catholics in the U.S. by and large still hold that view, with 69 percent of white Catholics and 66 percent of Hispanic Catholics saying there are only two genders. Still, those numbers are lower than among other Christian denominations.
Not all Catholics have been accepting of the Minnesota colleges’ new policy toward nonbinary students. In an article by the Catholic News Agency, a global Catholic news site, John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at the Catholic University of America, called the policy “a flawed and problematic anthropology that’s at odds with the Catholic faith itself.”
In the same article, Jason Evert, the founder of the Chastity Project, a nonprofit that promotes chastity among students and teaches that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin, called the policy “an open endorsement to confusion and sin.”
Students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University have been calling for years for the two institutions, closely partnered since the early 1960s, to merge into one in order to be more inclusive to transgender and nonbinary students. One student argued in a 2019 column in The Record, the colleges’ shared student newspaper, that a nonbinary student seeking to enroll would have to choose which campus they preferred, essentially selecting which gender they would rather be affiliated with.
“This means that CSB/SJU really does not have a space for nonbinary students. Inclusive action must be taken. If the schools merged, all genders would be welcome,” the author, Anja Wuolu, wrote at the time.
The new admissions policy marks a significant step toward creating that more welcoming space.