The Diocese of Jefferson City recently presented guidance to local principals and pastors who oversee parish schools, on how to engage in admissions discussions with "non-traditional" families who wish to enroll their children as students in Catholic schools.
Diocesan officials wanted to be very clear, though, about what this guidance is and isn't.
"It's a procedure, it's a tool," and not a mandate, said Dan Joyce, communications coordinator for the diocese.
Diocesan documents provide some examples of how the diocese defines "non-traditional" families or household circumstances:
A non-Catholic lesbian, gay, bisexual or transexual couple who wish to enroll their children in a Catholic school;
A Catholic, or "Catholic but distanced from the parish/community" LGBT couple who wishes to enroll their children in school or a religious education program;
An unmarried couple living together who wishes to enroll their children in school or a religious education program;
Enrollment of children from a divorced or remarried family that has not received a canonical annulment;
The family of an "openly transgender student" requests admittance to a Diocese of Jefferson City Catholic school, parish religious education program or to participate in youth ministry-sponsored activities.
The documents also provide guidance in the event that a student comes out as LGBT, and specifically as transgender.
Sister Elizabeth Youngs explained two situations arose in the 2015-16 school year prompting the diocese to examine its procedures; an LGBT couple wanted to enroll a student and a transgender male student came out.
"Because of the culture that we're living in, we wanted guidance from the bishop" on how to respond, Youngs said. She is the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the diocese.
She explained the recommendation came from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that dioceses "should convene a summit of leaders" to craft further guidance to share with school principals and priests who oversee schools in their parishes, in order to guide conversations they have with parents who wish to enroll their children.
That summit took the form of a diocesan committee convened last fall, and the committee developed "best practices" for engaging with parents who are exploring enrollment for their children.
Youngs was on the committee, along with Sister Julie Brandt, associate superintendent of Catholic Schools; Rev. Joseph Corel, vicar general; Millie Aulbur, lawyer, teacher and chair of the Diocesan Education Council; John DeLaporte, Youth Ministry coordinator for the Diocese of Jefferson City; Rev. Joshua Duncan, associate pastor of the Cathedral of St. Joseph; Nancy Hoey, a licensed professional counselor at Grace Counseling; and Msgr. Marion Makarewicz, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, Lake Ozark, "with a specialization in moral theology."
The best practices they developed were presented to priests on May 9, and to principals May 11.
Those documents contain guidance on when and how to conduct an interview with parents, questions to ask, steps to take and considerations to take into account.
Also, from now on, all parents of all students who are enrolled in a Catholic school in the diocese will have to sign and abide by a "Covenant of Trust," in addition to their child's school handbook.
Corel explained the procedures the committee developed are in line with everything that's come before.
He and Youngs explained the procedures are not a mandate for schools to admit any and every student from any and every kind of family. They are guidelines for conversations to be had with parents about whether enrollment of their children would be in the best interest of both their student and a given school.
"We can't accomodate the one and lose the whole," Corel said, though he noted there are accomodations available.
Youngs explained a conversation or a series of conversations like this may include some combination of parents, a principal, a pastor and the child if they're old enough, which could mean junior high age.
Who is and isn't present for these conversations is dependent on privacy considerations, Brandt explained; theological and moral discussions that are a priest's forte may not require a principal to be privy.
Youngs iterated these kinds of conversations are nothing new; they've happened before with families of non-Catholic students and students who transfer in from other schools.
Corel said the reason the Catholic Church has schools is to evangelize, to spread the message of the Church.
Given that mission, schools need pledges from parents of students that they will not only support the teachings of the Church in the education of their children, but also incorporate those teachings into family life beyond school — hence, the "Covenant of Trust."
No matter the culture the Church exists in, "we can't be in retreat," he said.
"We have to engage people where they're at" and have conversations, whether the answer to a specific question of enrollment for a given student is yes or no, he said. He added that even if a student from a non-traditional family is enrolled, their enrolled status is provisional, pending further review of their circumstances.
"We have to be Catholic in nature," Youngs said of schools maintaining their identities as Church institutions. She said that if schools cannot provide good academic programs or be able to evangelize, there's no point in them existing at all.
The Diocese of Jefferson City oversees 37 Catholic elementary schools and three high schools, with a total of about 7,000 students in communities like Jefferson City, Columbia, Boonville, Fulton, Hannibal, Kirksville, Linn, Macon, Marshall, Eugene, Moberly, Rolla and Sedalia.