In the June 2016 issue of The First, I contributed a North American Forum piece, “Dear Colleague” in response to the Obama administration’s expansion of Title IX protections to cover transgender young people in schools and athletics. I asked my colleagues in the world church to join me in learning more about the experiences of transgender persons by, at the very least, reading transgender memoirs and accounts of transgender histories in order to enrich the Church’s ethical reflections on the policy changes. I wrote again in 2019, to comment on the 2017 repeal of that policy by the Trump administration and the steady erosion of protections for LGBTQIA+ persons, moves that were heartily supported the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I am back at it in what has become a three-year cycle.
Attacks on the dignity of LGBTQIA+ persons continue unabated. Catholic institutions continue to fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, to limit access to healthcare for transgender and non-binary persons, and to promote discredited forms of mental healthcare. Grounds for these moves often rest on claims to religious freedom and freedom of conscience (arguments also used to shore up refusals to access various goods and services that include reproductive healthcare at pharmacies, and legal marriage). The Diocese of Milwaukee has recently garnered attention for policies that reinforce gender conformity in everything from chosen names, pronouns, and rest-room facilities in Catholic institutions and that “apply to all church employees, personnel, volunteers, contracted vendors and those entrusted to the care of the Church.”
What the bishops have argued for on rights to religious liberty grounds, are now also being championed under the guise of support for parental rights, and education continues to be a particularly volatile flashpoint during social change. Schools are battlegrounds onto which children have been drafted and are in desperate need of field hospitals equipped with both informed resources and merciful practitioners.
Two highly publicized examples illustrate the alarming trends. In February 2022, Governor Abbott of Texas issued a directive claiming that gender-affirming healthcare constitutes a form of child abuse and obligating teachers and healthcare workers to report instances to the Department of Family and Protective Services. Not unlike measures that give standing to a broad range of citizens to enforce and bring suit over abortion restrictions, these measures criminalize support for women and LGBTQIA+ persons.
The state of Florida has taken an opposite tack to achieve a similar goal. Rather than restricting parent’s ability to make the best healthcare and educational decisions for their children, Governor DeSantis has recently signed legislation, known by supporters as the Parental Rights in Education bill, and by opponents as the Don’t Say Gay bill. Proponents of the legislation received support and guidance in its crafting from The Child and Parental Rights Campaign, which claims to protect children from harm but clearly states that harms flow primarily from rampant “gender ideology” that threatens society. Surrounded by a cadre of white parents, educators, and children (in what look to be Catholic school uniforms) DeSantis argued for parents’ rights to make decisions about their children’s education, and parsed the bill in order to deflect objections from other legislators, LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups, and even corporations like Disney.
Parents’ rights are now taking stage in everything from public health measures like masking in schools and remote learning, to educational content around a swath of topics not limited to sex and gender but also to race and racism and accounts of our nations’ history that reflect the best scholarship. It can be argued that the 2021 electoral success of gubernatorial candidates like Glenn Youngkin of Virginia hinged on parental rights campaign rhetoric.
The argument that parents should enjoy broad discretion over decisions regarding their children has long been supported in Catholic moral theology and argued in the context of Catholic social teaching. As the “first cells” of civil society, families provide a loving environment for children grow and participate in the common good. Families require broader social supports and just access to resources in order to exercise this responsibility of care. Families ought to be free from undue interference in this charge according to the principle of subsidiarity. It is also true that considering the rights of children themselves has been more contentious and official teaching tends to proceed on the assumption that there is no conflict between the best interests of parents, families as a whole, and children, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that this is not universally the case.
Catholic ethicists must carefully scrutinize the use of parental rights as a justification for various forms of legislation and policy in the areas of health and education. We must examine closely the letter and the spirit of these policies and ask if they meet the tests of gospel calls to justice and mercy for the vulnerable. We must look squarely at the rhetoric, the stated intentions of the policies, the oft times obscured motivations behind them, and the actual impacts they have on real persons.
We can no longer ignore the link between these campaigns to exclude transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming persons from full participation in educational and healthcare spaces and the virulence of white supremacy and misogyny in the United States. What has been the practical effect of measures taken to severely restrict reproductive healthcare access for women and girls, gender affirming medicine and mental healthcare, and to expand the “right” to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ persons in employment? Has it been to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies and abortions? Has it advanced the health and well-being, the cura personalis, the fundamental and inviolable dignity of women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ folx? Has it shored up the resources that all parents and families need to promote their children’s flourishing? No. Will the overturn of Roe v. Wade advance any of those values? Will successful litigation around religious freedom improve the lived experience of those who are most vulnerable among us? Likely not. What has it done? It has bolstered support for political candidates who support, among other things: disenfranchising BIPOC voters through voter suppression, easing access to guns and military weapons, criminalizing black and trans bodies, undermining accountability for sexual assault and the murder of black and trans bodies, eroding vital resources for equitable public education, erasing the histories of racism, settler colonialism, and accounts of BIPOC achievement, legitimizing anti-immigrant hate, denying healthcare to poor people, and dismantling protections for the natural environment.
The rights of parents with regard to their children are not absolute. Parental rights and responsibilities are always exercised in relationship to the rights and dignity of particular children and the common good. Rather than reiterate simplistic notions of parents as first educators of their children, we must find ways to stand against the cynical exploitation of that commitment in ways that ultimately ease the way for white supremacy, misogyny, and all forms of gender phobia.
 For examples see John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio and the Vatican Charter of the Rights of the Family. See also the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Andrew Attebury and Gary Fineout, “How a lawsuit over a teen spurred Florida Republicans to pass the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” Politico, March 29, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/29/lawsuit-teen-florida-republicans-dont-say-gay-00021163
Mary M. Doyle Roche, “Dear Colleague,” Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Forum, June 7, 2016, https://catholicethics.com/forum/dear-colleague/
Mary M. Doyle Roche, “Dispatch and Appeal from a Colleague in Worcester, MA,” Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church Forum, May 28, 2019, https://catholicethics.com/forum/dispatch-and-appeal-from-a-colleague-in-worcester-ma/
“Governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin.” N.a. Virginia.gov. n.d. https://www.governor.virginia.gov/
“The Harms Posed by Gender Ideology to Children’s Wellbeing.” N.a. Child and Parental Rights Campaign, Inc. n.d. https://childparentrights.org/harms-to-children/
Brian Roewe, “Milwaukee archdiocese takes aim at trans persons in sweeping new policy,” National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2022, https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/milwaukee-archdiocese-takes-aim-trans-persons-sweeping-new-policy
Elizabeth Sharrow and Isaac Sederbaum, “Texas isn’t the only state denying essential medical care to trans youths. Here’s what’s going on.” Washington Post, March 10, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/10/texas-trans-kids-abortion-lgbtq-gender-ideology/
Tavernise, Sabrina. “Citizens, Not the State, Will Enforce New Abortion Law in Texas.” The New York Times, July 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/09/us/abortion-law-regulations-texas.html.