Portland archbishop addresses ‘confusion’ caused by ‘inaccurate media reports’ on schools, gender document

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Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Ore., speaks July 7, 2022, during the Catholic Media Conference in Portland. Archbishop Sample has refuted media reports that the archdiocese's recent closure of its Catholic schools office is related to a gender identity theory document published by the archdiocese in January. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

(OSV News) — The head of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, has refuted media reports that the archdiocese’s recent closure of its Catholic schools office is related to a gender identity theory document published by the archdiocese in January. In a memo to school leaders and clergy sent late June 28 and obtained by OSV News, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample said he wanted to “address some inaccurate media reports that have led to some confusion.”

“Recent changes at the Department of Catholic Schools are not in any way tied to the Gender Identity Theory document or its related controversy,” he said. He also said that the archdiocese does not plan to close any school, and that students have not been excluded from schools or parishes.

“Our doors are open to everyone and always will be. As Catholics, we joyfully abide by the Church’s teachings and moral principles when we are forming the consciences of our children. This includes those moral principles articulated in the Gender Identity Theory document,” he said in the memo.

Clearing up confusion

Local and national media, both secular and Catholic, reported this week that the schools office had been closed, as proclaimed one outlet, “amid parent and teacher backlash over pronoun guidance.” In addition, Portland-based Oregon Live reported that parents of Catholic school students and other community members are pushing back against the archdiocese’s guidance for schools and youth-serving institutions in situations with “gender-questioning” young people, adding that schools in the archdiocese are at a “crossroads.”

But in a statement shared with OSV News on June 26, the Archdiocese of Portland said that it had temporarily closed its Department of Catholic Schools “as we work to reevaluate how to best integrate schools more fully into our mission,” adding that the closure was “not related to the release of A Catholic Response to Gender Identity Theory.”

Gender Identity Theory

The 17-page document, published Jan. 25 and titled “A Catholic Response to Gender Identity Theory,” conveys Church teaching on gender and sex and includes nine “pastoral guidelines,” stating among them that Catholic schools should use pronouns reflecting students’ biological sex, and that students should also use bathrooms, wear uniforms and play on sports teams in accord with their biological sex.

“This document aims to provide preliminary guidance for Catholic schools, religious education programs, sacramental preparation programs, and youth ministry activities for our youth up to 18 years of age in the Archdiocese of Portland, in order to support and accompany gender-questioning students and their families in a way that ensures our Catholic Institutions fulfill their Catholic mission,” the document stated.

Media reports

Oregon Live reported June 26 that “hundreds of Portland area families whose children attend Catholic schools are protesting … guidance that schools under the Church’s umbrella not recognize transgender and nonbinary students’ pronouns and identities.” It stated that leaders at some Catholic schools began asking faculty members this spring “to pledge they would uphold” the archdiocese’s guidelines, and some teachers have lost their contracts after refusing to sign. It also reported that the document played a role in two principals’ resignations.

But in the June 28 memo to school leaders and pastors, Archbishop Sample wrote that “many have expressed gratitude for the clarity this document provides on Church teachings.”

“We are proud of this document and pleased with all the feedback we’ve received from Catholics throughout the Archdiocese,” he wrote. “We are grateful to God for teaching us, through His Church, the truth about the human person. Although it addresses Catholic schools, I encourage everyone to read the document and to prayerfully reflect on it.”

‘Never were they linked’

In a June 28 message addressed to parishioners and posted on his personal blog, Father William Holtzinger, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, also spoke out against “some media ‘reports” that “have been putting together other factors that were unrelated and simply coincidental in order to further a message that the Archbishop has been scheming a plan.”

Those reports are “conflating” the events of the schools office closure with the implementation of the gender identity theory document, and with the “experimental shift” at one parish school to a classic Catholic liberal arts curriculum, he said.

“I have been at separate meetings for all of these events, and never were they linked,” Father Holtzinger wrote. “Yet, the media and other detractors are conflating them as one planned-out scheme by the Archbishop. I urge you to resist filling the gaps of information with the negative narrative being fashioned.”

Father Holtzinger described attending several meetings over the course of the past year with Archbishop Sample and pastors with schools that led to the decision to close the office.

“In short, some pastors voiced their frustration that their schools were operating as if they were independent of the parish and sometimes disregarded the directives of their pastors in favor of the DCS (Department of Catholic Schools),” he wrote. “Some pastors shared their concern about the lack of Catholic identity in the culture and praxis of the schools.”

‘Turn to the truth’

In an online meeting in mid-June, the pastors were informed that the schools office would be temporarily closing, he said.

“He (Archbishop Sample) acknowledged the issues previously mentioned as the reasons for his decision. In that same meeting, he wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t an indictment of any specific school or all our schools,” Father Holtzinger said. “In fact, he praised that some schools have been doing very well — the connection between pastors, principals and DCS have been healthy, and the Catholic faith has been very much part of their culture. Yet, the Archbishop acknowledged that there has been an ongoing dissatisfaction that a ‘school district’ approach to the DCS was not working sufficiently enough to help pastors lift up the Catholic faith in our schools.

“The Archbishop, after consultation with pastors and his own leadership team, decided that a grand overhaul of the DCS was needed and that real change simply could not be done in a piecemeal way,” Father Holtzinger wrote. “He wants the DCS to be more flexible to support a variety of needs and models of schooling. He believes this action will help the DCS to become a more effective resource for our schools’ evangelizing mission.”

In the June 28 memo to school leaders clarifying the situation, Archbishop Sample appeared to address the blowback to the gender identity theory document, writing, “God gives us free will to embrace or reject Catholic teaching, but as your Archbishop, I implore you to examine your conscience and turn to the truth. Please know that you are loved by God, and by me. May the Spirit of God fill you with His love, His joy, and His hope.”

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.