University offers women’s and gender studies with a Catholic perspective

3 mins read
The Nesti Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas in Houston is pictured in an undated photo. The center is launching a new graduate certificate in sexuality and gender aiming to answer a strong need for the knowledge, tools and skills required to navigate these topics with truth and compassion. (OSV News photo/University of St. Thomas)

(OSV News) — As a headmaster, Kevin Stuart often wondered when the gender identity issue would touch his school community, and when it did, if he could handle the situation with truth and charity.

Now, as director of the Nesti Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas Houston, he’s pioneering a program that he hopes will enable Catholic educators, health care workers, youth ministers and others to better understand, communicate and practically apply the Church’s teaching on gender and sexuality in the workplace.

This fall, the center is launching a new graduate certificate in sexuality and gender, an online four-course program that Stuart believes is the first of its kind. “There are plenty of programs at secular universities on women’s and gender studies, but this is the first one from a full, authentically Catholic perspective,” he said. “Lots of people are saying they’ve been waiting for something like this (and) we are hopeful and confident that will translate to students.”

Leah Jacobson, program manager, said she believes that many Catholic professionals feel alone and unequipped to handle this sensitive topic. “I think there’s a lot of administrators out there who are probably terrified that today is the day someone is going to walk into their office with this issue,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s been a lot of guidance. There’s so many questions [and I] think this program will help us to make really good informed policy that helps humans.”

Strong Catholic identity

The University of St. Thomas is a Catholic school in Houston with 3,600 students. Founded in 1947 by the Basilian Fathers, the school is recognized by the Cardinal Newman Society, which recommends universities with a strong Catholic identity. The Nesti Center offers academic programs and learning opportunities focused on faith and culture.

The certificate program combines the Catholic teachings on the human person with the science about human biology — information that is often politicized or distorted, Stuart told OSV News.

“There is nothing more necessary in our cultural discussion around the topics of gender and sexuality than situating ourselves at the intersection of what science can tell us and the fundamental dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God,” he said.

“We must equip leaders in our world to become apologists of human dignity, empowering those around them to see themselves as God sees them.”

Untangling the confusion

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston supports the program, saying it meets a pressing need in the Church and in the culture at large. “Pope Francis has reiterated the need to untangle the confusion and reaffirm the truths of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality and gender,” he said. “It is fitting for the task to be undertaken at the highest level and in a scholarly and scientific way by the University of St. Thomas.”

In addition to equipping Catholic professionals through the certificate, the center also is launching a master’s degree in Catholic women’s and gender studies. While the certificate is designed to equip busy Catholic professionals, the master’s allows students to dive deeper into the history, science, philosophy and theology of sexuality and gender, said Jacobson.

“There is a need for study and academic rigor in these areas as Catholics, because our voice needs to heard, and we need to be able to go toe-to-toe with secular women’s studies programs,” she said. “It’s necessary for us to engage with feminist scholars to (share) what is actually going to bring equality and happiness.”

When she served as a campus minister, Jacobson remembers talking with faithful Catholic students who had bought into much of what the culture was teaching them about relationships, careers and family life. “It really opened my eyes to what the secular women’s studies programs were teaching — the right to suppress the female experience in order to show up and do the same thing that the men were doing,” she said. “I desire to create a women’s studies program that allows and expects for women to be fully women — our bodies intact, our gifts intact, our special, unique contributions to the world being honored and recognized.”

Jacobson sees the program as a chance for those who have shied away from women’s and gender studies to reclaim the subject. “I know Catholic women who have desired to engage on these topics, but they’ve leaned away from secular women’s studies programs because they’ve sensed just how toxic they can be,” said Jacobson. “I think there is going to be a new wave of women engaging on these issues. I’m hoping we attract some people who are intellectuals but also maybe revolutionaries.”

Jacobson is excited for Catholics to earn a degree in a field largely dominated by secular ideology. “(Now) when you get into these sticky conversations and someone drops a credential on you, you can return with your own credential (and say) ‘I’ve studied these issues, too, as an intellectual, and I’ve come to a different conclusion,’ ” she said. “I think that is going to shake up this conversation tremendously.”

Zoey Maraist

Zoey Maraist writes for OSV News from Virginia.