Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend urged the board of trustees of St. Mary's College to correct a new admissions policy that "departs from fundamental Catholic teaching on the nature of woman."

St. Mary's College, a Catholic women's college that operates in the diocese headed by Bishop Rhoades, has stirred debate with a revised admissions policy approved by the school's board of trustees in June. The new policy reads, "Saint Mary's considers admission for undergraduate applicants whose sex is female or who consistently live and identify as women."

Katie Conboy, the college's president, said in an email to students and staff Nov. 21 that while details would continue to be developed, applicants who identify as transgender would be considered for admission in 2024.

"We are by no means the first Catholic women's college to adopt a policy with this scope," Conboy wrote. "In drafting the language for this update, I have relied on the guidance of the Executive Team and others to ensure that our message is not only in line with best practices for today's college students, but that it also encompasses our commitment to operate as a Catholic women's college."

In a detailed statement released Nov. 27, Bishop Rhoades lamented the college's decision, saying that "it is disappointing that I, as bishop of the diocese in which Saint Mary's College is located, was not included or consulted on a matter of important Catholic teaching."

Central to Bishop Rhoades' criticism of the policy is the departure from what he called fundamental Catholic teachings concerning gender and the nature of women. "The desire of Saint Mary's College to show hospitality to people who identify as transgender is not the problem. The problem is a Catholic woman's college embracing a definition of woman that is not Catholic," Bishop Rhoades wrote.

Quoting Pope Francis extensively -- in a direct counter to the university's own use of the pontiff's teaching -- the bishop argued that the ideological stance underpinning the altered admissions policy contradicts the Catholic Church's foundational principles regarding the unity of body and soul. "The new admissions policy at Saint Mary's College erroneously suggests that 'woman' is a purely social category that anyone, regardless of sex, can inhabit," Bishop Rhoades said. The bishop pointed out the philosophical discrepancy in the college's reference to "sex assigned at birth," and he challenged the notion that sex is arbitrarily designated rather than inherent to a person's nature as created by God.

While acknowledging the college's stated desire of fostering inclusivity and love within its community, the bishop said that this pursuit must not be divorced from truth, and he urged St. Mary's College to realign its admission policy in adherence to Catholic teachings.

Citing his recent experience as a delegate at the Synod on Synodality, Bishop Rhoades quoted from the resulting synthesis, saying, "Affirming that truth and love are inseparable, we recognized that 'if we use doctrine harshly and with a judgmental attitude, we betray the Gospel; if we practice mercy 'on the cheap.' we do not convey God's love.'"

Pushback concerning the college's decision was so severe online that comments were turned off on the college's Thanksgiving Day Instagram post. Facebook users also were critical. One user wrote: "I am thankful for the sacrifices of the Holy Cross Sisters who empowered women by educating them. They would be sick to see what you've done to their college in the name of 'inclusion'. Reverse this decision or resign!"

On her blog, Catholic writer Amy Welborn criticized the decision saying, "It is a great -- even astonishing, perhaps even shocking -- disservice to women to teach them that their embodied experience is irrelevant to their identity as women."

St. Mary's College did not immediately return Our Sunday Visitor's request for comment.

Earlier this year, St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict, located in Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minnesota, respectively, adopted a similar policy to St. Mary's College. The institutions, sponsored by the sisters and monks of the Order of St. Benedict, decided to allow "applicants who were assigned male at birth as well as those who were assigned female or male at birth but now consistently live and identify as male, transgender, gender fluid or nonbinary" to enroll.

Founded in 1844 by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, St. Mary's College is located near the University of Notre Dame and has 1,600 students. As of 2019, the college has a $201.6 million endowment.