July 24, 2017

Nerinx alums clash with Church over LGBT club

Webster University’s former sister school, Nerinx Hall, has become the center of controversy after the St. Louis Archdiocese denied students’ request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club.

Maggie Kickham, a Nerinx alum who graduated in 2014, said she was first surprised and then angry to hear about the decision.

“I always felt like Nerinx was a very inclusive environment,” Kickham said.

Former student Clare Nobs also said she felt Nerinx had always been an empowering environment for women, something she said was contradicted by this decision.

“At first, I was shocked because Nerinx is a welcoming community, and for girls to petition to create an LGBT club should not be a problem at all,” Nobs said. “So for me to hear that some of the administration pushed it aside, and for them to ask the Archdiocese for help is disappointing.”

In a letter to alumnae, Nerinx Hall president John Gabriel said the school’s request had been denied because the proposed group did not support “conversion therapy,” the controversial process of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation through therapy or religious practice.

Conversion therapy is considered an ineffective and improper practice by the American Psychological Association and is banned in some jurisdictions. The Archdiocese denied they had required conversion therapy in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Kickham said the Nerinx controversy was the first time she had seen news coverage of a Catholic school attempting to host a group for LGBT students.

“It’s kind of a cool story to see, even under poor circumstances, that Nerinx is bringing light to this issue,” Kickham said.

Gabe Jones, spokesperson for the St. Louis Archdiocese, provided a statement on the Church’s policies. “The Archdiocese of St. Louis does not require same-sex, transgender, or other related support groups or clubs in our schools to include ‘conversion therapy,’” the statement read. “In February 2016, the Archdiocese published a booklet titled Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those with Same Sex-Attraction, which offers guidance to Catholic organizations. A section of this booklet addresses the formation of support groups. It shares practical considerations for parishes or schools to weigh the benefits and difficulties of that formation. The booklet can be found at archstl.org/hope. Catholic schools are encouraged to contact the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese for additional guidance in this regard.”

The document emphasizes the Church’s belief in gay identity and relationships, as invalid, using the term “same-sex attraction” instead and presume God’s plan for “sexuality as ordered toward the marital love of man and woman.”

Hope and Holiness also offers guidelines for the formation of Catholic support groups for LGBT people.

“One of the reasons to have a support group is that it can be tremendously helpful to know that we are not alone in our struggles, and to have the support and wisdom of others,” the document states. “This is one of the reasons why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have been so valuable to so many.”

The guidelines emphasize such groups should be facilitated by someone who agrees with the Church’s beliefs on sexuality and should not support participants in identifying as gay. Groups for young people are of particular concern.

“…There is a question of age. It’s one thing to talk about a support group for adults, and another thing to talk about a support group for adolescents,” the document says. “Adolescents need support as much as anyone in their struggles. But adolescents are apt to suffer in a particular way from labeling themselves as gay. Because adolescence is a time of rapid change and affective immaturity, the boundaries between transitory same-sex attraction and more deep-seated tendencies are not always clear. It is not unusual for a young person to experience attraction to a person of the same sex. It is important not to assume that such experiences are the result of a deep-seated tendency.”

The term used by Hope and Holiness, “same-sex attraction,” is the same term used by organizations such as Focus on the Family which openly support conversion therapy. One website for “parents and friends of those with same-sex attraction, ex-gays, as well as those who are still struggling with their unwanted SSA” is ssahope.com.

The Archdiocese directs those with other questions about the policy to Nerinx Hall.

Members of Nerinx’s administrative staff could not be reached for comment. However, Nerinx president John Gabriel said in a letter to alumnae that Nerinx will continue to focus on creating an inclusive environment for all students.

“We are continuing to have numerous congruent discussions with faculty, students, alumnae, and the Archdiocese,” Gabriel said. “We also are identifying and exploring how other Catholic schools, in our area and elsewhere, have addressed this and what lessons we can learn.”

Nerinx Hall, an all-girls school, was founded by the same order of Catholic nuns as Webster University, the Sisters of Loretto. Unlike Webster, Nerinx has retained its Catholic affiliation since it was founded in 1924.

Nobs said it was hard for her to see this controversy at an institution she loved, but she had faith in the student community.

“Yes, I am aware that the Catholic Church is a little conservative in their gender views, but it should not have gotten to this point with my school,” Nobs said. “I love Nerinx, and I know for a fact that the girls can and will bring awareness.”

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  • As a survivor of “conversion therapy,” this is troubling. I spent my teens and twenties battling my “SSA,” following the prescription for change as outlined by Focus on the Family and Exodus International. If a gay person can change, trust me, I would have changed. If we’re using religion to dehumanize and shame other human beings, then we’re doing it wrong. If our faith does not lead us to show love and kindness to all of God’s children, then we’ve made religion about us, and not God. I know there are many whose interpretation of ancient texts lead them to justify discrimination and exclusion of some of God’s children. But this therapy is torture and the opposite of love.