A look at Notre Dame’s summer gender studies course for high school students


In the summer of 2015, Notre Dame will offer a new gender studies program for high school students.  The course, entitled “Gender and Culture in American Society,” aims to explain how gender is a product of the social environment rather than an inherent characteristic of men and women.

The program proceeds on the premise that “gender—our masculinity or femininity—is a performance rather than an innate characteristic, and that our ways of ‘doing gender’ are shaped by social cues and influences.”  The course will explore gender as a social construct, and a way of acting that is influenced by external factors rather than innate characteristics particular to each sex.

According to the course website, gender theorists “consider how we perform gender and how society enforces, supports, or impedes this performance.”  Students will study these theories of gender as a set of actions influenced by society.

While the university has approved this program, several sources—including the Cardinal Newman Society—have criticized it as antithetical to the Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic institution.  The purpose of a Catholic university is to cultivate authentic, virtuous students and lead men and women to their true vocations.

Critics of the program argue that the course threatens to conflict with the Church’s teaching that gender identity is inherent in and particular to men and women, a doctrine that emphasizes authentic family life and the complementarity of the sexes.

As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God … in their respective beings as man and woman. ‘Being man’ or ‘being woman’ is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator.”

The unity between the sexes and the formation of genuine men and women are both part of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.  Reducing the distinctions between genders undermines the comprehensive Catholic teaching on sexuality and family development.

University spokesman Dennis Brown asserted that the criticism of the course is unfounded. “Recent articles published on several websites have taken out of context and mischaracterized the description and content of a course offered by Notre Dame’s Office of Pre-College Programs titled Gender and Culture in American Society,” he told the Rover.

“The course description includes questions that are posed in a scholarly and broad-based manner as a means to initiate classroom dialogue,” Brown continued.  “Dr. Abby Palko is the course instructor.  She is not only an effective and engaging teacher, but a lifelong Catholic who is committed to contextualizing the material she presents in a manner that is consistent with the Church’s nuanced understanding of what it not only means to be a man or woman, but human.”

Abigail Palko, the program instructor, explained to the Rover how she believes her course is in line with Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university:  “In terms of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, while the Catechism states that ‘man and woman have been created … in perfect equality as human persons,’ the reality is that perfect equality has not yet been achieved in our world—theologians argue that this is a consequence of original sin.

“In Gender Studies (as a discipline) and this course specifically,” Palko elaborated, “we identify and analyze both the benefits and the inequities that result from the social gendering of our culture.  The course helps students develop tools that will assist them in bringing our world closer to God’s vision of ‘perfect equality.’”

Brown emphasized the benefit of such a program to high school students who normally would not be exposed to the social gendering of modern culture.  “[T]hese students are offered an incomparable opportunity to better understand themselves and the culture that—for better and worse—shapes our societal conceptions of femininity and masculinity,” he concluded.

While the administration has defended this program, the teaching of the Church as presented in the Catechism signals a tension between the aims of the course and a sound understanding of the human person.

The Catechism (2333) states: “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.  Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.  The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.”

This passage in particular emphasizes the importance of the distinction of the two sexes.  The Catholic Church teaches that men and women must use their sexual identity to complement each other for the purpose of creating stable familial relationships and, as a result, a more flourishing culture.


Hailey Vrdolyak is a junior political science, theology, and Spanish major who still has not outgrown her freckles. Contact her at hvrdolya@nd.edu.