The key group for Catholic college and university presidents on Sunday hosted the Rev. James Martin, a globally famous advocate for the LGBT community, who urged the hundreds of school leaders to take new steps to promote inclusion, such as allowing students to pick their pronouns and holding up openly gay staff as role models.

Some longtime attendees of the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) said the invitation to Martin was striking and reflects a new generation of Catholic college presidents as well as the influence of Pope Francis, who emphasizes making all feel welcome.

More than 150 of the association’s nearly 200 school presidents were at the meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington. In addition, an additional 250 senior school leaders were in attendance, the ACCU said.

“When you encounter an LGBT person, your starting point must be that you are meeting someone who has suffered and may still be suffering. Imagine a group of refugees,” Martin told the group, according to his prepared text. “Calling people by the names and pronouns they choose is part of respect; providing LGBT-inclusive benefits reflects compassion; and including sexual orientation and gender identity in nondiscrimination policies shows sensitivity.”

The Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of the ACCU, said the group welcomed Martin very warmly, a reflection, he said, of the fact that Catholic higher education leaders are wrestling with how to think through issues such as unisex bathrooms, ­non-binary language and how to apply Catholic teaching to it all.

People “want university presidents to be an advocate, and for a society that hasn’t made up its mind but is very divided, any university feels that division very personally, and is trying to care for the students in front of them,” Holtschneider said.

Some Catholic colleges or universities have had LGBT support centers for years — some even decades, Holtschneider said. The debates have expanded to include concerns of transgender Catholics, such as what names they can use on diplomas or which bathrooms they can use, as well as whether school staff can remain in their positions with full benefits if they marry someone of the same gender or transition to another gender.

“Father Martin is well-spoken and knowledgeable, and he is also someone who has been in conversation with the pope about this,” Holtschneider said.

Martin told The Washington Post that he was surprised to be asked to speak with the group.

“What’s changed is that it’s being addressed at this level. Most [presidents] are looking to address this in a more systematic way,” Martin said in an interview. “LGBT people are still the most marginalized in the Catholic Church.”

Jim Towey has been to most of the annual association meetings in recent years as past president of St. Vincent College and Ave Maria University — both more conservative Catholic schools. He said the appearance by an LGBT advocate wouldn’t have happened under previous popes.

“The ACCU leadership has avoided this subject in the past because it was a lightning rod with the bishops,” he said, noting that Holtschneider has been in the job less than a year.

Whether that, or the “perception by some of Pope Francis’s openness on LGBT outreach, it seems to me, there is a shift underway. . . . Martin’s talk could signal the beginning of a larger debate on these contentious issues.”

It’s a period of generational leadership change for the organization. More than a third of current ACCU member presidents came into office since 2017, the group said. The annual meeting, which began Saturday and runs through Monday, has a theme of schools keeping their focus on serving while adapting in an era of major change.

Martin’s talk highlighted the tense climate overall on many campuses. He urged presidents to “avoid boilerplate responses to hot-button topics. Find out what’s going on yourself and exercise empathy. And recognize that attacks on LGBT issues are often attacks on other things — higher education, some political party, the 1960s, Vatican II or even Pope Francis,” he said in his remarks.

Catholics are wrestling with church teaching on human sexuality, which emphasizes compassion for LGBT people, a group of people whose size, the teaching says, “is not negligible.” It also describes being LGBT as a tendency, an “inclination which is objectively disordered.”

LGBT issues are still debated at more liberal Catholic schools, and some more conservative ones reject anything that normalizes being gay. Some of them organize under the Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates for conservative Catholicism and runs campus groups, and look to leaders such as Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Tex. Strickland is unusually vocal for a bishop, including on criticism of the pope.

On Thursday, he tweeted condemnation to the Catholic school Fordham University for hosting Martin this June at a conference about outreach to LGBT Catholics.

“May those who join in this Conference share the full message of Catholic teaching. If Catholics minister without calling sinful behavior sinful then their work is neither truly Catholic nor true ministry. True compassion calls the person from sin to virtue,” Strickland wrote.

“Given the lineup of speakers, I think the fix is in, Your Excellency. But I join in your prayer,” Newman Society President Patrick Reilly tweeted in reply.

Holtschneider said there are almost 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the country and about 15 aren’t members of the ACCU.


Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities as the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It also misquoted the Rev. James Martin as saying Catholic university leaders are looking to address LGBT issues in a more “systemic” way. He actually said “systematic.” This version has been updated.