Catholics Must Avoid Simple Answers on Gender Identity Questions

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As transgender advocacy increases in civil society, there are inevitably going to be responses in the Catholic Church. Unlike homosexuality, there are no Catechism paragraphs or well-developed theologies to which the leaders or laity can readily appeal for understanding gender identity questions.

This vacuum has lead to quick assumptions by some people strongly opposed to trans justice because they, incorrectly, conflate the issue with sexual orientation, or morph episcopal opinions into authoritative teaching.

But finding a more nuanced understanding is essential because trans issues demand Catholics’ attention more and more as several recent incidents reveal. They touch upon civil matters, as well ecclesial, pastoral, and sacramental ones. For instance, bishops in Bolivia struck out against a new law passed in December that would allow trans citizens to change their gender on national identification cards. Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, president of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, said in a press conference:

“That bill is inspired by a gender ideology that has been pushed by an international lobby and aims to subvert one of the foundations of our human lifestyle by denying the fundamental truth of masculine and feminine genders. Living as male or female would not longer be a biological truth but the result of a simple personal choice. That ideology is totally alien to the indigenous cultures of our country. As a result, this initiative is a clear attempt of cultural colonization.”

There are examples elsewhere, too. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, exempted itself from federal nondiscrimination guidelines designed to protect trans students. A Canadian Catholic school board called for “just discrimination” of trans youth. Nebraska’s bishops are working hard to stop protections for trans high school athletes in that state.

Evident in the Bolivian bishop’s comment and the other enumerated incidents is a lack of education about gender identity and a seeming failure to encounter trans people before issuing such pronouncements. Generalizations about gender ideology or gender theory are thrown about without foundation. In developing nations, trans rights are cast as neo-colonialist ideals being imposed from the outside. Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family are themselves guilty of wading into these ambiguities without providing clarity. This confusion is detrimental to LGBT persons’ well-being–and even their lives.

Some recent articles have attempted to explore the intersection of gender identity and Catholic theology. Though often problematic, such journalism at least admits the complexities involved. In The Catholic HeraldDan Hitchens asked “What’s the truth about transsexuality?”surveying thoughts from trans and cis Catholics alike. He explained the state of this question as such:

“There are many opinions about trans people’s identity and possible vocations – and little has been officially taught on this subject. What is uncontroversial is that the Church could do better at making space for trans people. ‘Right now,’ [transsexual Catholic Aoif Assumpta] Hart observes, ‘the debate seems to be “everything goes” or “nothing goes.’ ”

“While some are entirely permissive, others are hostile to trans people. . .Hart hopes that a middle ground might emerge – ‘a balance between good theology and treating people compassionately.’ “

Anna Magdalena of the blog, The Catholic Transgender, emphasized the diversity of thought about gender within the trans community itself, noting that trans Catholics share in this difference of opinions. But, as she told the Herald, behind the theories and the theologies, “there are concrete people, real experiences.” What can emerge for trans Catholics who find inclusion are positive experiences.  For example, Anna says hers is “a story of redemption, a story of integration” after her transition. If acceptance is not found, however, the results can be devastating, proven by the exceedingly high rates of self harm and suicide in trans communities. Hitchens concluded his article by stating the church is only “just beginning to form its answer” to this pressing issue.

But given that the “Transgender Moment” has arrived in civil society, as one Commonweal blogger termed it in an otherwise negative piece, the church is required to offer an initial response. Will trans Catholics be accepted to the sacraments? Will trans church workers keep their jobs? Will bishops oppose civil rights legislation? Will the church affirm the dignity of all people in its actions or just in its words?

Thankfully, developments in a positive direction are evidence that a Gospel way forward is possible. For instance, University of San Diego students intentionally included the needs of transgender and queer students in their demands for reform. One Sr. Monica, a Discalced Carmelite, ministers to trans women in the pope’s home nation of Argentina, while another “Sr. Monica” continues her decade-plus ministry to trans Catholics in the U.S.  Studies have shown that historically-Catholic nations are leading on trans legal equality. And, in some cases, even traditionally-inclined Catholics are advocating for trans justice.

These pastorally-wise and welcoming responses should guide Catholic engagement with gender identity, avoiding both easy judgments and noncommittal responses. Church officials, theologians, and ministers should also heed William Lindsey’s caution that tepid columnists should avoid:

“[A] perspective that moves not in the direction of understanding the struggles of those on the margins and listening respectfully to their testimony about their own self-understanding, but towards self-congratulation and the conclusion that one’s own hermetically sealed, privileged club represents the norm by which everyone else in the world is to be judged.”

Before rushing to definitive answers, all Catholics would be wise to first listen to the real,lived experiences of trans people.  Catholics should be particularly attentive to the intense marginalization trans people face and the suffering they endure–suffering which is too often caused by church ministers. Pope Francis desires a culture of encounter, and gender identity questions in the church are a perfect opportunity in which to practice that culture.

And while we listen, the best approach pastorally is that of London’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop who said the church should be “fully supportive” of those who decide to transition because this question of gender identity is a pastoral, not doctrinal matter. There is, perhaps, the essential starting point for this whole discussion.

What are your thoughts about trans issues in the Catholic Church for the coming year? Leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

14 replies
    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      Yes, I agree with you lynne. Compassionate pastoring is always a good place to start with each other. It seems to me that transgender issues are much less bothersome to Church leaders than gay and lesbian issues. The fact that the Church had already branded homosexuals as intrinsically disordered and gravely evil, it has some back pedaling to do to make things right for the Catholic faithful of this nature. Perhaps the Church is showing growth to hold its doctrine/tongue when it comes to human relationships it seems to know nothing about.

  1. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Experience and human encounter is a big help against a hermetically sealed attitude mentioned above. As a child, I experiened a brief but very powerful encounter with another boy who passionately claimed he was really a girl and not a boy. He did not stay long in the school! At the time and at other times when I encountered stories of transexual folk my immediate reaction was unsettled. Remembering my encounter with this struggling child helped clarify my understanding of how real and genuine the transexual experience is. Transexualism is not some mere choice but a much deeper and real human reality. This child first taught me this!

  2. Fr. Michael J. Nicosia, Pastor of Pax Christi Ecumenical Catholic Church, Denver
    Fr. Michael J. Nicosia, Pastor of Pax Christi Ecumenical Catholic Church, Denver says:

    As long as one’s theology of the human person remains shackled by an out-dated understanding of Natural Law as something objective (Nature itself is quite subjective and diverse), the condemnations of anything that doesn’t fit the norm will continue. This is compounded when the hierarchy continues to believe that their teaching authority will crumble if they ever admit they were wrong. If, however, we believe that God is continually creating and that we are co-creators with God, putting flesh on grace this day and every day, then our trans sisters’ and brothers’ journeys can only be viewed as sacramental as they fashion the physical to resonate with their truest selves.

  3. Joe Young
    Joe Young says:

    When the good Bishop of Calgary, Alberta, Canada says that transgender transitions are “the result of a simple personal choice”, he is unfortunately showing his gross ignorance of what transgender folks — and often their families — go through. A good leader knows his people from where they are rather than from his preconceived ideas — this knowledge comes from personal encounter and real listening. Perhaps the Bishop needs a course or two on what makes a good leader.

  4. Anthony Telles
    Anthony Telles says:

    While it sounds nice to focus on this issue as a mainly pastoral one, it’s naive to think that this is not a doctrinal matter. The Church’s rich understanding of human sexuality and ultimately sacramental worldview are at stake in its discussion of transgender people. Catholics must be careful not to return to a Gnostic worldview that says our bodies do not have inherent meaning or value. In the United States, a culture that idolizes individualism and self-creation, we are particularly susceptible to falling into this trap. We essentially believe our sense of identity is something sacred. But the Church gently and continually reminds us that we do not create ourselves; we have a created nature with which we can choose to glorify God by participating in or choose to reject in the name of our own autonomy and personal identity. I agree the Church fails when it only offers philosophy and theology in response to the tangible needs of transgender people, but we must somehow combine good theology with tangible expressions of unconditional love.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] who heads LGBTQI outreach for the Archdiocese of Westminster, have actually called for the church to support trans people who transition. They will find that these issues are not settled. They will realize that their […]

  2. […] language from Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, president of the nation’s episcopal conference, who said in December that the law “aims to subvert one of the foundations of our human lifestyle” and was […]

  3. […] Respecting transgender people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” to quote Jesuit Fr. James Martin, but unfortunately this has been too difficult for many church leaders. Issues around gender identity and expression, civil law, and true religious liberty can be very complicated, as Bondings 2.0 has noted at least twice (here and here). […]

  4. […] Earlier this week,  I recommended that the church not accept simple answers on these complex matters. Bishop Conley’s line of thought, however, is a simple, reductionist critique of gender identity. His views do not engage the lived experience of trans communities, including Catholics, or to consider modern knowledge which contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of gender identity. […]

  5. […] Source: Catholics Must Avoid Simple Answers on Gender Identity Questions | Bondings 2.0 […]

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