Complicating Catholic Understandings of Sex and Gender

SR-Church-Easter-candle-01 (2)Respecting LGBTQI people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” as Jesuit Fr. James Martin remarked in an interview earlier this week. But understanding the diversity of gender identities can be complex even for committed allies, given how broad and nuanced transgender and intersex issues are. And sometime the consequences of not understanding and respecting can be deeply damaging.

Christians, including Catholics, have spearheaded anti-LGBT efforts like North Carolina’s HB2 law, ignoring the concrete reality that non-discrimination protections definitively improve LGBT people’s well-being. These opponents opt instead for faulty religious arguments to justify their opposition, arguments which theologian Katie Grimes took on at Women in TheologyShe posed a difficult challenge to anti-transgender Christians, asking:

“[W]hat in your life has lead you to believe that love, which God epitomizes perfectly, means wanting anything but happiness, in every sense of the word, for other people?”

Christian opposition to transgender identities is often rooted in literal readings of Genesis. They interpret creation story texts to mean God creates people only in the male/female binary. To such thought, Grimes responded:

“They twist the word of God in the shape of their own preconceptions.  They do not think to ask, ‘how do we know what makes a male a male and a female a female?’  They instead assume that God defines masculinity and femininity in the same way they do.”

Against arguments rooted in biological determinism, Grimes criticized how some Christians “deify the bodies . . we receive at birth.” She wrote:

“Besides turning natural law into a cliché (so babies with cleft palettes or heart defects ought not undergo corrective surgery?), this theory ends up unwittingly celebrating the very queerness it seeks to contain.  If we take this view seriously, then we would have to also say that God naturally creates many human beings (about 1 in 2000) whose bodies do not fulfill our socially constructed definitions of man and woman.”

Ultimately, Grimes concluded that anti-transgender Christians “sell God short” because they “assume that God’s imagination and creativity is no bigger than their own.”

Catholic opponents specifically, including some U.S. bishops, have cited supposed church teaching  in their objections to transgender equality. They claim there is clear and defined church teaching on gender identity that simply needs to be promoted. Melinda Selmys questioned the validity of this claim at her blog Catholic Authenticity, writing:

“Whenever I hear this, I suspect that the person making the comment has had little to no experience actually dealing with the transgender, queer or intersex communities. It’s basically a position that you can arrive at only if you’re taking the problems home, painting them out of their context and looking at them in a theological laboratory where everything is very simple and clear-cut.”

Selmys then listed eight scenarios drawn from her experiences as a Catholic which reveal the many complexities of gender identity, asking after each one what the reader would do. For instance, an intersex person assigned male at birth identifies as a woman upon reaching adolescence and feels called to religious life as a nun. Is this person accepted? Or a woman religious who cares for survivors of human trafficking knows she must minister to the trans survivors according to their gender identity if she is to be successful. How does the sister proceed? Or parents consult a canon lawyer about their intersex child. The canonist recommends corrective surgery while intersex adults criticize such surgeries as painful and violating. What do the parents do? Each of Selmys’ scenarios contains many intricacies that defy simple answers.

Failing to engage gender identity issues in their fullness has negative pastoral, as well as political, consequences. For instance, a Catholic priest in New York said being transgender is the same as considering oneself a chicken because “something has gone wrong in my feelings. . .I need help.” Fr. Andrew Carrozza’s op-ed continued in this vein, attacking transgender people in the name of faith. The priest’s approach is unfortunately similar to other Christian opponents who have refused to listen to transgender people’s experiences, and relied upon the same faulty religious thought critiqued by Grimes and Selmys.

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly criticized Carrozza in Commonweal, and her comments are broadly applicable to Catholic opponents of any form of LGBT equality. While affirming a place for the church in conversations about sexuality and gender, Wilson O’Reilly wrote:

“Carrozza is making the gentlest version of the church’s basic claim that we have nothing left to learn about human sexuality. This claim is simply not plausible to a growing number of people, especially young people, and volunteering it with placid confidence in the face of something as complicated as gender identity and public accommodations for transgender people is not doing anything for the church’s credibility.”

She added that ” ‘naive’ [is] the kindest word that comes to mind” for pastoral ministers like Fr. Carrozza who believe “gentle ridicule” is an appropriate response.

The writer H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Catholics must resist the temptation to reduce transgender and intersex issues, even if such distillation is well-intentioned. And it is worth asking, too, whether the questions raised about gender identities are themselves even complex enough. We have to ask and keep asking the right questions–and answer and keep answering in dynamic ways to avoid simple and wrong answers.

As Katie Grimes made clear, this debate matters beyond correcting the wrongness of simple answers. Simple answers employed in the name of the church are actively harmful in justifying prejudice, discrimination, and, at times, even violence against LGBT people. We must commit ourselves to complicating constantly our understandings of gender and of sexuality to ensure we are always reading the signs of the times in new ways, with new eyes and open hearts.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

12 replies
  1. Terence Weldon
    Terence Weldon says:

    Some trans Christians have pointed out that the usual interpretation of “male and female He created them”, is in fact understood as “male OR female He created them” – that is, one or the other. What if we took the words literally – as each of us is created both male and female (at least to some degree).. That is in fact closer to the empirical evidence from science – that we all contain with in ourselves both a “masculine” side, and a “feminine” side, and that remarkably few people are exclusively masculine or feminine in every aspect of our biology and personality.

  2. Thomas Bower
    Thomas Bower says:

    Maybe I have missed something in my almost 7 decades. Sexual identity is between the ears, not the legs. Who we are is who we think we are and good or bad are determined by what we do with it. Again a mental thing. When we die we cast off our mortal body, but the spirit goes on. Just as people confuse the heart (blood pumping organ) as the locale of love, so many are now using weak thinking to confuse gender, flesh, lust, and elimination.

    The between the legs parts come in two variations and aren’t generally of much interest in their potty function. In the early 21st century in western leaning societies, in our homes we share toilet facilities and mostly close the door and in public between doors and dividers we maintain a bit of privacy, but throughout much of history and today in great swaths of the world “making water” as they say, is generally ignored and done out of general sight, but just isn’t a big thing.

    Forced sex in restrooms hasn’t been a problem that anyone has mentioned (and is already covered by laws) so perhaps those with blue noses who worry about who is peeing with what next to them should join the crowd that thought gender equality in marriage would end civilization should realize it isn’t their business and move on to the real problems of the world like which end of the egg to crack first.

  3. Clyde Christofferson
    Clyde Christofferson says:

    Good article, Bob.

    There is a point worth adding, though. At Trinity Sunday liturgy yesterday our dialogue touched on matters of gender. A theologian present spoke about the female character of Wisdom in the reading from Proverbs 8:22-31. This serves as a balance for the male character of Jesus.

    But this balance is, I think, misleading. All the persons of the Trinity have their existence “in the beginning, before the world began.” But gender was not from the beginning. Initial life on Earth was in the form of cells that reproduced by simple division. Gender did not evolve until later, but thereafter came to dominate because life forms with this feature were more adaptable to changes in the environment.

    The priest recited the post-Vatican II formulation, “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a much better formulation than “Father, Son …” because neither God nor Christ can have gender, since they existed before creation and — consequently — before gender. Male attributes — “God the Father, and God the Son” — clearly have nothing to do with a God who exists from the beginning, and everything to do with the descriptions and conceptions of men who came long after gender had become established as dominant in plants and animals.

    Gender has been around for a long time. It evolved billions of years ago, long before human beings walked the planet. It is understandable that human beings took male and female to be normative — these two genders were clearly the majority. But modern genetics paints a different picture of reality, a reality that is a fuller picture of God’s creation. The majority did not know any better, and tried to explain the LGBT reality as departures from a norm rather than as a natural part of God’s creation.

    As St. Augustine understood when he interpreted Genesis (Book I, 19,39) preaching the Word fares best when contradictions to God’s Book of Nature are avoided. Augustine had harsh words for the “rash, self-assured know-alls” who argue against what appears from nature, discrediting religion in the process. In the present day, such rashness and self-assurance persists in some quarters in our Church. Civil society — more accustomed to listening to the teachings of nature — has in many places made more progress than the Church.

    In the end, God’s Book of Nature will carry the day. But in the mean time we know enough to see that God who exists from the beginning cannot have a gender which came later in creation. I will never again be comfortable thinking of the Trinity as “Father, Son, …”

  4. jemmbarr
    jemmbarr says:

    I don’t usually respond to your postings but I read almost all of them. This one was particularly important to post. Thank you, Bob Shine. Your endless commitment to link us to what is currently being spoken and written about is inspiring.


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