By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 14, 2016
A Catholic humanitarian agency in India has launched a program aimed specifically at providing services that are more inclusive of and effective for transgender people, indicating both a step forward, as well as how far the Church still has to go.
Caritas India, the official in concern and human development organization of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), announced its new policy last Monday.
Executive Director Fr. Frederick D’Souza said this program begins “a new school of thought,” reported Vatican Radio. He explained further:
” ‘Caritas is open to work with transgender people. I am even open to recruiting them. . .People who are suffering for no fault of their own because of sexual confusion in their body require our attention and support.’ “
Deputy Director Fr. Paul Moonjely said Caritas India had already reached out to trans communities, but had “largely failed to recognize them and show data on how many of them we have supported” and more work was needed “towards sensitization on the issue even within the Caritas network.”
But Caritas India’s noteworthy step forward is not without problems, and the need for even more sensitization is visible. Fr. D’Souza said the initiative would be limited to “biological transgenders,” by which he meant trans people who had not undergone gender-confirming surgery. He explained:
” ‘We don’t want to confuse the two. We have an opinion on those who undergo sex change, we are not in favour of that. We believe that the natural gender one is born with is what he/she is supposed to cherish and contribute to creation.’ “
Trans communities in India remain quite marginalized. The 2011 census reported there were about a half million trans people in the country, though that number is likely low due to underreporting. Indian societies have long recognized trans people, known traditionally as hijras, and it was only under British colonialism that legal restrictions were imposed. A ‘third gender’ option was recognized after a Supreme Court ruling in 2014.
Caritas India and the church at large are widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. It is hoped that this new program will not only make Caritas India’s efforts more inclusive and effective, but will propel other organizations to adopt similar programs and combat anti-trans prejudices in the wider society. The spirit of inclusion for all LGBT communities might be passed on to other Catholic organizations like the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. Last year, the community threatened to cease adoptions if mandated to accept lesbian and gay parents.
The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. He also told Bondings 2.0 that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.”
Pope Francis’ recent comments on trans people were complicated, and they are still the subject of debate. What came across clearly in his words, though, was the pope’s insistence, grounded in church teaching, that people of all genders people be accompanied pastorally and supported in their lives. This effort by Caritas India is hampered, like Francis, by not fully understanding gender identity and expression issues at a sufficient level. But the new program plants a seed from which loving accompaniment that is increasingly competent and informed by modern science can grow.