Reaching Out to Trans People Should Be Done with Humility, Not Pity

Two days ago, I posted a critique of Austen Ivereigh’s Crux essay entitled “Transgender debates require distinction between theory and principle,” in which he gave what I thought was a faulty definition of the ideas that some church officials label as “gender theory” or “gender ideology.”

Although I thought that Ivereigh’s essay had some faults, I thought it also contained some positive recommendations, which I would like to examine in today’s post. Along with these positive points, I’ll also continue to point out weaknesses.

First of all, Ivereigh rightly points out that often church officials and pastoral leaders are sometimes more concerned with critiquing so-called “gender ideology” than they are with providing pastoral care to transgender people.  He cites several examples–including from both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis–to support his claim.  One example that he looks at more carefully is a letter from Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England, in which the bishop warned Catholic schools against “gender ideology.”  Ivereigh says of Davies’ letter:

“. . . [S]uch statements have mostly ignored the reality and plight of transgender people. Of the 17 paragraphs in Davies’s letter to schools ‘on the truth of the human person,’ only the first acknowledges what he calls ‘individuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, experience difficulty identifying with their biological sex, be that of male or female.’

“But after calling for ‘respect, compassion and understanding’ for such people (he never describes them as “transgender” or suffering from gender dysphoria) the remainder of the letter is a cogent summary of papal arguments against gender ideology.

“It is as if transgender people themselves are absent.”

It is good that Ivereigh highlights this glaring omission, as it is an omission from which many hierarchical statements suffer.  I’m not sure what Ivereigh’s intention is in making this point, but from my perspective, it highlights the fact that church leaders have mostly been unwilling to listen to the experience not only of transgender people, but of all LGBT people.  In one sense, Pope Francis, who has been spouting messages against “gender theory,” is the rare exception in this case, since he met with a transgender man at the Vatican, and has spoken openly about discussions with gay and lesbian people, even making public his meeting with a former student who is gay.

Ivereigh rightly notes that church leaders are following the same method that they used in dealing with gay issues–avoiding personal dialogue:

“As with the Church’s response to gay people, whose experiences have so often been ignored in the process of resisting homosexuality, this lopsided response can make the Church seem more interested in defending doctrine than in responding to concrete human suffering.”

But then Ivereigh makes a point, which, may seem on the surface to be positive, but, because it is incomplete, may not actually be so:

“In rejecting a theory or movement, Catholics can seem to reject the person – or at least to be unconcerned by them. God’s mercy, as a result, is subsumed by the focus on law and truth, creating a lopsided picture of Christianity which in Pope Francis’s view has been the principal obstacle to the Church’s evangelization.”

He’s right, of course, that the Church needs to be more concerned with people, but what he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the fact that the Church, too, may have to develop because of the encounter with people, gaining new knowledge and perspectives as it accompanies people.  In Ivereigh’s view, mercy appears to be something that the Church dispenses to the downtrodden. I tend to think of mercy as also being an attitude of humility with which to approach the people one is ministering to, not just a balm to be offered, which can sometimes appear to be condescending.

As one of Bondings 2.0’s commenters mentioned in regard to yesterday’s post, the suffering that transgender people experience is “not from any intrinsic quality of transgenderism, but from negative and misrepresentative social reaction.”

Another weakness is that Ivereigh seems insistent on labeling “gender theorists” as the enemy.  While critical of church officials for their blind spots, he is equally harsh in describing “gender theorists”:

“Ironically, this Catholic response mirrors the way gender-theory activists attempt to harness transgender people to their cause. In both cases, the people at the center of the issue – the victims, if you like – have been largely passed over.”

I don’t know any transgender people who think they have been victimized by people who promote non-traditional views of gender.  The victimization argument fits in well with Ivereigh’s general direction in the essay of seeing transgender people as pitiable, with which I disagree.  No doubt that transgender people suffer, but to characterize them only in terms of their problems and not in terms of their strengths and gifts diminishes them.

I look forward to reading the second part of Austen Ivereigh’s analysis on Crux.  I am hoping that he will build on his positive contributions and revise some of the more negative ones.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2016





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  1. […] church should provide pastoral care to trans people and promote their human wholeness, while not treating trans people with with pity. Fr. Bryan Massingale has written movingly about why the church cannot abandon transgender people. […]

  2. […] the church to provide pastoral care and support promoting the wholeness of trans people, while not treating them with pity. Caritas India, the official development agency of that nation’s bishops launched an outreach […]

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