This week, November 14th-20th is Transgender Awareness Week in the United States–a time to educate and raise consciousness of transgender issues in society. Of course, we in the Catholic Church need similar education and consciousness-raising.
A new article in The National Catholic Reporter gives readers a new awareness of why, as the headline reads, “The church must promote wholeness for transgender people.” Three theologians, , set the context for their examination of the topic:
“A significant number of people who are part of the church or engage its ministries are struggling with their gender identity, striving to live authentically and find a place in their churches and communities. In local parishes, transgender individuals attend weekly services. They seek to have roles in the ministry of Word or Eucharist. Some work or volunteer in the social ministries of the church, while others receive aid from these services.
“The presence of transgender people within the church and its ministries raises important questions. As a church that seeks to respond to the signs of the times and reach out with openness to vulnerable and marginalized people, we need to think about how we are engaging transgender people and what kind of environment we want to create for those struggling with gender identity.”
They note that in the Gospels, Jesus is always reaching out to the marginalized and stigmatized, “restoring them to wholeness and bringing them back into the fullness of community life.” The choose the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42) as an example of Jesus’ inclusive ministry:
“Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman offers two important insights for the church. First, Jesus reaches out with openness to people on the fringes. Second, Jesus is not fixated on what separates one from community; rather, his focus is on the Samaritan woman’s overall good or well-being and his actions are directed toward helping her grow in faith, restore broken relationships, and participate more fully in community. . . .
“This story is but one example from the Gospels that suggests a church seeking to be Christ-like and to mediate God’s love of humanity must reach out first with openness and compassion, not judgment, to transgender people, who are trying to live authentically. Transgender people . . . make a courageous and difficult decision to transition, often knowing that it may lead to rejection, exclusion and hurt.”
They offer an example of what even the smallest of welcomes would look like on a parish level:
“In imitation of Jesus, the first impulse of the church must be to promote greater wholeness for transgender individuals by listening, caring, supporting and offering community. This means, at a minimum, offering very basic gestures of welcoming respect, such as using a person’s preferred pronoun and addressing a person with their preferred name, recognizing their intent to live as the person they believe God created them to be, and refraining from judgments that might exacerbate struggles with gender identity.”
And for those concerned with magisterial teaching, they offer this information:
“There is no definitive teaching on transgender issues. Even if there were, it could not support treating such individuals in ways that make them feel like outcasts who are beyond the purview of God’s love and the church’s welcome embrace.”
But the theologians, who all have backgrounds in bioethics, also go into the more serious and profound medical questions regarding transgender health and transition surgery. They acknowledge the complexity of the issue, especially when it is examined in the light of natural law theory, the Church’s traditional basis for such moral questions. But, they also offer a challenge to this way of thinking:
“If we evaluate transition-related therapies with the natural law approach employed in prominent matters of sexuality and bodily integrity, we run the risk of focusing excessively on the physical and, especially, functional dimensions of transgender persons and could neglect their overall good and need for wholeness and belonging. Additionally, these principles are most easily applied to surgeries, especially sex reassignment surgery, which only a minority of transgender people undertake. These principles are not readily applicable to less invasive forms of treatment, such as hormone therapy, which has proven to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of gender dysphoria.”
In place of natural law theory to settle the question of the question of the morality of transition therapies, they offer a Gospel-centered perspective, which looks at the whole person, not just the physical level:
“People who transition are seeking to overcome what they experience as an impediment to living, loving and interacting from an authentic place. They are aiming toward the kind of wholeness and integration in body, mind and spirit that Jesus also affirmed in his teaching and healing ministry.
“If we think about the human person holistically and if we strive in imitation of Christ to help people flourish as whole, embodied persons, we might feel compelled to think differently about transition-related therapies. Rather than fundamentally altering a transgender person’s God-given nature or destroying reproductive function, we might see such therapies as fundamentally aligning the person’s body with their sense of self and restoring the person to greater wholeness.”
In their conclusion, they bring out both the similarities that transgender and cisgender people share with one another, as well as the gifted challenge that transgender people offer the larger community:
“Like all people, transgender individuals come to the church and its ministries in need of acceptance, compassion, love and care. They are often seeking shelter and support on the all-too-often lonely and confusing journey on which they find themselves.
“Because the causes of gender dysphoria are not well understood and transgender persons may challenge our conception of sex and gender, our first inclination might be to judge, even condemn. However, the Gospel calls us to love and be of service to these vulnerable and often marginalized individuals who are striving to be true to who they believe they are and are called to be.”
How we treat those who are marginalized is often an important test of how we are living the Gospel. The theologians conclude:
“As a church and through its ministries, we are called to reach out to transgender persons with a love through which God’s healing and reconciling presence may be revealed. If we fail in this task, we fail the test of the Gospel.”
I’ve only excerpted the bare-bones highlights of this informative and enlightening article. I strongly encourage Bondings 2.0 readers to spend some time to read the whole thing. You can access it by clicking here. It would be a good way to celebrate Transgender Awareness Week.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 16, 2016