Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 began a two-part series about Commonweal magazine’s paired feature articles about “The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.” The two Catholic theologians who penned the articles are David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).
Yesterday, we reviewed and evaluated Cloutier’s article, which took a more negative view of current transgender discourse on identity and legal rights. Today we will look at Johnson’s argument which takes a more positive approach. Johnson is not a newcomer to Catholic LGBT issues. He spoke at New Ways Ministry’s 2007 and 2012 national symposiums, and his ideas were very positively received by the participants.
It’s first important to point out that though Cloutier and Johnson have opposing positions, they do share some ideas in common. Just as Cloutier took a negative position, but also expressed sympathy and respect fo transgender people, Johnson takes a positive position but also turns a critical eye to some of what he sees as excesses of the pro-trans camp. Both lament the speed with which decisions on transgender issues are being made and both decry the hardening of polarized camps which the discussion seems to have fostered. Johnson describes the contemporary situation:
“. . . [T]he pace of social change, or at least the agitation for it, is drastically accelerated by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and that for users of Facebook and Twitter, immediacy is all.
“. . .[L]iberals are not simply wrong, they are demonic; conservatives are not merely in error, they are evil. In a paradoxical twist, agitators for the recognition of sexual difference in the name of diversity demonize any appeal to norm or nature as oppressive; they seem unaware of the way in which ‘diversity’ easily becomes an equally hegemonic norm.”
In his essay, Johnson sets out to examine “whether Christian theology has anything to offer our present situation. My effort focuses on gender, identity, and the body, and begins by addressing a theological tendency I regard as profoundly unhelpful, precisely to the degree that it pays no attention to actual human experience—and thus, in fact, fails to ‘respond’ at all.”
Before presenting Johnson’s theological critique, I want to point out that his preference to pay “attention to actual human experience” is exactly the point where he and Cloutier diverge. Although Cloutier does not discuss human testimony, I pointed out in yesterday’s post that his writing exhibited a lack of knowledge about transgender personal experience. Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, values human experience as an important source of theological reflection.
Johnson critiques the heavy emphasis on gender division and gender roles expounded in the writings of Catholic theologians like Hans von Balthasar, John Paul II, and Angelo Scola, as well as Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Stanley Grenz. He provides a succinct and careful analysis of the main trends in their theologies and concludes that their approach is
“. . . based neither on observation of human behavior, nor on genuine philosophical reflection on the behavior of real people in conversation with all the texts of Scripture, but rather on elevating selected texts of Scripture perceived as possessing a distinct and absolute revelatory character.”
Johnson, who is primarily a Scripture scholar, takes a more dynamic view of Scripture than these traditionalist theologians:
“However important Scripture is as a witness to God’s activity in the world, and however truly Scripture participates in divine revelation, it is wrong to proceed as though revelation were contained in it alone. If theology has to do with the Living God, then it must pay attention to the ways in which God continuously manifests his power and presence in the world. Catholics have always regarded tradition as a second source of witness to God’s work—in liturgy and Creed, to be sure, but above all also in the living testimony of the saints. For where holiness speaks, the church must pay attention.
“. . . . Regarding subjects like sex and gender, theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and—for goodness sake!—biology.”
Unlike traditional theologians who have clear definitions of gender and gendered bodies, Johnson believes that “bodily expression is always ambiguous, always difficult to decipher. If we believe, however, that God lives and continues to touch us, then we must learn something of the grammar and syntax of real bodies.” This awareness is especially true because human beings reveal “a variety of ways in which “male” and “female” can be individually embodied and expressed.” He proceeds into an informative discussion of people who are intersex, meaning that they may have been born with ambiguous genitalia or other hormonal or secondary sex characteristics that can not easily be classified as male or female.
Most important to the Catholic discussion of transgender issues, Johnson asserts that gender is not a moral or religious classification, but a biological and social one. As such, he says it is a relative, not an absolute, good, “not constitutive of humans but is rather an accidental (if extremely important) dimension of being human.” He continues:
” . . . [T]he desire to change one’s gender is not itself a moral issue. It is not in itself a disordered drive, or a form of rebellion against the creator. It could be, to be sure, but it need not be; like the discovery of one’s sexual attraction to persons of the same gender, it may in fact be a recognition of oneself that is deeply respectful of the Creator.”
Similarly, he notes that gender change is not a religious issue per se, but can be considered such only on the basis of an individual’s motivation for change:
“. . . [I]f I make gender change an absolute good (I cannot be myself in this body) rather than a relative one (what counts is serving God and others in any body), I may in fact reveal a disordered desire, a form of idolatrous impulse. The moral or religious issue is not our gender, in other words, but what we make of it.”
And while it is sad that Johnson has to highlight the following idea, the tenor of the current political debate on transgender issues does make it necessary to do so:
“Openness to gender change does not equal openness to sexual vice.”
Johnson concludes with a hope for a process of Christian discernment about transgender identity, noting that what is needed is “face-to-face conversation; rather than the glare of publicity, intimate and honest exchange.” And the Chuch can and should be the place where such a discernment takes place, as well as being, Johnson’s words, “the place where openness to change is a corollary of belief in the new creation and its endless inventiveness, even as it remains the place where the goal of change is greater than the discovery of the autonomous self.”
The discussion on transgender identity in the Catholic Church is just beginning. Both Cloutier’s and Johnson’s articles are important reading for those who want to look at this issue through theological lenses.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 5, 2017
Lexi Dever, a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.