As transgender visibility increases, so have the theological and pastoral conversations about gender identity. These questions include highly theoretical concerns, such as how the church understands the human person, but also the practical concerns of daily life in the church.
The question of transgender people being admitted for baptism was the feature of an article in Presence, a French language Catholic outlet in North America. Two experts. canon law professor Chantal Labreche and Fr. Francesco Giordano, who is vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Montreal, were interviewed for the piece, which opened:
“Imagine the case of a person who begins a process of gender change during adolescence.On the way, she meets Catholics who support her and accept her. Once the transition is complete, she asks for baptism as an adult. Can she become a catechumen, that is, an adult who asks to receive this sacrament?”
Labrèche, who teaches at Saint Paul University in Ontario, said the “Church has not spoken further than” saying “any unbaptized person may be baptized,” which would seemingly include someone who is trans. Fr. Giordano had a more restrictive take, though he insisted “the door is wide open” for people seeking baptism. He explained:
“‘The criteria are perhaps less rigorous than to be godfather or godmother. . .One recognizes that baptism is essential, fundamental, for the salvation of the soul.’
“‘If we accept the beliefs of the Church, we can baptize them. If it’s a transsexual person (who has had [gender-confirming] surgery), we can look at how you can live with it. One can not undo or erase one’s previous life. But if it is a person who is taking hormonal treatment, it might be possible for her to stop treatment. We will encourage him to assume his biological sexual identity.’
“‘Biological sex is a determining factor, one can not ignore it. How can we integrate this with Catholic faith and life? We do not want to maintain an illusion, pretend that a person is a woman when he is born a man. Catholic identity is also important. If the person can not or is not ready to assume a Catholic identity, we have the right to refuse baptism because it would be a counter-testimony.'”
In Giordano’s mind, such an approach leaves baptism open for trans people but fulfills the church’s duty to “speak the truth,” even if the truth can be “hurtful.”
Transgender issues in the church are becoming disputed territory, though unlike homosexuality, there are differing opinions not only between the laity and the hierarchy, but among the hierarchy itself. Monsignor Keith Barltrop, who heads LGBTQI outreach for the Diocese of Westminster (London), has said the church should be “fully supportive” of transgender people who, after a period of discernment, transition. Alternatively, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has said transgender people are seeking “a reversion to the paganism of old.” And a dispute in Spain over whether a trans man could be a godparent had the same bishop making two different decisions and sought the Vatican’s advice.
Pope Francis seems to embody the confusion and tension in this debate. Last week, it was reported that he made comments at a Vatican conference in which he decried the “manipulation of sexual difference,” and he frowned on biomedical technology allows a person to make a “free choice” about their sex. But last year, asked about pastoral care of trans people, the pope described his meeting with a transgender man, Diego Neria Lejárraga. Francis said of Neria, “he that was her but is he [emphasis added],” seemingly affirming a trans person’s identity. Yet, in that same interview, he told journalists not to say “the Pope sanctifies transgenders” and again railed against “gender ideology.” Overall, one gets the impression that Pope Francis is simply uninformed about these issues on which he is speaking.
These questions about transgender issues will be increasingly concrete rather than theoretical, and the church should expect them to be occurring more often as more trans people come out and see the pastoral care of the church to which they are entitled. What will be the most important step now is for church leaders, theologians, and all pastoral ministers to educate themselves on issues of gender and sexual identity so they can make informed decisions.
h/t PJ Johnston for the Presence article
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 10, 2017