Unclear comments by the United Kingdom’s leading Catholic prelate have raised questions about just what he meant to say on the topic of gender identity in Catholic education.
At a conference for educators in the archdiocese, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London) gave an address in which he reiterated the importance of teaching children they are part of a common humanity while rejecting a harmful individualism which he said marked the present age.
In the course of his remarks, the cardinal referenced both shifting norms on sexual behavior and a fluidity in terms of gender identity that are being increasingly accepted in society. He said, in part:
“At a time of great confusion about the rules of sexual behaviour, about exploitation and abuse in every part of society, some firm points of reference, that are already built into our humanity at its best, are of vital importance. In an age of fluidity, even in gender identity, and at a time when the response to ‘difference’ is to become closed in a self-selecting world of the like-minded and reject that which is different, such foundations [of a common humanity] are so important. They affirm that there are ‘givens’ which come with birth and with solid identities and which project across generations. They help up [sic] keep hold of the reality that we are not single, self-determining individuals but members of a great family, with all its trials, diversities and struggles, and within that family, not alone, will we find our greatest joy.”
Media reports in The Daily Mail and in Crux have said these words from Nichols signify a rejection of “gender ideology” and a desire for students to be instructed to accept their assigned sex as their gender. But is that really what happened?
One reading is that, yes, Cardinal Nichols is directly addressing LGBT issues. In this reading, he clearly criticizes any toleration of gender fluidity or the idea that people can choose their gender. He encourages teachers to instruct youth to accept the “‘givens’ which come with birth and with solid identities.” In this reading, assigned sex at birth is the unspoken given and solid identity on which the cardinal is focusing, and he is encouraging students to accept the gender designation given them. Acceptance would allow for their full participation in the human family and bring them their “greatest joy,” according to this understanding of the cardinal’s words.
But an alternative reading is that Nichols was not focused so much on LGBT issues as he was on affirming the ideas of objective reality in a period of relativism and of a shared humanity in a period of individualism. These themes run throughout his speech, of which this paragraph is only a part. In this reading, his reference to sexual behaviors and gender identity are but examples of the larger points he is making. While assigned sex may be among the “givens” in the cardinal’s mind, his point is really more general.
Neither reading is LGBT-positive, but the difference in emphasis between the two matters is important. A direct condemnation is far worse than a tangential reference. Unfortunately, Cardinal Nichols’ intentions are obfuscated by a poorly written text that leaves itself open to interpretation. Bishops, in their roles as teachers, should strive to be clear and accurate in their statements.
In this case, Cardinal Nichols should be given the benefit of the doubt. He has a largely positive record on LGBT issues. His LGBTQI liaison, Monsignor Keith Barltrop, once said transgender people who decide to transition after a period of discernment should be “fully supported” by the Church. It seems unlikely that Barltrop would have made such a claim without the cardinal’s knowledge and support. A strong condemnation now of transgender people would be surprising.
Fortunately, Cardinal Nichols in his capacity as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales could offer clarifying remarks when the Conference takes up the question of gender identity next month. It would be a good moment for him to offer some pastoral and affirming words.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 19, 2018