The following post is from a guest blogger. ‘Thomas McBride’ is a pseudonym for an Archdiocese of Baltimore employee who attended the workshop reported on below.
On March 8, 2018, I attended a workshop sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore at Saint Michael’s Catholic Church, Mount Airy, Maryland, entitled “The Catholic Church and Gender Identity.” The program was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Baltimore for church employees.
I knew the workshop could go in one of two directions. The first direction was that this would be a workshop in which the traditional negative approach to LGBTQ people would be reinforced, especially that transgender people (the primary focus of this workshop) are somehow disordered, are a problem to be fixed, and are second class citizens who should be neither seen nor heard. The second possibility was that perhaps, just maybe, finally, there would be some voices of love, acceptance, and celebration of transgender persons as a part of the Body of Christ and that instead of being problems to be fixed they would be seen a reality to accept and celebrate.
I left demoralized.
Full disclosure: I am a gay man, and I do not identify as transgender. My experience of understanding and acceptance of transgender persons has been a gradual one. At first, I did not think much about them because I had never met such a person. Then, I met two transgender people on a retreat some years back, and for the first time in my life I listened to their stories without question and without judgment. I have since met and befriended others and have since come to accept and love their giftedness.
The workshop day began with a beautiful celebration of Morning Prayer in the chapel, followed by a reflection on Luke 7:36-50 in which a woman approaches Jesus, washes his feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair. The facilitator said her favorite line from that passage was when Jesus asks Peter, “Peter, do you see this woman?” Rightly so, we were reminded that the outcasts of Jesus’ day were given strength and hope because Jesus saw them – he saw the PERSON. He acknowledged them. He loved them. He empowered them. And he lifted them up to reclaim their God-given dignity. I was hopeful. Perhaps the day’s speakers would encourage those who work with parishioners, students, catechumens, youth, the devout, and those who call themselves seekers to “see this woman” or “this man” or “this transgender person” standing before us, asking for love, acceptance, and inclusion in the Christian family, as a person filled with human dignity and worthy of respect.
The first speaker, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, offered a psychological perspective. He defined the various terms that are often used when it comes to transgender issues, including gender identity (one’s internal sense of being male or female), assigned sex (one’s sex on a birth certificate), and how the term transgender can be an umbrella term to include those who simply want to live as the opposite sex to those who have had surgical changes. He quickly summarized the many theories on how gender identity may develop, from chromosomes at conception, to hormones in the womb, to physiological differences in childhood development, to the environmental impact of our families and peers, to what is socially accepted as male or female.
He cited data that linked those struggling with gender dysphoria to a range of negative issues, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. (I wondered that if I felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body with no supportive community to walk with me, might I also not be struggling with other psychological issues?) While Dr. Sodergren seemed to recognize that we are dealing with real human beings who are in pain, and that their experiences are real to them, at the same time, I felt like he was trying to find a way to plug these square pegs into the round holes of traditional Catholic teaching on gender identity. He proposed that in God’s eyes there is only male and female and that we cannot change from one to the other. He said that the only thing medical interventions do is mutilate a body.
Our second speaker was Dr. John-Mark L. Miravalle, a professor of Systematic and Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. While Dr. Sodergren’s perspective was that transgender people are psychologically problematic, Dr. Miravalle’s approach is that they are morally problematic as well. He began with a critique of the transgender movement as one that is being forced upon society. He sees the transgender movement based on two ideas: (1) that we should be free to make ourselves whoever and whatever we want: and (2) that allowing someone to live as the opposite sex is the compassionate thing to do since it isn’t really hurting anyone. His arguments were grounded in Pope Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body – that our bodies and souls (i.e. our personalities / identities) are so connected, that one cannot separate the two.
On the first point, Dr. Miravalle reduced the experience of the transgender person’s claim of being “a man in a woman’s body” to a ridiculous analogy about people wanting to have gills so that they can breathe under water, in spite of the fact that God and nature gave us bodies without gills. So as much as we might want to breathe under water, it goes against our nature and therefore cannot be reconciled. This analogy would work if we were talking about cross-species changes, but we are not. We are talking about a group of people who claim that their experience of being male or female is not in conformity with the majority of the human population. They are not making the claim that they are non-human – they are making the claim that they are human, but with an experience of that humanity which is broader than we realize. Can we at least listen to them? Can we learn from them?
Dr. Miravalle disappointed me the most on the next point. He likened transgenderism to anorexia in which a skinny woman looks in the mirror and sees herself as fat. Would the compassionate thing, he asked, be to say to this woman, “yes, you are fat” since that’s how she self-identifies? Clearly that’s what she wants to hear, so wouldn’t the compassionate thing be to agree with her and support her self-image? If we did that, wouldn’t we be harming her by lying to her and encouraging her in the direction of physical harm, especially if she goes so far as to mutilate her body? To this point I ask why is transgender experience (and homosexuality in general) always likened to a disease like anorexia or alcoholism and not some neutral trait like left-handedness or ambidextrousness? Transgender experience and homosexuality are primarily identifiers, not ipso facto self-destructive behaviors. Dr. Miravalle rightly says that we’ve all got problems — we’re all wounded and we all need healing from Jesus. I agree. But he says that Jesus is a savior, not an accepter. I think if you read the Gospels carefully, he comes across as both. Remember the words, “Peter, do you see this woman?” To which I ask, Dr. Miravalle, do you see this person? Can you accept and love her, not for who you want her to be but for who she says she is?
The third presenter was Diane Barr, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. She approached gender identity from the perspective of a canon lawyer vis-à-vis the sacraments and the administration of the Catholic parish and/or the Catholic school. Her bottom line: transgender people must be treated as the sex on their birth certificate, and the Church cannot and will not change that policy.
School leadership must (her emphasis) seek guidance from the archdiocese when dealing with students who identify as transgender, including admission or readmission to Catholic schools. Furthermore, schools and parishes must consult with the archdiocese before hiring a transgender person. She went through a long litany of “cans and can’ts” and “dos and don’ts” using the word “transitioning” always in quotes on her PowerPoint presentation.
She also provided a set of directives. Children of trans people can be baptized but with the promise that they’ll be raised in the faith. While this is no different from anyone else presenting an infant for baptism, she wondered if church ministers can be sure that transgender parents and/or godparents are living an authentic Catholic life. Trans people shouldn’t be in any leadership positions including lectors, acolytes, Eucharistic ministers, or youth ministers. Trans people can be delayed (postponed because the minister does not think the candidate is ready) or denied (refused because the minister thinks the person is in the state of sin) the Eucharist depending on the circumstances. As for Penance, the individual confessor must use discretion in determining if there is true repentance there. (Repentance from what, I wondered: Who I am? Or what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do?) The bottom line from Chancellor Barr seemed to be: we’ll minister TO transgender persons as long as they see themselves as a poor, wretched, miserable, unloved sinners, but we’ll never treat them as equals and we’ll never let them minister WITH us.
The fourth and final speaker was Fr. Philip Bochanski of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Courage Apostolate (a Catholic organization which promotes chastity as the only sexual alternative for lesbian, gay, bisexual people). His advice to those who work in the parishes and in the schools is not to say “trans”, but to say “people who experience confusion regarding their sexual identity”. (Um . . . some of them are no longer confused about it, Father.) The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t acknowledge the claimed truth of people who identify as trans – that there’s something more going on here than mere confusion. It’s an identity issue, not a misunderstanding, although it may have begun that way.
Bochanski presented a lot of quotes from the famous Vatican instruction On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and various other pastoral documents that stress the traditional interpretation of sexual identity and expression. I think it would be good for him to read Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s Building a Bridge in which Fr. Martin suggests that at the very least those who represent the institutional church should address a group of people by the name they desire, not by the name that may cause pain and reinforces negative stereotypes. While Fr. Bochanski did emphasize the importance of listening to and walking with people who are transgender, in my humble opinion, he also fell short in the ministry modeled by Jesus in regard to Peter: Do you see this woman? Do you see this man? Do you see this person, whose experience of gender identity does not fall along the traditional binary formula?
In my experience, many representatives of the institutional Church to their credit want desperately to reach out and embrace those who identify as LGBTQ, but they just don’t know how to go about it. They ask each other what they can do to be more welcoming. They ask themselves why the LGBTQ community doesn’t feel at home in the mainstream church. They ask why LGBTQs join Dignity (a Catholic organization which provides pastoral care for LGBTQ people outside of parishes) or leave altogether for Protestant denominations. And they are truly baffled at the exodus.
Yet someone in the Archdiocese of Baltimore had the idea to have a panel discussion and did not ask a transgender person to take part and share their story. They put together a panel about transgender people that says you are psychologically messed up, you are morally broken, you are canonically untouchable, and we won’t even use the language you use to describe yourselves. But, please, come in, feel welcome. Just be sure you sit in the back and don’t let anyone see you or know you are here.
Then they scratch their heads and wonder why the approach doesn’t work.