Baltimore Archdiocese Transgender Workshop Is a Lesson in What NOT to Do

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.

 

23 replies
  1. diane mckinley
    diane mckinley says:

    I also attended the conference and thank you for your articulate and accurate synopsis of it. I didn’t come away disheartened though, because I was encouraged to hear the majority of attendees clearly vocalizing their disagreement with the Chancellor. We, the Church, are going to bring us to where we need to be.

    Reply
  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    A slam-dunk commentary by “Thomas McBride”! Welcome to “Nineteenth Century Catholicism”…or perhaps we should call it “Dinosaur Catholicism”. I’ve said it before, but it needs to be said again: The Roman Catholic Church is going to lose virtually the entire cohort of its teen-and-twenty-something young Catholics, if it continues to behave in such an insulting and counterproductive anti-pastoral manner. What does it take to get through to these cultural troglodytes?

    Reply
  3. Bob Butts and Father RIchard Young
    Bob Butts and Father RIchard Young says:

    Once again we are creating theologies and policies with out any input from a Transperson. How sad. Thank you for this insight on how our Church cannot understand its error in this approach.

    And Thank God for New Ways Ministry and DignityUSA. Our work continues while the lawyers theologians and “psychologists?” remain stuck.

    Reply
  4. Mary Jo Hoag
    Mary Jo Hoag says:

    Thank you for this article. It reinforces my decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church where we are all love and “seen.”

    Reply
    • Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA
      Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA says:

      Why leave because of the behavior of some? Look around you at New Ways Ministry, Dignity, OutCatholics in Philadelphia, and many of your sisters and brothers who need you in our midst.

      Reply
  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Frank, this is the saddest presentation I have read in all of my time following Bondings 2. My faith in the hierarchy has been very low for decades, but the flame may have been snuffed out to smoke. Christ wants us to love ourselves as a way of loving God and we can’t do that if we don’t know who we are. If we are transgender then it is the physical body that is in error, not the spirit. My various body parts have various biological functions, but they aren’t me; that is my mind/soul. Our bodies are dust as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday, but our spirit will join Christ in Heaven as part of our Resurrection with Him on Easter. Luckily more people are seeing reality as a gift from God, not a burden to be survived, I hope the hierarchy and their minions will fully realize ours is a good and loving God who wants the best for us as He created us.

    Christ said we are to come to Him, yet for centuries the Church has set up barriers that try to keep one group or another from that experience as if our Faith is so weak it can not survive being universal. Yet each wider expansion only makes it better.

    Reply
  6. Deacon Thomas Smith
    Deacon Thomas Smith says:

    This story reminded me of a similar experience of disappointment with our Church’s approach to GLBT Ministry. A few years ago, we attended an event in Paterson Diocese entitled “Gay Marriage: Why Not?” 300 people settled in for a full afternoon of discussion. Fr. James Martin was the moderator so we presumed a reasonable, interesting presentation would follow. The 3 presenters were all Princeton theologians and sociologists.

    We squirmed in our seats for almost an hour as each proceeded, in deeply intellectual terms, to compare gay relationships to animal lust, stating in no uncertain terms that our marriages would lead to “poly-amorous” households. I’d never heard this term before, so I listened with curiosity, trying to be patient and waiting for them to present the alternative, more Christian take on the sanctity of our love. It never happened. Again and again, the panelists assaulted our sensibilities by stating that GLBT partners had simply chosen a sexually fluid “lifestyle” that would lead to multiple partners.

    My husband and I became spiritually sickened as we looked around and saw hundreds of folks quietly acknowledging this stifled academic drivel as serious discussion about Gay Marriage. Our deep, abiding, self-giving, life-affirming monogamy and commitment to each other was characterized as only a step towards sexual debauchery. Naturally, we stood up and walked out, deeply disappointed again by our Beloved Church, and by Fr. Martin’s failure to moderate the event with compassion or insight.

    Reply
  7. Joe Sweeney
    Joe Sweeney says:

    Perhaps it is time to discuss how our conscience should be followed when we vary from the orthodoxy in the teaching about all aspects of homosexuality, including transgender surgery. If we believe that we are acting on good faith when gender assignment surgery is elected, cannot the hierarchy accept our faith and believe that we are acting I’m accordance with the teaching of the Church.

    Reply
  8. peter
    peter says:

    With all respect these presenters are known for their antagonistic and ill informed approach to LGB and T issues – we must also do some home work before investing any time in attending and participating in programs which a spirit distroying to LGBT persons. There has been NO real change in the policy of the church towards our community from the top so any church sanctioned talk would be suspect.
    The guest blogger also does not recognise that apart from the ‘leave altogether’ option of Protestantism excercised by some in the church others have also left religion altogether like myself, but who are still drawn to oasis such as this forum for its clarity, hope, compassion and mindful community.

    Reply
  9. Leonard Discenza
    Leonard Discenza says:

    Thomas, what a wonderful and thoughtful summary of what I can hear in your voice was a painful experience. I too share your pain and confusion when it comes to the Catholic Churches position on LGBTQ persons. Thank you for sharing. I am working to help change the church and support you and your viewpiont on the gifts transgender individuals bring to the church. God Bless you and may others within the church by the grace if God come to amore enlightened view if all LGBTQ persons..

    Reply
  10. Michele Becker
    Michele Becker says:

    I felt both infuriated and sad as I read this. I’ve been a church music minister & liturgist since 1968, have a gay son, and facilitate an Adult Gay Straight Alliance at our local, welcoming & affirming Union Congregational Church, since we were asked to leave my home RC church & meet elsewhere. I feel in my heart that the RC church is deeply disordered. To my LGBTQ+ friends, I see you, and I love you, just as you are created!

    Reply
  11. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    Sigh.

    I believe that our institutional representatives are so caught up in protecting the pronouncements of the RCC that misrepresentation, wrong intent and academic ignorance are acceptable. They are not. The intent of so many pronouncements are to persuade the faithful to comply with no intention to listen to the experts. The fact no transgender person was on the panel is blatant.

    Our RC siblings are showing their religiosity when they insist that they KNOW God created only male and female. This insistence ignores that God created the clown anemone fish, parrotfish, hawkfish and Asian sheepshead wrasse that are among species that change gender. And that only deals with the physical. How can they possibly assume to address the emotional or spiritual? I dread to think what they have to say about intersex individuals.

    I apologize for the harm that has been and is being caused to the transgender community by my RC siblings. And I apologize for my own failings. I’m still learning. I am a womb to tomb Roman Catholic, not because I agree with the institution, but because I am privileged and I am obliged to make it right. And I promise to insistently speak truth to power.

    “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” — Rabbi Abraham Herschel

    Reply
  12. Potrzebny
    Potrzebny says:

    Sad indeed!! Once again, the issue is denial of reality.
    Did Jesus really say those words to “Peter”? I think it was to Simon the Pharisee, who invited Jesus to table. But that’s not very important … is it?
    Saying that God made only males and females certainly is presumptuous. Who creates children with both sets of genitalia … it does happen, even if relatively rarely. Who then makes the choice of “gender”? And “mistakes” in that area have been made when the doctor and/or parents make the decision and then the person ends up with male mentality in a female body or the other way around. That HAS happened! And in creation is everything so distinct? I think of the platypus. It’s a mammal that lays eggs!!!!! and then suckles its young. Did God get that mixed up, too, and it’s amphibious.
    Where do all our experts on God come from? If St. Paul can claim in Colossians that in his suffering he is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” why can’t we all participate in what is “lacking in creation”? All things were made “through Christ” – as John says, all things came into being through the Word. And if we are “one with Christ” why are we left out? We are all co-creators and still groaning with creation till all is completed.
    God is with us through it all … NO??
    Peace be with all!

    Reply
  13. Angela
    Angela says:

    If you believe that people “should address a group of people by the name they desire, not by a name that may cause pain and reinforce negative stereotypes”, then you understand the pain of all of us in the prolife movement, as the media, print and visual, since the 70s, maybe earlier, has refused to call us prolife, but rather antichoice or antiabortion.

    Reply
  14. Chris
    Chris says:

    This post is a classic illustration of where the church goes wrong. We start out good by listening to what Jesus said and did. Then we close the door on Jesus and go down a rabbit’s warren of psychological and moral theories and canon law, none of which is related to what Christ did and taught.

    We need to stay with Jesus.

    many Blessings

    Reply
  15. Frank
    Frank says:

    The truth will set you free.
    Listen to the Church (the literal Body of Christ).
    Difficult truths, become less difficult.

    Reply
  16. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful and well-written commentary. As a therapist who has had the privilege of working with some transgender clients, I completely second the author’s call that we have the humility to accept peaople as they are, and not as we think they ought to be.

    JP II’s so-called “Theology of the Body” is utterly non-Christian, which if anything is Incarnational. God is present not in some generic notion of a “human person,” but rather is present in you and in me, in this specific person and that specific person. That realization must be the starting point for any legitimate theology of the body.

    Reply
  17. Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA
    Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA says:

    Thank you for such an informative and compassionate response. I attended a similar conference presented in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It was similar and felt very different from the pastoral response that Pope Francis has encouraged our catholic community, especially its priests, to have.
    When in doubt, as the author shows us, go to Jesus’ example in Scripture. That is what will save us.

    Reply

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