Cardinal’s Anti-Transgender Comments Reveal a Need for Pastoral Listening

Archbishop Vincent Nichols

England’s top prelate has again opined on gender identity, revealing, at the same time, his pastoral inclinations and his opposition to full transgender equality.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London) made his comments in an interview with The Tablet, which reported:

“[Nichols] said areas of life which previously had ‘assumptions of stability’ are now less firm, making for a context in which ‘everything can be tossed up into the air’ and a ‘very strong example of that is the way in which we’re approaching questions of gender identity.’

“Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Tablet, the Cardinal said that there has been an obvious change in society’s understanding of the ‘unfolding of gender’ in a person’s life in terms of ‘what men can do, what women can do.’ He added: ‘To me, that’s not an issue,’ but, he warned, ‘it’s the relationship between gender and biological sex, that’s the more difficult issue. Though, clearly, some people suffer seriously around those dilemmas and I think what we have to be able to do is respond to that serious dysphoria without changing the fundamental assumptions that give us stability.'”

Nichols claimed that being either male or female is still a given for most people, and spoke somewhat approvingly of an anti-transgender statement from a conservative group of British priests. He also acknowledged that the Conference of Catholic Bishops for England and Wales is presently considering the issue of gender identity.

The cardinal made had already made gender identity-related comments in a February address to educators at Catholic schools. It was unclear then whether he was directly criticizing transgender equality or simply using more fluid understandings of gender as an example for a larger point about affirming objective realities in a time of relativism.

Overall, Nichols’ record on LGBT issues is largely positive. 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. Earlier this year, he resumed ties with the LGBT Catholic organization Quest. In 2017, he said he “rejoiced” that society had become more accepting of lesbian and gay people, even while saying the institutional Church would remain “obstinate” in its teaching on marriage. In 2015, following his participation in the Synod on the Family, Nichols apologized to LGBT people and their families because such issues “didn’t get the attention that I would have hoped but I understand why [given how many issues were raised].” That year, he also presided at a Mass for the group “LGBT Catholics Westminster,” a pastoral outreach that Nichols inaugurated. He endorsed civil unions for same-gender couples as early as 2011.

Read in the context of this record, his most recent comments in The Tablet continue with his pastorally-oriented approach to LGBT people. His compassion for a marginalized community is clear. But concurrently Nichols is revealing a lack of knowledge about gender identity and the experiences of transgender people. Affirming one’s gender identity for trans people is not something that “can be tossed up in the air” and freely chosen. Indeed, affirming one’s gender identity is one of the “fundamental assumptions that give us stability.” Not being open and authentic is what is destabilizing.

Cardinal Nichols can act from his pastoral inclinations and use resources like Quest and LGBT Catholics Westminster to engage in listening sessions with transgender people and their loved ones. Then, rather than speaking of abstract concepts, he can speak informed by trans people’s joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties, like a good bishop should.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 5, 2018

4 replies
  1. Martin
    Martin says:

    Although it is not specific to Westminster Diocese, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales has recently embarked upon a confidential listening process with trans Catholics. It is unclear whether such an initiative is being encouraged by Rome, or indeed if it is being replicated in other parts of the Catholic world. It would be good to know, for example, whether such conversations are happening in countries such as India, or some Pacific nations where social recognition of trans people is culturally or anthropologically significant, even if this does not result in fully legal protected status.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    Cardinal Nichols seems to be a man with genuinely kind intentions, but also with inadequate clinical understanding or information. I think he’s eminently teachable — when and if he’s willing to listen to the direct actual lived experience of committed Catholics who happen to be GLBT.

  3. Janelle Lazzo
    Janelle Lazzo says:

    To me, a lifelong practicing Catholic, it seems that members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, with their almost unlimited opportunity to persuade the grassroots faithful, should be the most conscientious among us in seeking correct information about issues that affect the transgender members of their flocks . Science has moved rapidly in the recent past to inform us about the life experience of transgender individuals. We are not in an area of unpredictable choice here. The self-identification of a transgender individual could be a powerful tool in increasing understanding and fair play of and for the transgender community .If the hierarchy is to be truly pastoral, its members must be open and willing to listen and learn.


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