The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have released a plenary statement on gender, and the contents are a mixed bag of sensitivity and misunderstanding. A Catholic LGBT+ pastoral ministry in London has responded to the statement, calling for the bishops to educate themselves.
The seven-paragraph statement, released on April 20th, starts off with words of compassion and welcome to transgender people, however, it closes with a critique of “gender ideology,” a concept the hierarchy uses that is not an accurate description of what transgender and gender-non-conforming people experience.
The second paragraph strikes a positive note:
“We recognise that there are people who do not accept their biological sex. We are concerned about and committed to their pastoral care. Through listening to them we seek to understand their experience more deeply and want to accompany them with compassion, emphasising that they are loved by God and valued in their inherent God-given dignity. There is a place of welcome for everyone in the Catholic Church.”
But the remainder of the statement reinforces traditional church views about gender, while at the same time it decries the idea that people are free to determine their gender, part of what the bishops consider gender ideology.
The LGBT+ Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council, which is the lay leadership body of the Diocese of Westminster’s pastoral outreach to sexual and gender minorities, responded to the bishops’ statement saying that they welcomed the document because of the strong need to provide pastoral care to transgender people. At the same time, the Pastoral Council provided a more scientifically and experientially based understanding of gender than the bishops offered:
“We would like to take this opportunity to address some common misconceptions about transgender people. Transgender identity is not an ideological position, nor do transgender people seek to convert others to being transgender. Being transgender does not mean that someone wishes to abolish gender or sexual difference; in fact many transgender people report feeling great joy and peace once their bodies and gender identities are aligned. The argument that gender is purely a social construct is often used to delegitimize, rather than support, transgender identities. Gender is not a matter of individual choice for transgender people any more than it is for cisgender (i.e. not transgender) people. Although it is currently not known why some people are transgender, current research suggests that genetics, hormones and environment all play a role. In the United Kingdom, the process of transitioning from one gender to another takes place over a long period of time, typically years, and is a multi-stage process. This process may include both reversible changes, such as using a different name and pronouns, or changing hair style and clothing, and more permanent changes such as hormone therapy and surgery.”
The Pastoral Council’s statement ends with a request that the bishops do some serious learning about gender, particularly from a pastoral perspective:
“We are pleased that the Bishops are committed to continued reflection on this matter, and we hope that they will take the opportunity to listen to the stories, hopes and fears of their transgender siblings in Christ, as well engaging with clinicians and researchers. We would also like to commend the many clergy, religious, and lay members of the Church who already welcome transgender people into their parishes and communities, and we hope their experiences can be used as examples to help others.”
[You can read the entire statement from the LGBT+ Pastoral Council by clicking here.]
On transgender and gender identity issues, Catholic bishops seem to be on course to make the same mistakes their predecessors made a few decades back when sexual orientation was a new discussion. While pastoral and compassionate messages are important, these will ring hollow when bishops continue to rely on myths, stereotypes, and misinformation. Without at least listening to the stories of people about whom they are writing, and without at least consulting the church’s pastoral ministers who have begun to do outreach, the bishops fall into a trap of speaking in an echo chamber, sealed off from the contingencies of the real world.
In this newest statement of theirs, the bishops emphasized that “Through listening to them [transgender people] we seek to understand their experience more deeply and want to accompany them with compassion.” Yet, the text of the same statement that carried this line shows no evidence that they have actually done so. If they had, the resulting text would have been vastly improved.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 30, 2018