Top Catholic Ethicist: Do Not Assume Transgender Identities Are “Sinful” or “Disordered”

David Albert Jones, left, with Cardinal Vincent Nichols

A leading Catholic ethicist offered positive words about transgender identities in a recent interview, saying it should not be assumed that someone naming their gender identity is problematic and that such identification could be affirmation of how God created them.

Professor David Albert Jones, who leads Oxford University’s Anscombe Bioethics Centre and advises bishops around Europe, commented on many aspects of the current debate in the Catholic Church over transgender identities. Jones told Crux:

“Discernment is needed, however, to distinguish what is sin and needs to be renounced (though perhaps this will only be accomplished by steps) and what is not sin but is an element of diverse and complex human experience.  In the case of divergent gender identity, we should not assume, as perhaps the question seems to assume, that someone expressing a deep-seated sense of gender identity is doing something sinful or objectively disordered.  On the contrary, the person may be accepting his or her gender identity as something given by God.”

That discernment, Jones said, only emerges after pastoral accompaniment, which is the first step in discerning the “difficult moral issues related to incongruent gender identity.” He cited Pope Francis’ own engagement with trans people before stating that answers to such questions “should arise from ‘speaking with’ and not just be ‘speaking about’ Catholics with a divergent sense of gender identity.” He flatly rejected quick and simple answers, saying “if you think it is [simple] you are probably misunderstanding it.”

Jones’ engagement with trans issues has been informed by his own encounters with trans Catholics and the need for the Church to have proper theological resources for their support, which he said were quite lacking. He explained:

“On the basis of what I had written, I was asked to help develop pastoral and theological resources in this area.  This gave me the opportunity to seek out transgender people who were practicing Catholics to ask them about their experiences and what they felt would be helpful.  I also spoke to canon lawyers, educationalists, and priests with experience accompanying transgender people but the most important thing for me was to listen to people who were seeking to live their faith while accepting their deep-rooted sense of gender identity.

“Despite the very personal nature of the journey that each had made, I found a great willingness to talk and an appreciation of my attempts to listen, as one person said to me, ‘thank you for speaking to us and not just about us.'”

On the issue of gender confirming surgery, and in particular the ethics of Catholic hospitals providing such care, Jones affirmed that there was no authoritative teaching on the matter. He continued:

“In the absence of any official teaching most Catholic moral theologians, where they have considered the question, have taken one of two views.  Some have characterised such surgery as mutilation, direct harm to the body, and therefore as incompatible with Catholic medical ethics.  Others have argued that such surgery could be considered justifiable, if it helps alleviate the extreme distress of gender dysphoria.  However, typically, this second group of theologians have cast doubt on whether such surgery is effective in providing long-term relief.

“My own view is that surgery may alleviate the suffering of some patients.  However, I cannot see how gender reassignment surgery, where this causes sterility, is compatible with the ethical principles of the Catholic tradition.  Nevertheless, it is important to stress that, as yet, there is no explicit and authoritative Catholic teaching precisely on this question.

“Furthermore, if Catholic hospitals do not offer gender reassignment surgery this must not be because of a reluctance to care for transgender patients.  Any such refusal, to be ethical, must refer not to the person to be treated but only to the nature of the procedure.”

On the question of Pope Francis’ multiple condemnations of “gender ideology,” Jones said the pope’s words were about theory and systems rather than individuals:

“The movement for greater acceptance of transgender people is part of a much larger debate about sex and gender in society.  On these questions there is more than one secular view, more than one religious view, and the Catholic view, while constant in its essentials, has developed over time. . .

“It is also important to note that the focus of this papal teaching is on various errors of a theoretical kind and the way these errors have been promoted by governments and educational bodies.  It is not directed at the situation of people who experience a consistent, persistent and insistent sense of identity incongruent with their natal sex.”

Jones, like Pope Francis, seeks to preserve an understanding of gender complementarity, which claims men and women are equal in dignity but different in function. He said the magisterium is most critical of  explanations which deny complementarity , and also of understandings of gender that separate it from biological sex and make gender a choice. On this point, Jones commented:

“When we try to make sense of diverse expressions of gender identity it is natural to reach for analogies with other issues.  Transgender identity is seen as being like feminist ideas of social gender roles, or as like sexual orientation (hence the initialism LGBT), or like physiological divergences of sexual development (popularly known as “intersex” conditions), or as a type of body dysmorphia (like anorexia).  I have argued that incongruent gender identity is like (but also unlike) each of these phenomena.”

On legal and social transitions, Jones cited trans philosopher Sophie-Grace Chappell’s comparison to adoption where the adopted child is given a new social and legal identity, while retaining knowledge of their biological identity:

“If you’re an adoptive parent, you’re a parent for most purposes and no one sensible scratches their head over it – they don’t decree that you can’t sit on school parents’ councils, or see it as somehow dangerous or threatening or undermining of ‘real parents’ or dishonest or deceptive or delusional or a symptom of mental illness or a piece of embarrassing and pathetic public make-believe…”transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents.”

Finally, on the issue of referring to trans people by their names and pronouns, Jones again cited the pope, saying further:

“Catholic pastoral practice must begin with welcome and the first sign of welcome is how we address someone.  There is nothing un-Catholic about the use of names and pronouns that reflect a person’s sense of identity.”

There are problems with Jones’ views, like his affirmation of gender complementarity and his equivocation on gender confirming surgery, but his interview models a path more church officials and theologians should follow: theological reflection that take seriously trans Catholics’ voices, is grounded in pastoral concern, and includes an engagement with contemporary science. The full interview is worth reading, and you can find it by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 5, 2018

8 replies
  1. Thomas Hostomsky
    Thomas Hostomsky says:

    I think Mr Shine is wrong and the theologian is correct. My experience and attidtude is directly correlative to that of Prof Jones. I am not LGBT. I am simply gay.

  2. Kris
    Kris says:

    I suspect Jones’ view (that ‘transwomen are to women what adoptive parents are to parents’) would be deeply offensive to all or most transwomen; it suggests that transwomen are, ontologically, ‘quasi-women’, in other words, ‘not real women at all’, but just ‘honorary women’.

    This understanding makes complete nonsense of all of Jones’ other, apparently liberal views on transgenderism.

    And to state (as Jones did) that Pope Francis, in criticising so-called ‘gender ideology’ , was challenging just ‘theory’ and ‘systems’ of transgenderism (in other words, ‘an aggressive politics’) rather than people’s actual gender experiences is utterly disingenuous: this theory, and these systems, are indeed about the very people (trans-people) Jones would claim to have dialogued with and to have a particular understanding of.

    • Sarasi
      Sarasi says:

      “. . . it suggests that transwomen are, ontologically, ‘quasi-women’, in other words, ‘not real women at all’, but just ‘honorary women’.”

      By your argument then, adoptive mothers are quasi-mothers, “not real mothers at all” but just “honorary mothers.”

      Your deduction is both legally and morally wrong. I think Jones was reaching for this analogy–and I do admit that it is not entirely apt–because adoptive parents are as “real” as birth parents, not honorary figures.

        • Sarasi
          Sarasi says:

          Actually, I didn’t think he made that argument. I thought he made the argument that adoption, and by extension, reassigned gender, would be just as real:

          “Legal or social changes of gender identity are also like (and unlike) the legal and social practice of adoption. An adopted son or daughter is a true son or daughter, by adoption (and this true relationship is invoked in Scripture as a model for our relationship with God by grace – Galatians 4.5). An adopted child does not deny the reality of his or her natal biological identity, but he or she is assigned a new identity that has a social and legal reality in order to address his or her needs.”

  3. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    In regard to the view that gender reassignment surgery is not compatible with the ethical principles of the Catholic tradition if it causes sterility… Catholic teaching permits medical treatments, such as hysterectomies, that cause sterility as an unintended side effect. How is this any different from gender reassignment surgery where sterility is a side effect, not the goal?

    • Kris
      Kris says:

      Good point, Caroline.

      It isn’t, really, any different at all.

      The issue here for the ‘Church’ is its opposition (unofficial) to gender reassignment surgery. (There is no direct catechetical teaching on such surgery.)

      Unintended sterilisation in surgery of this kind is used as a smokescreen for the ‘Church’s’ opposition to the surgery itself. Basically, sterilisation is a dishonest moral premise.

  4. Alexander Wolf
    Alexander Wolf says:

    Many people are friends with or have dealt with a transgendered person and don’t even know it. Surprised me as well. There are a good number of the general public that see transgenderism as a sexual issue, and society seems easily upset by anything remotely sexual. There are both straight and gay transgenders. If deviating from our birth biology is a sin, then those with cleft lips and other congenital abnormalities are sinning when they have them repaired. I doubt St. Peter points cis males and females to the right, and transgenders to the left. Religion is not an elite club. God loves everyone including but not limited to, straight people, gay people, black or white, non-transgendered/transgendered and so on. Bigotry belongs to humans. God is better than that.


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