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