Transgender Catholics Speak of Their Lives in ‘Doctrinal Limbo’

A recent essay by Eloise Blondiau in Vox looks at the lives of several transgender Catholics who are living in a space one of them calls ‘doctrinal limbo.’ While the Vatican has been definitive on sexual prohibitions for gay and lesbian people, there remains “no universal church teachings on transgender identity,” says Blondiau, who is a producer for America Media, a Jesuit company. Those profiled in the piece are hoping for official church teaching which will acknowledge and recognize their realities.  While some have found supportive communities, others have been rejected, and all are looking for a way to exist as themselves within their church.

First profiled is Thomas, referred to only by his confirmation name because his Catholic employer is unaware that he is transgender. He’s described as “the kind of person who meets a priest for coffee and within 10 minutes is asked if he has considered becoming a priest,” a vocation that he does feel he has but cannot pursue because of his gender identity. Very active in his parish, Thomas says his inability to pursue his vocation has been “heartbreak after heartbreak.” He’s been discerning the priesthood for years and has found support from his own spiritual directors but has also been denied meetings by vocation directors and bishops because he is transgender. Thomas says that he’s not giving up, in the hopes that his struggle will make it easier for “someone else down the line.”

Without clear doctrine, the decision of how to approach trans parishioners can vary widely by diocese and parish. Pope Francis’ treatment of trans Catholics has also been rocky. The article recalls the 2015 meeting he had with Diego Neria Lejarraga, “who was rejected by his faith community after receiving gender-affirming surgery,” but also his more recent comments that condemn treatment of “gender as ‘a simple matter of personal choice.’” The 2017 ‘Created Male and Female’ open letter signed by 4 prominent US bishops took a similarly hard line, though Blondiau notes that this cannot be taken as “universal church teaching, since church teaching has different levels of authority.”

As the article makes clear, “trans Catholics currently face obstacles if they want to work for the church, pursue a Catholic marriage, or take religious vows, not to mention the challenge of transitioning within their faith communities.” In 2007, Colleen Fay, 74, was fired from her position in the choir at St. Ann Parish,   Washington, DC, when she came out as transgender to her music director. She then tried to join the parish of St. James in Mt. Rainer, Maryland, but was repeatedly told that the parish had no record of her—after three years of attendance and multiple attempts at registration. She tells Blondiau that she was faced with an ‘impossible choice’ of being either Catholic or transgender. “Choose your right arm or your left,” she says. “You may not have both—is what they are saying.”

Another liturgical musician, Rachel Burkhardt,64, had almost the opposite experience. When she told her music director that she was transgender, he “quietly reprinted the music she composed with her new name, Rachel, and threw away the old copies.” Burkhardt and her wife are parishioners at St. Cecilia’s Parish in Boston, a church that pastor Fr. John Unni, pastor says is modeled after Pope Francis’ “culture of encounter.”

Unni says that he works to learn from the struggles of others and tries to think before immediately passing judgement. He says that this practice can “widen the capacity of the heart,” and explains that his LGTBQ-welcoming church is in no way “antithetical to the gospel message.” Rather, he sees it working in a wholly Christ-like model: “Jesus was open to those in the margins and welcomed anyone who wanted to hear him.”

This is the same philosophy guiding the work of Sister Luisa Derouen, who has been ministering to transgender people for 20 years. Originally working under the pseudonym “Sister Monica,” she revealed her identity as an act of public solidarity last year. She explains this decision to Blondiau: “How can I give full witness to their truth if I’m hiding behind a name that is not mine? I can’t hide either.”

Central to the stories of many trans Catholics is a need for visibility: to be known with true names and identities, to be given a chance to bear witness to the stories that they feel most intimately. While those profiled in the article acknowledge that “it would be easier to be Episcopal,” a more affirming denomination, “they all said they felt God wanted them to be Catholic.”  Overall, there is a deep need for more conversation in the Catholic Church about how best to serve trans people, and this conversation will need to foreground trans voices if it hopes to succeed in creating a faith community that is welcoming to all. Hopefully, more articles like this will continue to reach a broad audience and keep the stories of transgender Catholics at the forefront of these unfolding decisions.

For more information on transgender people and Catholicism, visit New Ways Ministry’s web page of resources and check out the “Transgender” category here on Bondings 2.0.  If you are interested in hosting an educational workshop entitled “Trans Forming Love,” about pastoral care with transgender people, click here for more information

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, March 22, 2019

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