The U.S. bishops have provisionally affirmed opposition to transgender equality and the continuation of their religious liberty campaign as key parts of their strategic priorities for 2021-2024.
Meeting in Baltimore earlier this month, Church leaders voted 213-8 in favor of draft strategic priorities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). These priorities will be formally voted on at the bishops’ fall assembly this November. The National Catholic Reporter explained:
“A working group of bishops under the aegis of the bishops’ conference Committee on Priorities and Plans – following two rounds of consultations with the bishops, one round with the conference’s National Advisory Council, with recent input from five bishops’ conference standing committees –identified four priorities:
- “Evangelization: Form a joyful band of missionary disciples.”
- “Life and dignity of the human person: Serve the common good as the leaven in a free society.”
- “Protect and heal God’s children: Restore integrity, foster virtue.”
- “Vocations: Equip all Christ’s disciples for mission.”
Underneath the second priority about the “Life and Dignity of the Human Person,” two of the six bullet points related to LGBTQ issues, these being “defend and secure religious liberty and freedom of association” and “articulate a convincing anthropology of the human person, male and female, as proclaimed by faith and affirmed by science and right reason.”
While religious liberty concerns have been prominent for the bishops since their 2012 “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, the point about “articulating a convincing anthropology” based on a male/female sex binary signals increased emphasis on the bishops’ opposition to transgender equality. This opposition has ramped up in the last two years, aligning the bishops with the Trump administration’s worst trans-negative initiatives. For instance, in this year alone USCCB leaders have:
- applauded the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) redefinition of sex such that sex is a male/female binary and is defined by what is on a person’s birth certificate, rather than their gender identity;
- commended new HHS guidelines that expanded religious exemptions in healthcare ,which could allow providers to deny care to LGBTQ people if such treatment violated the provider’s religious beliefs;
- warned that the Equality Act, which would enshrine anti-LGBTQ non-discrimination protections in federal law, would have “devastating consequences” and be a “detriment to society as a whole.”
Individual bishops are speaking out in their local contexts, too, sometimes with bizarre results. For example, Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, recently compared people who transition genders to people who replace their hand with a pirate hook. Elsewhere, bishops and bishops conferences have opposed pro-LGBTQ laws and policies like conversion therapy bans.
Adding to this mix is new support the bishops are getting from the Vatican, which is doubling down on its anthropology that defines human beings by the male/female sex binary. This line of thinking undergirded the Congregation for Catholic Education’s new document, Male and Female He Created Them, and will likely appear in a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rumored to be published later this year.
But there are at least three reasons why the bishops should rethink finalizing religious liberty and “a convincing anthropology” based on a false sex binary as strategic priorities in November. First, in choosing to abandon some of society’s most marginalized communities, the bishops are not properly responding as Christians to others’ suffering. Second, by opposing non-discrimination protections, the bishops distort Church teaching on LGBTQ issues and fail as teachers of the faith. Third, as I wrote in April, it seems the bishops’ campaign for religious liberty at the expense of LGBTQ people may be backfiring on them as Catholics face legally-justified discrimination.
Disputes over transgender rights will only multiply at the local, state, and federal levels in areas as diverse as healthcare, employment, public accommodations, education, and more. Rather than continuing to do harm, the bishops 2021-2024 priorities should reflect what an increasing number of Catholics recognize: transgender rights are human rights, and working for them is a mandate of the Catholic faith.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 20, 2019