Uruguay’s Catholic bishops have expressed divided opinions on whether to support a pre-referendum vote that could lead to repeal of the nation’s landmark transgender rights law.
Cardinal Daniel Sturla of Montevideo wrote a letter to Catholics ahead of Uruguay’s August 4th pre-referendum on whether or not to repeal the 2018 Comprehensive Law for Trans Persons. Significantly, Sturla acknowledged the harsh reality transgender people face:
“‘It is a reality that transgender people have historically been among the most discriminated groups because of their condition, which generates great pain. The Gospel challenges us: we can only stand on the side of those who suffer so much in our society. Therefore they will always have the support and accompaniment of the Church.”
Though he was clear about the church’s opposition to discrimination, the cardinal did criticize the law for including portions that are, in his view, influenced by “gender ideology.” Sturla cited the Uruguayan bishops’ 2014 document, “No to discrimination, yes to respect,” as well as their 2018 statement opposing the law. That statement from the Commission on Family and Life of the Episcopal Conference of Uruguay also recognized” it is necessary to seek remedies to overcome a sad situation and alleviate the suffering of those [trans people] who suffer from it,” but ultimately opposed the law:
“We stress, therefore, that Trans people deserve full consideration and help, and that they will always find it in the Church, not for cultural relativism but for their absolute respect for each free conscience. But, at the same time, we see with grave concern that in our country what Pope Francis has denounced on several occasions [ideological colonization] is being fulfilled.”
Among other advances, the present law mandates non-discrimination in a host of areas like housing and healthcare, allows minors to legally change their gender without parental consent, implements reparations for trans victims of Uruguay’s 1970s-1980s dictatorship, and promotes affirmative action for trans people regarding education and jobs. Twenty-five percent of registered voters must vote to repeal the law during the August pre-referendum for a full referendum to then proceed.
Sturla’s own critique was more limited than the position of the nation’s bishops, specifying the law was a mixed bag when it came to gender ideology-influenced flaws and positive non-discrimination sections:
“I am against several articles of the law because they are based on gender ideology and establish a gender-sex dissociation that is incompatible with common sense and with Christian anthropology. But the law protects a small group of people who have been discriminated against. They deserve this situation to be especially taken into account.”
The cardinal did not tell Catholics how to vote but told them to follow their consciences, noting he would not be supporting repeal:
“Is it appropriate then to vote for the pre-referendum on August 4? I believe that each Catholic with maturity and freedom will decide what seems most appropriate. Many times wheat and tares appear together, as in the evangelical parable. For my part, I understand that we must look for other ways to be able to change the articles of the law that mean an ideological stance of the State, and, at the same time, address and repair the discrimination situation that trans people have suffered. . .Following your right conscience, in the light of the Holy Spirit, I invite you to discern and take the position you deem most appropriate.”
Bishop Arturo Fajardo of San José said he remained undecided on whether to support repeal, reported El Pais:
“At the moment I can confirm that I do not agree with some aspects of the Law, that I see them as negative, such as those of gender ideology. . .[But] it is a group that has suffered a lot, we must attend to it and integrate it into society, facilitate access to work and education.”
Some bishops in Uruguay have been vocally supportive of the repeal effort. Bishop Jaime Fuentes of Minas said he would vote for repeal because he disagrees with “the foundations of the anthropological conception of the Law, with the conception of what human beings are, what sexuality is,” reported El Pais.
Bishop Alberto Sanguinetti of Canelones will likewise vote for repeal, and explained, “The suffering of trans people is terrible and they have a high suicide rate, but I don’t think it will be fixed because the surgery is done.” The Episcopal Conference of Uruguay released a July 26th statement on the pre-referendum that criticized it much along these lines.
The bishops’ divided opinions in Uruguay are noteworthy for at least three reasons. First, in nearly every statement, including from Bishop Sanguinetti who supports repeal, there is a recognition that the transgender community faces severe discrimination and that Catholics should have a role in stopping it. It would be significant progress in the church if every bishop could simply admit this reality as the starting point for their engagement with gender identity issues.
Second, Cardinal Sturla and Bishop Fajardo have chosen a more balanced approach than many Catholic bishops when it comes to LGBTQ-related legislation. Too often church leaders’ opposition to LGBTQ legislation is immediate and sweeping. But these two bishops recognize that public policy is complex. They importantly factored in church teaching against unjust discrimination and the mandate to be in solidarity with marginalized communities amid other concerns they may have.
But perhaps most important in the Uruguay situtaion is Cardinal Sturla’s appeal to conscience. Bishops certainly have a role to play in discussions about public policy, and they should make their opinions known respectfully. But their primary role here is to help form consciences properly, not to be lobbyists for particular policies. The cardinal’s letter shows his respect for the faithful as mature Christians capable of addressing complicated issues.
While the actual positions of Uruguay’s bishops on repealing the nation’s transgender law may not be ideal to LGBTQ advocates, it would be significant progress in the church if every bishop were to practice Cardinal Sturla’s nuanced policy engagement and respect for conscience.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 2, 2019