U.S. Archbishop Says Pope Francis Named Transgender Rights as ‘Significant Issue’

Archbishop Robert Carlson

A U.S. archbishop has claimed that during ad limina meetings, Pope Francis named the movement for transgender rights as a ‘significant issue’ of today, right alongside abortion.

Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis spoke about the ad limina visit to Pope Francis that included 15 Midwest U.S. bishops. Carlson reported that the pope raised two issues as significant: abortion and transgender rights. National Catholic Reporter explained:

“While Francis ‘certainly talked about abortion as a preeminent issue,’ Carlson said, ‘at the same time he said there’s another significant issue and that would be ‘transgender’ — where we are trying to make all human beings the same, it makes no difference, you can be whoever you want to be.’

“The pope, he said, brought the issue up as an example of ‘another significant issue in our day.’

“Asked whether the pope then gave the bishops any advice on how to handle the transgender debate, Carlson said the pope touched on the way proponents believe people are ‘all one and that there’s no difference, which would fly in the face of what (St.) John Paul II talked about on complementarity and it would fly in the face of the dignity of the woman and the dignity of the man, that we could just change into whatever we wanted.’

“Of course, he said, a pope or a bishop or any religious leader must focus on a variety of issues and concerns, but ‘there are some people who are one-issue people and so they’re never satisfied if you don’t focus totally on that.'”

What is to be made of these alleged papal comments coming from a strongly right wing bishop? First, it must be kept in mind that the words attributed to Francis come secondhand. No post-meeting communique or public comment from the pope confirms, corrects, or denies what Carlson claims. Let me provide another context for evaluating the transgender remarks.

In the same article reporting that Francis claimed transgender rights were a ‘significant issue,’ Carlson and Kansas City’s Archbishop Joseph Naumann quote the pope as agreeing with U.S. bishops who believe abortion is the “preeminent” issue today. This statement, and specifically the word “preeminent,” are significant in light of heated debate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) assembly in Baltimore last fall. Debating an introductory letter for the bishops’ voting guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich sought to insert a paragraph from the pope’s encyclical Gaudete et Exsultate. In that paragraph, which the cardinal said succinctly summarizes the pope’s magisterial teaching, Francis called the prioritizing of one ethical issue over others an “ideological error.” The pope writes in the encyclical that a number of justice issues, like human trafficking and poverty, are “equally sacred.” But conservatives at the assembly denounced Cupich’s amendment to include that paragraph, insisting that abortion was the “preeminent” issue above all others. The assembly cheered Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput’s rebuke of Cupich. Ultimately, abortion was named as “preeminent.”

With the context of that debate and vote, this report from the ad limina visit supports the agendas of Naumann, chair of the USCCB’s Committee for Pro-Life Activities, and Carlson, who believes the denial of Communion to pro-choice politicians is acceptable. In their framing, they have received a papal blessing for their anti-choice priorities. But their claims do not seem to match Pope Francis’ words, writings, or actions. Indeed, shortly after his election in 2013, the pope criticized Catholics who were “obsessed” with abortion, marriage equality, and contraception. Climate change and migration have been the hallmark justice issues of his papacy, not abortion. And it was Francis’ episcopal appointees, like Cardinal Cupich and San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, who advocated against naming abortion as the “preeminent” issue during the Baltimore debate.

How does this color our understanding of what they said the pope said about transgender rights? Both Carlson and Naumann have strong anti-LGBTQ records. Carlson has repeatedly condemned scouting organizations who moved to be more LGBTQ-inclusive, and his archdiocese published guidelines that discouraged youth from coming out. He also opposed marriage equality. For his part, Naumann is a noted advocate for an organization promoting conversion therapy, and has sided with the Trump administration’s attempts to allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination in healthcare. His archdiocese backed a priest who denied a same-gender couple’s child admission to a Catholic school.

It is true that the pope has weighed in negatively on gender identity issues, but he has also met with transgender man and wrote a letter of support for a nun doing ministry with transgender women. Francis does not seem to share in the condemnatory fixation on stopping transgender equality that many U.S. bishops display. His overall approach to LGBTQ issues is dissonant from Carlson, Naumann, and the nation’s episcopate.

Something does not add up. I am not suggesting that the archbishops are lying, but that it is possible their narrative may be skewed, intentionally or not, to affirm an agenda on social issues that is more their priorities than Pope Francis’. A clarification from the Vatican would be nice, yet is quite unlikely. And so, not for the first time, Catholics are left uncertain about what really happened when it comes to Pope Francis and LGBTQ issues.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 18, 2020

1 reply
  1. Nancy Corcoran, csj
    Nancy Corcoran, csj says:

    This helps me to understand why doctors at Glennon Children’s Hospital here in St. Louis were told they could not treat any trans children to the shock and dismay of their parents. We are, however, blessed to have a Gender Clinic attached to Washington University & Barnes Jewish Hospital.


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