Catholics and LGBTQ advocates have negatively appraised a new document from the Archdiocese of St. Louis that issues restrictive guidelines on how the church is to engage transgender people.
The document, “Compassion and Challenge: Reflections on Gender Ideology,” was promulgated by Archbishop Robert Carlson (now emeritus after the installation of his successor, Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski, on Wednesday) on July 31, 2020. The document details new restrictions on transgender people in the church, treating questions of gender identity as an ideology, even while it includes a call for compassion and recognition of God’s love for trans people.
Carlson argues against a supposed “transgender movement” that believes feelings dictate identity. Some of his recommendation includ:
“. . . [P]eople should be addressed and referred to with pronouns that are consistent with their biological sex in all Catholic programming and events. They should use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their biological sex while on Archdiocesan or Parish properties, or at Archdiocesan or Parish events – thereby affording our bodies the healthy modesty and dignity deserved under such circumstances.
“Those who experience discordance with their biological sex should not be denied admission to Catholic schools or participation in Archdiocesan or Parish events as long as they agree to abide by these guidelines. . .
“Respectful, critical questioning of Catholic teaching should be welcomed – as long as its intent is to help people come to greater awareness and understanding of the truth. Anyone, however, who insists on open hostility toward or defiance of Church teaching need not be welcomed in Catholic programs.”
Carlson does affirm the need for trans people to be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” per the Catechism’s teachings on lesbian and gay people, and encourages communication between trans people and their loved ones. On gender-affirming interventions, the archbishop acknowledges he is not a medical expert, but still offers the guidance opposing interventions to block the onset of puberty and gender-confirming practices, calling transition a “false hope.” Catholic hospitals and healthcare providers are instructed to act accordingly. Carlson recommends compassion for those who have already medically transitioned, comparing compassion to such people as similar to the compassion the Church offers people who have had an abortion.
Transgender Catholics and their advocates have pushed back strongly against the document, according to the National Catholic Reporter. One trans woman offered her experience:
“‘You can’t treat someone with compassion whose fundamental existence you think is wrong,’ said Magdalene Visaggio, 35, a New York-based comic book artist and transgender woman who attended seminary prior to coming out.
“Visaggio said a priest once told her that receiving the Eucharist would be out of the question if she transitioned. ‘Because the Eucharist was more important to me, I hung on for 14 more years,’ she said.
“In ‘Compassion and Challenge,’ Carlson wrote: ‘Following Jesus isn’t easy. As we take up the task each of us will have our own cross to carry.’
“Visaggio takes issue with the assumption that transgender people have no choice, noting that she transitioned not because she wanted to be a woman, but because she didn’t want to kill herself.
“‘At no point did I ask for this. I fought it with every ounce of strength I have. I went through 31 years of hell, and the church makes no effort to support people who are going through that,’ Visaggio told NCR.”
Kelsey Pacha, a former Catholic who is trans, said leaving the church was “for my own survival” after being raised in the church and later transitioning (though he never questioned God’s love). Pacha asked, “What is the fruit that you are bearing when you reject people who are transitioning?” He answered his own question, “That we die.” Still, Pacha is hopeful that younger Catholics will move the church along, relying on God and on conscience.
One of those younger trans Catholics is Michael Sennett, who has written reflections for Bondings 2.0 available here and serves as a pastoral worker in a Catholic parish. NCR reported:
“‘I don’t think it’s [Carlson’s document] helpful to approach transgender individuals like that, especially trans Catholics, who have already received a lot of negativity from the church, who already feel unwelcome.’ . . .
“‘I wanted to continue to grow in my faith life and my faith journey. It was a little nerve-wracking going in,” said Sennett, who came back to his Catholic faith his junior year of high school, the same year he came out as trans.
“Quick to note that he doesn’t speak for his parish, he said: ‘I was lucky to find a place where I felt very welcome for my whole self.’
“But rather than living in fear of being rejected by congregations or authorities, Sennett has hopes for the role of dialogue and encounter with his fellow Catholics.
“‘Perhaps they’d be a bit more sensitive, because I think if they actually knew transgender Catholics and knew of our conviction and of our faith, I think we could learn from each other,’ he said. ‘I would love to have a conversation with bishops, if they would ever be open to hearing it.'”
NCR’s coverage noted the odd timing of the document’s release, given that it was published well after Pope Francis accepted Carlson’s resignation. The archdiocese denied that the document was new policy, calling it a “basic starting point to guide conversations that are already happening.” For his part, the new archbishop, Rozanski, is “exploring some options” for the very dialogue that Sennett and other trans Catholics seek.
But any dialogue would not be easy. Sr. Luisa Derouen, OP, has more than two decades of experience ministering to transgender people:
“Derouen told NCR the renewed attention to transgender issues stems from the fact that they continue to turn up in Catholic settings, including parishes, universities and hospitals. This, she added, does not mean there is eagerness to listen to the experiences of transgender people.
“‘At the most fundamental level, to take transgender people seriously challenges [the bishops’] understanding of what it means to be human,’ she said. . .
“Pointing to her own work ministering to hundreds of transgender people, Derouen said: ‘They are who they say they are.'”
Lisa Fullam, a moral theologian, who is a Bondings 2.0 contributing commentator, criticized Carlson’s document as building on the Vatican’s 2019 document Male and Female He Created Them but “taking it a step further than they did” in trying to shut down dialogue and discernment on how to proceed regarding transgender issues.
But dialogue will be necessary for church leaders and the entire People of God to actually address questions of pastoral care, anthropology, gender, and more. Courtney Sharp, a trans woman with a long relationship with Sr. Derouen, laid it out plainly:
“‘It’s going to be a long, hard discussion. Where it ends up, I don’t know. All of us should invite the Holy Spirit in.'”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 27, 2020