Two well-known U.S. Catholic theologians have called on the church to abandon its ill-informed discrimination against transgender and intersex people, and to choose instead to imitate Christ by welcoming and affirming them.
Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, both LGBTQ-positive theologians at Creighton University, Nebraska, argue against Catholic documents such as 2019’s “Male and Female He Created Them,” from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, and 2020’s “Compassion and Challenge,” from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri. These documents fundamentally misunderstand transgender and intersex experiences. Because of this misunderstanding, the conclusions drawn by the church amount to further discrimination against an already targeted group.
Lawler and Salzman’s essay, entitled “The Catholic Church must listen to transgender and intersex people,” was published by the National Catholic Reporter. [Editor’s Note: The language regarding gender and sex in this Bondings 2.0 post reflects the language used in the original piece, not the language consistent with this blog’s style guide.]
Lawler and Salzman take particular issue with the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ document, which is subtitled “Reflections on Gender Ideology.” They say the document lacks a serious consideration of contemporary social and biological science on gender, sex, and sexuality. Despite the Catholic Church’s stated emphasis on dialogue, the pair identify an absence of serious dialogue with science and modern thought on gender. They point to Pope John Paul II’s teaching that “the church values sociological and statistical research” and the subtitle of the Vatican’s 2019 “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education” as signals that the church should not only be in dialogue with modern science but also with the real, lived experiences of transgender and intersex people.
The theologians identify the dissonance between the stated need for dialogue and the actual top-down decision making presented in the documents. When the church says it wants dialogue, it appears as though it only wants LGBTQ people generally, and trans and intersex people specifically, to listen to what the church says their reality should be.
By ignoring the lived reality of trans and intersex folks, and focusing instead on the male-female binary presented in Genesis, a non-scientific text that predates any formal understanding of sex and gender, the church diminishes the humanity of trans and intersex people, who are equally, wonderfully created by God.
The theologians assert that reliance on the Genesis account of a male-female binary consistently conflates biological sex with socially-constructed gender and diminishes the mysterious power of God, limiting God to creating only male or female. By diminishing the incomprehensible creative power of God, these documents diminish the humanity and dignity of God’s own creation.
Lawler and Salzman point out that church documents presuppose that transgender and intersex people make decisions about their identity based on flippant feelings or fleeting desires. Such a lack of dialogue with actual people leads church officials to wrongly assume that confirming one’s gender is a manifestation of a casual want rather than a real need for individuals.
In the theologians’ view, this kind of thinking leads to the idea that confirming one’s gender identity (if it does not match the biological sex assigned at birth) is immoral. All of the misunderstandings found in the church documents on transgender and intersex people, coupled with the unwillingness of the church to actually listen to trans and intersex folks, lead the church to condemn these people as sinful, causing harm to an already marginalized group of people. The result is that trans and intersex people are seen as a threat to the church in need of correcting, rather than affirmation.
Lawler and Salzman, on the other hand, expressly refuse to condemn trans and intersex people as sinners, instead recognizing their beautiful existence as wonderfully created by God. Rather than needing correcting, these ostracized, threatened, and bullied people are seen as lost sheep in the “Catholic wilderness.”
What the church needs to do is more closely imitate Jesus, say Lawler and Salzman. It is time for the church to “go in search of them, find them, to affirm and respect them, and to cease bullying them and discriminating against them.” By finding these sheep who are lost by the Church and respecting them as wonderfully made children of God, the theologians say that we will create, as Jesus said, “more joy in heaven.”
–Kevin C Molloy, New Ways Ministry, December 5, 2020
Previous Bondings 2.0 Coverage of Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman’s Work