Theologians’ Call for Listening Offers Renewed Advent Hope, Writes Transgender Catholic

Michael Sennett

Today’s post is from Michael Sennett. Michael studied communications and religion at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, IL. After he graduated in 2018, he began working at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Chestnut Hill, MA as an Administrative Assistant and Media Specialist. Michael is a trans man and enjoys hearing testimonies of queer spirituality. He actively pursues opportunities to serve and minister to his peers. In the future, Michael hopes to obtain a degree in theology.

Advent has a way of renewing my hope, something I very much need as a Catholic trans man. This year’s saving grace was an article in the National Catholic Reporter by theologians Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, titled “The Catholic Church must listen to transgender and intersex people.” Their piece was a breath of fresh air in a suffocating blanket of hatred and bigotry I often experience within the Church.

Although drawn to the article by its headline, I was skeptical the essay would be yet another insincere call for dialogue. But the first two paragraphs piqued by interest. Lawler and Salzman cited the parable of the lost sheep from the Gospel of Luke in proposing that transgender and intersex people are not sinners, but “lost sheep in the Catholic wilderness.” Applying the metaphor of the lost sheep to the experience of trans and intersex Catholics is remarkably fitting. Let me explain why.

Through no fault of their own, gender non-conforming folks have faced intense vitriol from the Catholic Church. When Catholics enforce the rigid male-female binary, I feel awkward in the space my body occupies. When priests preach against “gender ideology” or bishops write letters that equate gender dysphoria to fleeting feelings, I feel misunderstood and abandoned. When church documents like the Vatican’s “Male and Female He Created Them” and the St. Louis Archdiocese’s “Compassion and Challenge” use language such as desire and temptation for non-traditional gender identities, language that is so intimately linked with sin, I feel shame within myself. Personally, there is only so much ridicule I can handle before I shut down and close myself off from the Church. In other words, the hostile environment created and maintained by some Catholics forces me to want to flee the flock and become a lost sheep.

To be clear, I am not lost because of my identity as a trans man; I am lost because the Church refuses to see me for who I am. Christians have accused me of separating myself from God because of the life I supposedly chose. The only choice I made was to live as my authentic self instead of sliding deeper into depression and self-loathing. What drives me, and other transgender or intersex people farther from God is rejection from Church communities. Then a cycle emerges. I leave. I return, but I feel foolish because no one rejoices. Instead, I am met with transphobia, accusations of sin, suspicion and blame. Then something or someone comes along to reconcile my faith. And the cycle continues.

But Lawler and Salzman renew my sense of hope by recognizing trans and intersex people not as sinners, but as sheep lost in this cycle. The theologians notice we are alienated not because of who we are but because of what official Church documents say. And, unlike church documents that criticize “gender ideology” and offer calls to dialogue that might as well be non-existent, Lawler and Salzman seek real dialogue. Where my presence in the discourse is often not allowed or taken seriously, these theologians call for serious engagement. Church leaders, priests, women and men religious, and the laity must begin to listen as Lawler and Salzman advocate. Reaffirming trans and intersex identities is an act of love all Catholics need to embrace.

In true Advent fashion, reading Lawler and Salzman’s article and its use of the lost sheep parable has restored my hope once jaded by the inaction of the Church. I can sense the continuation of eyes, ears, and hearts opening to the lives and experiences of trans and intersex people. I sincerely hope that with the coming of Christ is also the coming of an age of acceptance.

Michael Sennett, December 17, 2020

4 replies
  1. Sheila Peiffer
    Sheila Peiffer says:

    Thanks for this articulate and moving essay. We all need to keep the pressure on the church and articles like this one are very helpful.

    Reply
  2. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Advent Reflection Essay by Michael Sennett

    Thank you, Michael, for your wonderful reflections. I particularly enjoyed your exegesis on the parable of the lost sheep. Being able to project yourself into the story is so important in the development of your life of faith.

    Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman have been heroes for me for a long time. They have written numerous important articles in theology, anthropology, sexuality, and the sacraments. They have also focused on the place of the queer community in the Catholic Church in particular and the universal church in general. This may be their first article specific to the transgender and intersex community.

    As part of my Advent reflections, I am reading parts of their textbook, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology:” Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C. 2008. It is a comprehensive textbook on human sexuality. Each topic is covered with both the traditionalist point of view, then contrasted by the revisionist view, and finally their personal take on the topic. It is a difficult read, but it is filled with many new ways of thinking.

    Reply

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