Earlier this year, two cisgender men had an exchange in Commonweal about issues of gender in the church, specifically the experiences of transgender people. Today and tomorrow’s posts on Bondings 2.0 offer some of the main ideas proposed.
Daniel Walden is gay Catholic described as a “writer and classicist” in his Commonweal piece, “Gender, Sex, and Other Nonsense.” He begins by stating the two problems of the church when it comes to gender and sex, namely an outward facing inability “to speak credibly to the non-Catholic public” and an inward inability “to speak productively to one another.” Walden faults the institutional church for the first and much of the second, and he proposes a few thoughts bout the solution. He writes:
“The first step toward having more fruitful conversations about sex and gender is understanding what it is that we are talking about. We deploy terms like ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in theological conversations as if their definitions were self-evident, even though they remain fiercely disputed outside of theology among people who have dedicated their lives to thinking seriously about their meanings.”
Walden differentiates the idea, increasingly accepted in society, that sex is related to one’s assignment at birth while gender is a more socially-constructed reality. For the latter, developing into maturity involves, Walden writes, the taking over of stories about one’s gender from one’s parents. It is, in short, the telling of one’s story on one’s own terms, including matters of gender. Of this process, which he says involves direct involvement with God, he writes:
“We human beings, however, live within history and know ourselves through our telling of it: when we narrate our lives, we can speak directly and cogently about ourselves. But we do something more than that, for in disclosing ourselves we also disclose the work of God. Bearers that we are of the divine image, in these acts of narration we teach other people how to gloss that image, how to read and understand the icon that stands before them. . .To impose upon another the meaning of their life is, by contrast, a kind of pretense at divinity. It is to tell another person something that only God can tell them, to claim the ultimate interpretive authority over experiences that do not belong to us. In a final sense, it is to do violence to someone else’s humanity. . .”
How does this relate to gender? Walden points out that it is not uncommon for people’s telling of their stories to be rejected, replaced by authority’s telling. The better approach is to relate to someone’s gender not merely by outward expressions, but by being in relationship with them as a complex person. This is how to understand “the full picture of a person’s being who and what they are.” Catholic theology, he opines, “treats safe and sterile conversations about medical sex as critical, while sorely neglecting the more difficult topics that carry real moral and ethical weight,” the narration of one’s life. He adds:
“I do not posit here a duty to receive the life stories that people tell us, including about their gender, without any critical engagement. But. . .To be properly critical, we must first understand what we criticize. We must understand what a person is saying: what their terms are, how they map onto experience, and how the arrangement of those terms draws sense and meaning out of the sequential events of experience. Such understanding comes not from a momentary reaction to a single statement, but from sustained engagement with a person’s full understanding of their own life.”
Walden posits that “what a person tells us when they take over and correct the story of their gender is terribly important,” particularly for transgender people for whom coming out means finding “truer ways of speaking about their life.” He comments about this process:
“There is nothing in the teaching of the Church that binds us to disbelieve these things when we are told them, and indeed much that urges us to take them seriously. In making such a revision to their life story, a person is trying to be their self more fully, to come into a mature sense of who they are that makes sense of their life as it has unfolded so far. . .If we take seriously Christ’s pronouncement that we, his disciples, will know the truth and the truth will make us free, then we owe it to other people to receive their attempts to tell the truth about themselves and to try to see the truth in what they say, even and perhaps especially when our customary ways of speaking and thinking do not easily accommodate it.”
Noting that transgender-negative commentators often describe transgender people’s understanding of their gender as “defective,” Walden argues for an understanding of gender that exists within a fallen creation. Everyone’s understanding of gender is therefore defective, pointing to the problems of patriarchy in society as an example. The problem is that it is impossible to know what gender meant before the Fall. Transgender people, then, expose the mystery that is gender and calls for humility:
“Above all, this humility means being conscious of our own sin. The way we live gender is objectively wicked: marriage and religious life are both schools for exposing this and teaching us to live better. That someone’s attempt to live it truthfully might baffle our understanding says far more about the smallness of our understanding than it does about the other person, just as the need to change our language about a person says only that our language has always been inadequate. None of this is new to a Christian tradition in which God forever escapes our speech and yet expresses His work in the lives of everyone we meet.”
Walden concludes with a further exhortation to humility and listening:
“[T]o impose a foreign life story onto an icon of God is to read another person through the eyes of our sin and the lies that sin has taught us. It is to sin—and we have so sinned—against them and against the God who made them, when what we really owe them is a new beginning. . .When we take the time to let a person be who they are and tell the story of their being, we are also participating, however faintly, in the act of creation, and in doing so we become more fully the human beings we were created to be. When we have learned to do this, we may start to talk real sense.”
Tomorrow’s post will feature a reply to Walden from Paul Griffiths, a Commonweal contributor, as well as Walden’s further response.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 6, 2021