Responding to two bishops’ transphobic statements, a popular Franciscan theologian has called for the church to listen to transgender persons rather than using abstractions to dehumanize the trans community.
Fr. Daniel Horan, OFM, a regular contributor to the National Catholic Reporter, wrote in that publication about the approach of Bishops Michael Burbidge of Arlington and William Joensen of Des Moines to transgender issues. Burbidge issued anti-transgender diocesan policies earlier this year, while Joensen attacked trans people in a post on the diocesan website.
Horan comments in NCR:
“In both cases, these bishops — whose intentions I believe are sincere, but whose knowledge, expertise and pastoral competence in this area are sorely lacking — resort to the tired straw man of ‘gender ideology’ as the catchall for everything that frightens or confuses them about transgender persons or those who are otherwise gender nonconforming.”
The Franciscan adds that “gender ideology” is “convenient for those who seek an ideological bogeyman or frightening specter to haunt congregations into greater transphobia.” The term, he points out, has “no universally agreed upon meaning” and is used in a derogatory fashion.
Horan challenges the bishops on the emptiness of their claims:
“Burbidge and Joensen claim to ground their transphobia in the ‘truth’ of church teaching. . .what is striking about this alleged recourse to truth is the stark absence of facts or evidence invoked to support their concerns about the experiences and identities of actual human beings in the world.”
“The way that these bishops talk about truth is with a Platonic abstractionism that does not bother to take into consideration the multiplicity of experiences of actual people living in the world. Sadly, we have seen this disconnection between some church leaders’ desire for truth and truth that is actually grounded in fact play out over the course of church history before.”
Horan cites the church’s history of antisemitism, misogyny, and complicity with slavery as examples of the dehumanization that can result when church leaders use abstractions to avoid questions about how to protect real persons’ human dignity.
Are transgender people a problem? No, says Horan, writing “the real problem is church leaders who exercise a kind of intellectual and epistemological hubris that leads them to conclude that their experience of being in the world is an authentic measure of everybody’s experience of being in the world.”
Horan concludes with a call to intellectual humility and an openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He writes that Christ asks us to start with “something as simple as addressing other human beings with basic respect.” This begins with the commandment to “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”
In order to adequately respond to the real human needs of our transgender siblings in Christ, we need to pay attention to the evidence of their own experience, rather than our abstractions. Holding too firmly to abstract conceptions of the world can cause us to ignore the persons actually in front of us. The love of Christ demands humility and attention to transgender people’s actual needs so that we can love them in the ways they need to be loved.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, September 30, 2021