Fr. James Keenan: ‘Is the Church At All Interested in Listening to Transgender People?’

Fr. James Keenan

Twenty-two years ago, Fr. James Keenan, SJ,  received a call from a psychotherapist who worked with transgender clients, some of whom were Catholic and asking to talk with a priest. The priest, who is a theology professor at Boston College, had come highly recommended as a cleric who would be willing to listen, to be open to, and to not condemn those struggling to understand their gender identity. He agreed to meet with the transgender clients.

Keenan wrote recently in the National Catholic Reporter about the ensuing conversations, which were profound experiences for him and made him realize “how extraordinary their experiences were.” He writes now about this pastoral experience to highlight the jarring disconnect in the way issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are spoken about by the church’s hierarchy as opposed to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people.

Whereas the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of diocesan policies use the language of “gender ideology,” Keenan’s conversation partners were talking “about how frightening and alienating their lives become as they existentially face and answer the question before them.” He explains:

“These experiences were truly profound: Imagine what it is like to face the question that their own selves were telling them they had to investigate! They knew the degree of ridicule, rejection and violence that transgender people face. Why were they asking the question, except that something inside themselves kept demanding them to do so? By accepting the question to any degree, they knew that it meant accepting the pervasive judgmentalism and shaming that few others experience in the same way. And yet, their experience was that the question they encountered (How can I accept my gender when my body seems otherwise?) wanted them to find a reconciliation within themselves.”

Keenan draws a parallel between the hierarchy’s distant and cold language about gender ideology and the way white supremacists speak of critical race theory as a weapon, rather than a tool for dismantling oppression:

“This is quite similar to the way racists and white supremacists use ‘critical race theory’ to attack those seeking to recognize the long-standing racist world we live in. A good offense is the best defense, they think; that’s the Catholic tactic! The gender ideology flag belittles the terribly challenging world the transgender community lives in and is little more than a cheap shot at a very precarious group of people.”

In other words, church leaders end up speaking on their own terms rather than listening to those most harmed.

Instead of speaking about transgender Catholics, Keenan suggests the church shift gears to listening with an ear to learn. As the priest listened to the stories of transgender people, he realized they sought “sanctuary,” to feel understood and loved, something they might have rarely experienced with family, friends, or the church.

Keenan’s challenge is an important and needed one. Hearing the profound and often painful experiences of transgender people would allow church leaders to engage with the lives of actual people and abandon the problematic and impersonal language around gender and sexuality.

But before even this could happen, the church would first have to answer Keenan’s essential question and indeed, challenge: “Is the church at all interested in listening?”

Angela Howard McParland (she/her), New Ways Ministry, March 7, 2022

7 replies
  1. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    The refusal to listen to the lived experience of transgender Catholics is resulting in suicides.

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” ― Martin Luther King Jr

  2. Alys Cavanagh
    Alys Cavanagh says:

    Thank you so much…I am non binary and only just starting to share this truth at 43 years of age… I feel deep relief at being able to say ‘no’ at long last to the binary models of gender I had tried, and harmed myself so much I trying, to fit. I feel I am more honest, able to rest, in the arms of God as I own this truth. But only a few hours ago, in the midst of listening to some deep and rich encouragement about the divine mercy from the. Marian fathers, feeling so inspired to practice that devotion more deeply, until the words that were being spoken came to the conclusion that I- in the language of ‘the new gender ideology’ the dismantling of the family and the sanctity of marriage – am to cause for the present crisis in Russia and Ukraine… that it is people such as me from which the world is being called to repent.. I’m 43, have finally taken the terrifying step to seperate from my husband as a result of coming to terms with my orientation and gender identity, am desperately wanting to consecrate my life to. Jesus in the pain of that decision.. and yet I feel. I must be excluded, I have no place in the house of God, in fact I’m a that to that very house. It is very confusing and painful. I wish I were not so. Sensitive.. but my faith is everything to me. Thank you for reading. Alex.

    • Elizabeth Beerneking
      Elizabeth Beerneking says:

      Alys, I am so sorry for youe suffering. Your place in the house of God is every bit as valid as anyone else’s! You are called to live your truth and be a witness for the God Who created you just as you are, not as others would have you be.

  3. James Gerardi
    James Gerardi says:

    The church is not interested in listening. It’s interested in being right, and even more to the point, being obeyed.

  4. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    As a trans person, it’s so horrible hearing your identity described as an “ideology”, as if your existence is invalid.


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