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