Catholic Sisters to Trans Community: “We’re Going to Find a Way to Be There With You”

Sr. Barbara Battista

“We know that you’re whole as you are,” says Sr. Barbara Battista, “and we’re going to find a way to reach out to you and to be there with you.” This was with the message a group of Catholic women religious wanted to send to the trans community on this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility in March.

In 2003, a group of religious sisters who wanted to focus on inclusivity for people who have felt unwelcome in the church came together to work for this common cause. Battista remembers that the group was “birthed out of our frustration with the lack of equality that was happening around us, not just in the Catholic Church, but in the U.S. as a whole.” Their message was simple: “You belong.”

Two decades later, Battista, a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, says that the group’s mission is as important as ever. In a commentary for Newsweek, she said, “I’ve lost track of how many state legislatures have horrendous bills in front of their state houses that are very anti-trans,” she says. “In the U.S., we know violence against trans women of color especially is skyrocketing.”

In March of this year, the group began drafting a statement of solidarity to respond to transphobia. Just days later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released guidelines limiting medical treatment for trans persons at Catholic healthcare institutions. Battista says that the bishops’ statement gave the group “an even greater urgency to speak up.’”

They consulted members of the LGBTQ+ community for feedback on the draft to ensure that their message was sensitive, supportive, and contained inclusive language. Battista says “Within the mission statement, we wrote that we stood with and welcomed the LGBTQ+ community.”

Religious sisters followed through on that commitment by marching with protesters in Kansas City, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Indiana on Transgender Day of Visibility.

Most of the responses Battista received after the event were positive. She treasures a postcard sent anonymously from New Jersey saying, “Thank you for your statement. It means so much to us. You’ll never know how much this has meant that you were willing to do this.” About a third of responses were negative, including some that insisted the sisters’ actions violated Catholic teaching. Battista says, “Honestly, I believe that’s not true because the church teaches us to love everyone.”

Despite backlash, Battista says that this type of action is “what being a Catholic sister is about. Part of our life commitment is to reach out to the people that are pushed aside and to those who are being made to feel like they are less than whole.”

Throughout Battista’s career, she has witnessed the marginalization of LGBTQ+ people in the Catholic Church. Before she became a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1986, she was an oncology pharmacist in Chicago. She treated gay men early in the AIDS epidemic suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma, an often fatal infection contracted by people with HIV in that decade. Battista remembers:

“They would tell story after story of how they were pushed out of their families and out of their churches too. It didn’t make any sense to me then, nor does it now, that we would ostracize them because of some choices they made…I believe that our behavior shouldn’t dictate whether we should belong in a church community or not. We belong because we’re created in God’s image, no matter what. No exceptions.”

Battista admits:

“The Catholic Church was, and still sometimes is, slow to embrace the LGBTQ+ community…Our church has had all kinds of flawed thinking throughout the years. But the thing is, we keep learning new things, and are brought to new understandings of God’s love for us. It is that love that compels us to be open to all persons without exception.”

Battista is hopeful that the actions of these religious sisters will inspire others to join their cause. “Because of our statement,” she says, “other churches and religious communities made public commitments, as Catholics, to support the trans community. That is a sign that people are paying attention.”

She dreams of a Catholic Church that has “the confidence to speak up and use our power to influence people positively…to build up the community and to do whatever it takes to promote the common good.”

–Ariell Watson Simon (she/her), New Ways Ministry, May 24, 2023

2 replies
  1. Mary Dodson Brown
    Mary Dodson Brown says:

    I am so thankful for this just group of Catholic sisters! They are leading the way and showing a more inclusive church. This is the vision I believe Jesus has given us!!!


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