Portland Archdiocese’s Gender Policy Seemingly Ignores Vatican II, Writes Theologian

SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai

News broke earlier this week that the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon temporarily closed its Catholic schools department, leading to speculation the decision may have been due to months of backlash against a transgender-negative policy the archdiocese released earlier this year. (You can read Bondings 2.0’s report on this news by clicking here.)

Before the announcement of the schools office closing, one local theologian already identified the problems with the archdiocese’s gender identity policy. SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai, a systematic theologian at the University of Portland, published his critique in the National Catholic Reporter.

Archbishop Alexander Sample issued the policy in late January. It mandates that transgender students be misgendered in Catholic schools because treatment of students will “depend upon biological sex identity, rather than self-perceived gender identity.” In his critique, Aihiokhai illustrates the problem that some prelates have in their tendency to conflate sex and gender:

“From my experience of the discourses around gender in ecclesial circles, I have come to the realization that there seems to be a lack of awareness of the phenomenological nature of gender. Gendered self-understanding is not within the domain of conceptualization. Rather, it is within the domain of sociocultural and political constructions of identities. . .

“Or maybe it is better to say that there is a disregard of findings outside of the literal reading of the Genesis account. Yes, the church locates its teachings on a tradition. However, this tradition is a living one. Like all living traditions, it must grow. It must allow itself to be critiqued in order for it to embrace fully the Spirit-centered calling of reading the signs of the times.”

The theologian argues that the church needs to embrace responding to the experiences of the people of God rather than asserting a rigid understanding of gender identity that does not speak to the lived realities of queer people:

“Over two decades ago, if someone had asked my opinion on the phenomenon of fluid gender awareness, I would have opined that such a phenomenon was either immoral or disordered. However, I have encountered many persons who have shared with me their life successes, stories and struggles as they attempt to make sense of who they are.

“Through these encounters, I have come to the realization that perhaps, our theological views that offer rigid meanings to what is not of its nature rigid is where the problem lies.”

Aihiokhai objects to the way church leaders like Sample have employed Scripture against LGBTQ+ people, suggesting problems arise “when we read Scripture only through a literal lens.” Critical engagement with the texts is needed, and the theologian proposes some guiding questions:

  • “What does it mean to be male or female in the era when the texts were first written, especially in the communities where the texts were written and received?
  • “How does that understanding reflect in the progress or regress of human history?
  • “Whose experiences were left out and whose experiences were centered?”

Aihiokhai argues that Vatican II, which called on the church to respond to the “signs of the times,” seems to have been completely ignored by the new policy, which instead offers an entrenched traditionalist viewpoint. Instead, the theologian posits, a response to trans identities that is truly responsive to the Spirit necessitates an attitude of openness and ideological humility:

“To teach and to receive correctly, we must center what I call having an empty seat in our heads, our hearts, our imaginations and our didactic renditions of what we understand to be the truth. Simply stated, we ought to recognize that our understanding of God’s truth is always limited and does not exhaust the content of the truth itself. 

“In order not to become an idol of god unto ourselves, having that epistemic empty seat allows for the reception of the illogical aspect of God’s truth.”

Aihiokhai laments the lack of emphasis on discernment in the policy, which does not leave any room for the authentic understanding of one’s queer identity. To refuse to acknowledge the diversity of gender expression, and to consider any growth outside a binary understanding of gender as an impossibility, also opposes Vatican II’s consultative and evolutionary spirituality. Rather than fear or anger, the author advocates for an attitude of curiosity:

“We cannot simply reject what we consider to be unfamiliar. To do that is to miss the key lesson of conversion that is rooted in God’s invitation to us to encounter the risen Christ…Proclamation of the Gospel is about accompaniment of all persons. It entails a slow embrace of the temptation to judge the other because they are different. It is first and foremost about radical acceptance of the other while being curious to know why they are the way they are. . .

“Our institutions of learning are places where we can truly practice this radical embrace of suspension of judgment and honor the praxis of curiosity to understand what is going on in the lives of our children and siblings. When we put in place policies that reject the findings of other disciplines, we are saying that the marriage of the heart and mind that defines a healthy way the church can respond to the signs of the times means nothing anymore.”

Archbishop Sample has previously likened LGBTQ+ equality to a satanic influence, and who views gender-affirming care as “totalitarian.” However, he has met resistance from Catholics in the archdiocese against this negative approach. For instance, the University of Portland, which is a Holy Cross institution independent of the archdiocese, has criticized the gender identity policy. Previous Bondings 2.0 reporting highlighted other efforts by the faithful, like a petition and church worker resignations, to resist anti-transgender efforts.

Dr. Aihiokhai offers an intellectually rich and spiritually empathetic response to Archbishop Sample’s myopic, damaging gender identity policy. In the future, rather than demanding adherence to misguided policies that seek to eradicate the presence of openly queer students in Catholic education, clerics ought to consult theologians like Aihiokhai, as well as pastoral ministers, queer communities, and their families before issuing guidelines on LGBTQ+ issues.

Andru Zodrow (he/him) and Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 30, 2023

2 replies
  1. Stephen Golden
    Stephen Golden says:

    How can we meet this exceptional theologian? Has he written any books that might be available? My intuition is that in him, we are becoming acquainted with a spiritual presence that will only intensify and evolve over time.

  2. Thomas Berube
    Thomas Berube says:

    What a wonderfully insightful analysis. Again we must base our thinking and trust in the Holy Spirit’s centrality in Vatican II. Something to many in the Hierachy are not willing to do!


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