Catholic Theology Needs Greater Respect for Bodily Autonomy, Writes Therapist

Tess Thompson recalls watching a popular teen drama show as a social work graduate student. The show was about a group of women who tried to “live outside of the confines of male control.” Despite the men’s attempts to dominate the women, the female characters stood up to the patriarchy, with one character firmly stating, “I feel a lot safer when I am in charge of what happens to me.”

For Thompson, a therapist and writer, the TV drama’s issues reflected real life, which she wrote about for Call to Action. At that time, she was working with incarcerated women who were survivors of domestic violence. Thompson realized that her clients’ criminal actions came from a lack of choice and freedom—these women were desperate to protect themselves, so they committed crimes that would ensure their safety.

With the rise of anti-transgender legislation, safety and freedom are more important than ever for the LGBTQ+ community. Thompson observes that while science has discredited the idea that gender and sex are static, oppressive institutions and politicians continue to “demonize, restrict, and punish” trans folks. Since 2020, legislation that aims to deny trans people access to medical care, gender-affirming bathrooms, and sports participation, have risen from 66 to 562 proposals.

Thompson points out how these bills have the opposite of what they intend: the protection of children. She writes:

“Rather than protect, they ostracize youth from their peers, force parents to choose between helping their children access life-saving gender-affirming care and inviting child protective service involvement into their homes, and subject young trans people to invasive medical and physical examinations.”

Unfortunately, many U.S. bishops have supported these harmful policies, perpetuating what Thompson calls the Catholic Church’s “ignorant and hateful views about trans and nonbinary people.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine recently published a doctrinal note that is in line with the anti-trans political movement. Thompson argues that the doctrinal notes fails to provide accurate quantitative and qualitative data, and she adds:

Ironically they exercised little effort to learn about trans people, people of God’s divine creation, before declaring whether or not they are in “order”—the document showed fundamental misunderstandings of scientific research relating to sex and gender, sources misrepresented so as to support a pre-concluded agenda, and a comprehensive lack of input from actual trans and nonbinary people.”

While Thompson knows that “Catholics are supposed to believe” in the gender binary of only male and female, she cannot support this understanding. For her, that binary has been used as a form of control, power, and suppression. By looking beyond the binary system, Thompson believes that we can start to question the harmful practices and ideologies around us:

“If gender is more than two immutable categories, that calls into question the Petrine and Marian principles; why only two of them, and why can they not change if something so personal and intimate as gender can change? If gender does not inherently differentiate us from one another, the argument that the male gender is unique and special crumbles. This would unravel the entire justification for barring women from ordination and leadership in the Church.”

Thompson believes that reproductive rights are intrinsically linked to LGBTQ+ issues. As abortion care restrictions increase, many Catholic leaders continue supporting this block on abortion access. Thompson makes the connection that cisgender women, along with trans and nonbinary people are “facing critical attacks on their dignity, their rights to decision-making, and their bodily autonomy.”

For Thompson, the television teen drama she remembers is correct in stating, I feel a lot safer when I am in charge of what happens to me.” She hopes that all individuals will one day have the freedom to make their own choices:

“Cisgender women and trans and nonbinary people of all genders do not rely on their own understanding—we have loved ones, mentors, communities we trust, and above all God to advise and guide us. What we ask is that at the end of the day, we do and we decide. Just like cisgender men, we deserve to have our gifts celebrated, our realities respected, our hurts healed, and our complexities understood. We deserve the security of being in charge of what happens to us. Patriarchy’s coercive cocoon is no place to live. We deserve to be free.

“I am the person who understands myself the most, and the best person to decide what happens to me and how I use my body.

“I am.”

Sarah Cassidy (she/her), New Ways Ministry, September 18, 2023

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