In Church Documents on Gender Identity, Where Is the Compassion?

Deacon Ray Dever

Today’s post is from Bondings 2.0 contributor Deacon Ray Dever, who is the father of an adult transgender woman, and is also a retired Catholic deacon with almost 50 years of diverse parish and pastoral ministry experience. Deacon Ray has been invited to address LGBTQ issues by various national publications and Catholic organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he frequently provides pastoral counseling to Catholic families with transgender children from across the US. He holds three graduate degrees, including a master’s degree in theology.

Since the promulgation of Dignitas Infinita by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in April, an explosion of discussion and debate has occurred both in secular and church circles about what the document says about gender identity issues. While this attention is not surprising given the doctrinal weight of the document, and the questionable decision to include “gender theory” and “sex change” among “grave violations of human dignity,” this is hardly the only recent church document to address gender identity issues in this manner. In fact, this feels like the culmination of five years of documents on gender identity, beginning with Male and Female He Created Them, promulgated by the Vatican’s then-Congregation for Catholic Education in 2019, followed by 50+ similar diocesan policies in the U.S.

One common criticism of the preparation of all these documents, including Dignitas Infinita, has been the various authors’ lack of meaningful encounter with transgender individuals, the medical professionals who care for them, and the scientists who are growing our understanding of them. Documents and policies based on a lack of accurate information are inevitably flawed. But this refusal to engage with the facts about transgender individuals also brings with it something else that concerns me greatly: a stunning lack of compassion.

As the parent of a transgender woman, it has been painful to experience the lack of basic compassion for transgender individuals like my daughter who have not chosen this difficult path in life, a path marked by constant marginalization and discrimination. While I hesitate to cite one example of this lack of understanding and compassion out of so many in these dozens of documents, I found one too egregious to ignore. Among a number of misinformed statements in a pastoral letter on gender identity promulgated by the Archdiocese of Detroit in February was the following: “Not infrequently, parents are subject to manipulative claims that if they do not affirm their child’s gender preferences, they risk driving him or her to suicide.”

For those who have personally experienced the reality of the elevated levels of suicidality among LGBTQ people, especially transgender individuals, it is hard to imagine a more misguided, misinformed, or callous remark. When my wife and I took turns staying awake at night to ensure our daughter’s safety during a period in high school when she had two suicide attempts, I can guarantee that manipulation was the farthest thing from anyone’s minds. Having experienced the night she left the Georgetown University campus during her first semester there with intentions of jumping off the Key Bridge into the Potomac River, and having anguished through the mad scramble to find her and bring her back to safety, I find it beyond insulting to suggest that manipulating her parents’ support for her gender identity was a factor. That frightening period in our daughter’s life is thankfully behind her, and we are grateful every day that she is thriving and able to live as her authentic self, with the God-given human dignity described in Dignitas Infinita.  Her journey to this place was made so much more difficult by the rejection of the church in which she grew up.  And her journey would have been impossible without the medical and psychological care that she received—care that these documents say should not be available to her.

Where is our compassion? When will our outreach to those on the margins extend to transgender individuals? Where is our response to the words of Jesus in the parable of the Last Judgment, that whatever we do for the least among us, we do for him? Some may point to language calling for accompaniment of transgender individuals that many of these church documents contain, but those words are meaningless when the basis of that accompaniment is denial of the truth of their existence and the stated intention of that accompaniment is to convince them of the supposed error of their ways.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” The dozens of church documents on gender identity certainly attempt to demonstrate how much we know about the theology and the anthropology of all this, but they also demonstrate how little we seem to care about the actual people whose lives are impacted by gender dysphoria. And that clearly needs to change if we are to be true to our faith. Perhaps it’s time to pause writing documents and policies on gender identity until we make the effort to better understand the reality of the lives of transgender individuals and to develop some basic compassion for them. Love comes first.

Deacon Ray Dever, May 6, 2024

13 replies
  1. Ginny King
    Ginny King says:

    Hi Ray, I believe we met at Call to action in Chicago about 5 or more years ago.
    I was grateful for your presentation in a breakout session.
    Thanks so much for your reflections on dignitas infinity and sharing about your daughter. You helped me understand it better. God bless you and your family.
    Keep sharing your thoughts on transgender issues. Ginny King

    Reply
  2. Fr John Michael Lee, CP
    Fr John Michael Lee, CP says:

    Thank you, Deacon Dever!
    All of us in pastoral ministry need your wisdom to guide us when approached by persons who are “actual people whose lives are impacted by gender dysphoria”, or who are their parents or caring friends…! Please keep sharing your wisdom from lived experience…
    Fr. John M Lee, C.P.

    Reply
  3. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    In Church Documents on Gender Identity, Where Is the Compassion?

    I believe the institutional Roman Catholic Church is afraid of what they do not know. And the sad state of affairs is that it does not want to know the care and needs of its transgender members. I pray that our beloved Church may learn to listen the sideways movement of the Holy Spirit.

    Reply
  4. Judy Walsh-Mellett
    Judy Walsh-Mellett says:

    So beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I recently sent a letter to our Cardinal appealing to him to get to know transgender and other LGBTQA+ individuals. As you so poignantly write, relationships of love make all of the difference.
    Here’s the letter I sent to him…
    May 2, 2024

    Cardinal Wilton Gregory
    Archdiocese of Washington
    P.O. Box 29260
    Washington, DC 20017–0260

    Dear Cardinal Gregory,

    Since Dignitas Infinita was released I have been disheartened over the document’s passages related to “gender ideology” and to your amplification of them in your interview with Crux. I write to you as a lifelong Catholic in your Diocese and more so as a mother.

    Your quote from Crux that said that the church “listens with the heart of the parent to a child, but it doesn’t believe that the child gets everything they ask for” is the one that has tugged at my heart these many weeks. I felt nudged to write to you and then have found many ways to avoid doing so, not the least of which is the feeling, “who am I to write to a Cardinal?” Yet, many of the readings from our Lectionary over these past weeks as well as my experiences as a mother (and now grandmother) have not let that initial nudge remain silent.

    One of the surprises of being parents of adult children is that they have brought my husband and I places, both literally and figuratively, that we might not have gone on own own. What you refer to in your quote was certainly true for our children when they were very young. We set boundaries and made judgments about what was best for them.

    Our three children are now independent, loving, compassionate adults. They, and we, are continuing to learn to “listen with the ear of their own hearts”, to paraphrase St. Benedict. One of our children has discerned over time that they are transgender. This truth was challenging to me at first mainly because I didn’t know anyone who was transgender. I didn’t know the appropriate language, I didn’t understand the process that our child was undergoing.

    And this child, and their siblings who embraced them without reservation, have accompanied us on this new journey and taught us deep truths about love in our family, love in the broader community and the deepest, most profound love of God.

    It concerns me that at times “Mother Church” forgets that children do not stay young forever. There seems at times to be an inclination to steer clear of complicated situations, to make declarations without listening deeply to the people most affected by those declarations.

    I have no idea if you already have close relationships with transgender or other LGBTQA+ individuals or communities. But if you do not, I wish for you that you will. Perhaps you may ask God to bring these people into your life if they are not already there. Bryan Stephenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks about being “proximate” to people on death row where he has dedicated his life’s work. Pope Francis talks about being so close to the sheep that you begin to smell like them.

    My prayer for you is that you will have the opportunity to have honest and true relationships with people in the LGBTQA+ community. There are many faithful Catholics in this community. Perhaps that is a good place to start. You may be brought somewhere you did not even know you wanted to go. You may understand what is hurtful about certain passages of Dignitas Infinita.

    I recently saw a photo of Bishop Gumbleton wearing a Pride Flag on his miter. I imagine there were many experiences that brought him to the place where he would combine those two symbols. Certainly, his relationship with his own brother was part of the transformation that took place in his heart and in his life.

    When the Church takes a judgmental and misinformed approach the way I believe it does in Dignitas Infinita, it causes harm. I urge you to listen to those harmed by these attitudes and pronouncements. They have insights that the rest of us do not. Listen also to their family members. We also have insights.

    One of my daily practices is to read from the Rule of St. Benedict with some commentary. Yesterday’s chapter was on “Mutual Obedience”. I love that the word obedience comes from the word “to listen”. Here are some thoughts from the Rule and the commentary:

    “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the prioress and abbot but also to one another, since we know that it is by the way of obedience that we go to God.”
    – The Rule
    “We have to learn to learn from those around us who have gone the path before us and know the way….we are to honor one another. We are to listen to one another. We are to reach across the boundaries and differences in the fragmented world and see in our differences, distinction of great merit that can mend a competitive, uncaring, and foolish world….We must learn to listen to what God is saying in our simple, sometimes, insane, and always uncertain daily lives.” -the Commentary

    Sincerely,

    Judy Walsh-Mellett

    Reply
    • Tim MacGeorge
      Tim MacGeorge says:

      What a wonderful letter! Thank you so much for sharing it and for sharing your experience. I pray it will reach Cardinal Gregory’s hands and, more importantly, touch his heart. Like Deacon Ray, you make the simple yet apparently not-so-obvious point to too many church leaders, that any pronouncements about the Other are meaningless and empty without first truly knowing and accompanying the Other. Only when the Other becomes my sister, brother, sibling, neighbor, friend … only then does one have some standing to speak. And, even then, it is my sister’s or brother’s or neighbor’s or friend’s own understanding of themselves and their experience of self as a child of God that is most important.

      Reply
  5. Frank Gold
    Frank Gold says:

    Thank you Deacon Ray for speaking truth to power, and once again reminding all of us what matters. The example you and your wife give is a gift to so many, and the complete acceptance and support of your daughter should awaken the hearts of the clergy. Our oldest of the four children we adopted is trans/gender fluid, nonbinary, whom we (my husband and I), and are other three children (all adults now) have embraced. We relate to Ray and his wife in their journey, and our grateful for their witness and example of unconditional love. Love is love when we embrace another in the fullness of who he, she, they are. Frank and Jerry Gold

    Reply
  6. Debra
    Debra says:

    Thank you. You are one of the best people to write an article like this given your experience. You are absolutely correct and yes the writing should be paused until they get educated!!!

    Reply
  7. Martin
    Martin says:

    These are perhaps the most heartfelt and compassionate words I have read on this topic. Also, quite clearly holding the church to account for this lack of empathy, understanding and inability to stand with and beside those at risk in our society and those who feel marginalised. Jesus came with a message of, quite simply, revolutionary love. This is a love that turns upside down all of our purely human understanding of love. Perhaps the venerable fathers in Rome and elsewhere should look at St. John’s Gospel again. Christ does not compromise; neither should the church.

    Reply
  8. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    As a fellow parent of an adult transgender daughter, I’d like to say: “Thank you, Deacon Dever!”

    Reply
  9. James Pawlowicz
    James Pawlowicz says:

    Deacon Ray, Amen. Thank you for your testimony and for focusing on this theme: love comes first. 1 Corinthians 13 has been one of my guiding lights. Without love, we remain captives.

    Reply

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