Many have embraced Pope Francis for his welcoming remarks and actions towards gay and lesbian people, but what about transgender people? Two commentaries reveal both the positive effect the pope is having on issues of gender identity and the tremendous work remaining to make Catholic communities more inclusive for all.
Hilary Howes writes from the perspective of a trans Catholic woman in a post titled, “Oh What a Difference a Pope Makes…” She recalls comments by former Pope Benedict XVI who once condemned sex reassignment and shifting gender identities, contrasting this with Pope Francis in the America magazine interview:
“The pope comments: ‘St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth…The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.’ “
In light of the pope’s dynamic viewpoint on Catholic teaching, Hilary asks what this could mean for transgender people if the Church can change:
“Could our new pope be speaking to transgender people (among others)? He sites slavery and the death penalty that were once supported by the church to show that the church can be wrong and can change. It’s a reading that looks for the loving embrace of god to deepen with the maturity that comes with science and social development. Not the retreat from science and social development that is fundamentalism. The mistreatment of transgender people by the church comes from out of date science and the most fundamental interpretation of church dogma, not even theology. This can end now, with this Pope’s leadership and given the overwhelming support of socially conscious American Catholics.”
Too many Catholics feel excluded from local churches because of their gender identity. With this exclusion in mind, Pope Francis’ interview spurred even conservative blogger Elizabeth Scalia to ask whether the Catholic Church has room for transgender people.
Writing in First Things, Scalia speaks about a friend, Sarah, who was a trans woman attracted to the Catholic faith, but who declared “she could never convert because ‘the church wouldn’t have me, as I am.’ ” Of this Scalia writes:
“It broke my heart that Sarah believed this. I urged inquiry with a priest, but this child of God was convinced that there was no room for transgendered persons in the Catholic church. I thought there might be, and made a few discreet inquiries of my own; what I encountered was a general sense of dis-ease among the clerics and theologians I asked. None of them said ‘No, there is no room’ but none of them would definitively say ‘yes’ either…
“May Sarah be admitted into this field hospital for sinners? I considered my job, and the job of the church, as being first of all to love the person before me; to see Sarah, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, ‘not simply with my eyes and feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ'; to respect the dignity of this human person seeking a relationship with Christ and then offer an arm of support for the journey. This might mean challenges down the road, certainly, but first and foremost it would require an unambiguous welcome.”
Scalia’s full post is flawed in its welcome because it perpetuates a negative belief that transgender people are in some way sinful or should be counseled out of their true identity. Yet, this questioning by even defenders of the hierarchy’s strict sexual ethics suggests that Pope Francis is having a positive effect on LGBT issues. In past years, such questions would have been dead on arrival, if they ever emerged at all.
Hilary’s faith comes through at the end of her post, and is a call for all Catholics:
“My god is the Creator. I believe our highest calling is to create. Our humble attempts at art, engineering, commerce, and social inventions honor our creator…Understanding creation as opposed to procreation as a central theme of faith helps us to appreciate the spectacular diversity of nature and humans and gender expression.”
By educating themselves, Catholics can overcome existing prejudices and misinformation about transgender people and participate in creating parishes, dioceses, and eventually a broader Church that is, in the words of Pope Francis, a “home for all.”
One start could be attending New Ways Ministry’s upcoming workshop, “Trans-forming Love.” You can find more information about the event here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry