Weighing Pope Francis’ Impact on Transgender Issues

October 14, 2013

Hilary Howes

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 The mistreatment of transgender people by the church comes from out of date science and the most fundamental interpretation of church dogma, not even theology.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.

Elizabeth Scalia

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


When Opposing Sides Adopt the Same Strategy

November 23, 2012

I always find it both a little curious when people of opposing political positions end up adopting the same strategy to respond to a situation.

A case in point:  Before marriage equality became the law of the land in my home state of Maryland, a group of interfaith clergy got together to sign a pledge that they would no longer sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until they could also do so for lesbian and gay couples.  They would continue to perform the religious ceremony for these pairs, but they would not act as agents of the state until they saw marriage equality for lesbian and gay duos, too.

Recently, George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer, has proposed a similar strategy for Catholic clergy, but for a different purpose.  In an article in First Things, Weigel, alarmed at the recent electoral successes for marriage equality and the growing social acceptance of this phenomenon, suggests:

“. . .it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not pre-emptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.

“If the Church were to take this dramatic step now, it would be acting prophetically: it would be challenging the state (and the culture) by underscoring that what the state means by ‘marriage’ and what Catholics mean by “marriage” are radically different, and that what the state means by ‘marriage’ is wrong. If, however, the Church is forced to take this step after “gay marriage” is the law of the land, Catholics will be pilloried as bad losers who’ve picked up their marbles and fled the game—and any witness-value to the Church’s withdrawal from the civil marriage business will be lost. Many thoughtful young priests are discussing this dramatic option among themselves; it’s time for the rest of the Church to join the conversation.”

Interesting.  Progressives and conservatives end up with the same strategy, but for different reasons.

Joel Mathis, a writer at PhillyPost.com, points out that Weigel’s application of this strategy doesn’t solve any problem.  If Catholic priests were being forced to marry lesbian and gay couples, then a boycott may be an appropriate response, but such is definitely NOT the case:

“This might make sense if the legalization of gay marriage would force the Catholic Church to act against its collective conscience—that is, if the law suddenly required priests to give their blessings to gay and lesbian unions. But we’ve got a First Amendment freedom of religion in this country, and there’s zero chance the any anti-gay-marriage church will ever be required to perform such ceremonies. What’s going on here is that the Church—or, at least the portion of it that listens to Weigel—can’t abide the rest of us having gay marriage, whether we’re Catholic or not.

“Which is kind of irritating.”

Mathis goes on to point out that Weigel’s strategy is bad for both the church and for the rest of society.  It’s bad for the church because some couples may decide that they might need civil marriage more than sacramental marriage, and simply forego the latter, thus hastening further decline in church participation.

It’s bad for society, Mathis says, because

“. . .society has long benefitted from the church’s wider participation in our civic life, from its hospitals to adoptions service to services for the poor. There’s been a growing inclination in recent years for the church to take its ball and go home—to stop providing services unless everybody involved is playing by Catholic rules. I’m not sure who benefits if the Church decides that, instead of undergirding and strengthening society, it exists in opposition to it. Probably nobody. But it’s possible we’re about to find out.”

He concludes by noting what I consider the essential problem of so many of the religious liberty arguments made by conservatives:

“The Catholic Church shouldn’t act against its conscience. But Weigel’s proposal of a civil marriage boycott suggests a rather more expansive vision of the boundaries of the Church’s conscience than is perhaps warranted. The Catholic Church is losing the fight over gay marriage in America; the question now is whether it will decide to lose in a manner that causes a great deal of harm.”

What I find most interesting is that even though the Maryland clergy mentioned above and Weigel may have landed on the same strategy, in the hands of the former, it appears as a civil disobedience protest, but in the hands of the latter, it looks more like biting ones’ nose to spite one’s face.   Worse yet, it is indicative of a destructive trend among some traditionalist Catholic leaders to build walls and fortresses around Catholic culture to “protect” it from the world, rather than building bridges to  the world to help both the church and the greater society to grow and develop.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Sex, Marriage, and the Church, Part 2

January 15, 2012

Yesterday, I posted a lengthy piece about Commonweal’s print colloquium entitled “Sex, Marriage, and the Church.”  In that post, I commented on the responses with which I tend to agree.  Today, I will examine the responses with which I tend to disagree. For the context of this discussion, please refer to yesterday’s post.

William Portier, who teaches theology at the University of Dayton, is to be commended for his insightful remark that church leaders need to be more pastorally sensitive to people when it comes to sexuality and marriage.  The most notable of his examples is:

“Face to face with an actual gay person, the phrase ‘objectively disordered’ whatever theoretical sense it might make, is pastoral nonsense. “

Portier, however, is not a supporter of same-sex marriage, noting, “The church can’t change the norm of heterosexual monogamy.”  Porter’s critique of  marriage equality is based on his belief that marriage is primarily a social institution, but that in the eyes of society, it has become focused on individualism:

“For complex historical reasons such as industrialization and the changing roles of women, we have increasingly come to see marriage as a personal matter in which children are optional, a category into which same-sex marriage fits quite ‘naturally.’ “

I disagree.  Portier’s assumption that same-sex marriage is only concerned with the interests of the individuals involved ignores the fact that by creating more stable family units for households headed by same-sex couples, the entire society benefits.

Christopher C. Roberts has probably the  dimmest view both of the general marriage crisis that the church faces:

“The situation is arguably as bad as the brutally pagan world of antiquity. Today’s collapse might continue no matter what we do.”

But my greater disagreement with him comes from his solution:  better education.  He states:

” Simply learning the reasons our church teaches what it does would be a significant first step. Better catechesis would go a long way toward creating the possibility of resisting the collapse. “

The argument that people disagree with the hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality and marriage because they don’t understand it does not ring true to my experience as an educator in this area.  I have met many, many people who understand the teaching very, very well,  and still disagree with it.  While it is true that education on sexuality and marriage from an adult perspective would be of help to our church, I do not believe that it will result in greater fidelity to teachings that people do not see as relevant to their lives.

R.R. Reno, editor of the journal, First Things, also takes a dim view of the current situation, but for him the enemy is not ignorance, but secular culture.  Reno believes that Catholics are influenced too heavily by forces outside the church:

“Today, bourgeois American culture has incorporated into itself the countercultural belief that traditional morality involves a cruel and unnecessary limitation on the sexual lives of men and women. This conviction—now a bourgeois conviction—reassures many Catholics that their dissent couldn’t possibly reflect a moral outlook deformed by popular culture. Instead, it emboldens them to ignore the church when she suggests that our sexual behavior is sinful and our moral vision clouded.”

I tend not to agree with thinkers who view “the world” as the enemy of the church.  There is much in “the world” that is good (and conversely, there is much in the church which needs improving).  This “black-and-white” thinking is too simplistic and is often used to forestall any possible change.  It is a “fortress” mentality that eschews any dialogue with people and institutions that are deemed “other.”

Reno’s suspicion of  “the world” forces him into a position of also being suspicious of the laity of the church:

“. . .the animating ethos of the Catholic Church does not come from the laity, or even the diocesan clergy, but instead from religious orders that are constituted to cast out the bourgeois hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism.”

While I disagree that the only source of the church’s animating ethos is from the religious orders (again, this is an example of  his penchant for “either/or” thinking),  interestingly, I agree that religious orders do play an important role in concert with the rest of the church.    However, my experience with religious orders tells me that many of them are pushing for renewal in the church’s sexual theology, not for preserving it.

The one participant in this print colloquium on whom I did not comment was Nancy Dallavalle, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University.  The reason is that I wasn’t sure where she stood on the issues that concern me.  She closes her contribution with the following:

“Yes, the traditional moral patterns matter—let’s teach them. But they are not the entire point, and should not be presented as such. Sacramental marriage should not be reduced to a prize awarded to couples who meet all items on a checklist of approved behaviors; it should be an invitation, reserved for couples who genuinely recognize their need for grace, and have the humility to hunger for a tradition that will sustain it.”

While I am inclined to agree with her that sacraments should not be treated as rewards or prizes, I did not get a good enough sense from her of what she includes in the “traditional moral patterns” that she thinks should be taught.

As I mentioned in the previous posting on these contributions, I encourage you to read the full accounts for yourselves to get a clearer understanding of the varied positions.

The wide diversity of opinions just among these nine thinkers should be enough evidence that indeed a more wide-ranging examination of sexuality and marriage is desperately needed in the church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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