Reaching Out to Trans People Should Be Done with Humility, Not Pity

Two days ago, I posted a critique of Austen Ivereigh’s Crux essay entitled “Transgender debates require distinction between theory and principle,” in which he gave what I thought was a faulty definition of the ideas that some church officials label as “gender theory” or “gender ideology.”

Although I thought that Ivereigh’s essay had some faults, I thought it also contained some positive recommendations, which I would like to examine in today’s post. Along with these positive points, I’ll also continue to point out weaknesses.

First of all, Ivereigh rightly points out that often church officials and pastoral leaders are sometimes more concerned with critiquing so-called “gender ideology” than they are with providing pastoral care to transgender people.  He cites several examples–including from both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis–to support his claim.  One example that he looks at more carefully is a letter from Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England, in which the bishop warned Catholic schools against “gender ideology.”  Ivereigh says of Davies’ letter:

“. . . [S]uch statements have mostly ignored the reality and plight of transgender people. Of the 17 paragraphs in Davies’s letter to schools ‘on the truth of the human person,’ only the first acknowledges what he calls ‘individuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, experience difficulty identifying with their biological sex, be that of male or female.’

“But after calling for ‘respect, compassion and understanding’ for such people (he never describes them as “transgender” or suffering from gender dysphoria) the remainder of the letter is a cogent summary of papal arguments against gender ideology.

“It is as if transgender people themselves are absent.”

It is good that Ivereigh highlights this glaring omission, as it is an omission from which many hierarchical statements suffer.  I’m not sure what Ivereigh’s intention is in making this point, but from my perspective, it highlights the fact that church leaders have mostly been unwilling to listen to the experience not only of transgender people, but of all LGBT people.  In one sense, Pope Francis, who has been spouting messages against “gender theory,” is the rare exception in this case, since he met with a transgender man at the Vatican, and has spoken openly about discussions with gay and lesbian people, even making public his meeting with a former student who is gay.

Ivereigh rightly notes that church leaders are following the same method that they used in dealing with gay issues–avoiding personal dialogue:

“As with the Church’s response to gay people, whose experiences have so often been ignored in the process of resisting homosexuality, this lopsided response can make the Church seem more interested in defending doctrine than in responding to concrete human suffering.”

But then Ivereigh makes a point, which, may seem on the surface to be positive, but, because it is incomplete, may not actually be so:

“In rejecting a theory or movement, Catholics can seem to reject the person – or at least to be unconcerned by them. God’s mercy, as a result, is subsumed by the focus on law and truth, creating a lopsided picture of Christianity which in Pope Francis’s view has been the principal obstacle to the Church’s evangelization.”

He’s right, of course, that the Church needs to be more concerned with people, but what he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the fact that the Church, too, may have to develop because of the encounter with people, gaining new knowledge and perspectives as it accompanies people.  In Ivereigh’s view, mercy appears to be something that the Church dispenses to the downtrodden. I tend to think of mercy as also being an attitude of humility with which to approach the people one is ministering to, not just a balm to be offered, which can sometimes appear to be condescending.

As one of Bondings 2.0’s commenters mentioned in regard to yesterday’s post, the suffering that transgender people experience is “not from any intrinsic quality of transgenderism, but from negative and misrepresentative social reaction.”

Another weakness is that Ivereigh seems insistent on labeling “gender theorists” as the enemy.  While critical of church officials for their blind spots, he is equally harsh in describing “gender theorists”:

“Ironically, this Catholic response mirrors the way gender-theory activists attempt to harness transgender people to their cause. In both cases, the people at the center of the issue – the victims, if you like – have been largely passed over.”

I don’t know any transgender people who think they have been victimized by people who promote non-traditional views of gender.  The victimization argument fits in well with Ivereigh’s general direction in the essay of seeing transgender people as pitiable, with which I disagree.  No doubt that transgender people suffer, but to characterize them only in terms of their problems and not in terms of their strengths and gifts diminishes them.

I look forward to reading the second part of Austen Ivereigh’s analysis on Crux.  I am hoping that he will build on his positive contributions and revise some of the more negative ones.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2016





Jesuit Weekly Criticizes “Unjust Discrimination” against LGBT Church Workers

A major outlet in the English-speaking Catholic media has opined against the firing of LGBT church workers.

downloadAmerica Magazine, a Jesuit weekly in the U.S., printed an editorial titled “Unjust Discrimination” on the issue of LGBT firings. The editors opened by discussing a 2015 policy change by German bishops to prevent church workers who are divorced and remarried or in same-gender partnerships from being discriminated against in employment. The editors wrote:

“Civil unions for same-sex couples have been legal in Germany since 2001. What sparked last year’s policy change? The bishops recognized that the previous church law, which included a ‘morals clause’ for Catholic employees, was being selectively applied. . .

“Under the new law, the church in Germany can dismiss an employee who publicly expresses ‘opposition to fundamental principles of the Catholic Church—for example by support for abortion or for racial hatred’ or who disparages ‘Catholic faith content, rites or practices,’ on the grounds that these infractions would constitute a ‘grave breach of loyalty.’ “

The editorial cited Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, who at the time the German bishops announced their new policy explained that the change sought “to limit the consequences of remarriage or a same-sex union to the most serious cases [that would] compromise the church’s integrity and credibility.”

Such reasoning and reasonableness has not been present among the U.S. episcopate, even after the nation’s Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide and despite the growing number of church workers who are entering same-gender marriages. The America editors noted a disparity between Catholic colleges and other Catholic institutions in the treatment of LGBT employees and acknowledged cases where “individuals have been secretly reported to their supervisors by other members of the community.” They continued:

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while teaching that homosexual acts cannot be morally accepted, also requires that homosexual persons be ‘accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’ (No. 2358). The high public profile of these firings, when combined with a lack of due process and the absence of any comparable  policing of marital status for heterosexual employees, constitute signs of ‘unjust discrimination,’ and the church in the United States should do more to avoid them. In addition to any possible harm done to the employees who have been fired, the appearance of unjust discrimination weakens the church’s overall witness. The church will lose talented, devoted workers because of institutional decisions made under pressure or without sufficient discernment.”

Employment issues about gender and sexuality pose a further problem since many lay Catholics disagree with the Magisterium, yet church institutions are dependent on the same lay people whose consciences have led them to a more accepting stance. The editors asked how this situation could be sustainable in the long term, and replied:

“The answer is not to downplay or gloss over these teachings. Catholics are called to preach difficult truths about a range of subjects, including but not limited to marriage and sexuality. But what is the best way to do that? It is true that sometimes an employee of a Catholic institution can cause scandal by his or her public words or deeds. But it is also true that treating employees unfairly, by holding them to different standards or dismissing them abruptly or without consultation, can itself cause scandal.”

One proposal the editorial cited is that of Archbishop Joseph Tobin, newly named to become a cardinal in November, who advocated a case-by-case approach in a recent interview with America. There are complex questions of formation and support, too, and the editors conclude:

“The church must be free to conduct its ministries without government interference and with room to challenge prevailing social mores. But we also have a duty to proceed with wisdom and mercy, attentive to the dignity of the individual and the common good.”

This editorial from America adds significantly to Catholics’ responses against the firings as discriminatory and unjust, adding to a 2014 editorial from the National Catholic Reporter. These pieces come as more than 60 church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes since just 2008. The firings continue, such as the case of  educator Kate Drumgoole and music director Michael Templeton. This latest editorial highlights both the need for positive action in defense of LGBT church workers, the complexities of church employment, and ultimately the tremendous harm done when church leaders discriminate against faithful employees.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 60 incidents since 2007 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

Just What Is the Definition of “Gender Ideology”?

Crux, a Catholic news website, recently published an analysis essay on transgender issues and Catholicism, written by Austen Ivereigh, one of the site’s regular contributors.  Ivereigh’s essay, the first of two parts (no indication of when the second part will appear), sets out to examine some of the current debates in what he calls a topic on which the church is “developing.”  The essay contains some weaknesses and some strengths.  Today, I will look at some of the weaknesses, and later this week, I will offer a post on its strengths.

The biggest weakness is that the author has a skewed interpretation of the term “gender ideology,” which is understandable given the fact that although church officials, even the pope, toss this term around, they have never offered a plausible definition of it.

Ivereigh lays out the problem of  Catholic discourse about transgender issues, noting that the “transgender issue is in reality two discrete phenomena”:

“On the one hand, it involves the growing awareness of a suffering group that often has been marginalized and brutalized. On the other, it is an academic theory that has grown out of feminism and gay rights that challenges the notion that gender is rooted in biological sex.”

Ivereigh is correct that this two-fold approach is what is causing so much confusion about transgender issues.  Where he misses the mark though, is in his analysis of “gender ideology,” which he explains this way:

“A person’s gender, in this thinking, is an arbitrary social construct, the result of social conditioning that can (and should be) thrown off in the quest for self-realization. Expressed in political action, it demands not just ‘rights’ for transgender people – their own bathrooms, and so on – but the abolition from public documents and passports of the very notions of masculinity and femininity.”

The problem with Ivereigh’s thinking is that he reduces the whole field of gender theory to social constructionism.  Not all people who argue for rights for transgender people hold this view. Most trans people and theorists affirm the fact that gender identity is, in fact, a psychological experience, not one defined by social roles.

Similarly, not all trans people and theorists are pushing for the erasure of masculinity and femininity.  What they are asking from governments is their right to be accurately described in official documents.   And trans people are not asking for “their own bathrooms,” but for the ability to use whichever bathroom available is appropriate for them.

Ivereigh’s big weakness becomes magnified even worse when he claims:

“The task for the Church is to work out how, on the one hand, to critique the theory as false and to resist this new public ideology, while on the other mercifully to embrace those suffering from gender dysphoria as vulnerable people in need of pastoral care and the Church’s protection.”

As for the first part of the claim,  I ask a simple question:  “Why?”

Why does the church have to critique this theory as false and resist new accommodations that make trans people more integrated into social and civic life?   I think the church could learn a lot if it paid more positive attention to these theories and learned from them.  Learning more about these theories could help end the stifling and deadening gender discrimination which infects our church at all levels.

As for the second part of the claim, it is true that the church needs to reach out to trans people more, but not just to give them  comfort, as Ivereigh suggests, but also to learn from their experiences and unique spiritual and personal gifts.

As I mentioned above, Ivereigh’s essay does make some good points, and I’ll look at them in the second part of this blog post, later in the week.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 26, 2016


Court Says Case of Fired Lesbian Teacher Can Go Forward–for Now

For the second time, a New Jersey judge has ruled that the employment discrimination suit of a lesbian teacher fired from a Catholic school can go forward, despite motions by the school and archdiocese attorneys to get it dismissed.  But because the judge’s decision was based on a very specific legal technicality, the possibility that the teacher will be victorious in the case still remains highly uncertain.

Kate Drumgoole

Kate Drumgoole, a former guidance counselor and basketball coach at Paramus Catholic H.S., in the Archdiocese of Newark, is suing because she was fired from her job when administrators learned that she was married to a woman.

Judge Lisa Perez Friscia denied the request by the school and archdiocese, the defendants, to reconsider her August 22nd decision to dismiss the case, saying that no new facts were presented by the institutions’ lawyers.

According to

“Friscia ruled in August that the case should go to the discovery phase, which would end Sept. 3, 2017.

“ ‘Only after discovery is complete, can the court review each claim to determine whether the religious organization exception, grounded in the First Amendment applies,’ Friscia wrote.”

So, the defendants’ request for a religious exemption from New Jersey Laws Against Discrimination (NJLAD) may yet be allowed to proceed.  The judge’s ruling stated only that the religious exemption could not apply at this stage of the case.

According to the news article:

“Friscia ruled that the defendants ‘have not established, at this early juncture,’ that the school can apply religious tenets to employees not engaged in ministerial duties and she said that by merely claiming the religious exemption the school is not necessarily entitled to it.”

It looks like the case is going to turn on the court’s understanding of the definition of a minister and ministerial work.    According to a news report, the attorneys for the school and archdiocese point out:

“Drumgoole signed an acknowledgement that she received the Archdiocese’s ‘Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct’ and a ‘Code of Ethics.’ The school’s faculty handbook also says that all teachers must comply with the code of ministerial conduct policies. Her collective bargaining agreement allows for tenured teachers to be terminated for ‘violating accepted standards of catholic morality as to cause public scandal,’ according to the written ruling this week.”

However, the other side sees the situation differently:

“Drumgoole’s attorneys, Eric Kleiner and Lawrence Kleiner, have argued that Drumgoole’s job did not include ministerial duties and that the school uses some of the NJLAD in its faculty handbook, making it liable to all of the laws against discrimination.”

Drumgoole also claimed in her suit that she thinks her firing may be related to her raising charges against two school employees in the recent past:

“Drumgoole, in her certification, said she also believes her firing may have been retaliatory. Drumgoole had alerted school officials to an incident involving two Paramus Catholic employees who allegedly had sex with students during a school trip to Germany.

“In late 2011, two male former employees of the high school were indicted on charges of having sex with at least three female students during a school trip to Germany.

“The state Supreme Court in March 2015 threw out all the overseas sex charges involving Artur Sopel, the school’s vice president of operations at the time of the trip, and Michael Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher. The court ruled local prosecutors had no jurisdiction to charge the two, who were chaperones for the February 2011 school trip.”

Drumgoole’s case has already sparked a number of controversies in the local church.  Fr. Warren Hall, an archdiocesan priest, was suspended from priestly duties in part because of his support for the teacher.  The school’s principal was suspended from work for a few days, and the school’s president still remains suspended. their jobs for a while. Over 3000 school community members have signed a petition protesting Drumgoole’s firing.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 25, 2016


Exploring Pope Francis’ Mixed Messages on LGBT Issues

Why doesn’t Pope Francis seem to fully “get it” when it comes to LGBT issues?

Kaya Oakes, writing at Religion Dispatches, tried to answer this knotty question.  She believes that those who hoped the pope would become a “staunch LGBTQ ally in three years of papacy were probably setting their sights too high.”  Instead, she has a theory to explain his contradictory messages:

Pope Francis

“The pope and the Catholic church are both on a learning curve, scrambling to keep up with the larger social acceptance of LGBTQ people in many Western nations. Francis is, after all, a 79-year-old Argentine, and sometimes his ideas about gender reflect his complex responses to the pervasive machismo of the Latin American culture in which he was raised. . . .

“As with many members of his generation, his struggle to understand the realities of LGBTQ life has been one of small steps forward, large steps back.”

Oakes also attributes the pope’s more open, dialogic style to his training as a Jesuit:

“. . . [Many Jesuits also train in spiritual direction, which is a guided one-on-one conversation about faith. Jesuits often teach and write in addition to working in pastoral ministry during their formation, all practices that involve a fair amount of back and forth with people from all over the Catholic spectrum. Rather than ‘either/or,’ Jesuits like to talk about ‘both/and,’ another invitation to dialogue.

“With that background as a Jesuit, it’s no wonder that the pope often follows broader sweeping statements about gender and sexuality with pastoral stories.”

This dichotomy of being socially/sexually conservative on one hand, and open to discussion and dialogue on the other creates confusion when trying to figure out where the pope stands on LGBT issues.  Oakes used the recent example of the pope’s remarks about “gender ideology” in a speech, which were followed up two days later by a call for more pastoral understanding for LGBT people.  She commented:

“. . .[I]t would seem that Pope Francis was trying to have it both ways: condemning the ‘ideological colonization’ of children supposedly being taught they can choose their gender (rather than trying to understand how some people are born feeling trapped in the wrong one), and also putting the emphasis yet again on the Jesuitical notions of dialogue and accompaniment.”

Oakes also cites Fr. James Martin, SJ, who explained Pope Francis’ comments from a non-USA perspective:

“Martin . . . emphasized how much Francis is trying to speak to a global church. ‘Imagine reading this [in the Global South] and even parts of Europe where a bishop or a priest may be antipathetic to LGBT people,’ where for more conservative clergy, this emphasis on walking with LGBTQ people ‘is quite a challenge.’ “

But Oakes comes down on the side of cutting the pope some slack, noting that he is way ahead of his predecessors on LGBT issues.  She concludes her essay by positing a very important choice fo our church has to make:

“We will either learn to walk with one another, or we will be forced by dogma to condemn one another. That is the choice both we and the pope have to make.”

Oakes’ essay is a good reminder that we can’t just take Pope Francis’ message from the surface of his words, but there is a need to look at context, influences, and even intended audiences.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 24, 2016




Is Teaching LGBT Youth About Celibacy a Healthy Possibility?

St. Francis (Frances) Cabrini is often quoted as saying “If something is possible, it will be done.  If something is impossible, it must be done.”  That saying came to mind to me this weekend when I read the news about a Catholic college’s lecture series being criticized because it is designed to train Catholic educators on how to present doctrine concerning mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people to students.

The series is being held at Regis College in Toronto, a theology school associated with the University of Toronto.  The lecturer, Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, a professor at the school, will be delivering six talks under the umbrella title, That They May Have Life to the Full – Accompanying LGBT Youth.  Some university personnel are complaining about the series because it is based on the Ontario bishops’ document Pastoral Guidelines to Assist Students of Same-Sex Orientation, which, not surprisingly, heavily promotes mandatory celibacy.

Mongeau, in defending the lecture series, told The Varsitythe university’s student newspaper:

“It’s just not possible in a Catholic school to propose alternative moral paths… The challenge is to present that teaching in a way that remains psychologically sound.”

That’s when I thought about Mother Cabrini.

Not possible?  Well, maybe that means it must be done.  I don’t intend to just be playing with Mother Cabrini’s words or intentions here, but to look for a broader understanding of Catholic educators’ obligations.  If their obligation is to teach church doctrine, doesn’t that include teaching them the doctrine of the primacy of conscience? If their obligation is to teach sexual morality, doesn’t that include reinforcing to heterosexual students that sexual activity outside of marriage is also not permitted?

The issue is usually never looked at in these broader perspectives.  Bans on sexual activity between people of the same gender are always absolutized in church policies.  While teachings about the same sort of absolutes regarding heterosexual people are often overlooked.  I’m not suggesting that church officials be harder on heterosexual people, but that they treat lesbian and gay people in the same manner.   Why can’t pastoral understanding and appreciation of people’s individual life stories, situations, and mature consciences be applied generally in the Church’s practice?

Fr. Mongeau went on to explain:

“a healthy psychological life is the basic condition for the possibility of make healthy and fruitful moral choices for one’s life. If anyone makes moral choices from a place of psychological or spiritual unhealth, that’s not a good thing and I would never suggest that’s a good thing.”

I agree with Fr. Mongeau here.  But where I don’t think he would agree with me is that I think celibacy is only a healthy psychological and spiritual choice when it is freely chosen, not when it is imposed by an outside authority, fear, or immaturity.

Matthew MacDonald, a University of Toronto alumnus, commented on the series along similar lines of thought.  In an email to The Varsity, he wrote:

“The aims of this course… make no student safe or encourage them to live a full life. . . .This course is harmful and damaging — as a bisexual man who grew up in a christian household, I can attest to the inner torment and anxiety these kinds of programs and teachings cause in youth and LGBTQ people of all ages.”

Fr. Mongeau also told the newspaper some of the lecture series’ goals:

“It will not be a part of this lecture series to suggest that the experience of homosexual or non-cisgender gender identity is wrong. . . .What we’re trying to prevent by having this [lecture series] is instances where religious authority or any form of power is used to oppress the young person or cause them to have a distorted psychological or psycho-spiritual development.”

Those goals are worthy ones.  But if the series is only trying to make a harsh teaching sound sweeter, or do anything to stigmatize the lives of LGBT people, those goals will not be achieved.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 23, 2016



Catholic School Apologizes to, Accommodates Transgender Student

Lily Madigan

A Catholic school which had suspended a transgender student for wearing a uniform consistent with her gender has apologized and implemented new accommodations.

St. Simon Stock Catholic School in Kent, England, apologized to student Lily Madigan. The school said in a letter that she may wear a female uniform and use female restrooms and locker rooms, reported the Daily Mail.

Madigan was sent home and threatened with suspension in March for wearing the “wrong uniform,” having worn a female uniform to school as part of her transition. School officials told the student she would not only be forced to wear a male uniform, but would have to use male restrooms and be called by her legal name, Liam. Madigan said wearing a female-appropriate uniform as part of her transition “made me feel so happy, until I was sent home,” and told Buzzfeed:

” ‘It made me feel that something was wrong with me. You think maybe you’re the problem. It’s alienating. You think school is supposed to be there for you and when that happens it breaks your trust.’ “

A meeting with Madigan, wearing the male uniform, her mother, and school officials was unsuccessful at resolving the situation. She was presented with, in her words, “an ultimatum” from the school which told her to either comply with their policies or leave. Unable to leave, Madigan wore a male uniform for several weeks which caused her depression to worsen and energy to weaken.

Responding to the school’s decision, Madigan organized a petition and received support from more than 200 classmates. That petition stated, in part:

” ‘Transgender students make up some of the most vulnerable students in schools. . . Changing these policies wouldn’t affect other students but not doing so clearly and greatly affects trans students.

“The school already has an equality and diversity policy (created in response to the equality act 2010) so treating us equality should be a no issue. . .This is about trans people presenting how they feel they should be, how they want people to see them, to recognise themselves when they catch their reflection.”

Madigan also retained a lawyer who reminded school officials of the UK’s Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, which says no one may be discriminated against “because of their gender reassignment as a transsexual.” The Act has over authority over the Catholic school because it is state-funded, and it seems efforts by the law firm which took the case pro-bono were key to the reversal.

In addition to the apology and accommodations for Madigan, school staff will receive training on transgender issues. St. Simon Stock’s spokesperson said supporting trans students “is an important issue for us, as for schools up and down the country.” They continued:

” ‘As an inclusive, Catholic academy, we are confident that the attention we have given to transgender, including carefully listening to students, has been invaluable in us going even further to make sure all students are happy and comfortable, so that they can be as successful as possible.’ “

Madigan was pleased with the school’s decision, but said she “felt it was something I shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for, if at all” and further:

” ‘I’m encouraged in that I’ve seen what I’m capable of achieving and I’m proud, but I’m not encouraged about the school’s attitude to equality.’ “

It is unfortunate when politics about school uniforms and gendered spaces impair Catholic education from enacting its true mission, which is the formation and flourishing of its students. Lily’s initially painful story is reminiscent of other extreme decisions here in the U.S. In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, a new policy threatens LGBT students with expulsion for coming out.  And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a Catholic high school ejected a lesbian student  from prom because she wore a suit.

Policies are about matters such as wearing pants or a skirt are only important to the degree in which they harm students. Nothing in church teaching mandates clothing along a gender binary, and church teaching would actually affirm helping students become their authentic selves. Efforts to police gender are becoming outdated, and Catholic schools should give up these attempts to suppress the signs of the times in favor of supporting every student.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2016