One of the places where Catholicism and gender are most strongly inscribed together is the area of vowed religious life. There are communities for only men and other communities for only women. What if your gender doesn’t fit into this binary?
That question is being answered in London, Ontario, where a transgender woman is preparing to enter a community of Carmelite women. When Canada’s Tia Michelle Pesando, who is already living as a consecrated virgin, is accepted into the community, it is being said that she will be the world’s first transgender nun.
CTV News reported that Pesando, who is a hermaphrodite* (born with physical characteristics of both male and female) has already begun a process of taking hormones to live as a woman. But the process of becoming a nun is more a spiritual, than a physical, notion for her. As CTV News stated:
“Two years ago Pesando heard God calling her and she knew she had to take her transformation farther.
“ ‘I’m very convinced of the reality of God and the importance of such a calling,’ she says.
“When Pesando decided to become a nun, she received her priest’s blessing and is now going through the process to become a Carolinian sister and the first ever Roman Catholic transgender nun.
“ ‘I’m in the training process which is starting this August, so it’s a positive start that I’ve undergone.’ “
While there is always the possibility of hierarchical intervention in the admissions process, Pesando remains positive:
“ ‘Forgiveness needs to begin somewhere,” she says. “It needs to begin with us, all of us, those in the LGBT community and those of the Christian faith.’
“Pope Francis has made huge strides with the gay community, preaching for greater inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals. This in part has helped to fuel her decision. She says the time is right for a transgender nun.”
Pesando recently published a book, Why God Doesn’t Hate You, in which she develops the theme of God’s unconditional acceptance and love of everyone, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. In a wide-ranging interview with London Community News where she describes her spiritual development and challenges, she also explained the need for the book’s message:
“ ‘From a theological perspective, I think I have a solid argument,’ Pesando said. ‘People are leaving the church because they feel the God of love has betrayed them, and betrayal is one of the worst feelings you can imagine. So I am reaching out to people saying this is what the Bible actually says.’
“Her purpose in writing Why God Doesn’t Hate You is to reach out to everyone ‘who feels like they are rejected by God, who feels like they are a second-class citizen in God’s eyes.’ ”
And she notes an interesting detail about the Bible:
“ ‘There is actually nothing in the Bible to condemn the trans community because they were simply not aware of it,’ Pesando said. ‘Just like there is nothing in the Bible that talks about aerospace engineering, both of these things were discovered about 1,500 years after the it was written.’ ”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The same is true about constitutional homosexuality. Biblical authors did not have the awareness that some people are naturally homosexually oriented. Therefore, in the places where homosexual acts are Biblically condemned, the authors are not condemning what is now known to be a natural, normal way of loving. More often, they are condemning homosexual rape, pagan rituals, or sexual novelty.)
My only minor gripe with this story is not about Pesando’s eligibility to become a nun, but the claim that some have made that she will be “the world’s first transgender nun.” I would probably want to modify that to “the world’s first OPENLY transgender nun.” Though I have no historical evidence, I imagine that over the centuries, other transgender women have joined convents, though probably being secretive about their identities. We do know that transgender characteristics have often been very accepted in Catholic spirituality and practice (St. Joan of Arc). And it was always common practice for nuns to take male religious names, and for religious men to often add “Mary” or “Marie” to their religious names.
If you know of other examples of Catholic transgender history or cultural details, please add them in the “Comments” section of this post.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
*There has been some discussion in the “Comments” section of this blog as to whether “intersex” or “hermaphrodite” is the correct word to use. There has also been some discussion as to whether Tia Michelle Pesando is actually transgender. I recognize that language is a sensitive and powerful arena, and I am open to correction. Upon reflection, I have decided to keep the original terms I used.
To answer the first issue, I have used “hermaphrodite” because that is the term that Tia Michelle Pesando uses to describe herself on her website: http://www.whygoddoesnthateyou.com/. It is also the term used in the original article upon which this post is based, so I have assumed that it was the term she used while being interviewed.
To answer the second issue, because Tia Michelle Pesando lived the first thirty years as a man and has now decided to live as a woman, including taking hormones, I think it is accurate to describe the process she went through as “transitioning,” and thus “transgender” seems to be an accurate description. Again, I assume, based on the fact that news articles about her use the term “transgender” that this is a label of which she approves.