Did the Vatican Really Ban Transgender Godparents?

Alex Salinas with his nephew and godson-to-be

The ruling by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against a trans* man in Spain becoming a godparent quickly became news that the Vatican had barred transgender godparents. Is that really what is happening? If not, what is to be made of this ruling going forward?

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, recently called the decision “another Vatican mistake” in a piece for The Advocate. She wrote:

“The Vatican’s declaration that Alex and other transgender people are unfit to be godparents is exclusionary and hurtful. It says to the Roman Catholic Church’s transgender members, to the people who love and care for them, and to the entire church that trans folk are ‘less than,’ and not fully welcome in our midst. It is a blanket statement that anyone who does not fit neatly into binary gender categories is morally suspect, inherently unworthy to serve as a guide to an ethical, faith-based life.”

Duddy-Burke noted that this ruling contradicts Pope Francis’ warm welcome of a trans* Catholic earlier this year and reveals church officials as “demonstrating a tragically limited, one-dimensional view of transgender people,” at odds with wider movements in the church towards acceptance and affirmation. She calls for church leaders to imitate Francis’ efforts by listening to trans* people and getting to know their stories and journeys before making harmful decisions.

Anna Magdalena of The Catholic Transgender limited the implications of the CDF ruling in her analysis, noting this was solely a “pastoral and canonical decision, not a doctrinal one” and is exclusively concerned with “transsexual persons as opposed to transgender persons in general.” I would add to her analysis that, in my reading of the CDF ruling in Spanish, it may be further limited to specifically the case of Alex Salinas.

Magdalena contrasts the CDF’s ruling with previous pastoral and/or canonical statements, not all of which are public or even acknowledged, and she concluded:

“It’s hard to see this ruling as anything but an all-doors-closed approach to transsexual people. It’s likewise hard to see this as sensible or pastorally sustainable. For a Church whose very name means ‘universal,’ it’s as ludicrous to shut transsexuals out of vocational life as it is to forbid hirsute women from going to Mass.

“Luckily, I think there’s room for the Church to grow in her canonical rulings. However, if such growth is going to happen, the Church needs to examine transsexuality not as a secular social agenda, but as a factual phenomenon that is concretely experienced by individuals in the Church.”

In a reflection worth reading in full, Magdalena explores the intricacies at play in the CDF’s thinking, particularly the Church’s choice “to medicalize and pathologize transsexuality,” which, if it were appropriate to do so, would then then require the Church to be informed by science. She concluded:

“From what we know, a transsexual will always remain transsexual regardless of reparative interventions. If such remains the case – which is likely – then the Church needs to reach a little deeper into its pastoral toolbox. . .There are no easy answers here, but that’s okay. . .I’m incredibly hopeful that as the Church encounters more and more transsexuals in the facticity of their lives, she will eventually find a place for them in the Body of Christ.”

There is, indeed, a lot for Catholics at all levels to learn about trans* issues so we can each expand our pastoral toolbox and grow in love of all God’s people.

One opportunity for learning more is at TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholics Perspectivesa daylong workshop sponsored by New Ways Ministry during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this month. It takes place on Saturday, September 26, 2015, 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. Despite Archbishop Charles Chaput’s expulsion of this event, (along with other LGBT events) from a Catholic parish, Catholics who are transgender and intersex, and their families will share their stories at this workshop.

To answer the question in the title of this post, it is unclear, and somewhat unlikely, that the CDF has banned trans* godparents altogether.  Alex Salinas’ case remains a deeply wounding tragedy and, as Duddy-Burke pointed out, truly a mistake by the Vatican. The headlines which reported the CDF statement were reactionary, failing to consider the intricacies (and absurdities) of the Roman Curia. While I do not blame journalists for misreporting, Catholics must be careful. We cannot attribute to church teaching or canon law more than exists in the specific ruling. In matters where sanctions or punishments are involved, we must follow the letter of the law closely and narrowly.

Alex Salinas cannot be a godparent, and his nephew will not be baptized in the Catholic Church. These are serious loses for our church and must be mourned. Our best response is education to prevent further mistakes and to call out church leaders who make them. Educating ourselves more and more about marginalized communities is not merely good, it is an action flowing directly from the Gospel call to love our neighbor.

If you can make it to the workshop in Philadelphia, great! You can find out more information by clicking here. If not, consider a small step to learn more about trans* Catholics’ experiences. Perhaps read more from The Catholic Transgender or explore Bondings 2.0‘s coverage of trans Catholic issues by clicking the “Transgender” category in the column to the right.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

9 thoughts on “Did the Vatican Really Ban Transgender Godparents?

  1. Friends September 13, 2015 / 9:43 am

    For Heaven’s sake — literally — Alex should have the dear child baptized by an Anglican or Episcopal priest, who will gladly allow him to stand as the child’s godfather. Even the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of baptisms performed sacramentally by ordained Anglican and Episcopal clergy. And as long as the Roman Catholic Church leadership continues to behave in such hateful and harmful ways, there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus Himself would stand together with the Anglicans — not with the misguided Romans. How long is this hateful nonsense going to continue being perpetrated in the Roman Catholic Church? It’s an absolute disgrace to all of Christianity, and an outright moral atrocity.

    • Sr. Donna Ryan RSM September 13, 2015 / 1:43 pm

      As a Catholic nun, a Sister of Mercy, I work with and learn from trans women daily. I would like to join this blog, conversation. Thank you for providing this.

    • Don Siegal September 13, 2015 / 7:51 pm

      I agree, what the Vatican did in the name of the Church entered the Church into the milieu of Social Sin. As we all know, Social Sin has its origins in society and its institutions. And to the extent that we are part of that society and that institution we are ourselves are guilty of the offense. Therefore, blogs like this are an important balance for ordinary Catholics to condemn the social sins of our Church,

  2. Ned Flaherty September 13, 2015 / 3:47 pm

    Bob Shine thinks it is “unclear” and “unlikely” that the Vatican banned transgender people from being godparents “altogether.”

    He is wrong.

    The Vatican’s language explicitly claims that transgender people “do not possess the requirements” for godparenting. There are no sliding scales, no objective criteria, and no point-scoring formulae for eligibility; the Vatican says that merely being transgender renders a person completely disqualified. And nothing the Vatican wrote separates Alex Salinas from every other transgender person in the world. In writing this way, the Vatican banned transgender godparents altogether, everywhere, and forever.

    The Vatican denies the existence of transgender people. It describes them merely as heterosexuals with transgender “behavior” and it categorizes sexual identity as a biologically-based “problem.”

    Biological gender, sexual orientation, and brain-based sexual identity are three separate, distinct, and independent phenomena, and they are facts of modern science (medical health and mental health), yet the Vatican continues to treat LGBT people as though they are just heterosexuals who choose to be disobedient, defective, depraved, demonic, and doomed.

    The Vatican’s claim that true transgender people don’t even exist is equivalent to the Vatican’s former claim that the Earth does not revolve around the Sun. The Vatican cannot insist on medicalizing and pathologizing transgender people without also admitting to the facts of modern science.

  3. Deacon Ray Dever September 13, 2015 / 7:54 pm

    Although I personally found the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to be very upsetting, I don’t believe it will have much practical impact on the sacrament of Baptism, at least in the US. Under Canon Law and in practice, the pastor is the one responsible for ensuring that the Baptism is licit, including preparation of parents and approval of sponsors (godparents). Rarely if ever would a decision about sponsors even be raised to the level of the bishop.

    To the best of my knowledge, the practice in almost all parishes and dioceses in the US is to be very welcoming to whoever brings an infant for Baptism, which is consistent with pronouncements of Pope Francis on the subject. In my own experience as a permanent deacon, I have presided at approximately 100 infant Baptisms over the past 6 years, and I would estimate about 25 percent involved parents who were unmarried. It’s also been quite apparent in my experience that an even larger percentage of the parents and godparents who bring children to be baptized haven’t spent much time inside a church. If pastors wanted to disqualify godparents who do not meet the Canon Law requirement to be a person who “leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on”, they could probably disqualify the majority of godparents, but they obviously don’t.

    Of course, this context can make the statement by the CDF even more troublesome, but I think the blog is accurate in that the statement is very limited in scope. It was not a formal declaration or document of any type by the CDF and it certainly has no impact on Canon Law or pastoral practice regarding Baptism. I suspect most pastors in the US aren’t even aware that this statement was made.

    What it does, unfortunately, is to add to the uninformed, negative, hurtful conversations about transgender individuals coming from various sources within the Church. And as the father of a transgender daughter and as someone who considers himself to be an ally of LGBT people of faith, I find this very sad and disappointing.

    • Ned Flaherty September 14, 2015 / 2:13 am

      After the Vatican CDF decision statement confirmed that transgender persons never qualify as godparents, Deacon Ray Dever wrote that the decision is “not a formal declaration” and “not a CDF document” and “doesn’t impact Canon Law” and “doesn’t impact pastoral Baptismal practice” and is “unknown to most U.S. pastors.”

      Nothing could be further from the truth.

      The decision was written, it is a document, and it was published by the CDF via the Vatican.

      The fact that the decision doesn’t revise Canon Law is irrelevant; it coexists alongside Canon Law, and Canon Law doesn’t contradict the CDF decision.

      The decision is so starkly final in its tone that it can’t help but impact pastoral Baptismal practice. Every local clergy who hears about this decision has no method or excuse for ignoring it, because the decision applies universally. There are no qualification criteria, and there is no evaluation process. Nothing in the Vatican CDF decision statement limits its scope in any way.

      Finally, although the decision statement wasn’t sent to pastors, it was quickly and comprehensively disseminated to all clergy, all lay people, and all non-Catholics, via wide reporting in international media (both religious and mass markets).

      Being absolute, non-negotiable, universal, and widely published, the Vatican CDF decision statement leaves no crack through which any other transgender persons could qualify as godparents.

      • Deacon Ray Dever September 14, 2015 / 9:57 am

        Ned, thanks for the reply. I’ve had some of the same thoughts as you, but I’m trying to be optimistic and hope that you’re wrong. When I said it’s not a formal declaration of the CDF, I meant that as far as I can see, it hasn’t been promulgated as a declaration or letter to the entire church, signed by the prefect of the CDF, posted on its website, etc. It sounds like it was a communication to an individual bishop who raised a question.

        If it’s any consolation, I just recently heard one of our bishops say that in his 20 years as a bishop, he never paid any attention to anything that the CDF wrote or sent him. Many in the church view the CDF as an ivory tower institution, out of touch with pastoral realities. But the precedent set here is still worrisome, I can’t argue with that.

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