As transgender advocacy increases in civil society, there are inevitably going to be responses in the Catholic Church. Unlike homosexuality, there are no Catechism paragraphs or well-developed theologies to which the leaders or laity can readily appeal for understanding gender identity questions.
This vacuum has lead to quick assumptions by some people strongly opposed to trans justice because they, incorrectly, conflate the issue with sexual orientation, or morph episcopal opinions into authoritative teaching.
But finding a more nuanced understanding is essential because trans issues demand Catholics’ attention more and more as several recent incidents reveal. They touch upon civil matters, as well ecclesial, pastoral, and sacramental ones. For instance, bishops in Bolivia struck out against a new law passed in December that would allow trans citizens to change their gender on national identification cards. Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, president of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, said in a press conference:
“That bill is inspired by a gender ideology that has been pushed by an international lobby and aims to subvert one of the foundations of our human lifestyle by denying the fundamental truth of masculine and feminine genders. Living as male or female would not longer be a biological truth but the result of a simple personal choice. That ideology is totally alien to the indigenous cultures of our country. As a result, this initiative is a clear attempt of cultural colonization.”
There are examples elsewhere, too. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, exempted itself from federal nondiscrimination guidelines designed to protect trans students. A Canadian Catholic school board called for “just discrimination” of trans youth. Nebraska’s bishops are working hard to stop protections for trans high school athletes in that state.
Evident in the Bolivian bishop’s comment and the other enumerated incidents is a lack of education about gender identity and a seeming failure to encounter trans people before issuing such pronouncements. Generalizations about gender ideology or gender theory are thrown about without foundation. In developing nations, trans rights are cast as neo-colonialist ideals being imposed from the outside. Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family are themselves guilty of wading into these ambiguities without providing clarity. This confusion is detrimental to LGBT persons’ well-being–and even their lives.
Some recent articles have attempted to explore the intersection of gender identity and Catholic theology. Though often problematic, such journalism at least admits the complexities involved. In The Catholic Herald, Dan Hitchens asked “What’s the truth about transsexuality?”, surveying thoughts from trans and cis Catholics alike. He explained the state of this question as such:
“There are many opinions about trans people’s identity and possible vocations – and little has been officially taught on this subject. What is uncontroversial is that the Church could do better at making space for trans people. ‘Right now,’ [transsexual Catholic Aoif Assumpta] Hart observes, ‘the debate seems to be “everything goes” or “nothing goes.’ ”
“While some are entirely permissive, others are hostile to trans people. . .Hart hopes that a middle ground might emerge – ‘a balance between good theology and treating people compassionately.’ “
Anna Magdalena of the blog, The Catholic Transgender, emphasized the diversity of thought about gender within the trans community itself, noting that trans Catholics share in this difference of opinions. But, as she told the Herald, behind the theories and the theologies, “there are concrete people, real experiences.” What can emerge for trans Catholics who find inclusion are positive experiences. For example, Anna says hers is “a story of redemption, a story of integration” after her transition. If acceptance is not found, however, the results can be devastating, proven by the exceedingly high rates of self harm and suicide in trans communities. Hitchens concluded his article by stating the church is only “just beginning to form its answer” to this pressing issue.
But given that the “Transgender Moment” has arrived in civil society, as one Commonweal blogger termed it in an otherwise negative piece, the church is required to offer an initial response. Will trans Catholics be accepted to the sacraments? Will trans church workers keep their jobs? Will bishops oppose civil rights legislation? Will the church affirm the dignity of all people in its actions or just in its words?
Thankfully, developments in a positive direction are evidence that a Gospel way forward is possible. For instance, University of San Diego students intentionally included the needs of transgender and queer students in their demands for reform. One Sr. Monica, a Discalced Carmelite, ministers to trans women in the pope’s home nation of Argentina, while another “Sr. Monica” continues her decade-plus ministry to trans Catholics in the U.S. Studies have shown that historically-Catholic nations are leading on trans legal equality. And, in some cases, even traditionally-inclined Catholics are advocating for trans justice.
These pastorally-wise and welcoming responses should guide Catholic engagement with gender identity, avoiding both easy judgments and noncommittal responses. Church officials, theologians, and ministers should also heed William Lindsey’s caution that tepid columnists should avoid:
“[A] perspective that moves not in the direction of understanding the struggles of those on the margins and listening respectfully to their testimony about their own self-understanding, but towards self-congratulation and the conclusion that one’s own hermetically sealed, privileged club represents the norm by which everyone else in the world is to be judged.”
Before rushing to definitive answers, all Catholics would be wise to first listen to the real,lived experiences of trans people. Catholics should be particularly attentive to the intense marginalization trans people face and the suffering they endure–suffering which is too often caused by church ministers. Pope Francis desires a culture of encounter, and gender identity questions in the church are a perfect opportunity in which to practice that culture.
And while we listen, the best approach pastorally is that of London’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop who said the church should be “fully supportive” of those who decide to transition because this question of gender identity is a pastoral, not doctrinal matter. There is, perhaps, the essential starting point for this whole discussion.
What are your thoughts about trans issues in the Catholic Church for the coming year? Leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry