When Massachusetts passed a law in July allowing transgender people access to locker rooms and restrooms that align with their gender identity, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC) responded with a statement that was very non-confrontational. Indeed, it might even have seemed like the Conference welcomed the law’s passage. In part, the statement read:
“We urge respect in this discussion for all those whose rights require protection. In our parishes, schools and other institutions, the Church will respect the civil law while upholding the principles of our faith and our religious freedom.”
A quick reading of these two sentences might tell someone that the MCC supports the new law and that they plan to implement it in Catholic Church institutions across the state. But the particular phrasing of the statement might indicate that the MCC is keeping its options open. For example, although they “urge respect in this discussion,” they are vague about who this respect is for, saying only that is “all those whose rights require protection.” I might assume that this means transgender people, but the MCC may mean it applies to churches who feel their religious liberty is at stake.
Similarly, the statement says that they will “respect the civil law.” I did a double-take on this one. At first, I thought that they intended to mean “obey” or “follow” the civil law. The rest of the sentence qualifies the respect they will give the law, implying they will do so only as they are “upholding the principles of our faith and our religious freedom.”
So, what do they mean? Is the MCC supporting transgender rights or are they defending the Catholic Church against a perceived attack on its religious freedom?
The rest of the MCC statement does not give any further insight into the intention of these church leaders. In fact, the statement defies taking a solid position at almost every turn. For example, they say of the new law:
“. . . [I]ts implementation will require both careful oversight and respect for all individuals using such public accommodations.”
Does this mean that they support transgender persons’ rights to use the bathroom which aligns with their gender identity or does it mean that individuals who do not want transgender people in their public restrooms will be allowed to eject them?
Additionally, the MCC statement offers the following advice:
“The complex challenge of crafting legislative protections for some in our community while meeting the needs of the wider population will require sensitive application of the legislation just passed.”
Again, using a vague term like “sensitive application” means we don’t know where the Massachusetts bishops stand on this law. I’m sure that every law enforcement official believes they are applying laws sensitively, but that doesn’t mean they are always doing so.
Perhaps most revealing of the MCC’s position on transgender issues comes from a statement they made alluding to Pope Francis’ negative approach to gender identity questions. They state that the pope
“. . . acknowledges the pluralism within and among cultures regarding sexuality and marriage, but he also warns against an absolute separation of the physical and cultural understanding of sexuality and gender.”
This statement clearly shows that the MCC does not support the idea of gender transition. Yet, it doesn’t say where the MCC will stand on the rights of transgender people in society. (You can read the statement in its entirety by clicking here.)
A recent op-ed essay in The Cape Cod Times notes that the vague and ambiguous wording of the MCC statement will only lead to further problems down the road. John J. Donovan, the author, who has taught college-level theology, says the bishops’ response is “very vague at best, and very troublesome at worst.” He explains his position:
“Because the Massachusetts bishops’ statement is so poorly written it would seem that one of those little church/state clashes is inevitable. Those clashes produce neither sanctity nor good law. The state law is well-crafted, written by lawyers. It would seem the onus is on the bishops to write a better response.”
I think he is right. Since the MCC would not take a definitive position on the law, it seems like they may be positioning themselves to defend a church institution who would deny restroom or locker room access to a transgender person. Donovan offers good advice for the bishops’ future statements on such issues:
“Before a better response is attempted, perhaps more theologizing should take place. The theologizing should cover in as much depth as possible not only the concept of gender identification but also the entire scope of sexuality in all its beauty and mystery.”
When bishops write so vaguely and ambiguously, they easily open themselves up to writing like politicians do. Our church deserves better from its leaders. We need bishops who will speak boldly and courageously to protect the human and civil rights of all, especially those, like transgender people, who continue to be marginalized across our nation and around the world.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry