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