Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out via Vanity Fair and the ensuing national conversation has triggered some foolish responses from Catholic clergy.
Earlier this week, Bondings 2.0 reported on San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s comment, for which he was widely criticized, that trans* identities undermine faith . Now, Fr. Robert Barron has weighed in Jenner’s story on his widely-read blog.
Barron likened Jenner’s transition to a modern form of Gnosticism, a heresy which denigrates the material in favor of the spiritual and emphasizes escape from the body. Barron sets up transitioning as an act in which the body and soul are pitted against one another, in which the body is a “prison for the soul.” Of this, he writes
“This schema is, to a tee, gnostic —and just as repugnant to Biblical religion as it was nineteen hundred years ago…Until we realize that the lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism, we haven’t grasped the nettle of the issue.”
Discussing that post on his Facebook page, Barron analogized trans* people to pedophiles. In a response to the first commenter about the Jenner post, Barron said:
“Friend, just as a thought experiment: would you tolerate someone who chose pedophilia as a lifestyle? If the answer is no, which it must be, then you can’t really believe your own argument that everyone has a right to choose any lifestyle that suits him or her.”
From such a comment it is clear that it is not Caitlyn Jenner and other trans* people who have not “grasped the nettle” of this matter, but rather Fr. Barron. In setting up gender transitions as he does, Barron’s own confusion is on display. The pedophilia reference is dismissed for its absurdity.
Comments by Fr. Barron, Archbishop Cordileone, and others in church leadership who refuse to respect trans* people reveal their profound ignorance about gender issues. Malice may influence some responses, but more often it seems like these Catholics are ill-equipped to discuss transgender issues because either time, opportunity, or will has kept them from properly educating themselves.
Last weekend, I joined nearly 5,000 people for the 14th Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference to help my own education. Though a secular event, God’s love flowed through the halls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center as people gathered to learn self-respect and respect for others. Hope marked the event. Through hundreds of workshops, countless conversations, and the fellowship of friends old and new, I learned an overwhelming amount. I learned most of all how very much there is for me to learn as a cisgender person and ally.
To foster more education, I am inviting Archbishop Cordileone, Fr. Barron, and other Catholic clergy to join me at the 2016 Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference.
This is an invitation to listen and encounter by humbling ourselves, rather than to pontificate. I believe that if skeptical Catholics spend time genuinely coming to know the experiences of trans* people, they could see that the journey around gender identity is a saintly one. It is the search to be one’s truest self on which all humans embark.
In response to Fr. Barron, I would say that the decision to present and live as or transition to one’s authentic gender identity is the very opposite of Gnosticism. These are acts of integration, allowing some to be embodied in their reality in ways authentic to the person God is calling them forth to be. It is incarnational, not gnostic.
Attending the conference would also help skeptics come to know that trans* people are among those God loves most in our world, for they experience severe levels of violence and discrimination. This is especially true for those who are people of color. While affirming Caitlyn Jenner, many at the conference pointed out how atypical her life is and note the voluminous barriers that prevent many trans* people from living openly as their authentic self. Increasing the church’s practical solidarity with trans* communities would be a response to a sign of the times we cannot ignore. Our response as a church should be one of education and justice.
On a positive note, it looks like only 23% of Catholics share Archbishop Cordileone’s and Fr. Barron;s disapproval. A recent poll shows 59% of Catholics already accept trans* people or do not consider their identities to be a moral issue, reports The New Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully, by this time next year, that second number will be increasingly higher, and the first one significantly lower, as more and more Catholics come to understand trans* issues clearly.
To learn more about the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry