Let’s Have a World Meeting of ALL Families

August 28, 2015

Today’s post is written by a guest blogger: Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida.

In recent months, a steady stream of documents, talks, and other communications from the Catholic Church have been issued on the topic of the family–all in anticipation of and preparation for the World Meeting of Families that will take place in Philadelphia in September and the subsequent Synod of Bishops on the family to be held in Rome in October.  Pope Francis, the Pontifical Council on the Family, and various associated organizations and individuals in the Church have been engaged in an ongoing catechesis and wide-ranging discussion on the family.

Like many of us, I’ve done my best to keep up with and to reflect on these almost daily pronouncements.  And as I do so, it’s been difficult to not become disheartened by what seem to be recurring themes that focus on a narrow ideal of the Catholic family, and that ignore or devalue the reality of the diverse, faithful families that comprise the Body of Christ today.  And the ongoing discussions and debates about what will and will not be on the meeting agendas, and who will and will not be allowed to participate in the meetings, unfortunately seem out of touch with the lived reality of families today.

As any Catholic clergy or lay minister can tell you, the families that one encounters every day in pastoral ministry in the Church are enormously diverse.  The idea that there is some kind of ideal Christian family that comprises the majority of our congregations is quite simply a fiction.  And with my own situation as ordained Catholic clergy, married with a transgender daughter and with two other daughters who are strong LGBTQ allies, I would definitely count my own family among that diversity.  So as I add my thoughts to these ongoing reflections on the topic of Catholic family, my perspective is both pastoral and deeply personal.

I wonder what people envision when they hear Pope Francis speak about heroic families, as he did in his general audience of June 10, 2015.  In that address, Pope Francis lauded the heroism of parents who work during the day to support their families and then continue the work of selflessly caring for their families at night, dealing with sick children and all the other exhausting, daily challenges of family life.  It’s easy for most of us to identify with that scenario, as that is the reality of life in any loving, faithful family.

But who exactly does the Church think these heroic families praised by the Pope are?  Are they only ideal families headed by a Catholic man and a Catholic woman, whose first and only marriage took place in the Catholic Church?  The answer to that question is self-evident to anyone who is part of the faithful families that comprise our congregations.  Of course not!  Of course there are a wide variety of heroic families in the pews every Sunday, heroic in every sense of the Pope’s words – faithful families headed by the divorced, the remarried, unmarried couples, couples of different faiths, and single parents.  And yes, even families like mine with LGBTQ children, and families headed by same-sex couples.

parent of transThese families certainly aren’t perfect, but it would be useful to remind ourselves that none of the families in the pews are perfect (including the families of deacons).  But we should also be mindful of our foundational belief that the members of those families are all created in the image and likeness of God, and that all have an inherent value and dignity as a result.  Jesus didn’t spend his time on earth only ministering to perfect Jewish families – he ministered emphatically to everyone.  All faithful families deserve a seat at the table if the Church is going to be serious about addressing the reality of family life in the Church today.

Pope Francis has made quite clear his vision of Church as a field hospital, healing the wounds of all the faithful.  And he has challenged those who minister in the Church to be like shepherds who smell like their sheep, shepherds whose hands are dirty from dealing with the reality of the messy lives of the faithful.  I don’t see how the Church can follow this vision and get to know, evangelize, and minister to the families that comprise its flock, if most of them are left outside the closed doors of the meeting rooms in Philadelphia and Rome.

As I reflect on all this from the context of my own extended family, I can’t help but think of my own father, who passed away in 1965 when I was still in high school.  He was a hard-nosed, fun-loving, athletic Irish-American, who was fiercely loyal to his family, the Catholic Church, and his country.  He served on an attack transport in the Navy in World War II, in both the Mediterranean and the Pacific, participating in some of the bloodiest island invasions in the war.

I sometimes wonder what he would think of all the changes in society and the Church that have occurred since the 1960s.  As foreign as many aspects of life today might have been to him if he could see them, there is one thing that I know for certain.  If anyone were to suggest to him that my family had some second-class status in the Church, or was even unwelcome in the Church, because we have a transgender daughter whom we love and support, or if anyone had anything negative to say about his transgender granddaughter, he would have been in their face in a heartbeat.

I know that kind of passion runs deep in the committed, loving families that are doing their best, week in and week out, to follow the faith, and if the Church chooses to exclude or demean them, it does so at its own peril.  I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire the Church to open the doors and to truly have a world meeting of all families.

–Deacon Ray Dever, St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida

Previous Bondings 2.0 blog post by Deacon Ray Deaver:

December 28, 2014:  “LGBTQ Children in Catholic Families: A Deacon’s View of Holy Family Sunday

Transgender Catholic Initially Rejected as Godparent Now Welcomed–And Other Positive Developments

August 9, 2015

Alex Salinas

A trans* man in Spain will now be allowed to be his nephew’s godparent, reversing the bishop’s earlier decision to reject the man based on his gender identity. This change is good news and teaches an important lesson about how leaders can listen and learn, as the church journeys forward towards greater transgender inclusion. [Editor’s note:  “Trans*” is an increasingly preferred term to describe people whose gender identities fall outside of traditional categories of male or female.]

Bishop Rafael Zornoza of Cadiz and Ceuta changed his mind about Alex Salinas’ request, reported PinkNews.  Zornoza received intense criticism including a Change.org petition that collected more than 35,000 signatures. Salinas, who described the initlal rejection as a “kick in the stomach,” told reporters:

“I am very happy because of what this means for me, but above all, because what is good for me is good for other transsexuals who are Catholic and want to be part of the Church.”

Salinas is among a growing number of openly trans* and gender diverse Catholics, and his appeal of Bishop Zornoza’s act comes from someone who loves the church. In the petition, Salinas said, “This is not the church I know and for this I want to give you [Zornoza] the opportunity to rectify your error.”

Salinas is on point because discrimination and exclusion are not marks of the Church of Christ, even if sometimes human-made institutions fail.

In this instance, Bishop Zornoza chose to listen to Catholics’ loving voices rather then defend a poor decision. Listening may, indeed, be the key first step for ecclesial inclusion of trans* people to grow.

Catholic leaders could also listen to blogger Anna Magdalena of The Catholic Transgender who writes about gender as a gift we must cherish more fully. She questions why socially-conditioned gender norms are so present in Catholic discussions, writing:

“True gender comes from within, as an inner charism, a God-given impulse toward relationship with others. Too often gender-nonconforming individuals are told ‘You need to embrace your God-given maleness/femaleness.’ The language of ‘the gift’ is being used, but it’s being misused. A gift is not something that is shoved down people’s throats. Gifts enliven, not deaden.

“Gifts are planted within to be shared without. When a gender-nonconforming person tries to share what they experience as their inner gift, how often are they shut down? How often is their gift seen as a curse, or ‘not the right gift,’ ‘not their true gift’? . . .

“Maybe this simple attitude [of accepting everything God offers] is all we need to understand gender non-conforming individuals, whether intersex, transgender, or genderqueer. God has offered us these people, these individuals, this myriad of flavors and expressions. If God is offering, I’m accepting.”

Another, more conservative voice is Melinda Selmys who writes at Theologues about experiencing gender dysphoria, though she does not identify as transgender. Selmys points out that too often Christians consider trans* people to be a threat to “traditional marriage and biblical sexuality,” which confines their response:

“Trans people constitute a very small minority of the human population, so it’s easy for a discourse to develop that is concerned solely with political or philosophical considerations. I’m not going to claim that those aspects of the question aren’t important. . .Problems arise, however, when the tradition is discussed without reference to the real human beings involved. . . 

“I’m hoping to help Christians develop a more compassionate attitude towards transpeople. We do need to ask the theological questions, certainly, but these questions cannot take precedence over the immediate suffering of human beings.”

Listening to the Catholic parents of trans* children can also greatly inform the church’s response, as it has with pastoral care for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. An article in Buzzfeed reported advice from many parents, including Deacon Ray Dever who said:

“. . . [S]ome religious leaders have a ‘tendency to exclude people who should be included in the tent. I think they can go back to the gospel, and the conclusion is to love your children first and foremost.’ “

Dever wrote a blog post for Bondings 2.0 in December 2014 describing his experience as the father of a transgender daughter.

Another Buzzfeed piece shares the story of Liam Lowery, a trans* man, and his mother, Michele. Their story is similar to many Catholic families with LGBT members who may initially struggle to accept the member’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but come around over time. Michele said her initial hesitation to accept Liam’s news was motivate by “the misguided belief that people who identified as transgender would be forced into narrow and dangerous lives.” You can read their full story here, which includes Michele’s participation in Liam’s wedding to Marisa–and the unique ceremonial garb they wore for the occasion.

Finally, as we have reported previously, Fr. Keith Barltrop who heads LGBTQI outreach for Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London), has said the church should “fully support” someone who decides to transition after careful discernment, adding there was nothing doctrinal about gender identity and that this was a pastoral issue.

Wherever we are on this common ecclesial journey to greater inclusion of and justice for trans* people within the Catholic Church, more listening is always necessary and fruitful.

Listening helps us to build up a church that is “home for all” in Pope Francis’ words. We are enabled to jettison the false marks of discrimination and inclusion for a more full embrace of the church’s true marks: that we are one Body of Christ, holy because the Spirit is alive among us, catholic where all are welcome, and apostolic in that service and love rule supreme.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Transgender Godparent-To-Be Calls Diocesan Rejection a “Kick in the Stomach”

July 30, 2015

Alex Salinas

A transgender Catholic is not allowed to be a godparent, says a Spanish bishop, who further denied any discrimination in the case.

Alex Salinas, 21-year old trans man who describes himself as a “firm believer,” sought to be his nephew’s godfather. The parish priest involved with the baptism accepted him initially, but reversed the welcome after the diocese became involved in the decision. No other parish in the area would perform the baptism.

Bishop Rafael Zornoza of Cadiz and Ceuta personally endorsed Salinas’ rejection and, according to Pink News insisted:

“that the parish priest was ‘kind and understanding’ in conveying to Mr Salinas that he ‘cannot serve as a baptismal sponsor because of canonical requirements that a sponsor live in accordance with the faith.’ “

According to  The Local, the priest told Salinas he could “spiritually encourage and help the child in living the faith” and offered him a role as “spiritual godparent” instead. Salinas was outed because church documents proving he is baptized and confirmed identify him as female, of which Salinas said, “in the church’s eyes, I was still a woman, even though my documents of identification have changed.”

Even while Salinas describes this rejection as a “kick in the stomach,” Bishop Zornoza and the diocese deny any discrimination because such acts happen “frequently.” The diocese said Salinas does not fulfill the requirements according to the Code of Canon Law, which mandate godparents be:

“…be Catholic, be confirmed, have received the holy sacrament of the Eucharist and, at the same time, live a life congruent with faith and the mission they are assuming.”

It is Salinas’ gender identity that is, apparently, incongruous with being a good godparent for he fulfills the rest with vigor according to the Huffington Post. But a closer look at Canon Law, alongside church teaching, reveals the diocese’s reasoning is faulty.

First, the requirements for a godparent, referred to as “sponsor” are set out in Canon 874 §1 which stipulates among other items the item about living “life of faith in keeping with the function.” Salinas fulfills all of the requirements, including leading a “life of faith in keeping with the function.” Indeed, children growing up in the church today could benefit greatly from LGBT Catholics who teach all about living as one’s authentic self, the path to holiness, and witness what it means to remain faithful to Christ and to the People of God in a church plagued by internal injustices.

Second, trans and gender diverse identities are not a doctrinal matter, a point recently reiterated by England’s top Catholic official for LGBTQI outreach, Msgr. Keith Barltrop. Indeed, he added the church should be “fully supportive” of those who decide, after careful discernment, to transition. The pastoral response to Alex Salinas was anything but supportive or welcoming, stemming from a harmful medley of clerical ignorance and prejudice.  At the very least, the pastoral leadership in this case should give the benefit of any of their doubt to the parents of the child.

Thankfully, Salinas plans to appeal to the discriminatory decision to both church and civil authorities for the injustice committed against him. “Oversight Against LGBTfobia,” a Spanish advocacy group, admitted that even if it is not legally discriminated, the exclusion of transgender people from the church’s sacramental life is “ethically reprehensible.”

Church officials in Rome should pay attention to this case. Pope Francis personally welcomed a trans man and his fiancee to the Vatican, following their rejection at the Spanish church where they were longtime parishioners. A repeat effort, perhaps including a baptism at St. Peter’s Basilica, would be a clear sign that Catholic ministers must welcome trans and gender diverse persons into the full life of the church.

The incident should also be a wake-up call for church ministers worldwide to get educated on gender identity topics and not misuse Canon Law or church teachings to harm a very marginalized community.

For those attending the World Meeting of Families, or anyone who wants to come to Philadelphia at the end of September, consider attending New Ways Ministry’s half-day workshop on gender diverse families entitled TransForming Love: Exploring Gender Identity from Catholics Perspectives, on Saturday, September 26, 2015, 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at St. John the Evangelist Parish Center, 1212 Ludlow Street, Phialdelphia.  For more information, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Historically Catholic Nations Lead on Transgender & Intersex Civil Rights

July 25, 2015

Italy’s Palace of Justice

UPDATE: Poland’s parliament passed a bill allowing easier gender identity changes, though these still require “confirmation” from two external sources. Still, it is being hailed as a positive step by advocates. It needs to pass the Senate and receive the President’s signature for it to be enacted, reports PinkNews.

Transgender Italians can now self-declare their gender identity on government records following a recent court ruling.

This progress is yet another sign of how historically Catholic nations are increasingly leading the expansion of rights for trans and intersex communities, as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual ones.

Italy’s Supreme Court ruled that a person may amend their gender identity on records without medical intervention, saying the “right to self-determination is inviolable.” The ruling recognizes the complexities in each person’s life according to Gay Star News, stating:

“The desire to align body and spirit is, even in the absence of surgical intervention, the result of a very personal journey to gender identity, supported by a range of medical and psychological treatments that will vary according to individual personality and need.”

Ireland’s parliament acted similarly in June passing a bill that affords citizens to self-determine their gender, coming only weeks after Irish voters passed marriage equality according to Buzzfeed. Momentum from the marriage referendum caused legislators to remove a clause in the bill that would have required medical permission for any gender marker changes. GLAAD reports the bill should be active by summer’s end.

Malta’s legislature unanimously passed a trans rights law this spring. The Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sex Characteristics law is considered a gold standard by many LGBT advocates, as it includes nondiscrimination protections and defends intersex children by allowing delayed gender identification on birth records. Dr. Helena Dalli, minister for civil liberties, said the law is “for knowledge to reign over ignorance, for justice to reign over injustice and to build a society on the respect of human rights.”

Italy, Ireland, and Malta join only Denmark, Colombia, and Argentina in allowing transgender citizens to self-determine their gender identity on government records. That five of these nations are heavily Catholics proves again what has been witnessed in the expansion of lesbian and gay civil rights, including marriage: where there are Catholics, there’s a strong likelihood for more justice for LGBT communities.

Regarding transgender justice, which is rapidly emerging in social consciousness in the United States and elsewhere, much work remains.

Most nations which allow gender changes require proof of gender confirmation surgery and there are still plenty of hierarchs, like San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone or Bishop-Elect Robert Barron of Los Angeles, making highly prejudiced comments. Even Pope Francis’ record is unclear, though some trans advocates see more signs for hope than previously thought.

One more sign of hope are church leaders like Msgr. Keith Barltrop who come out supportively for trans identities. Barltrop, who is London Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ point person on LGBTQI outreach recently said the church should be “fully supportive” of those who decide to transition and there is nothing doctrinal involved with trans identities.

For more updates on trans Catholic issues, check out our “Transgender” category in the column to the right.  New Ways Ministry will be hosting a workshop about Catholic perspectives on trans and intersex issues in Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families in September.  For more information, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

A Divided Response to Transgender Persons at Georgetown’s Campus

July 20, 2015

Alexa Rodriguez

One step forward, one step back. This is the two-step experienced by the trans community at Georgetown University’s campus as its affiliated hospital faces a discrimination complaint at the same time that the Washington, DC, school recently instituted a policy to let transitioning students change their names.

Alexa Rodriguez, a trans woman, filed a complaint under D.C.’s gender identity-inclusive Human Rights Act against MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, which allegedly denied her breast implant surgery in May. The Washington Blade reported:

“[Rodriguez] said the refusal came on May 8, five months after one of the hospital’s highly regarded breast surgeons, Dr. Troy Pittman, examined her and cleared her for the surgery contingent upon approval for coverage of the procedure by her health insurance provider. . .

“Much to her dismay, Rodriguez said a hospital employee who schedules Dr. Pittman’s appointments told her by phone on May 8 that the hospital was no longer taking transgender women for treatment or surgery.”

Rodriguez said a female trans friend was also denied services that week, after the friend had been asked by a scheduler whether she was biological woman or not. Ruby Corado, who heads the LGBT community center “Casa Ruby,” in DC, reported at least two other trans women denied breast surgery at the hospital. Both Rodriguez and Corado know trans women who received breast implants at the hospital as recently as January.

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital spokesperson Marianne Worley denied any discrimination, but added the hospital does not provide comprehensive gender transition services and prefers not to do them in a “one off manner.” Rodriguez is receiving integrated care at the renowned Whitman-Walker Health, which frequently refers patients to Georgetown for treatment, according to communications director Shawn Jain. Rodriguez was one of those referred. The relationship between Whitman-Walker and Georgetown is in question because the hospital’s statement will “present some very real and tangible access to care issues,” according to Jain.

Worley’s follow up statement noted the hospital’s Catholic identity and its adherence to the bishops’ healthcare directives. This is significant, as The Blade reports:

“One source familiar with the hospital who spoke on condition of not being identified said some members of the medical staff at the hospital reported hearing that transgender-related surgery was discontinued earlier this year after complaints were lodged by conservative Catholic officials affiliated with Georgetown University.”

Legally, Georgetown University Hospital’s position seems precarious, even if claiming religious exemptions, if it offers similar services to cisgender patients because it is accountable to public accommodations laws in D.C.:

“Brian Markovitz, a civil rights attorney who has represented clients in cases before the D.C. Office of Human Rights. . .said the fact that Whitman-Walker handled the gender transition-related aspects of Rodriguez’s medical treatment, which Georgetown says it may not have the expertise to do, could undermine a claim by Georgetown that it was legally justified in refusing to perform the surgery.

“” ‘They could be running afoul of the Human Rights Act because they are providing implants for cancer patients and other people, and because they’re doing that and they’re not going to do it for this individual they’re running the risk of liability,’ Markovitz said.”

Markovitz said this could snowball into a First Amendment case if the hospital claims religious liberty exemptions, already a heated issue for D.C. in recent months.

Georgetown students celebrate on National Coming Out Day

Meanwhile, across campus, the LGBTQ Resource Center announced on Facebook that name changes are now accessible to students. In the statement, the Center reports:

“In partnership with the Office of the University Registrar, we are glad to announce that all students may now request a chosen name under their My Access profile, which is different from the legal name, if they wish to do so. They do not need any permissions, or fulfill any other requirements to avail of this. They may also request to have their “middle name” removed if it has gender identifying markers.”

This newly selected name will be used on all non-legal documents, including, importantly, class rosters. The Center thanked senior administrators as well as students “whose courage in being visible makes all the difference.” Georgetown University was the first Catholic college to welcome openly trans students two years ago.

Georgetown University has been at the forefront of Catholic education’s increasing welcome of LGBTQ community members, as the name change implementation suggests. If the University’s affiliated hospital has discriminated against trans women, specifically over concerns about Catholic identity, they should not only look to the law but to the words of Catholic leaders like England’s Monsignor Keith Barltrop who clearly called for the church to support individual’s choices to transition, as Bondings 2.0  reported last week.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Church ‘Fully Supportive’ of Trans People Who Transition, Says Top Official

July 18, 2015

Msgr. Keith Barltrop

Transgender identities are not a doctrinal matter, says a top Catholic Church official in England, adding the church, including Pope Francis, would be fully supportive of individuals who decide to transition.

Monsignor Keith Barltrop, tasked by London’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols with expanding that church’s LGBTI outreach, made the comments in an interview with Gay Star News. He said:

” ‘As far as I am aware, the Church takes no official position on transgenderism: it is a pastoral issue, not a matter of doctrine.’

” ‘Insofar as the Church were to be involved in any individual’s decision to transition, it would counsel caution, because this is not a step to take lightly: but it should be fully supportive of individuals who have made that decision.’ “

Msgr. Barltrop said clergy need to engage these teachings seriously and with their congregations to avoid negative pastoral encounters that often end up in the press and misrepresent the church. Though LGBT people and their loved one receive varying responses from ministers:

” ‘…the official teaching of the Church is clear: homosexual and transgendered people are not only to be respected but made to feel welcome in the Church and accompanied as they journey, along with everyone else, to be more like Christ who radiates nothing but love.

Pope Francis has been cast as anti-trans in recent months, but Barltrop says this is false and the pontiff likely has not “given any great thought” to the issue. Many commentators have equated Francis’ criticisms of “gender theory” with an attack on trans people. However, the pope himself has left the phrase undefined and Barltrop along with a blogger named The Catholic Transgender disagree with that assessment:

“[Barltrop] suggests the target for the Pope’s concern is the notion of gender to be found in Queer Theory and the writings of Michel Foucault, as well as radical feminism, that sees gender as totally constructed and constructible.

“So while it is likely to impinge to some degree on those segments of the trans community that define themselves in more gender fluid terms, it is certainly not the out and out attack on transgender it has been represented as.”

All of this led Gay Star News reporter Jane Fae to conclude, “Pope Francis may well turn out to be the best thing that has happened to the trans community, religiously speaking, in a very long while.”

While it remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will be that good for trans communities, Msgr. Barltrop’s comments are quite positive. Indeed, his comments directly challenge other Catholic leaders who have claimed church teaching does not allow for people to transition or that trans identities are actually illness. Unlike the conversations around homosexuality, there are no doctrinal statements directly about gender identity to which anti-LGBT Catholics can point. It is a pastoral matter requiring church ministers to respond unequivocally with mercy, welcome, affirmation, and support.

For a more thorough exploration of relevant Catholic teaching, see the the Catholic Transgender‘s “What Does the Catholic Church Actually Say About Transgenderism?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

To Whom Was the Pope Referring in Encylical’s Remarks About Body & Gender?

June 20, 2015

Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Sii,” has made headlines around the world, and it will surely be the topic of frequent discussion in weeks and months ahead.  I’ve already commented on how some of the principles that Pope Francis puts forth in this encyclical could just as easily be applied to LGBT issues, and would greatly enhance the Catholic Church’s approach to issues of sexual orientation, lesbian and gay relationships, and gender identity.  But it is another section of the encyclical which is gathering the attention of LGBT advocates.

Paragraph 155 of the document is being perceived as part of Pope Francis’ continued attack on “gender theory.” As Pope Francis uses it, gender theory seems best defined as a concept used to refer to any and all progressive ideas about gender. (I am not trying to be facetious by this definition; the problem is that neither Pope Francis nor any Catholic prelate who has used this term has ever explained what it means or to what it might refer. )

The section in question reads:

Pope Francis

“Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will,” It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’ “

On America’s blog, Elizabeth Pyne, a Fordham University Ph.D. candidate in theology, analyzes this section in terms of its context within the encyclical, and its relationship to the pope’s other recent comments on gender complementarity.  Pyne does not see this section of the encyclical as a strong condemnation, and instead, she characterizes it something expected, but perhaps unusual for what is not said:

“A general, natural law-based statement in favor of gender essentialism is unsurprising. Nevertheless, interpretation must attend to specific silences, or in this instance, relative quiet on sexuality against the resounding demand for economic and ecological justice, cultivated at both personal and political levels.”

In effect, she seems to be saying that this section is not as important as the pope’s other recommendations in the encyclical.  Pyne concludes, too, with a hope that Pope Francis would expand his vision on gender:

“. . . [L]et’s take the pope’s keen insistence on the interconnections not only within ecosystems, but also among scientific, economic, political and cultural approaches to their functioning. Then there is Francis’ beautifully mystical spirituality of nature. He reminds us that humans, like all creatures, are of dust, “our very bodies made up of [earth’s] elements” (LS 2; Gen 2:17). These are precisely the bodies in which “each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure” (No. 239) and in which a human person “enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (No. 240). Yet this complex interpretive dynamic falls by the wayside around certain aspects of embodied life; what might result from a more consistent interdisciplinary treatment of gender and sexuality as elements of the manifold diversity of creaturely life? ” (emphasis, mine).

Other headlines and stories did not see this papal digression on sexuality and gender as neutrally as Pyne did.  Buzzfeed’s story on paragraph 155 is headlined: “Pope Appears To Condemn Gender Reassignment.”  Passport Magazine entitled their story: “‘The People’s Pope’ Disses the Transgender Community.”

My own take on this section is best characterized by a sub-heading used on a Washington Post article excerpting 10 important quotations from the encyclical.  For the sub-section featuring paragraph 155, they used the headline: “Gender differences matter.” I think that Pope Francis here is referring not to transitioning from one gender to another, but that he is expressing his objection to the blurring of genders or eliminating the idea of gender.

Pointing this out does not mean I agree with him, but that I am trying to figure out exactly what he is saying.

Still, if the pope is making indirect references to transgender people in these remarks about “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity,” then I think he should educate himself about the nature of the transgender experience.  Transgender people do, in fact, value their femininity and masculinity, often so much so that they take courageous steps to live fully as the gender that they know they are.  Transgender people know that gender is much more than a physical reality of their bodies, but is, more often, an interior sense of self.  For many transgender people, it is only when they learn to respect what they have learned is their true gender identity that they are able to fully have “an encounter with someone who is different.”

When I re-read paragraph 115, I realize that I think the key difference as to how to interpret this section is whether the reader thinks there is a strong connection between these three sentences:

“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.”

I suppose that I do not see a strong connection between the last sentence on masculinity/femininity and the first two sentences about power over our bodies.   Actually, when I read the first two sentences, my interpretation is that the pope is referring to birth control and abortion.

I suppose, too, that my interpretation is influenced by my thought that masculinity and femininity are more psychological or internal dimensions than they are physical or external dimensions. Yesterday’s Bondings 2.0 blog post on J. Peter Nixon’s views of transgender issues explains this idea more deeply.

Regardless of what his reference point is,  the fact that this pope included this reference to gender in an encyclical on the environment reflects poorly on his knowledge and awareness of this important topic concerning human self-understanding and relationships.

Moreover, as I’ve said before,  Pope Francis needs to start writing more clearly and directly, and less elliptically, so that people can be more confident about knowing where he actually stands.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Related article:

Advocate.com: “Is the Pope’s Environmental Encyclical Anti-transgender?”



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