Reaching Out to Trans People Should Be Done with Humility, Not Pity

Two days ago, I posted a critique of Austen Ivereigh’s Crux essay entitled “Transgender debates require distinction between theory and principle,” in which he gave what I thought was a faulty definition of the ideas that some church officials label as “gender theory” or “gender ideology.”

Although I thought that Ivereigh’s essay had some faults, I thought it also contained some positive recommendations, which I would like to examine in today’s post. Along with these positive points, I’ll also continue to point out weaknesses.

First of all, Ivereigh rightly points out that often church officials and pastoral leaders are sometimes more concerned with critiquing so-called “gender ideology” than they are with providing pastoral care to transgender people.  He cites several examples–including from both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis–to support his claim.  One example that he looks at more carefully is a letter from Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England, in which the bishop warned Catholic schools against “gender ideology.”  Ivereigh says of Davies’ letter:

“. . . [S]uch statements have mostly ignored the reality and plight of transgender people. Of the 17 paragraphs in Davies’s letter to schools ‘on the truth of the human person,’ only the first acknowledges what he calls ‘individuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, experience difficulty identifying with their biological sex, be that of male or female.’

“But after calling for ‘respect, compassion and understanding’ for such people (he never describes them as “transgender” or suffering from gender dysphoria) the remainder of the letter is a cogent summary of papal arguments against gender ideology.

“It is as if transgender people themselves are absent.”

It is good that Ivereigh highlights this glaring omission, as it is an omission from which many hierarchical statements suffer.  I’m not sure what Ivereigh’s intention is in making this point, but from my perspective, it highlights the fact that church leaders have mostly been unwilling to listen to the experience not only of transgender people, but of all LGBT people.  In one sense, Pope Francis, who has been spouting messages against “gender theory,” is the rare exception in this case, since he met with a transgender man at the Vatican, and has spoken openly about discussions with gay and lesbian people, even making public his meeting with a former student who is gay.

Ivereigh rightly notes that church leaders are following the same method that they used in dealing with gay issues–avoiding personal dialogue:

“As with the Church’s response to gay people, whose experiences have so often been ignored in the process of resisting homosexuality, this lopsided response can make the Church seem more interested in defending doctrine than in responding to concrete human suffering.”

But then Ivereigh makes a point, which, may seem on the surface to be positive, but, because it is incomplete, may not actually be so:

“In rejecting a theory or movement, Catholics can seem to reject the person – or at least to be unconcerned by them. God’s mercy, as a result, is subsumed by the focus on law and truth, creating a lopsided picture of Christianity which in Pope Francis’s view has been the principal obstacle to the Church’s evangelization.”

He’s right, of course, that the Church needs to be more concerned with people, but what he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the fact that the Church, too, may have to develop because of the encounter with people, gaining new knowledge and perspectives as it accompanies people.  In Ivereigh’s view, mercy appears to be something that the Church dispenses to the downtrodden. I tend to think of mercy as also being an attitude of humility with which to approach the people one is ministering to, not just a balm to be offered, which can sometimes appear to be condescending.

As one of Bondings 2.0’s commenters mentioned in regard to yesterday’s post, the suffering that transgender people experience is “not from any intrinsic quality of transgenderism, but from negative and misrepresentative social reaction.”

Another weakness is that Ivereigh seems insistent on labeling “gender theorists” as the enemy.  While critical of church officials for their blind spots, he is equally harsh in describing “gender theorists”:

“Ironically, this Catholic response mirrors the way gender-theory activists attempt to harness transgender people to their cause. In both cases, the people at the center of the issue – the victims, if you like – have been largely passed over.”

I don’t know any transgender people who think they have been victimized by people who promote non-traditional views of gender.  The victimization argument fits in well with Ivereigh’s general direction in the essay of seeing transgender people as pitiable, with which I disagree.  No doubt that transgender people suffer, but to characterize them only in terms of their problems and not in terms of their strengths and gifts diminishes them.

I look forward to reading the second part of Austen Ivereigh’s analysis on Crux.  I am hoping that he will build on his positive contributions and revise some of the more negative ones.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2016

 

 

 

 

Just What Is the Definition of “Gender Ideology”?

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

 

Catholic School Apologizes to, Accommodates Transgender Student

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Lily Madigan

A Catholic school which had suspended a transgender student for wearing a uniform consistent with her gender has apologized and implemented new accommodations.

St. Simon Stock Catholic School in Kent, England, apologized to student Lily Madigan. The school said in a letter that she may wear a female uniform and use female restrooms and locker rooms, reported the Daily Mail.

Madigan was sent home and threatened with suspension in March for wearing the “wrong uniform,” having worn a female uniform to school as part of her transition. School officials told the student she would not only be forced to wear a male uniform, but would have to use male restrooms and be called by her legal name, Liam. Madigan said wearing a female-appropriate uniform as part of her transition “made me feel so happy, until I was sent home,” and told Buzzfeed:

” ‘It made me feel that something was wrong with me. You think maybe you’re the problem. It’s alienating. You think school is supposed to be there for you and when that happens it breaks your trust.’ “

A meeting with Madigan, wearing the male uniform, her mother, and school officials was unsuccessful at resolving the situation. She was presented with, in her words, “an ultimatum” from the school which told her to either comply with their policies or leave. Unable to leave, Madigan wore a male uniform for several weeks which caused her depression to worsen and energy to weaken.

Responding to the school’s decision, Madigan organized a Change.org petition and received support from more than 200 classmates. That petition stated, in part:

” ‘Transgender students make up some of the most vulnerable students in schools. . . Changing these policies wouldn’t affect other students but not doing so clearly and greatly affects trans students.

“The school already has an equality and diversity policy (created in response to the equality act 2010) so treating us equality should be a no issue. . .This is about trans people presenting how they feel they should be, how they want people to see them, to recognise themselves when they catch their reflection.”

Madigan also retained a lawyer who reminded school officials of the UK’s Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, which says no one may be discriminated against “because of their gender reassignment as a transsexual.” The Act has over authority over the Catholic school because it is state-funded, and it seems efforts by the law firm which took the case pro-bono were key to the reversal.

In addition to the apology and accommodations for Madigan, school staff will receive training on transgender issues. St. Simon Stock’s spokesperson said supporting trans students “is an important issue for us, as for schools up and down the country.” They continued:

” ‘As an inclusive, Catholic academy, we are confident that the attention we have given to transgender, including carefully listening to students, has been invaluable in us going even further to make sure all students are happy and comfortable, so that they can be as successful as possible.’ “

Madigan was pleased with the school’s decision, but said she “felt it was something I shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for, if at all” and further:

” ‘I’m encouraged in that I’ve seen what I’m capable of achieving and I’m proud, but I’m not encouraged about the school’s attitude to equality.’ “

It is unfortunate when politics about school uniforms and gendered spaces impair Catholic education from enacting its true mission, which is the formation and flourishing of its students. Lily’s initially painful story is reminiscent of other extreme decisions here in the U.S. In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, a new policy threatens LGBT students with expulsion for coming out.  And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a Catholic high school ejected a lesbian student  from prom because she wore a suit.

Policies are about matters such as wearing pants or a skirt are only important to the degree in which they harm students. Nothing in church teaching mandates clothing along a gender binary, and church teaching would actually affirm helping students become their authentic selves. Efforts to police gender are becoming outdated, and Catholic schools should give up these attempts to suppress the signs of the times in favor of supporting every student.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2016

Caritas India Announces Initiative for Transgender Outreach

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 14, 2016

A Catholic humanitarian agency in India has launched a program aimed specifically at providing services that are more inclusive of and effective for transgender people, indicating both a step forward, as well as  how far the Church still has to go.

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Trans woman in India dancing during human rights demonstration

Caritas India, the official in concern and human development organization of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), announced its new policy last Monday.

Executive Director Fr. Frederick D’Souza said this program begins “a new school of thought,” reported Vatican Radio. He explained further:

” ‘Caritas is open to work with transgender people. I am even open to recruiting them. . .People who are suffering for no fault of their own because of sexual confusion in their body require our attention and support.’ “

Deputy Director Fr. Paul Moonjely said Caritas India had already reached out to trans communities, but had “largely failed to recognize them and show data on how many of them we have supported” and more work was needed “towards sensitization on the issue even within the Caritas network.”

But Caritas India’s noteworthy step forward is not without problems, and the need for even more sensitization is visible. Fr. D’Souza said the initiative would be limited to “biological transgenders,” by which he meant trans people who had not undergone gender-confirming surgery. He explained:

” ‘We don’t want to confuse the two. We have an opinion on those who undergo sex change, we are not in favour of that. We believe that the natural gender one is born with is what he/she is supposed to cherish and contribute to creation.’ “

Trans communities in India remain quite marginalized. The 2011 census reported there were about a half million trans people in the country, though that number is likely low due to underreporting. Indian societies have long recognized trans people, known traditionally as hijras, and it was only under British colonialism that legal restrictions were imposed. A ‘third gender’ option was recognized after a Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

Caritas India and the church at large are widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. It is hoped that this new program will not only make Caritas India’s efforts more inclusive and effective, but will propel other organizations to adopt similar programs and combat anti-trans prejudices in the wider society. The spirit of inclusion for all LGBT communities might be passed on to other Catholic organizations like the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. Last year, the community threatened to cease adoptions if mandated to accept lesbian and gay parents.

The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. He also told Bondings 2.0 that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.

Pope Francis’ recent comments on trans people were complicated, and they are still the subject of debate. What came across clearly in his words, though, was the pope’s insistence, grounded in church teaching, that people of all genders people be accompanied pastorally and supported in their lives. This effort by Caritas India is hampered, like Francis, by not fully understanding gender identity and expression issues at a sufficient level. But the new program plants a seed from which loving accompaniment that is increasingly competent and informed by modern science can grow.

 

 

Catholic and LGBT Advocates Give Mixed Reactions to Pope Francis’ Remarks

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 5, 2016

Pope Francis’ latest comments on LGBT issues, in which he both called for more competent and case-by-case pastoral care for transgender people and said there was a “world war to destroy marriage,” have provoked strong reactions. Below, Bondings 2.0 features reactions from Catholics and LGBT advocates. You can read a report on the papal remarks by clicking here, and you can find New Ways Ministry’s response by clicking here.

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Aoife Assumpta Hart

Aoife Assumpta Hart, a transsexual Catholic woman who is herself critical of “gender theory,” had been worried the Vatican would condemn trans identities and bar people from the Sacraments. But in view of the pope’s remarks, Hart wrote on her blog, Aoifeschatology:

“[My] canonical fate had not been foreclosed, and my Church was developing a more nuanced approach, one of encounter rather than dismissal… I could remain in the church I truly love and consider my life’s greatest treasure — being Catholic. Pope Francis offered to walk with me, not against me…” And in the Pope’s most recent comments — I read several moments of affirmation that enriches my belief that, with time, and patience and cooperation (from trans and non-trans faithful)… there still remains the Christian compromise of a merciful, rational, common ground for trans inclusion.”

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Fr. James Martin

Fr. James Martin, SJ said in a Facebook Live conversation (see video below) on the America Magazine page:

“It seems like in his public pronouncements he’s still trying to come to understand it. One wonders who is speaking to him about this. I mean is he speaking to a lot of parents of transgender or gay children, or is he just hearing things anecdotally… It’s a struggle for him. I don’t think, though, that it’s a doctrinal struggle because I think that the main thing that he is recommending and encouraging priests and pastoral workers and everyone who works with the church to do is this accompaniment.”

Fr. Martin also cautioned against interpreting the pope’s remarks through only a Western lens where LGBT acceptance is increasingly common, commenting:

“Imagine reading this [in the Global South] and even parts of Europe where a bishop or a priest may be antipathetic to LGBT people, imagine reading this, this is quite a challenge… I think these are very big steps forward as far as I know.”

Finally, Fr. Martin saw Pope Francis’ remarks as validating LGBT ministries already being undertaken by Catholics:

“For people who are working with LGBT people, first to sort of take this as a kind of encouragement for your work against people who are saying that’s not an appropriate ministry or that’s not a real ministry or that’s not something you should be doing. And to continue this culture of encounter and accompaniment…I think [Pope Francis] has been very encouraging to people who do LGBT outreach.”

 

[Note: New Ways Ministry is awarding Fr. Martin its Bridge Building Award for his efforts to promote understanding and reconciliation in the church. If you are interested in attending or honoring Fr. Martin, more details are available here.]

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Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA said in a statement:

“Our Church leaders need to abandon the biological determinism that they have adopted, and accept that God’s imagination and love are greater than ours. We need our Shepherds to provide appropriate support, care, and guidance, rather than condemnation. We agree with Pope Francis that marriage is a ‘beautiful thing.’ LGBTQ people and allies join Church leaders in affirming marriage.”

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Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr.

Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr. of the National LGBTQ Task Force called on Pope Francis to educate himself further, as reported by The Washington Blade:

“[M]illions of people are deeply hurt by what Pope Francis has said about transgender and gender non-conforming people, which reveals a profound lack of knowledge and empathy… We urge the pontiff to educate himself about the realities of transgender people’s lives and to welcome and affirm transgender and gender non-conforming people rather than reject and dehumanize them.”

In a statement from the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics,  Ruby Almeida, Co-Chair, said:

Ruby Almeida

“Pope Francis has softened his words when talking about sexual orientation and gender identity diversity. Nevertheless, in what he says, the Pope does reveals a level of  prejudice and a level of misunderstanding of the life experiences of LGBTI persons. GNRC would be most happy to start a dialogue with the Pope to enable  him to get a more holistic understanding of our community’s spiritual and pastoral needs.”

Kevin Clarke of America Magazine questioned how much further the pope could go on LGBT issues, saying:

Kevin Clarke

“It seems like the pope wants to have it all. There’s a point where you can only talk about outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as a pastoral requirement, a dictate of pastoral life, and then fully embracing LGBT people in the manner their hoping for. And I don’t know how much further along he can go on this path without getting into doctrinal issues and, frankly, disappointing people.”

Pope Francis’ treatment of LGBT issues remains muddled, and so it is not surprising that Catholic and LGBT advocates have responded both positively and negatively.

What do you think? Are these latest comments from the pope positive steps for LGBT Catholics or is any good overshadowed by the pope’s criticisms? You can leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

New Ways Ministry Both Praises and Criticizes Pope Francis’ Latest LGBT Comments

The following is a statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry, responding to Pope Francis’ October 2nd, 2016, remarks on LGBT topics.

Pope Francis’ latest plane interview on the pastoral accompaniment of LGBT people shows his profound sensitivity to the need for judging moral situations on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, his comments also reveal that he needs to abandon his reliance upon so-called “gender theory” and “ideological colonization,” ideas which do not fit reality.

Pope Francis makes a point during the October 2nd plane interview.

The pope’s call for more sensitive pastoral care is a bold step forward for the Catholic Church, but his comments about gender and education show his misunderstanding of what LGBT advocates actually propose.

On the first point, Francis’ model of pastoral ministry to people faced with a question of sexual morality or gender identity is not to ignore, condemn, or provide pat answers, as past church leaders have suggested. When helping people discern an answer to a vexing moral question, Pope Francis said ministers should “Welcome it, accompany it, study it, discerning and integrating.” And he is on target when he says that “This is what Jesus would do today.”

This model is one that should be adopted by bishops, priests, and pastoral ministers around the globe. It is a model that New Ways Ministry and many Catholic advocates for LGBT people have been proposing for decades, so it is refreshing to see that such ideas are now being shared at the highest levels of church authority. This model of ministry values the Church’s teachings on the primacy of conscience, and that recognizes all people as uniquely and wonderfully created by God.

On the second point about gender theory and ideological colonization, the pope’s remarks reveal that he thinks children are being encouraged to choose their genders in a frivolous way. That simply is not the case. Education around gender identity typically supports people whose life journeys show they have discovered, not chosen, a gender identity which is integrally consistent and permanent.

Similarly, his comments about marriage earlier in his trip indicate that he does not see that the real problems harming marriage are social, economic, religious, and personal ones. Throwing about terms such as “gender theory” and “ideological colonization” is a red herring. It deflects from examining the deeper causes of marital strife and deterioration.

Of transgender identities, the pope noted that “It is a moral problem. It is a problem. A human problem.” He is correct only in the sense that pressures to deny one’s true, interior gender identity cause great personal problems for individuals. The true moral solution is to allow such persons the freedom to choose whatever avenues they determine will be the ones that will integrate themselves psychologically, relationally, and spiritually, as God would want.

Pope Francis Says Accompanying LGBT People is “What Jesus Would Do Today”

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 3, 2016

Pope Francis twice opined on LGBT issues during his Apostolic Journey to Georgia and Azerbaijan over the weekend.

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Pope Francis during in-flight press conference

Interviewed during the return flight to Rome on Sunday, Pope Francis was asked about his repeated criticisms of gender theory and what his pastoral response to gender dysphoric persons might be.

Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter asked the pope what he would say to “someone who has struggled with their sexuality for years and feels that there is truly a problem of biology, that his aspect doesn’t correspond to what he or she feels is their sexual identity?”

In his response, Pope Francis called for the church to accompany people as they discern moral decisions in their own circumstances. The pope said that even as pope he had “accompanied people with homosexual tendencies,” adding:

“I have accompanied people with homosexual tendencies, I have also met homosexual persons, accompanied them, brought them closer to the Lord, as an apostle, and I have never abandoned them. People must be accompanied as Jesus accompanies them, when a person who has this condition arrives before Jesus, Jesus surely doesn’t tell them ‘go away because you are homosexual.'”

Pope Francis also shared his perspective on a meeting he had last year with Diego Neria Lejárraga, a transgender man from Spain who had written to the pope. According to the National Catholic Reporter:

“‘[Neria] is a young woman who suffered much because she felt like a young man,’ the pope explained. ‘She felt like a young man, but she was physically a young woman.’

“The woman, Francis said, had undergone gender reassignment surgery and had then married a woman. ‘He wrote me a letter saying that, for him, it would be a consolation to come [see me] with his wife,’ the pope said, clarifying: ‘He that was her but is he.'”

The pope explained how Neria Lejárraga was mistreated by a younger priest, who would yell that the transgender man would be going to Hell, while an older priest invited him to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and of Eucharist. Francis commented:

“Life is life and things must be taken as they come. Sin is sin. And tendencies or hormonal imbalances have many problems and we must be careful not to say that everything is the same. Let’s go party. No, that no, but in every case I accept it, I accompany it, I study it, I discern it and I integrate it. This is what Jesus would do today!”

Francis added that the press should not report “the Pope sanctifies transgenders.” He added, “It’s moral problem. It’s a human problem and it must be resolved always. . .with the mercy of God, with the truth. . .always with an open heart.”

The pope also criticized again the ambiguous concepts of gender theory and ideological colonization, saying:

“What I said is that wickedness which today is done in the indoctrination of gender theory. . .a French father told me that he was speaking with his children at the table, he and his wife were Catholics, ‘rosewater Catholics,’ but Catholics! And he asked his 10-year-old son: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’- ‘a girl.’ The father realized that at school they were teaching him gender theory, and this is against the natural things. One thing is that a person has this tendency, this condition and even changes their sex, but it’s another thing to teach this in line in schools in order to change the mentality. This is what I call ideological colonization.”

This criticism followed similar remarks earlier in the weekend trip, in which he said gender theory was “a great enemy to marriage today.” Francis continued in remarks to clergy, religious, and pastoral workers in Georgia:

“Today there is a world war to destroy marriage. Today there are ideological colonisations which destroy, not with weapons, but with ideas.  Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves from ideological colonisations.”

Bondings 2.0 will provide updates this week, including reactions from Catholics, as they occur. Worth remembering as the remarks of the pope and his responders are interpreted and received are words from the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to summarize this most recent Apostolic Journey: “Don’t turn differences into sources of conflict, but of mutual enrichment.”