How Do Transgender People Experience the Divine Will for Themselves?

Now that all of the media hype about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition has quieted down, it’s good to take a look at some of the more serious questions that Catholics may have concerning such an event.

Caitlyn Jenner

One of the more interesting things that I have read on the subject is a dotCommonweal blog post by J. Peter Nixon earlier this month.  Nixon begins his examination with an important question that often gets unasked in Catholic discussions about transgender issues:  Is a person’s true, God-given gender the one that a person’s body reflects or the one that a person’s mind experiences?

Too often, people err on the side of the former, as Nixon points out:

“. . . .the argument is that a person’s chromosomal/physical gender represents an expression of divine will and that living contrary to that chromosomal/physical inheritance is contrary to God’s will.”

Nixon pokes an important hole in that argument:

“There are many aspects of our lives as human beings that are expressions of our genetic inheritance.  Not all of these are positive and some (e.g. a genetic predisposition to juvenile diabetes) are potentially lethal.  I’m not aware of the Church ever holding that it would be illegitimate to treat such a condition simply because we were born with it.”

Nixon dismisses religious conservatives’ criticism of transgender people, noting that they actually seem to fear excessive expressive individualism and rejection of the idea that gender is inherent in the natural fabric of things.  Nixon states:

“. . . [T]he actual experience of the small number of transgender people I have known appears to cut against the idea that gender is primarily a social construct.  They spent most of their early years working extraordinarily hard to conform to their genetic/physical gender identity without success.  Once they made the decision to transition, they worked equally hard to conform to their new gender identity and incurred large expenses to obtain reassignment surgery.  It was not a decision motivated by ideology.”

While Nixon makes some good points, and ultimately his intent is to affirm the experience of transgender people, there are a few points in his essay which raise an eyebrow or two. For example, when he discusses whether or not gender questions can be labeled disease, he stated:

“. . . [T]he disease we are treating is the breakdown in the communications pathway between the genetic inheritance and its expression in the centers of the brain that produce (at least partially) the psychological experience of gender.”

Nixon makes this point to say that there is perhaps a medical reason why transgender people exist, but his answer seems to indicate: 1) that this idea is a definite cause, which it is not; and 2) that if a person is transgender, then that is a problematic situation that needs to be corrected.

Nixon ultimately answers that correcting “communication” between brain and body is not inherently preferable to gender transition (both seem to involve correction of physical features, either the brain or the outward appearance), his analysis fails to take into account the experiences of transgender people, many of whom see their unique gender situation as a gift, with many blessings, not as a “disease.”  Just like with LGB people, the biggest problems that transgender people face is not with their own experience of gender, but with the discrimination they experience from other people’s rejection of the possibility that someone does not fit neatly into the male/female binary structure.

Nixon seems genuinely interested, though, in making a place for transgender people in the church, and that aspiration is noble.  He offers the following analogy for gender transition which includes surgery:

“In some ways, I am seeing parallels to past Catholic debates over cremation.  Cremation was once rejected because it was considered a sign that the person did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Ultimately, the Church was able to separate the discrete act from the various worldviews that lead people to choose cremation.  Perhaps the Church will come to recognize that a decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery need not be motivated by an understanding of gender that is incompatible with our theological anthropology.”

Even with some of its problematic concepts, Nixon’s essay still helps to move the discussion on transgender issues forward in our Church.  He acknowledges that he knows only a few transgender people.  Listening to stories of more transgender people will expand his awareness. His heart and mind are already opened.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

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Italian Bishops’ Conference Head Calls for Dialogue Without “Taboo”

The world synod on marriage and the family, scheduled at the Vatican in October 2014, has sparked a lively debate in church circles on issues concerning sexuality, gender, and relationships, with a number of bishops acknowledging that it is time for a frank discussion on these topics to happen.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino

Perhaps no call for such a dialogue has hit so close to home, so to speak, than the recent statement from the head of the Italian bishops’ conference in which he said:

My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favour of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality.”

Those are the words of  Bishop Nunzio Galantino, of the Cassano all’Jonio diocese in southern Italy, quoted by the Italian newspaper, La Nazione, and reported in English by The Tablet.   Galantino’s words take on an added significance because he was appointed  head of the Italian bishops conference by Pope Francis himself.

Echoing Pope Francis’ sentiment from a September 2014 interview that church leaders had become too “obsessed” with abortion, Bishop Galantino added to his call for dialogue with: 

“In the past we have concentrated too much on abortion and euthanasia. It mustn’t be this way because in the middle there’s real life which is constantly changing.”

Galantino was optimistic that the current pope offered the possibility of change in the areas of church teaching regarding sexuality and marriage.  The bishop said:

“With Pope Francis the Italian Church has an extraordinary opportunity to reposition itself on spiritual moral and cultural beliefs.”

Not all are as optimistic as this Italian prelate though.  Pope Francis’ recent off-hand comments on the topics of economics and on whether a divorced and remarried woman should be able to receive communion have come under scrutiny by some commentators who note the consternation that the pope’s casually dropped provocative statements can cause.

J. Peter Nixon, a blogger at dotCommonweal, reflected on how much weight and authority certain forms of papal communication actually have:

“So it has come to this.  We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.

“As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin–Iniquitas radix malorum–that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.”  This followed only days after the dust up over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.”

Nixon makes a good point when he says that our modern world focuses too much on papal pronouncements at the expense of the rest of the church:

The question that must be asked–particularly in light of Sunday’s canonizations–is whether this increasingly obsessive focus on the opinions, theology, spirituality and personal witness of the pope is a healthy thing for the Church.   The purpose of authority in the Church is to form a community that can bring forth “a great cloud of witnesses,” not to place the burden of that witness on a single individual.  The primary role of those authorities is to be coaches, referees and groundskeepers.  All of us, however, have the responsibility of playing the “beautiful game” that is following Jesus Christ.

While I agree with him, I also think that Pope Francis needs to be more explicit and clear in his statements.  I’ve said before that the pope’s ambiguity can cause problems, and that sooner or later he will need to be more direct about where he stands.  In her National Catholic Reporter column, Jamie Manson highlighted Pope Francis’ ambiguity problem in regard to both the case of the Ugandan anti-gay law and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).  On Uganda, Manson points out:

“He [Pope Francis] took no action when Ugandan Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga publicly lauded the president of Uganda for passing an extreme anti-homosexuality law, a law that clearly violates the Catholic church’s teaching to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.”

Her analysis of the many ways that his statements agree with the CDF about their charges against LCWR is too rich with detail to summarize here, and I recommend that you read her entire column.

During the synod this fall, many opinions are going to be bandied about by church leaders, theologians, pundits, and laity. Some reports have already shown that bishops seem open to the idea of debating church teaching on a number of topics, based on what they have learned from surveying their laity.  Whether he tweets, makes a phone call, or gives an interview to the press, Pope Francis is going to have to be clear about what direction he wants to take our church on these important issues.  I hope and pray that Bishop Galantino’s optimism about the possibility for change under Pope Francis is well-founded.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles 

Bay Area Reporter: LGBT Catholics react to Vatican survey results”

Religion News Service: “Conservatives squawk over pope’s tweet on inequality”

America: “Vatican: Phone Call Didn’t Change Church Teaching”

dotCommonweal: Pope’s man in Italy on abortion, homosexuality & Communion for the divorced & remarried”

Religion News Service: Church ‘obsessed’ with abortion — again? Pope’s Italian ally issues another wake-up call

For Bondings 2.o’s past coverage of synod news, please click on “Synod 2014” under the “Categories” tab in the right hand column of this page.