Catholicism and the Disappearing Middle Ground on LGBT Rights

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016

Is a middle ground on LGBT issues disappearing and, if it is, what does this mean for Catholics? David Gushee of Religion News Service answered the first part of this question affirmatively, writing in a new piece:

“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

“Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

Where most institutions, organizations, and businesses in the United States have accepted LGBT equality, the holdouts are religious communities and those civil communities where conservative Christians have a dominant impact. Churches and affiliated institutions are, Gushee noted, “digging in their heels — even against profound and pained internal opposition from their own dissenters.” He continued:

“These institutions and their leaders are interpreting pressure to reconsider as pressure to succumb to error, or even heresy.

“They are interpreting social changes toward nondiscrimination as mere embrace of sexual libertinism.

“They are attempting to tighten doctrinal statements in order to tamp down dissent or drive out dissenters.

“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.

“They are confident that they have the moral high ground, and from their remaining, shrinking spaces of power they still try to punish those who stray from orthodoxy as they understand it.

Gushee’s description fits well the reality of the Catholic Church in the United States. While the faithful support LGBT civil rights, the bishops’ sustain their opposition. As more and more LGBT church workers are fired, it looks more and more like they are being punished. From the other side, political liberals and some LGBT advocates, there is almost contempt for non-affirming religious communities.

Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the president of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, opined on the emerging context of LGBT rights in the U.S. for the Wall Street JournalJenkins commented on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent decision to move its national championships out of North Carolina in response to that state’s HB 2 law targeting LGBT people, and said:

“Heightened respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is a signal moral achievement of our time, and harboring reservations about any retrenchment is natural. Yet some citizens may wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms. While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

Jenkins said that while society “has become inured to public disputes over neuralgic moral and social questions,” universities can foster reflection and discussion:

“At a time when tweets, slogans and sound bites seem to define the substance of our political discourse; when respect for truth seems a casualty of the campaign; and when ideological polarization often hamstrings responsible governing, the nation needs universities to raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions more than ever.”

SocialCommsDay.jpgI see that there is a need for middle ground on two levels: the legal and the ecclesial.

In the legal context, protecting the civil rights of every person requires a careful handling of how such protections interact with religious institutions. Admitting exemptions where necessary can seem like prudent acts. Claims of an attack on religious liberty by the U.S. bishops and other conservatives are overblown, but religious liberty is something worth protecting. Legally, a middle ground seems necessary in a pluralistic society and even vital to healthy democracy. Given the intense complexities of these issues, universities seem like prime sites where intelligent debate and informed discourse could happen.

In the ecclesial context, however, the concept of middle ground becomes more problematic. What does it mean to hold a middle ground in the church? If it means allowing space for people to grapple with church teaching and the signs of the times, receiving pastoral support when needed, then this is the right of every Catholic and it is good. But if middle ground means, in practice, not challenging the prejudices of some believers and allowing extremists to target LGBT church workers or demean same-gender marriages, then it cannot be acceptable.

Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkin’s leadership at Notre Dame undermines his point about universities’ potential contributions. It was only in 2012, after decades of activism by students and alumni, that the University began offering formal support for LGBTQ students. Notre Dame students, however, have questioned the strength of this commitment, and it was reported the University denied housing to a transgender student. Though there have been positive developments, can Catholic colleges and universities like Notre Dame be places of dialogue when LGBT people are left vulnerable to discrimination and violence?

This question seems pertinent to the wider church, too. How can we be a church of dialogue and of encounter when members of the Body of Christ feel unwelcome and even unsafe? When church workers are fired and bishops remain silent after the slaughter of 50 LGBT people in Orlando? Vatican II called the church to dialogue, a defining aspect of the Council and a practice to which we should aspire. But dialogue and understanding, the very essence of middle ground, can only happen when all feel respected, equal, and safe. It might be that middle ground has not disappeared in the Catholic Church on LGBT issues, but that it never existed at all.

Yes to Religious Liberty. But What Does That Actually Mean?

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2016

If asked, most Catholics today would agree that religious liberty is an essential part of the church’s social teaching and most people would identify religious liberty as a constitutive democratic principle.

But questioned further, these same people would offer very different understandings of just what the religious liberty they so affirm actually means. While there are genuine threats to religious liberty internationally, in the United States, religious liberty has become mostly a prominent campaign issue for the right and a puzzling obsession for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Organizations on the left have pushed back against these forces, and even more issues have arisen as civil rights expand for LGBT people.

peaceful-coexistence-report_269_350A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explored the complicated questions of nondiscrimination protections and religious liberty in a new report, Peaceful CoexistenceThis 300-page report from the independent and non-partisan federal agency examined issues like the ministerial exemption to employment protections and included statements from noted scholars, as well as these words from Commission Chair Martin R. Castro:

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. . .

“[T]oday, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, joined a handful of more conservative religious leaders in objecting to this report and specifically the words quoted above. Their letter called for President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to reject Castro’s statement and other assertions that religious liberty is being misused.

But new data from the Pew Research Center suggests Catholics in the U.S. are at odds with the bishops’ policies, reported America:

  • 54% of Catholics believe business should not be exempted from LGBT non-discrimination protections, five points higher than the national average;
  • 65% of Catholics do not believe an employer’s religious affiliation should exempt them from providing contraceptive services as part of health insurance coverage;
  • 64% of Catholics believe homosexual activity is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue.

91542022-rev-patrick-mahoney-of-the-christian-defense-coalition-crop-promo-mediumlargeSo what are Catholics to make of religious liberty in the United States, especially if we consider equality and justice for marginalized communities like LGBT people to be high priorities?

Some people might agree with Chairman Castro’s contention that “religious liberty” has become a weapon and a shield used against marginalized communities. Sunnivie Brydum wrote at Religion Dispatches that the use of scare quotes around the phrase now seems appropriate:

“This new, mutant form of ‘religious liberty’ does indeed deserve scare quotes. When Mississippi lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a law that determined what kind of intimate relationships are worthy of protection, they also lost the ability to claim that they were seeking to protect faith-based views broadly speaking. Laws like this have less to do with making sure people can freely practice their faith—they are written to privilege one ideological perspective over all others. . .

“Religious freedom is indeed a central tenet of American democracy. . .But when freedom of religion is used as a weapon to infringe on civil liberties—especially in the public square—it deserves the scare quotes that the Chicago Manual of Style says are ‘used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special use.’ “

More centrist Catholics have cautioned against understanding religious liberty as a zero-sum issue. The editors of Jesuit weekly America called for reasoned discourse that seeks a solution amid the competing goods of religious liberty and non-discrimination protects, concluding:

“But if Catholics are to make a full-throated defense of robust religious liberty, we should also acknowledge the ways the church itself has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust around this cause. Asserting religious liberty primarily on ‘culture war’ issues draws attention only to the church’s policing of moral lines, to the detriment of its proclamation of the good news and service to those in need.

“For generations, the church in the United States has provided succor and support for millions of Americans, regardless of religion. This is not a historical accident but the result of the good works of myriad Catholics and an American context that allows believers to freely practice their faith in all spheres. This tradition must continue.”

Elsewhere, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that religious freedom and women’s rights could be strengthened together in an argument applicable to LGBT rights as well. Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made this important point:

“A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. ‘The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se,’ explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, ‘but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.’

“Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.”

This understanding, Reese commented, reveals religious liberty “in its true meaning” as a source of empowerment for people to live according to their own beliefs and consciences.

Reese is clear that this approach does not resolve every issue related to religious liberty and gender equity, and therefore neither would it resolve every LGBT-related issue, but it effectively counters the idea that religious liberty and civil liberties are “two essentially contradictory human rights norms.” Much good could come if differing sides focused on points of agreement rather than points of contention.

In the world of U.S. Catholicism, progress on religious liberty seems to be simultaneously advanced and stalled at this moment. On the one hand, the Pew numbers reflect a Catholic faithful who conscientiously discern how to advance the common good while upholding goods that can at times be in tension, and this discernment has led them to positions which affirm LGBT rights in such a way that religious liberty is actually strengthened.

But, on the other hand, the Catholic bishops restrain progress, about which Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter cautioned:

“In his response to the USCCR report, Archbishop William Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty at the USCCB, claims that the church only wants the ‘freedom to serve.’ What’s stopping you? As has been argued here and elsewhere repeatedly, there is really no reason, so far as our church’s teaching on cooperation with evil is concerned, for the Catholic church to insist that the accountant at Catholic Charities not get dental insurance for his gay partner. . .

“As they prepare for their plenary session in November, the bishops need to start thinking through two issues if they want to be both serious and successful in their defense of religious liberty. First, they need to abandon the idea that religious liberty extends as far as any particular believer wants it to extend in civil society: The wedding cake baker, bless his heart, is not being asked to participate in anything sinful when he bakes a cake for anybody for any reason. The protections we seek should be for our religious institutions, period. Second, the bishops need to follow the example of their Mormon brethren and reach out to the LGBT community. If this continues as an ‘us versus them’ fight, the bishops will lose.”

The Catholic Church’s endorsement of religious liberty at Vatican II is considered by many theologians to be one of the most notable outcomes of the Council. Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious liberty, was heavily influenced by bishops and theologians from the United States, especially Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. Where Murray and his collaborators had once been treated with hostility for their views on the issue, they became pivotal in shaping the course of Catholicism in the late 20th century.

LGBT non-discrimination protections are a good affirmed in church teaching, just as religious liberty is affirmed. Our task today is to understand how to strengthen both together. Catholics in the United States should remember the history above, history which calls us to ever more deeply engage and earnestly enact religious liberty in all its complexities.

The only clear answer is that there are no clear answers. We must not only say yes to religious liberty, but come to know more fully that which we are affirming. Bu if we are committed like our predecessors in faith, we can and will find a way forward that is faithful to the church’s tradition while meeting the needs of all in our contemporary world.






Transgender Catholic Legislator Appeals to Peers for LGBT Protections

Geraldine Roman

The first transgender person elected to the Philippines’ House of Representative, who is a Catholic, has powerfully asked her peers to pass LGBT non-discrimination protections.

Geraldine Roman addressed the House last Monday for over an hour about the “Anti-Discrimination Bill on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” Roman filed the Bill in June, but there has been little progress towards passing it for the highly Catholic nation. She appealed to legislators in a personal way, reported Inquirer.nettelling them:

” ‘I cannot turn my back at a group of people, who have long suffered discrimination, and have long been denied adequate legal protection. How can I turn a blind eye to the suffering that I myself have experienced at some point in my life?’

” ‘We are your brothers; we are your sisters; your sons and your daughters, and nieces and nephews. We are your family. We are your friends; your schoolmates; your colleagues at work. . .We are human beings.’

” ‘We love our families. We love our country. We are proud Filipinos, who just happen to be LGBT. The question is: do we, as members of the LGBT community, share the same rights as all other citizens? Does the State grant us equal protection under our laws?’ “

The Bill, if passed, would establish non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in employment, education, and healthcare, and it would train law enforcement on LGBT issues. Sanctions would be imposed for violations which, in addition to jail time and fines, could include human rights education or community service.

Her speech also identified specific problems facing LGBT people in the Philippines. She noted that there have been only 164 hate crimes reported in the last twenty years, due largely to issues with the police. Human Rights Watch reported:

“[LGBT-specific police] initiatives are essential given that LGBT rights advocacy groups have warned that hate crimes against LGBT are on the rise and that the Philippines has recorded the highest number of murders of transgender individuals in Southeast Asia since 2008.

“[Healthcare access] is crucial because the Philippines now has the world’s fastest growing HIV epidemic driven by new HIV infections among men who have sex with men (MSMs). Her support of the bill in such a public and heartfelt manner will hopefully motivate lawmakers to take meaningful action to protect the rights of LGBT people by supporting its passage.”

Roman said she was “one voice among many” urging passage of the Bill because LGBT people “simply ask for equality. With inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.” Despite some positive reviews, her speech and the bill for which she advocates have faced resistance. CNN Philippines reported:

“She was glowing. She would glow even as she fought back tears later on, a few minutes upon delivering her first privilege speech before the session hall. She would glow as she parried questions from her eight or so interpellators, including Rep. Rolando Andaya, Jr. of the first district of Camarines Sur, who would repeatedly address her as ‘Congressman.’ “

Elected with 62% of the vote in her district, Roman has not only made history but is now working to advance LGBT rights. She relies upon her Catholic faith in this work, saying previously that the church had been “a source of consolation” and that “If Jesus Christ was alive today, he would not approve of discrimination. I firmly believe that.

You can watch an interview with Roman, who speaks about her own journey and her LGBT legislative aims, by clicking here or viewing it below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry



Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, Officiates Same-Gender Marriage

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 4.13.20 PMVice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, officiated a same-gender marriage this week.  just as electoral politics, and Catholic engagement of them, heat up. Biden tweeted a picture of the ceremony, commenting:

“Proud to marry Brian and Joe at my house. Couldn’t be happier, two longtime White House staffers, two great guys.”

That photo has been retweeted over 38,000 times, including by Jill Biden who commented, “Love is love.”

The Washington Post reported that the couple, Brian Mosteller and Joe Mahshie, both work at the White House. Mosteller oversees Oval Office operations while Mahshie is a trip coordinator for First Lady Michelle Obama. The intimate ceremony at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., where the Vice President resides, was the first wedding at which Biden had ever officiated.

Vice President Biden has, however, been a longtime supporter of marriage equality and LGBT rights. He endorsed equal marriage rights in 2012, suggesting then that the criteria for marriage should be, “Who do you love?” That comment is credited with helping speed up President Barack Obama’s “evolution” on the issue, so he could then offer his own endorsement. Biden has also advocated for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, challenged the international community to address LGBT human rights, and said transgender equality is “the civil rights issue of our time.

For his decades of public service as a faithful Catholic, this spring Biden was awarded the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal alongside former Speaker of the House John Boehner.  Yet, Biden has also taken heat from the Catholic hierarchy, on a number of occasions, for holding views inconsistent with magisterial teaching.

Looking to November, disputes about the actions of a vice president who is Catholic may not end. Indeed, they have already begun. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee. Kaine, a Catholic who has said his faith is “central to everything I do,” has a positive record on LGBT rights.

But his support for marriage equality, in addition to being pro-choice, led Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence to suggest “[Kaine’s] faith isn’t central to his public, political life,” according to the Providence Journal. Since his nomination, Kaine has received public criticism from Virginia’s bishops, as well as from a priest in Washington, D.C. who tweeted, “Do us both a favor. Don’t show up in my communion line.” Faithful America has launched a petition calling upon Catholic leaders to stop questioning Kaine’s faith.

Tobin’s and other bishops’ suggestion that Catholics who support LGBT rights are not fully Catholic is troublesome. Recent data from the Pew Forum revealed 42% of Catholics considered that the treatment of LGBT people is “very important” in the upcoming election, the highest of any Christian denomination and two points higher than the average for all voters. The bishops deny the reality that, like Joe Biden and Tim Kaine, many Catholics support LGBT rights because of, and not in spite of, their faith.

That denial causes unnecessary controversy for the church, and further harm to LGBT Catholics and their families. Thankfully, lay Catholics act daily for inclusion and justice. To Brian and Joe, and Joe Biden, Bondings 2.0 says congratulations!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Articles

The Huffington Post, “Why Joe Biden’s Blessing of a Gay Wedding Matters

Fired Church Worker’s Lawsuit May Proceed Against Archdiocese, Court Rules

Colin Collette

A federal court in Chicago has ruled that a fired gay church worker’s discrimination case against his former employers may proceed as he had hoped.

The Archdiocese of Chicago had filed a motion to dismiss former music director Colin Collette’s lawsuit against both Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, Illinois, and the archdiocese itself. The court ruled against the Archdiocese’s motion, reported the Chicago Daily Herald, and said the case over whether Collette was fired for “entering into a ‘nonsacramental marriage'” may proceed.

Kerry Lavelle, the church worker’s lawyer, said they were “extremely pleased” with the ruling because they “believed all along that Colin has an actionable claim.” She continued in a press release:

“There remains a long road ahead but this validates our position that the suit merits review by the court. . .We had sincerely hoped to negotiate Colin’s return to his job but short of any further dialogue with the Archdiocese, we will continue to pursue remedy through the courts which we know could be a lengthy process.”

The Archdiocese rebuffed mediation efforts last fall, though Collette did meet with former Cardinal Francis George shortly after the firing. Collette sued the Archdiocese and the parish earlier this year for violating federal, state, and local non-discrimination protections. This latest ruling follows an earlier finding by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that there is sufficient possibility of discrimination for a lawsuit.

Collette was fired in 2014 as Holy Family’s music director, a position he had held for seventeen years, when he publicly announced his engagement to another man. His lawsuit seeks Collette’s reinstatement as music director, along with back pay and damages.

This firing was traumatic for the Holy Family Catholic Community. 700 parishioners at a town hall conversation about the incident welcomed Collette with a standing ovation, and one parishioner expressed anger and disappointment at the treatment of Collette, saying: “Everybody was welcome…That’s become a lie.

This firing also raises questions for Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich. Last December, he said the consciences of LGBT people must be respected and even endorsed legal protections for families headed by same-gender partners. Cupich, appointed by Pope Francis, offered a more pastoral voice during the Synod on the Family and told Bondings 2.0 that process would have benefited from hearing lesbian and gay people share their experiences. Yet, Collette and another fired gay church worker in Chicago, Sandor Demkovich, have open discrimination complaints which the Archdiocese is adamantly defending.

Though more than 60 church workers since 2008 have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes, there have been only a few legal victories. A teacher fired from a Catholic school in Italy won her lawsuit in that country. And Matthew Barrett settled with the Catholic school which had rescinded a job offer after finding out he was a married gay man. Colleen Simon reached an out of court settlement with the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph after being fired from her parish social justice job.  Flint Dollar also reached a settlement with the Macon, Georgia, Catholic high school that fired him as band director.  Marla Krolikowski also reached a settlement in her suit against a New York City Catholic high school which fired her when she transitioned genders.

Whether Colin Collette will join this small, but growing list is uncertain. But Archbishop Cupich could ensure justice by ending the Archdiocesan defense efforts, apologizing to Collette, and enacting reconciliation efforts to heal the wound of anti-LGBT discrimination in the church.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Massachusetts Bishops Offer Temperate Response to New Transgender Law

mcc-logoCatholic bishops in Massachusetts have offered a tempered, though not perfect, response to newly passed anti-discrimination law aimed at protecting transgender people. Their statement improves upon other church leaders’ responses to this contentious human rights issue in other U.S. states.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill in law last Friday. Building on employment protections passed in 2011, the new law provides non-discrimination protections based on gender identity for all public accommodations in the state. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, representing the state’s bishops, released a statement which said, in part:

“While the purpose and intent of the legislation is to provide protection and access to public accommodations for transgender individuals in the Commonwealth, the issue of its implementation will require both careful oversight and respect for all individuals using such public accommodations. . .

“The understanding of and respect for transgender persons has only recently commanded widespread attention. The complex challenge of crafting legislative protections for some in our community while meeting the needs of the wider population will require sensitive application of the legislation just passed.”

The Conference statement suggested debate will continue, citing contested gender and sexuality issues addressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris LaetitiaBut the Conference urged civility, concluding:

“Debate about this legislation and its implementation will undoubtedly continue in some form. It will inevitably touch on themes not easily captured by law. . .We urge respect in this discussion for all those whose rights require protection. In our parishes, schools and other institutions, the Church will respect the civil law while upholding the principles of our faith and our religious freedom.”

Public accommodation protections for transgender people have been hotly debated in the U.S., with more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation having been debated in state legislatures this year. Debates about these bills, and the broader issue of transgender public accommodations, have very often become rancorous.

The country’s Catholic bishops, for the most part, have responded poorly. North Carolina’s bishops welcomed that state’s HB 2 law which mandates restroom use according to assigned sex at birth, though one bishop later qualified his support. Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson offered qualified praise for Mississippi’s HB 1523 law, a law which allowed for some discrimination.  It was described by one state legislator as “the most hateful bill I have seen in my career in this legislature.” Bishops in Nebraska actively opposed newly-approved policies to protect transgender student-athletes in the state’s schools. And at least two dioceses criticized President Barack Obama’s directive mandating public school students be able to use restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. It is worth noting, too, that Vatican official Cardinal Robert Sarah, while addressing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, referred to transgender rights as “demonic.”

Respecting transgender people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” to quote Jesuit Fr. James Martin, but unfortunately this has been too difficult for many church leaders. Issues around gender identity and expression, civil law, and true religious liberty can be very complicated, as Bondings 2.0 has noted at least twice (here and here).

The church’s response should be respectful, a simple thing to do, but should not rely upon simple answers where nuance is required. The Massachusetts’ bishops response in this case should have highlighted more strongly Catholic teaching about opposing discrimination, but even with that deficiency, its tempered tone and willingness to dialogue is a step forward.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Complicating Catholic Understandings of Sex and Gender

SR-Church-Easter-candle-01 (2)Respecting LGBTQI people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” as Jesuit Fr. James Martin remarked in an interview earlier this week. But understanding the diversity of gender identities can be complex even for committed allies, given how broad and nuanced transgender and intersex issues are. And sometime the consequences of not understanding and respecting can be deeply damaging.

Christians, including Catholics, have spearheaded anti-LGBT efforts like North Carolina’s HB2 law, ignoring the concrete reality that non-discrimination protections definitively improve LGBT people’s well-being. These opponents opt instead for faulty religious arguments to justify their opposition, arguments which theologian Katie Grimes took on at Women in TheologyShe posed a difficult challenge to anti-transgender Christians, asking:

“[W]hat in your life has lead you to believe that love, which God epitomizes perfectly, means wanting anything but happiness, in every sense of the word, for other people?”

Christian opposition to transgender identities is often rooted in literal readings of Genesis. They interpret creation story texts to mean God creates people only in the male/female binary. To such thought, Grimes responded:

“They twist the word of God in the shape of their own preconceptions.  They do not think to ask, ‘how do we know what makes a male a male and a female a female?’  They instead assume that God defines masculinity and femininity in the same way they do.”

Against arguments rooted in biological determinism, Grimes criticized how some Christians “deify the bodies . . we receive at birth.” She wrote:

“Besides turning natural law into a cliché (so babies with cleft palettes or heart defects ought not undergo corrective surgery?), this theory ends up unwittingly celebrating the very queerness it seeks to contain.  If we take this view seriously, then we would have to also say that God naturally creates many human beings (about 1 in 2000) whose bodies do not fulfill our socially constructed definitions of man and woman.”

Ultimately, Grimes concluded that anti-transgender Christians “sell God short” because they “assume that God’s imagination and creativity is no bigger than their own.”

Catholic opponents specifically, including some U.S. bishops, have cited supposed church teaching  in their objections to transgender equality. They claim there is clear and defined church teaching on gender identity that simply needs to be promoted. Melinda Selmys questioned the validity of this claim at her blog Catholic Authenticity, writing:

“Whenever I hear this, I suspect that the person making the comment has had little to no experience actually dealing with the transgender, queer or intersex communities. It’s basically a position that you can arrive at only if you’re taking the problems home, painting them out of their context and looking at them in a theological laboratory where everything is very simple and clear-cut.”

Selmys then listed eight scenarios drawn from her experiences as a Catholic which reveal the many complexities of gender identity, asking after each one what the reader would do. For instance, an intersex person assigned male at birth identifies as a woman upon reaching adolescence and feels called to religious life as a nun. Is this person accepted? Or a woman religious who cares for survivors of human trafficking knows she must minister to the trans survivors according to their gender identity if she is to be successful. How does the sister proceed? Or parents consult a canon lawyer about their intersex child. The canonist recommends corrective surgery while intersex adults criticize such surgeries as painful and violating. What do the parents do? Each of Selmys’ scenarios contains many intricacies that defy simple answers.

Failing to engage gender identity issues in their fullness has negative pastoral, as well as political, consequences. For instance, a Catholic priest in New York said being transgender is the same as considering oneself a chicken because “something has gone wrong in my feelings. . .I need help.” Fr. Andrew Carrozza’s op-ed continued in this vein, attacking transgender people in the name of faith. The priest’s approach is unfortunately similar to other Christian opponents who have refused to listen to transgender people’s experiences, and relied upon the same faulty religious thought critiqued by Grimes and Selmys.

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly criticized Carrozza in Commonweal, and her comments are broadly applicable to Catholic opponents of any form of LGBT equality. While affirming a place for the church in conversations about sexuality and gender, Wilson O’Reilly wrote:

“Carrozza is making the gentlest version of the church’s basic claim that we have nothing left to learn about human sexuality. This claim is simply not plausible to a growing number of people, especially young people, and volunteering it with placid confidence in the face of something as complicated as gender identity and public accommodations for transgender people is not doing anything for the church’s credibility.”

She added that ” ‘naive’ [is] the kindest word that comes to mind” for pastoral ministers like Fr. Carrozza who believe “gentle ridicule” is an appropriate response.

The writer H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Catholics must resist the temptation to reduce transgender and intersex issues, even if such distillation is well-intentioned. And it is worth asking, too, whether the questions raised about gender identities are themselves even complex enough. We have to ask and keep asking the right questions–and answer and keep answering in dynamic ways to avoid simple and wrong answers.

As Katie Grimes made clear, this debate matters beyond correcting the wrongness of simple answers. Simple answers employed in the name of the church are actively harmful in justifying prejudice, discrimination, and, at times, even violence against LGBT people. We must commit ourselves to complicating constantly our understandings of gender and of sexuality to ensure we are always reading the signs of the times in new ways, with new eyes and open hearts.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry