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

Australian Students Demand Greater LGBT Respect from Catholic Institutions

Advocates rally in defense of Australia’s Safe Schools Program

College students in Australia are protesting an upcoming lecture by a of a Catholic man who claims “reparative therapy” successfully changed his sexuality, the latest dispute about LGBT issues as they relate to Catholic education  in that nation.

The University of Sydney’s Catholic Society will host James Parker tonight to speak about his experiences with “reparative therapy.” Parker is linked to People Can Change, a UK group which administers gay “conversion” programs, and he authored a 2014 piece about his own experience, reported Buzzfeed.

Georg Tamm, a gay Catholic student, said student objections were not to discussions about divergent views on sexuality, but specifically about the harm reparative therapy has caused. Tamm said:

” ‘I would have been OK with them inviting a priest, discussing why men and women are made for each other according to the Catholic scripture. . .But I don’t see the pertinence of inviting someone who is supposedly a patient of successful ex-gay therapy, when it has no scientific merit and is actually quite dangerous.’ “

Tamm said the Catholic Society’s invitation to Parker did not seem “to care about the welfare of those students” who are LGBT or questioning. Such talks, he added, defeat evangelical efforts “at a time when we need people to take the religion seriously and do good things with it.” The Catholic Society denied claims the event promoted prejudice against LGBT people.

Concerned students have appealed to the Student Union to prohibit, or at least refuse to fund, future events promoting reparative therapy. University of Sydney administrators are inquiring into whether restrictions can be placed on campus speakers, too.

Such LGBT controversies in Australian education are increasingly frequent. Last month, St. Francis Xavier College in Melbourne censored a sexual health workbook by requiring students to rip out a page about homosexuality and premarital sex. The Age reported:

“[Y]ear 9 students were called into the hall and told they could not leave until they had thrown a page of the textbook in the bin. . .

“[The [page] included a photo of two men hugging and smiling, and listed different sexual preferences including heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality.”

The workbook asked students age-appropriate questions about sexuality and relationships, but Principal Vincent Feeney explained such questions should be addressed in religious education classes rather than health classes. He defended St. Francis Xavier College further by saying it was inclusive of LGBT students and even allowed same-gender couples to attend formal dances. Students remained critical, however, with one calling the ripping of pages a “medieval weak response.” Others refused to tear the page out.

In another story, the Safe Schools Program in Australia, which educates against bullying, has come under fire after four successful years. Conservative politicians have attacked the Program, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, has conceded to their demands. Following a government review, Safe Schools Programs, will be limited to high schools and have their content curtailed. A coalition under the name Save Safe Schools has organized rallies and campaigning to ensure funding is sustained and the Program keeps expanding.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a Catholic, described the Program as “social engineering” in his call for its defunding, reported Buzzfeed. Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, herself a lesbian Catholic, said such comments were “negative and unconstructive” because you cannot engineer a person’s lived reality.

Just two Catholic schools participate in the Safe Schools Program: St. Joseph’s College, a Christian Brothers school; and St. Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre, both in Victoria. St. Joseph’s College Head Paul Tobias said the Safe Schools debate “put people like me in a particularly difficult position” because of conservative attacks then lodged against the schools. Those pressures do not mean he or the school would be less supportive, however. He told The Age:

” ‘But I don’t believe there is anything in the Catholic faith that should stop us from promoting inclusiveness, diversity, and tolerance. . .

” ‘Every student who attends this school, irrespective of their sexuality, is entitled to be part of a safe environment. We need to accept that there are some kids who are heterosexual and there are some that are LGBTI.’ “

St. Joseph’s College under Tobias’ leadership established a homophobia task force as early as 1997 in response to an alum’s letter about anti-gay bullying. Tobias wrote to federal and state officials supporting the program, but he questioned whether the focused had shifted from promoting diversity and acceptance to focusing on the minutiae of gender and sexuality issues, which he felt would be detrimental to the Safe Schools Program’s mission.

Elsewhere in Australia, students in Catholic schools have challenged their institutions to participate. A gay student at St. Joseph’s College in Queensland asked Principal Michael Carroll for support, but the student’s testimony of intense bullying, but was met with a curt “no.” The student felt betrayed by administrators and teachers whom he admired, reported The Brisbane Times, and he added:

” ‘I hope that it is not the will of the Catholic Church that this group of young Australians, which are 14 times more likely to end their own lives, are not protected. . .All I can do is hope that they do not want to see me being abused, being made to feel uncomfortable and being separated from society, made to feel like a second-rate citizen.’ “

There is nothing in Catholic teaching which endorses marginalization of or discrimination towards LGBT people, particularly youth who are vulnerable and entrusted to the church for their education. Each of these controversies is rooted in flawed Catholic understandings of gender and of sexuality. These understandings refuse to prioritize social justice teachings about LGBT people’s rights and dignity, instead relying upon pseudo-science to validate outdated, but ideologically convenient ideas. As Australian Catholics reckon with how to protect LGBT people and expand their rights, including the question of marriage equality, a dose of honesty and an attentiviness to reality would be most healthy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Fr. James Martin, LGBT Groups, Others React to Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love”

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 5.29.58 PM.pngYesterday’s release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family whose title translates as The Joy of Love, has provoked a tremendous amount of news reports and commentaries that will surely continue as this more than two-hundred page text is digested further.

Today, Bondings 2.0 provides an initial round-up of reactions as they relate to LGBT issues. You can read LGBT-related excerpts from Amoris Laetitia by clicking here.  You can read New Ways Ministry’s response by clicking here.

Fr. James Martin, S.J. tweeted that Amoris Laetitia offered a welcome to LGBT people and set issues around sexuality and gender within a global context, saying, in two separate tweets:

“To LGBT friends: Pope says ‘before all else’ you are respected, and inveighs against violence against you–a huge challenge to Africa, e.g.”

“Good to remember that #AmorisLaetitia is addressed to the whole world. So his comments on LGBT people are challenging to many cultures.”

Martin also highlighted the renewed emphasis on conscience present in the document. You can read Martin’s “10 Takeaways from Amoris Laetitia” in America.

Equally Blessed LogoEqually Blessed, a coalition of Call to Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry, expressed disappointment in its statement:

“While the Pope acknowledges the complicated issues facing Catholics on the margins. . .[he] ultimately reinforces existing harmful church teaching that characterizes LGBTQI people as unable to reflect the fullness of God’s plan for humanity. Specifically, the Pope continues to condemn same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex parents, and he refuses to acknowledge the complexities of gender identity.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said many had “hoped for much more” and continued in a statement:

“While the Pope acknowledges the Church has been too rigid in other areas, there is no repentance when it comes to LGBT people. We need to see changes in teaching and practice before we can move forward. . .Clearly, Church officials, up to and including Pope Francis, still have little idea of the reality of LGBT people’s faith, lives, and family situations.”

Call to Action said in a statement that, despite the pope’s call for clergy to “see Grace at work in all life’s complicated and complex forms,” the organization was:

“. . .deeply concerned this document results in an institutional and ecclesial status quo that does not make real substantive changes in Catholic structures and practices (e.g., an end to the unjust firings of LGBT Church Workers and discrimination against women, to name only a few examples).”

Terence Weldon
Terence Weldon

Terence Weldon of Queering the Church was similarly dissatisfied with the document’s approach to LGBT issues, but saw hopeful elements as it “created the conditions for change”:

“Closer examination however, reveals some cause for optimism, certainly in the longer term. What is not said may be more important than what is explicitly stated. Most notably, there is no reference at all to the offensive term ‘objectively disordered’, or any hint of opposition to same-sex relationships (as long as they do not claim to be “marriage”).  Although there is a forthright objection to same-sex marriage, this is not listed among the many problems and dangers that are said to threaten actual families, or even the institution of marriage itself.”

Commenting on Pope Francis’ renewed emphasis on the “internal forum,” Weldon added:

“Drawing on a passage from the great theologian Thomas Aquinas, the conclusion we may reach is that even though those who remarry after divorce, or who live openly in same-sex relationships, may appear to be living in conditions of objective sin, their particular circumstances may negate that conclusion.”

Michael Sean Winters
Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters, columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, commented on several aspects including the following point relevant for LGBT Catholics and their families:

“[T]he Holy Father does not believe the pastor, still less the magisterium, should tell people what to do, but that a pastor should accompany people so that they can discern God’s activity and calling in their own lives. The pastor encourages spiritual maturity, not memorization of a hodgepodge of canonical requirements.”

Father Thomas Reese, SJ
Father Thomas Reese, SJ

Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., also writing for the National Catholic Reporter, defined success for Amoris Laetitia differently than other commentators. Though he critically engaged the text’s content, he concluded:

“This is a papal document well worth the time to read and reflect on. Parts are dull; parts inspire and delight; parts will give hope; and parts will infuriate. If it brings the conversation about families out of the synodal hall and down to the parish and families themselves, then it will be a success.”

In the days to come, there will surely be many conversations at all levels of the church about how to understand Amoris Laetitia and what it means concretely in Catholics’ lives. Bondings 2.0 will be engaging these conversations and keeping our readers updated.

In the meantime, what are your first reactions to this exhortation? You can leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

QUOTE TO NOTE: Could ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Bring New Honesty to Church Teaching?

computer_key_Quotation_MarksAt Roman noontime, in just a few hours, Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation will be released. Entitled Amoris Laetitia, this 200-page document culminates a two-year synodal process reflecting on family life. There has been voluminous speculation this week about what the document contains, including one Jesuit’s admittedly unlikely dream about a new honesty from Pope Francis:

“At an, highly unlikely, extreme he will recognise the fact that our official Catholic understanding of human sexuality is scientifically deficient, denying as it does the fact that a minority of men and women are biologically same-sex oriented and that attempts to deny that orientation and the natural desire to form committed relationships in accord with one’s biological nature actually violates one’s nature, and is in Catholic terms contrary to the natural law that the Church insists upon.”

You can read the full post from Anthony Egan, S.J. of The Jesuit Institute South Africa by clicking here.

As soon as the document is released, and we have time to digest its contents, New Ways Ministry will post its analysis and response on this blog, probably later this morning.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


LGBT Issues Pervade 2013 Call to Action Conference

Call To Action 2013 Plenary Session

LGBT Catholic issues pervaded Call to Action’s 2013 conference this past weekend as progressive Catholics gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to organize for a more justice and inclusive Church and society. Bondings 2.0 offers a round-up from the weekend to show how central acceptance, welcome, and justice for all sexual orientations and gender identities is in broader efforts for Church renewal.

On Friday, New Ways Ministry co-founder Jeannine Gramick, SL joined other prophetic voices in a daylong reflection on conscience, sponsored by the 8th Day Center for Justice. Gramick spoke about her four decades in ministry among the LGBT community and her struggles with the institutional Church that resulted from this work.

A La Familia also hosted a seminar on the same day focusing on acceptance within Latino families of LGBTQ members, which was hosted by Lisbeth Melendez Rivera and Rose Manriquez.

Jamie Manson
Jamie Manson

Saturday’s plenary session featured writer and LGBT advocate Jamie Manson, a Catholic lesbian woman whose reflections on intergenerational companionship this blog recently profiled. She joined a panel on the future of Catholic ministry, and when speaking on inclusivity, Manson said:

“It used to be prophetic to include women and LGBT people. For the new generation, it’s not prophetic. It’s just common sense.”

Manson also spoke of the many young adults who are educated in theology and ministry, but unable to answer their call to leadership in the Church because of, among other obstacles, their sexual orientations and gender identities. Roy Bourgeois, a former Maryknoll priest forced out of his community for supporting women’s ordination, echoed these sentiments, saying the Church’s many years of prayers for more vocations would be answered if only those who want to serve as priests were allowed entry.

World Youth Day participants from Equally Blessed

Saturday also featured several workshops highlighting the need for LGBT justice in Catholic and civil communities. These included:

  • “Why the Church, for its Own Salvation, Needs Our Queer Sisters and Brothers” led by Miguel De La Torre;
  • “Same-Sex Marriage and Beyond: The Catholic Imperative for LGBT Equality” led by Marianne Duddy-Burke;
  • “Sharing the Message of Equally Blessed: Stories from the Pilgrimage to World Youth Day, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” led by members of CTA 20/30 and Dignity Young Adult Caucus;
  • “LGBT Catholics Standing Together: Intergenerational Issues” led by Jeannine Gramick, SL and Bob Shine;
  • Caucuses by Fortunate Families for parents of LGBT children and by Catholics for Marriage Equality for those in Illinois, and Equally Blessed.
Loretto Volunteers helping with marriage equality in Maryland

On Sunday morning, Call to Action’s Leadership Award was granted to the Loretto Volunteers, a program of the Loretto Community that offers a year of service for young adults in an LGBT-affirming atmosphere rooted in the Catholic tradition. New Ways Ministry is one of the host sites for the Loretto Volunteers.

Following that, Marianne Duddy-Burke of Dignity USA offered a homily during the conference’s closing liturgy. Speaking on the story of Zacchaeus, she proposed modern exclusionary labels equivalent to “taxpayer” that included gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and the parent of an LGBT child.

Marianne Duddy-Burke
Marianne Duddy-Burke

Flipping the narrative, Duddy-Burke asked attendees to place themselves in the position of Jesus, who called Zacchaeus out of the tree and into life. Jesus saw Zacchaeus as a human being with a profound need and engaged that alone, thus Catholics must do the same no matter how different or unlikable people crying out may be.  In conclusion, she envisioned a Church where the only label that makes a difference is beloved Child of God.

Given these speakers and workshops, there is not only widespread need, but also excitement around building up inclusive Catholic communities where LGBT people, their loved ones, families, friends, and allies are all welcomed. You can check out Call to Action’s website for more information on several of these programs described. For further reflections from Jeannine Gramick and Bob Shine on how diverse generations engaged around LGBT issues, check Bondings 2.0 later this week.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Understanding Transgender Issues Starts with Good Questions

Jonathan Merritt

As legal issues and theological debates grow around transgender issues, people of faith are speaking out in greater numbers for full protection and equality. Recent pieces by several authors are fine contributions for Catholics to reflect further on how the Church and its members can better understand and support trans Catholics.

Writing for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt asks Christians to complicate their thinking around transgender matters because they are far more complex than how anti-LGBT voices depict them. Stemming from his experiences with a fellow church member who is a trans man, the author speaks to the deficiency Christians (and one can safely add Catholics) have in thinking and speaking about transgender people. He writes:

“I suspect many Christians are like me and haven’t considered all the theological, ethical, and scientific intricacies of this issue. Perhaps we are afraid that what we discover will stretch the bounds of our thinking. My unsettled thoughts about how to reconcile Kris’s gender identification with my Christian faith tempt me to shrink back from my friendship with Kris. And yet, I’m so glad I haven’t. Our conversations challenge my thinking and force me to ask new and difficult questions of myself. Kris and I may not end up agreeing on everything, but we press on in our friendship anyway. And I think we’re both better for it.

“The transgender issue is an important one and Christians must grapple with it in all its messiness and complexity. So let’s not pretend that any armchair theologian should be able to figure it out. Kris deserves better. And so do all of our transgender neighbors.”

Sharon Groves, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith program, writes in The Washington Post about a positive contribution transgender members bring to communities of faith, namely the opportunity for wider reflection on creation, God, and oneself. She first writes a series of questions:

“[What if] we actually took seriously the question of what it means to be human and, more expansively, what it means to live into our full humanity? What if rather than saying that biology is destiny we actually explored the ways in which we all experience our own gender identities and expressions? What if we learned about the lived experiences of our transgender peers?”

Groves asks Christians to willingly engage in a respectful, open-minded questioning by encountering transgender people, their stories, and broader religious questions as a way forward. Fundamentally, understanding transgender community members will also involved understanding oneself in a deeper way on issues of gender, as she writes:

Sharon Groves

“The core teachings of Christianity are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot love God fully if we don’t do the work of trying to understand who God is for each of us. When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing – from Augustine to Thomas Merton – there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God.  We can’t love God if we don’t try to glean how God works in our lives.

“Similarly, we can’t really love our neighbors if we cast off all curiosity about who they are and their experience of life in the world. And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves – about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors…

“To live our lives with true compassion and caring, we need to move beyond slogans and ask the deeper questions about gender and the diversity of experiences.   But to do that, one must ask the right question and be open to a multitude of answers.”

In a sign of hope for the Catholic Church, Governor Jerry Brown of California, who is a Catholic, recently signed a groundbreaking law protecting transgender students in that state. The law allows transgender students to use bathrooms and play on the sports teams which match their gender identity most fully. However, comments by an administrator in Nebraska’s Catholic schools opposing a similar law in that state prove that work remains in securing equality for transgender people.  At least one previous story on Bondings 2.0 reveals the pressures trans church employees feel, as well as their fears of discriminatory firings.  Another story shows the support that Catholics can express for transgender people.

A positive first step is for every Catholic to deepen their understanding of transgender issues by questioning their existing beliefs, educating themselves, and encountering trans people in their communities. Share your thoughts and resources on how Catholics can better understand transgender issues in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

QUOTE TO NOTE: Pope Francis on Freedom & Conscience

computer_key_Quotation_MarksPope Francis used his weekly Angelus address to discuss conscience and freedom as aspects of the Catholic faith, emphasizing what many LGBT Catholics and their allies already know about these central Catholic teachings. The Pope speaks about Jesus’ determined journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, where he will meet death, and how faith is always accepted and never imposed even for Jesus. He continues:

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

“All this makes us think. It tells us, for example, the importance, even for Jesus, of conscience: listening in his heart to the Father’s voice, and following it…Jesus wants us free, and this freedom – where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience. If a Christian does not know how to talk with God, does not know how to listen to God, in his own conscience, then he is not free – he is not free.

“So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.”

Advocates for more inclusive Catholic communities that welcome all, including those bound by conscience to challenge existing unjust structures, can take hope that Pope Francis may respect conscience more than his predecessors.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry