Today’s post is from guest blogger, Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ. Students at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, first introduced themselves to Nancy as trans or gender-variant in her role as the Catholic Chaplain at the school. Recently retired, she is on a sabbatical, exploring a ministry of presence and accompaniment with other queer folk.
Before I became a Sister of St. Joseph, I visited New York City to meet Sister Anne Brotherton who was getting her doctorate at Fordham University. As we toured Greenwich Village together, I asked Anne if she felt funny walking around in a traditional habit. “Oh, no”, she responded, “I feel quite comfortable. We’re all queer here”.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “queer” as “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.” And today, the term “queer” is being reclaimed as a source of pride to folks who disdain the rigid binary classifications of being either female or male. So why do I think of nuns as queer?
Presently, I am on a sabbatical exploring ministry with LGBTQIA folks after working at a women’s college that graduated a few men every year. The students exposed me to the rigid binary construction of female and male. The way they used their clothing and hair styles in ways that did not fit the gender binary politicized my consciousness.
When I no longer had the energy to keep up with the 18-22-year-olds as their Catholic Chaplain, I retired, and I am now on sabbatical. During this time, I have learned that rather than “peculiar, bizarre or weird”, the term “queer” has come to mean “unconventional, unorthodox folks who make visible that maleness and femaleness are social constructions rather than divinely assigned categories”.
Believing that one cannot minister with humans that we believe to be “other” than ourselves, I began reflecting on how I and my religious sisters have also challenged the binary. Let me share some examples which have existed in convents. In an age when a woman’s glory was her long hair, nuns cut theirs off before they pronounced vows. They often were given names reserved for men. Richard Joseph, Francis Regis, John Kenneth, James Patrick, Christopher, Leo, Paul are names of some of my sisters who are alive today. If sisters did not bind their breasts, they often wore bib like material to disguise their natural form. Like males, most sisters did not wear makeup. When in habit they went “stealth” at times, especially at the beach.
When I was a child in the 1950-60’s, religious women did the jobs that men did. They were presidents of colleges, principals of schools, administrators and financial officers of hospitals. Some sisters note that when they wore a habit, they were no longer perceived as a woman. We were given instant authority, instant deference. They were perceived equal to priests–or at least of higher privilege than other women.
Like the experience of many transgender and gender non-conforming humans, many of our parents were not pleased with the choice of our entering the convent. Our parents’ dreams of traditional weddings and grandchildren faded with our choice. So I find I have a lot more in common with folks who claim the term “queer” than I had thought possible.
I have hope that by normalizing our “unconventional” and “unorthodox” choices, we might also claim our love and support of humans who likewise challenge the social construction of our society. Rigid constructions of our social norms do need to be challenged. Perhaps by looking at the choices made by nuns, we might expand our acceptance of other queer folk, and explore together how to be fully human.
The development of a new religious devotion among Mexican transgender persons highlights the growing chasm between LGBT people and the Catholic Church in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, as well as the tragic circumstances among which many transgender people live.
Religion News Service recently reported on the growth among trans Mexicans of the “Santa Muerte” (“Saint Death”) devotion, the practice of honoring and praying to the skeletal figure of “Death.” The news story explained:
“The skeleton saint — with her female form and association with death — is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.
“Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.
” ‘The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,’ said [Betzy] Ballesteros [a trans sex worker]. ‘She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.’
“The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.”
The Catholic hierarchy has condemned the devotion, just as they have expressed many negative messages about transgender people:
“The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.
” ‘Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,’ he said. ‘Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.’
“As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.
“. . . .Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.”
Though the hierarchy condemns the new devotion, it seems that they don’t recognize their own part in its creation. Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the devotion, explains that the new tradition arose to serve a need that established churches were not meeting:
“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice. But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”
And the lived experience of trans Mexicans testifies not only to violence they face in society but also the rejection they receive from churches:
“The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.
“The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
” ‘Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,’ said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.”
And Betzy Ballesteros, the sex worker quoted above, offered testimony of her experience with the church:
“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time. The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”
If Catholic Church leaders in Mexico believe that this devotion is harmful to its adherents, they must first recognize that their own harmful actions towards trans people are encouraging the worship of Santa Muerte to flourish. When people are scorned and rejected, they will find their own path to God. The surest way for Church leaders to win back trans people to the ecclesial community is for them to end their negative rhetoric which causes both physical and spiritual death.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017
Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada have canceled scheduled performances of a play because of concerns that its protagonist is a small child who explores gender boundaries.
Carousel Players, the theater company behind the play, announced the cancellations of “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures.” According to Global News, the play “tells the story of 8-year-old Simon, who dreams of becoming a princess and feels boxed in gender stereotypes.”
Parents’ complaints about the content led the Niagara Catholic District School Board to cancel the show on the grounds that the play was “not age-appropriate” and students would not understand the issues it raises. The Board claimed Carousel Players did not include information in its promotional materials that the play was about gender identity.
Yet, CBC Radioreported the play, targeted at elementary age children, “was created in conjunction with representatives from several Ontario school boards to be in line with the province’s new sex-ed curriculum.” The Players were explicit in marketing their performance as such.
Not everyone is convinced the cancellations happened due to concerns over students’ ages. Jessica Carmichael, the artistic director for Carousel Players, released a statement which said, in part:
“I fear these cancellations may be based on misinformation, grown out of fear, intolerance, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny. . .The core message from the main character, Simon(e), in Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures, is that every child needs the support of friends and family no matter who they are, what they dress like, what toys they like to play with and what they imagine they can be. I wholeheartedly believe in this message.”
Carmichael further said the play has been well received when performed at other schools, where staff are “encouraging children to have conversations which promote acceptance” and where the magic of live theater “brings people together to work towards a better today and tomorrow and it encourages discussion.”
The Carousel Players have since staged a free performance, followed by a question and answer period so anyone in the local community who wished to view the play could do so.
Having not seen “Boys, Girls, And Other Mythological Creatures” myself, I cannot comment on the play’s contents, and whether it would be appropriate for elementary age children. But school officials should be aware that even young children are already grappling with questions about gender. Many trans individuals claim they had a consciousness about their identities as young as five or six years of age.
Whether through the Carousel Players or some other means, Catholic schools in Ontario and elsewhere should be addressing issues of gender identity as an essential aspect of their commitment to students’ flourishing.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing a Catholic hospital on behalf of a transgender man who was allegedly denied medical care.
The suit claims the Dignity Health hospital system in California discriminated against Evan Michael Minton by refusing to perform a hysterectomy on him. Mercy San Juan Medical Center canceled the surgery last summer on the day before it was to occur, reported The Sacramento Bee.
At that time, hospital administrators explained that they could not perform a hysterectomy because it violated policies against sterilization procedures, policies based on the U.S. bishops’ 20009 “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services.” Minton’s doctor, Dr. Lindsey Dawson, said she didn’t blame staff or administrators at Dignity Health: “I blame the (Catholic) doctrines.”
With help from the Dignity Health medical team, Minton was able to receive the procedure at a nearby non-Catholic hospital. Minton explained what this entire incident has meant for him, and what is behind the decision to pursue legal action:
“‘It devastated me, and I don’t want it to affect my transgender brothers and sisters the way it affected me. . .No one should have to go through that.'”
This episode is a “clear-cut case of discrimination,” according to the ACLU Northern California’s senior staff attorney, Elizabeth Gill. She told The Bee that, in a time when trans rights are “under attack,” states like California must be leaders in protecting LGBT people. If successful, this suit would help clarify that trans persons are covered by sex discrimination provisions in the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Officials at Mercy San Juan are withholding comment, claiming they “have not been served with the complaint,” but said in a brief statement:
“We understand how important this surgery is for transgender individuals, and were happy to provide Mr. Minton and his surgeon the use of another Dignity Health hospital for his surgery within a few days.”
At issue here legally is whether Catholic and other religiously-affiliated healthcare providers should be allowed to deny services due to an institution’s religious beliefs.
This question is particularly relevant given the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act (which had expanded access to transgender-related services) and the rightwing’s misuse of religious liberty to curtail LGBT rights. Indeed, Catholic groups were lead plaintiffs in a 2016 lawsuit against LGBT healthcare protections implemented by former President Barack Obama. These protections were overturned in January.
A lawsuit similar to Minton’s was filed earlier this year by Jionni Conforti. He claimed St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, New Jersey, discriminated against him by refusing to perform a hysterectomy on him as a “medically necessary part of his gender transition.”
Nothing in church teaching restricts Catholic healthcare providers from enacting more inclusive policies and practices. But, if there is no other action, Catholics should at least be listening to the voices of trans patients, like these words from Minton:
“‘It’s almost magical, just to be able to be congruent with who I am – to have my outer body match my inner self. . .When I got my complete body, I said, “The rest of my life starts here.”‘”
Catholics should help folks like Evan Minton come to know and live into their truest selves? In a moment when LGBT people in the U.S. are facing the prospect of having legal protections repealed, a trans-positive and more prophetic stance is exactly what is demanded of Catholic healthcare so each person can be the person whom God created them to be.
When the Archbishop of Denver announced recently that Catholic Scout groups in his archdiocese need to conform to Catholic principles of morality, he referred to the idea of winning and losing. That kind of attitude reveals a big part of the problem with some Catholic opposition to LGBT issues.
Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote a column for the April 20th edition of The Denver Catholic in which he announced that despite the Boy Scouts of America’s recent decision to allow transgender scouts, based on local troop decisions, the Archdiocese of Denver was not going to disaffiliate from scouting programs altogether. Instead, the archbishop would allow each sponsoring pastor to decide about sponsoring a scouting program. Aquila stated:
“Ultimately, the decision for a parish to charter or affiliate with a scouting organization falls under the authority of the pastor, who must weigh the risks this could present to his parish. I ask for all those involved in Catholic scouting to respect the decisions made by their pastors.”
However, while allowing local autonomy, the archbishop also outlined some “requirements” which Catholic scouting leaders must follow. Included among these were:
“Refrain from approving, promoting or engaging in any conduct or lifestyle considered to be in contradiction with Catholic doctrine or morals.
“Promote the dignity of the human person and expressions of human sexuality that accord with the natural law, and therefore with Catholic teaching.”
For the scouts themselves, they must:
“Refrain from conduct or living a lifestyle considered to be in contradiction with Catholic doctrine or morals.”
Although not stated outright, from the tone of the rest of the column, it is easy to presume that the archbishop is referring to LGBT issues and people with this language, though not exclusively. Without stating it directly, the archbishop is forbidding gay or transgender leaders or scouts from participating in Catholic troops.
That, in itself, while disappointing, is not surprising. Other Catholic leaders had already made similar announcements when the Boy Scouts changed their policies on gay and transgender scouts and leaders. What caught my eye, however, was the archbishop’s use of the language of winning and losing in regard to scouting policy changes.
In defending his decision not to disaffiliate totally from scouting programs, Aquila stated:
“I believe that disaffiliation, while it makes a strong statement, would make a winner out of the secular culture and its agenda, and losers out of the Boy Scouts and the Church.”
Does he really need to see it as a zero-sum game, where one side wins and one side loses? That kind of thinking is not the way of reconciliation. It is not the path of accompaniment and encounter. Thinking in terms of winning and losing is a strategy that will continue to marginalize the Catholic Church in regard to mainstream society. This kind of thinking is “culture war” thinking.
What the archbishop misses is that in banning LGBT scouts and leaders from Catholic groups, he is shutting the door on so many more people than he realizes. The chill from his decision is going to turn people away from the Catholic Church, not lead them toward it.
Denverite.com reported the reaction of Rex Fuller, spokesperson for the GLBT Community Center of Colorado, who saw both good and bad in the archbishop’s decision:
“Obviously, we want to promote all aspects of society to be as accepting and welcoming as possible. It’s positive that they’re saying they’re not going to try to challenge the Boy Scouts over the Boy Scouts’ policies, but it’s unfortunate that they still have very restrictive and not-accepting policies inside the church.
“I think that there are certainly lots of gay and lesbian and transgender Catholics in the world that wish they were more accepting. But progress is slow. I think this is a small step, at least, in the right direction.”
I wish I could be as optimistic. While I recognize that Aquila wants to maintain the Catholic identity of parish scouting programs, I have to wonder if he is really doing so if he is promoting principles such as exclusion and doctrinal tests. Why do conformity to teachings on gender and sexuality always have to trump any other Catholic principles in pastoral decision-making?
If Catholic leaders continue to see all encounters with other cultures as problems in which there is a winner and a loser, then ultimately, the Catholic Church will end up as the ultimate loser. It will lose not only its people but its soul, too.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 4, 2017
1) A ranking church official in Zimbabwe has affirmed LGBT-negative comments made by the country’s aging dictator, Robert Mugabe, a Catholic. The Archdiocese of Bulawayo’s vicar general, Fr. Hlakanipha Dube, said the church was grateful for the government’s support of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples only, according to Chronicle. In 2015, Mugabe told the United Nations in 2015: “We are not gays. . .Same-sex marriages have no place in Africa. Such behaviour is worse than pigs and dogs.”
2) A spring newsletter from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association highlighted its new partnership with Egale Canada Human Rights Trust to help teachers in Catholic schools be more supportive of gender diverse students. These efforts include an awareness project, “Drawing the Line – Against Transphobic Violence,” and LGBTQ training workshops for teachers.
3) A teacher in India was allegedly fired because he is gay, a charge officials at St. Joseph’s Autonomous College (a high school) deny. The teacher, Ashley Tellis, said the school’s principal told him students “were disturbed by my ‘personal opinions.” The principal, Victor Lobo, claimed Tellis was fired for breach of contract, reported The New Indian Express.
4) A controversial bishop in Switzerland who has made anti-gay comments in the past has resigned on the occasion of his 75th birthday. In 2015, Bishop Vitus Huonder of Chur cited Scripture passages that suggest lesbian and gay people should be executed, and said a priest who blessed a lesbian couple should resign.
5) The Vatican has named Fr. James Martin, S.J. as a consultor to its Secretariat for Communications, a department newly created under Pope Francis. Martin authored the forthcoming book, Building A Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, based on his address upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award in October 2016.
6) Marking the National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice last month, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, wrote a piece in The Huffington Postabout why she supports the cause as a lesbian Catholic.
Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 began a two-part series about Commonweal magazine’s paired feature articles about “The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.” The two Catholic theologians who penned the articles are David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).
Yesterday, we reviewed and evaluated Cloutier’s article, which took a more negative view of current transgender discourse on identity and legal rights. Today we will look at Johnson’s argument which takes a more positive approach. Johnson is not a newcomer to Catholic LGBT issues. He spoke at New Ways Ministry’s 2007 and 2012 national symposiums, and his ideas were very positively received by the participants.
It’s first important to point out that though Cloutier and Johnson have opposing positions, they do share some ideas in common. Just as Cloutier took a negative position, but also expressed sympathy and respect fo transgender people, Johnson takes a positive position but also turns a critical eye to some of what he sees as excesses of the pro-trans camp. Both lament the speed with which decisions on transgender issues are being made and both decry the hardening of polarized camps which the discussion seems to have fostered. Johnson describes the contemporary situation:
“. . . [T]he pace of social change, or at least the agitation for it, is drastically accelerated by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and that for users of Facebook and Twitter, immediacy is all.
“. . .[L]iberals are not simply wrong, they are demonic; conservatives are not merely in error, they are evil. In a paradoxical twist, agitators for the recognition of sexual difference in the name of diversity demonize any appeal to norm or nature as oppressive; they seem unaware of the way in which ‘diversity’ easily becomes an equally hegemonic norm.”
In his essay, Johnson sets out to examine “whether Christian theology has anything to offer our present situation. My effort focuses on gender, identity, and the body, and begins by addressing a theological tendency I regard as profoundly unhelpful, precisely to the degree that it pays no attention to actual human experience—and thus, in fact, fails to ‘respond’ at all.”
Before presenting Johnson’s theological critique, I want to point out that his preference to pay “attention to actual human experience” is exactly the point where he and Cloutier diverge. Although Cloutier does not discuss human testimony, I pointed out in yesterday’s post that his writing exhibited a lack of knowledge about transgender personal experience. Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, values human experience as an important source of theological reflection.
Johnson critiques the heavy emphasis on gender division and gender roles expounded in the writings of Catholic theologians like Hans von Balthasar, John Paul II, and Angelo Scola, as well as Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Stanley Grenz. He provides a succinct and careful analysis of the main trends in their theologies and concludes that their approach is
“. . . based neither on observation of human behavior, nor on genuine philosophical reflection on the behavior of real people in conversation with all the texts of Scripture, but rather on elevating selected texts of Scripture perceived as possessing a distinct and absolute revelatory character.”
Johnson, who is primarily a Scripture scholar, takes a more dynamic view of Scripture than these traditionalist theologians:
“However important Scripture is as a witness to God’s activity in the world, and however truly Scripture participates in divine revelation, it is wrong to proceed as though revelation were contained in it alone. If theology has to do with the Living God, then it must pay attention to the ways in which God continuously manifests his power and presence in the world. Catholics have always regarded tradition as a second source of witness to God’s work—in liturgy and Creed, to be sure, but above all also in the living testimony of the saints. For where holiness speaks, the church must pay attention.
“. . . . Regarding subjects like sex and gender, theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and—for goodness sake!—biology.”
Unlike traditional theologians who have clear definitions of gender and gendered bodies, Johnson believes that “bodily expression is always ambiguous, always difficult to decipher. If we believe, however, that God lives and continues to touch us, then we must learn something of the grammar and syntax of real bodies.” This awareness is especially true because human beings reveal “a variety of ways in which “male” and “female” can be individually embodied and expressed.” He proceeds into an informative discussion of people who are intersex, meaning that they may have been born with ambiguous genitalia or other hormonal or secondary sex characteristics that can not easily be classified as male or female.
Most important to the Catholic discussion of transgender issues, Johnson asserts that gender is not a moral or religious classification, but a biological and social one. As such, he says it is a relative, not an absolute, good, “not constitutive of humans but is rather an accidental (if extremely important) dimension of being human.” He continues:
” . . . [T]he desire to change one’s gender is not itself a moral issue. It is not in itself a disordered drive, or a form of rebellion against the creator. It could be, to be sure, but it need not be; like the discovery of one’s sexual attraction to persons of the same gender, it may in fact be a recognition of oneself that is deeply respectful of the Creator.”
Similarly, he notes that gender change is not a religious issue per se, but can be considered such only on the basis of an individual’s motivation for change:
“. . . [I]f I make gender change an absolute good (I cannot be myself in this body) rather than a relative one (what counts is serving God and others in any body), I may in fact reveal a disordered desire, a form of idolatrous impulse. The moral or religious issue is not our gender, in other words, but what we make of it.”
And while it is sad that Johnson has to highlight the following idea, the tenor of the current political debate on transgender issues does make it necessary to do so:
“Openness to gender change does not equal openness to sexual vice.”
Johnson concludes with a hope for a process of Christian discernment about transgender identity, noting that what is needed is “face-to-face conversation; rather than the glare of publicity, intimate and honest exchange.” And the Chuch can and should be the place where such a discernment takes place, as well as being, Johnson’s words, “the place where openness to change is a corollary of belief in the new creation and its endless inventiveness, even as it remains the place where the goal of change is greater than the discovery of the autonomous self.”
The discussion on transgender identity in the Catholic Church is just beginning. Both Cloutier’s and Johnson’s articles are important reading for those who want to look at this issue through theological lenses.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 5, 2017
Lexi Dever,a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium,Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.