For much of my life, I’ve dealt with a persistent unease about the sex into which I was born. This wasn’t something I asked for, although it also hasn’t made me as miserable as some might assume. My unease has been more or less severe at different times—it was particularly bad in my early twenties, right after getting my bachelor’s degree—but it has been a consistent presence in my life since at least early adolescence. It affects my perception of many aspects of myself and the world around me, both physical traits like my height and weight and social expectations like the sort of performative Catholic hypermasculinity we see in many men’s groups in our parishes. When I’m filling out forms where the “gender” field allows you to write something down rather than just ticking a box, I’m frequently tempted to write “male but not particularly attached to it” or something similar. Sometimes I actually do.
It’s no secret to anyone that, even in the era of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is not an institution that has much patience for what some call “gender theory” or “gender ideology.” These phrases are, in effect, pejorative catch-all terms for a variety of (what were until recently seen as) outré claims about gender and how it relates to self-concept and to bodily sex.
My sense is that these terms are not used in the Church in an especially well-defined or rigorous way. Sometimes, especially when they’re used by Catholics from the developing world, they seem to refer to a Western neo-imperialist practice. This is the practice of offering foreign aid and foreign direct investment that is conditioned on the recipient country adopting Western legal and social norms around sexuality and gender. In this sense, Pope Francis has condemned it repeatedly, calling it “ideological colonization.”
At other times, the concept of “gender ideology” is used in a broader way, sometimes even to refer with contempt to the very idea that anybody might be more comfortable living as a gender other than the one associated with their natal sex. With these broader uses of the term, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that discomforts and prejudices are being expressed rather than rigorous theological or sociological concepts. It is also difficult to avoid concluding that these discomforts and prejudices present a problem for Pope Francis’s vision for the Church as welcoming “peripheral” people. Transgender people often face undeniably discriminatory and second-class treatment, including within the Church; even as somebody who does not affirmatively identify as transgender myself, it’s been an act of courage for me to write this essay, for fear of having people chuck copies of “Into the Breach” at me after reading it.
The challenge for the Church is to find a way to acknowledge and respect people’s self-concepts without affirming ideological ideas that are contrary to Catholic orthodoxy. Currently, this happy medium is not being found by just about anybody, except possibly by Pope Francis and closely allied bishops in occasional media-friendly moments. There is a prevailing idea that to acknowledge someone’s problematic or ambivalent self-concept or self-told story of one’s life is to concede something to them. It is as if interacting with trans (or lesbian, or gay, or bisexual) people is in and of itself some sort of debate that the Catholic interlocutor has to “win” at the other person’s expense. Is it any wonder that Catholics are widely seen, even by other Christians, as bloodless, overintellectual nitpickers, if this is how we treat outcast people?
There have been a few attempts made so far to impose some sort of structure on Catholic treatment of the issue. On the more “conservative” or exclusive side, we have the 2019 instruction (not signed by Pope Francis) from the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) on how to treat gender in Catholic school settings. This document begins by saying “we are now facing with what [sic] might accurately be called an educational crisis.” The tone of the document is an urgent, hostile jeremiad that led critics to say that the Church is inviting discrimination. Its key insight is that the place of sexual difference in Catholic theological anthropology is in danger of being forgotten if we adopt an “anything goes” view of what gender is. However, I don’t think the document adequately establishes that any and all acknowledgment of transgender identity would ipso facto constitute adopting such a view. Father James Martin, quoted in the New York Times, observes that “anyone who thinks that being transgender is a response to ideology has not spoken to many transgender people.” (To its credit, the CCE document doesn’t directly claim to have established that trans identity is in and of itself “an ideology”; however, it was many people’s takeaway from it when it was released.)
More inclusive is the view of the Oxford bioethicist David Albert Jones, a Catholic layman. Jones pointed out in an interview with Crux in 2018 that currently no specific magisterial teaching on practices like hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery existed, and made the tentative suggestion that gender transition could be seen as a form of “adoption” into a new social and religious role. He also points out that Pope Francis, when speaking directly about specific trans people, typically uses whatever names and pronouns they use for themselves, rather than acting as if this is some sort of falsification or dishonestly (a view common among conservatives in the US.)
However, Jones’s suggestions still have obvious points of conflict with the viewpoints and preferred conceptualizations of many transgender and gender dysphoric people, such as in his belief that trans identity reaffirms the binary of male and female rather than problematizing it. There is also a certain strain of feminists who hold this belief and for whom the trans community and its associated political and social aims are thus seen as deeply pernicious forces. Such feminists often feel that the feminist political and social victories of the past century were predicated on the view that men and women are more alike socially and psychologically than they are biologically, and they see the push for trans rights as a threat to that view. There has been considerable acrimony between these feminists and the transgender community. The way Jones stresses gender transition’s reaffirmation of binary gender roles, while an interesting point from a Catholic theological perspective, might serve to increase this acrimony.
Both understandings, Jones’s and the CCE’s, share a certain tentativeness and uncertainty about how, practically, to deal with the experiences of transgender and gender dysphoric people in the here and now. Speaking personally, I don’t feel especially compelled or reassured by either of them; the Congregation seems to be coming from too judgmental and condemnatory a posture, Jones from a somewhat paternalistic one. Western culture is moving in a direction on these subjects that makes even receptive people within the Church uncomfortable, and the Church currently seems ill-prepared to respond. Perhaps this is why the spectrum of responses within the Church to trans rights claims seems to range from overt hostility to paternalistic toleration. This may be a reasonable range of possible doctrinal responses; but the issue of how to respond to trans people themselves is, first of all, pastoral, and there’s—I believe—little of the smell of sheep in either of these approaches.
It’s clear that the Church’s understanding of transgender and gender dysphoric people needs to mature a little more and allow for a more knowledgeable and skillful negotiation between how to “meet people where they are” and what our theology proposes. In the meantime the best course of action is, in my opinion, to focus on trans issues as primarily as concerning charity and as presenting an opportunity to practice the corporal works of mercy. Francis’s recent praise for Father Martin’s ministry to the LGBT community likely derives from this understanding of what is at stake. (Pope Francis has also given similar approval to the Argentinian nun Sister Monica Astorga’s ministry among trans people. A counterpoint to these ministries and the criticism that they attract might be the experience of a group of Indian nuns who tried to provide funding to a school for trans people in the South Indian state of Kerala. It did not pan out partly due to opposition from the leadership of Caritas India. Many of those trans people are stuck in the sex trade.)
For many Catholics, transgender people are more of an abstract idea than real people each of whom is loved by God and created in His image. Instead, the trans person or the “trans issue” is seen almost as a Pilgrim’s Progress–style allegorical caricature, with Christian passing by Mount Gender Ideology on his way to the Slough of Despond. This obscures their humanity and personhood, and, in turn, the questions of justice and charity involved. No matter how much some Catholics vex themselves over the phrase “unjust discrimination” in the Catechism—trying to argue that this or that form of discrimination is “just” after all—the plain fact of the matter is that in much of the world today being LGBT is still gravely, materially dangerous. The Church needs, as a matter of justice, to stop contributing to this through its political and humanitarian activities.
Sometimes the rush to arrive at a grand theory of who and what somebody is ends up rolling over that person’s true needs. People who need material help that the Church is able to provide, including protection from interpersonal violence within the Church or perpetrated in the Church’s name, cannot simply have that need dismissed as an epiphenomenon of immorality or perversion on their part. People with self-concepts that many Catholics find inconvenient or disturbing are still first of all people, in whom the image of God runs true.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.