I want to apologize.

Back in 2015 I attended a conference hosted by Courage, a Catholic apostolate for persons with same-sex attraction and their families. One of the talks during that conference was by Deacon Patrick Lappert, MD, a plastic surgeon, about the Catholic perspective on Transgenderism and gender reassignment surgery. At the time I was really impressed with his presentation and argument. I took notes and after I got home I found a similar talk he gave a year or two before. I naively felt confident enough to teach others about the Church’s position on this incredibly complex issue. And I was wrong.

Two articles this past week caught my attention. The first article was shared by Deacon Greg Kandra about a 15 year old, Maxine Arbelo, who said that she was denied Communion at her parish in Charlotte, North Carolina because she is transgender. The diocese said that she was denied the sacrament because she was chewing gum during Mass (violating the one hour fast before receiving Communion), but Maxine’s mom said that after Mass she was told by a Eucharistic minister that her daughter was living in sin.

This story got me thinking. What exactly about someone born male presenting themselves as a female is grave enough to be a mortal sin? What about someone going through hormone therapy in order to present themselves as a different gender?

Around the same time I was having these discussions Crux published an interview with a Catholic bioethicist on this very topic titled, “Ethicist says Church teaching on gender ‘not incompatible’ with accepting trans identity.” Here, Charles Camosy interviews respected ethicist, David Albert Jones, about his recent research on Transgenderism and the practice of gender reassignment surgery.

The whole interview is well worth the read, but there were three points that especially stood out to me. First, Jones makes it clear that there is no definitive Church teaching on gender reassignment surgery. He says:

“Though gender reassignment surgery has been practiced in Europe since the 1950s and in the United States since the 1960s it has never been mentioned in any official teaching document of the Church. It has not been mentioned explicitly in any papal address or encyclical. It is not mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor in any statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

This means there is legitimate debate among Catholic moral theologians and there isn’t a definitive Catholic position.

The second notable point that Jones makes is that we must distinguish “gender ideology” from persons who are struggling with their gender identity.  Concerning the former, Jones says:

“In their reflections on the equal but in some ways distinct roles of men and women in the family and in society, Pope Francis, and several bishops’ conferences have called attention to some contemporary ideas that are potentially harmful.  Chief among these are a denial of the complementarity of male and female, a failure to recognise the goodness of the body and the unity of body and soul, a radical separation of the concepts of sex and gender, finally, the idea that gender identity is or ought to be a matter of personal choice.

These errors, grouped together under the term “gender theory” (teoria del gender) or “gender ideology” (ideologia del genere)…”

This ideology is indeed contrary to the Catholic anthropology and Pope Francis has been particularly outspoken against it. Back in July of 2016, during a meeting with the bishops of Poland, the Holy Father made this very pointed statement:

“In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place. And one of these – I will call it clearly by its name – is [the ideology of] “gender”. Today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this terrible!”

A few months later, in one of his famous plane interviews, the pope was asked about gender theory and he reiterated his condemnation of this ideology:

“What I was talking about has to do with the mischief going on these days with the indoctrination of gender theory. A French father told me that he was at the table speaking to his children – he is Catholic, his wife is Catholic, the children are Catholic, lukewarm Catholics, but Catholics – and he asked his ten-year old son: ‘And what do you want to be when you grow up?’ – ‘A girl.’ And his father realized that the schoolbooks were teaching gender theory. This is against the realities of nature. It is one thing if a person has this tendency, this option; some people even change sex. But it is another thing to teach this in schools, in order to change people’s way of thinking. I call this ‘ideological colonization.’”

However, Jones points out that the pope is talking about an ideology and not about persons who are struggling with their identity. He says:

“It is also important to note that the focus of this papal teaching is on various errors of a theoretical kind and the way these errors have been promoted by governments and educational bodies.  It is not directed at the situation of people who experience a consistent, persistent and insistent sense of identity incongruent with their natal sex.”

Jones then goes on to make the remarkable, but convincing, claim that someone seeking gender reassignment is actually affirming the Catholic position of a gender binary (that is, that there are only two genders and not a spectrum). He quotes a statement by the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council:

“Being transgender does not mean that someone wishes to abolish gender or sexual difference; in fact many transgender people report feeling great joy and peace once their bodies and gender identities are aligned.  The argument that gender is purely a social construct is often used to delegitimize, rather than support, transgender identities. Gender is not a matter of individual choice for transgender people any more than it is for cisgender (i.e. not transgender) people.  Although it is currently not known why some people are transgender, current research suggests that genetics, hormones and environment all play a role.”

Then Jones states:

“The very idea of transitioning from male to female (or vice versa) does not contradict but rather presupposes the existence of a gender binary.  Hence, while it is important to accept the positive teaching of the pope and bishops on gender complementarity, it should not be assumed that this teaching is necessarily incompatible with affirming the gender identity of trans people.”

This brings me to the third, and most important, point that I took from this interview. The importance of listening to real people. Jones said:

“I was asked to help develop pastoral and theological resources in this area.  This gave me the opportunity to seek out transgender people who were practicing Catholics to ask them about their experiences and what they felt would be helpful.  I also spoke to canon lawyers, educationalists, and priests with experience accompanying transgender people but the most important thing for me was to listen to people who were seeking to live their faith while accepting their deep-rooted sense of gender identity.

Despite the very personal nature of the journey that each had made, I found a great willingness to talk and an appreciation of my attempts to listen, as one person said to me, ‘thank you for speaking to us and not just about us.’”

And, not surprisingly, Pope Francis would entirely agree with Jones that encountering real people and listening to them is the most important thing. In that same plane interview cited above, the Holy Father said:

“Last year I received a letter from a Spanish man who told me his story from the time when he was a child. He was born a female, a girl, and he suffered greatly because he felt that he was a boy but physically was a girl. He told his mother, when he was in his twenties, at 22, that he wanted to have an operation and so forth. His mother asked him not to do so as long as she was alive. She was elderly, and died soon after. He had the operation. He is a municipal employee in a town in Spain. He went to the bishop. The bishop helped him a great deal, he is a good bishop and he ‘wasted’ time to accompany this man. Then he got married. He changed his civil identity, he got married and he wrote me a letter saying that it would bring comfort to him to come see and me with his bride: he, who had been she, but is he. I received them. They were pleased. And in the neighbourhood where he lived there was an elderly priest, over 80 years old, the former parish priest who assisted the nuns, there, in the parish… Then a new [parish priest] came. When the new priest would see him, he would yell at him from the sidewalk: ‘You’ll go to hell!’ When he went to the old priest, the old priest said to him: ‘How long has it been since you made your confession? Come now, I will hear your confession so you can receive Communion’.

Do you see what I am saying? Life is life, and things have to be taken as they come. Sin is sin. Tendencies or hormonal imbalances create many problems and we have to take care not to say: ‘It doesn’t make any difference, let’s live it up.’ No, not at all. But for every case welcome it, accompany it, look into it, discern and integrate it.”

If our Holy Father is about one thing it is encountering real people and accompanying them on their path to Jesus. Also, take note that in this interview the pope referred to someone born a girl as “he,” saying: “he, who had been she, but is he.”

This bring me back to my apology. In my ignorance I had presumed to know something meaningful about a very complex topic. I presumed to present the Catholic perspective when there currently is no official Catholic position. And, most importantly, I had the audacity to talk about a group of people without ever once making the effort to talk with them. I’m reminded of a comment the Holy Father made in Gaudete et Exsultate: “When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road.” I pray that in the future I will put persons ahead of answers and accompaniment ahead of apologetics.  

[Photo Credit: Chris Johnson on Unsplash]

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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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