Despite what many people assume, the Catholic Church does not have an official teaching on transgenderism or transsexuality. The internet is rife with very definite opinions from every corner of Catholicism denouncing a certain mythical conception of what transgenderism is, but on the Magisterial level the Church is frustratingly silent. (The Church is also silent about intersexed individuals).
There are three instances where the Church supposedly taught on the issue, and skeptical Catholics put these forward again and again as evidence for what they view as the incompatibility between transsexed individuals and Catholicism. I’ll address each instance separately. They are:
On the 21 December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a “Christmas Greeting” to the Curia of the Church. Halfway through the greeting he addressed the issue of gender theory. He introduces what he sees as the dangerous theory with the words of Simone de Beauvoir:
“one is not born a woman, one becomes so.”
These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality.
Simone’s words can be taken in a fairly harmless light – indeed, this is one of my favorite quotes – but Benedict applies them and the idea of gender theory in their most radical form:
According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.
Benedict’s speech continues to establish what he sees as the permanent dualism of male and female in the world.
According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves.
First off, admitting the exceptions to the rule does not disprove the rule. In other words, transgender people don’t necessarily tear down the male-female mystery; they just participate in it in a different way.
Secondly, it is a scientific fact that not everyone is 100% biologically male or female (cf. intersexed persons). The Church has always been uncomfortably silent about intersexed individuals, likely because most Catholics are afraid that the existence of such people challenges Genesis. Intersexed and transexed people DO challenge our understanding of Genesis, but so did the Copernican revolution (the discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun). These challenges don’t disprove Scripture or invalidate Dogma; they just prod us to modify the depth of our understanding.
Thirdly, the Pope’s words are meant to combat an extreme version of the gender theory which essentially says “gender is a meaningless social construction.” Obviously denying that male and female have any meaning is very destructive to the Catholic worldview. However, this extreme form is not the essence of gender theory. At its most basic level gender theory is simply the assertion that “sex” and “gender” are distinct from each other, sex being one’s chromosomal makeup and gender being one’s internal psychological or spiritual identity. The point of gender theory is simply that the ideas of male and female are complicated and have many elements, including but not limited to external appearance. This isn’t necessarily an up-heaving worldview; in fact, well-respected Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft formulates ideas from Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in a way that might be considered a Catholic version of gender theory.
The assumption in Pope Benedict’s speech is that transsexuality is a rejection of how God made us and a decision to “decide for ourselves” how to live. From personal experience I can say that (a) God made the inner person as well as the outer person, and transsexuality is an acceptance of how God fashioned our inner person, and (b) transsexuals don’t “decide” their internal gender identity. Who would want to have a female gender identity and a male body or vice versa? It’s not a decision; it’s a tough reality.
Fourthly, a transsexed person does not necessarily violate the injunction that people “have a nature, given by their bodily identity.” If the physiological theory of transgenderism continues to be proven, then there is a physical reality to transgenderism. The brain is just as much a physical part of the body as genitalia. If a person’s brain structure is informing their self-awareness, it needs to be taken into account as part of their “bodily identity.”
Also, a papal address such as this is not morally or doctrinally binding. Catholics should listen to Benedict’s homilies with the respect owed to the Pope, but our application of his personal opinions must be interpreted according to our individual conscience. A Pope is only infallible if speaking on matters of faith and morals specifically ex cathedra – “from the chair of Peter” – which has only happened twice in recent history. Otherwise his words are valuable and (hopefully) prophetic, but still subject to human error.
Another way some Catholics attack transsexed individuals is with section 2297 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The soundbyte thrown at trans people says:
Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
This is used to demonstrate the immorality of sex reassignment surgery, which is seen as all three of the above violations.
First of all, the passage allows for these procedures if “for strictly therapeutic medical reasons.” SRS is in fact largely considered a medical procedure (hence the gate-keeping on the part of the psychological community which heavily screens trans people prior to SRS in order to ensure they medically qualify). Even if the Church views some gender reassignment surgeries as mutilation, the passage certainly allows for some ‘wiggle room’.
Secondly, the passage is taken from the section of the Catechism devoted to kidnapping and torture! The whole passage in context says:
2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
The passage isn’t talking about SRS; it’s talking about torture! Maybe one day the Church will formally extend this teaching to transsexualism, but in the meantime all we have is a misused and abused soundbyte that’s been thrown around without any thought for the context.
In January of 2003, John Norton of the Catholic News Service released an article titled “Vatican says ‘sex-change’ operation does not change person’s gender.” It has since been taken down, but is archived elsewhere for posterity. The article claims that a “sub secretum” (top secret) document was shipped from the Vatican to Papal representatives in each country. The document was supposed to inform local bishops on how to deal with transsexuals on a case-by-case basis. It instructed bishops not to recognize transsexuals’ gender identity and to keep them from the Sacraments of marriage, ordination, and religious life. Sex reassignment surgery does not change a person’s gender.
Norton’s article has circled around the web since publication, being cited in just about every anti-trans polemic out there. Never mind that no one seems to have a copy of the original document. Never mind that the trail ends at John Norton, a journalist.
Personally I doubt the existence of the document. The whole thing smells too much of conspiracy theory. One wonders at Norton’s motivation for exposing the “secret.”
Even if the document is real, it does not represent Church teaching. The Catholic Church does not have “secret teachings.” A “secret teaching” is an obvious oxymoron for an institution in which “teaching” means “official guidance for the People of God.” You can’t instruct people or hold them accountable to something if they don’t know the teaching.
Also, even if a secret teaching were possible, it would be extremely irresponsible – maybe even immoral – for the Church to have a clear stance on transgenderism and yet not offer it as guidance to its transgender followers.
Also, it goes without saying that even if this document exists, Norton was obviously not authorized to release it to the public. The Church doesn’t use journalists to put forth its teachings.
Finally, even if the document is real, it supposedly says among other things “… that the [gender reassignment surgery or GRS] procedure could be morally acceptable in certain extreme cases if a medical probability exists that it will ‘cure’ the patient’s internal turmoil.” This seems to open up SRS as an option to pretty much the same people permitted by the medical community to undergo the procedure.
It’s obvious that there’s a long dialog before us. No one in the Church knows quite what to make of transsexed individuals, and the jury is still out regarding how the Magesterium’s views will develop.
According to the Catholic World Report, the Catholic Church “allows for the acknowledgment that there can be a biological reason for gender-identity disorder.” Rumor has it that the Church is waiting for science to further study the causes of transsexualism before it will make a decision. If this is true, it proves very hopeful for transsexed people since every year the biological/brain-sex theory of transsexualism seems to gain more support.
In the meantime transsexed Catholics must follow their consciences while navigating a social world in which almost no one has a place for them. Solid Catholic blogger Elizabeth Scalia sums it up in a beautiful reflection on her transgender friend Sarah.
… she [Sarah] loved the Rosary and prayed the beads every night along with a podcast recording I had made of each mystery. She read, and loved, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Edith Stein, and also Pope Benedict XVI, with whom she identified, calling him “undervalued.” Still, she declared she could never convert because “the church wouldn’t have me, as I am.”
By which she meant, as a post-operative, transgendered woman.
It broke my heart that Sarah believed this. I urged inquiry with a priest, but this child of God was convinced that there was no room for transgendered persons in the Catholic church. I thought there might be, and made a few discreet inquiries of my own; what I encountered was a general sense of dis-ease among the clerics and theologians I asked. None of them said “No, there is no room” but none of them would definitively say “yes” either. The dialogues on Sarah always held a built-in tension—that breath-holding, again—as the questions of sin and disorder were haggled out. One theology student asked me, as if I would know, whether sexual reassignment surgery didn’t indicate a “permanent rejection of God’s plan that might make reconciliation impossible.”
I understood the direction of his thinking: Must Sarah confess as a sin the surgery through which an identity had been formed that put a lifetime of suicidal thoughts to rest and brought a measure of peace? Must Sarah (whose baptismal name I never knew) do what was possible, within constraints of health and finances, to henceforth present as a man in order to come to church?
I was merely, in the parlance of the pope, doing simple triage by asking, “can this wounded soul be seen? May Sarah be admitted into this field hospital for sinners?” I considered my job, and the job of the church, as being first of all to love the person before me; to see Sarah, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “not simply with my eyes and feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ”; to respect the dignity of this human person seeking a relationship with Christ and then offer an arm of support for the journey. This might mean challenges down the road, certainly, but first and foremost it would require an unambiguous welcome.
From my own experience I’ve come to believe there are many people out there like Sarah, souls full of mystical devotion to Christ but who instinctively feel rejection of their personhood by other Catholics.
Thankfully, the younger generation increasingly understands the nuance of the problem and is willing to open their hearts to a deeper understanding of transsexed issues. For example, a 2008 conversation on the Catholic Answers forum shows a measured awareness of the topic.
(On a personal note, the only Catholics who seem to have a problem with my own transgenderism are (mostly males) over the age of 45. All the younger Catholics I’ve talked to, no matter how conservative, traditional, orthodox, pious, and holy, have been understanding at the least, and often all-out accepting. When I expressed my fear that my parish would utterly reject me if I transitioned, a holy friend of mine pointed out that since all the Catholics in my generation seem willing to love me for who I am, chances are time will quickly heal any schism).
Under the papacy of Pope Francis, the Church is at the perfect place to really engage trans issues. While Francis hasn’t changed any doctrine or dogma of the Church (and really holds the same views as Benedict), his tone shift is absolutely revolutionary. People on the left are calling the shift one of tolerance; I call it one of listening. Pope Francis is the listening pope, willing to lend his ear to the cry of the world’s lost voices. The trans voice is certainly silenced, even if it now enjoys a better audience than any other time in Western history. Thank you, Pope Francis, for being Christ’s listener.
Pope Francis is willing to learn. As he has said to the shock of many people:
“St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”
Pope Francis isn’t saying that dogma will change or creeds will topple. What he’s saying is that certain understandings, and therefore certain teachings, are subject to fallible human understanding and can change or grow as humanity expands its knowledge. Transgenderism is a perfect example of such an issue – it was barely acknowledged until the middle of the 20th century, and only now is being studied and better known by science.
If progress will be made, lay and religious Catholics need to understand that transgenderism is not cut-and-dry and that the Church is still in the process of learning about it. Taking their Mother Church as a model, Catholics must strive to slow their judgments and listen for a moment to the voices begging to be heard.