A simple google search for “Pope Francis transgender” would lead anyone to believe that the pontiff hates transgender people with a passion. CBS ran an article called Pope Francis Compares Transgender People To Nuclear Weapons In New Book; The Independent titles their take: Pope Francis compares arguments for transgender rights to nuclear arms race; and the catholicozarks blog calls it Gender Theory – the new Nazism. The way the media spins it – whether via liberal outrage or conservative triumphalism – you’d think transgender people are the newest incarnation of hell itself.
However, as is often (perhaps too often) the case, the media coverage relies on soundbytes and false juxtapositions (like sneaking in a photo of trans* activist Laverne Cox under a quote about gender theory) with no mind for context or audience. I find it amusing how desperate the liberal wings of the media are to make Pope Francis out to be a classical American liberal, and yet do everything in their power to disprove this false assumption with false accusations. The result is a comical ritual of constantly trying to set a straw man alight with a straw torch.
Allow me a moment to defend both Pope Francis and my transgender brethren from this outrageous libel.
The truth is Pope Francis has never talked directly about transgender issues, and while what he says about gender theory certainly has implications for Catholic trans* people who want to fully align with Rome, to this day there is still no hierarchical position with regards to transgender persons in the Church.
See my earlier post: What Does the Catholic Church Actually Say About Transgenderism?
The Ideology War: a more panoramic view
Here’s what’s true: Pope Francis has spoken on a number of occasions (three, if my count is correct) on the dangers of what he calls “gender ideology.” The media reads “gender ideology” as “transgender identities,” but is this a fair equivocation?
The first thing we need to note is that, as Melinda Selmys puts it in her interview with Theologues,
there’s a difference between the transgender experience on the one hand, and gender ideology on the other. The gender ideology doesn’t necessarily have to concern transgender specifically. It’s also often found in feminism. And it is a denial of sexual difference essentially.
“Gender ideology” as Pope Francis means it is a massive school of academic thought predominant in Europe but also quite influential in leftist circles in America. His audience is a specific ideological movement that seeks to completely deconstruct the meaning and significance of sexual distinction. According to this theory, sexual difference is an arbitrary meaning-structure imposed on humanity by patriarchal forces. In the name of creating room for those who don’t fit into a straightforward binary, this ideology would seek to render gender meaningless.
Mark Yarhouse, author of Understanding Gender Dysphoria, calls this the “strong form of the diversity framework,” one of the dominant perspectives Christians might use to understand transgenderism. The weak form of the diversity framework is simply that God has created a natural diversity which needs to be celebrated. This stronger form goes farther and says that all divisions of gender and sexuality are pretenses, social constructs, performances, and “a source of authority that needs to be deconstructed” (51).
Pope Francis is pushing back against this strong form. According to him, the way we interpret our bodies isn’t merely an act of radical free will, but must be in reference to God’s design.
I think it’s fair to say the Pope divines Nietzschean roots in this gender ideology. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him… Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” To paraphrase: if God doesn’t exist, then we are our own highest authority, and ideas like design and creation are meaningless. We are the sole designers and creators. To Pope Francis, nothing is more dangerous, and to that end he prophetically defends the importance of God as Creator and Designer.
This radical form of gender thinking, whether it’s delivered in the form of queer politics or feminist critique, is a specific way of thinking taken to one extreme. It has nothing to do with transgender persons per se. Transgender people – or persons who experience gender dysphoria and/or don’t fit into a rigid binary – have always existed and always will exist, whether “gender ideology” is around to interpret our experience. Nothing about this basic experience is invalidated by attacking gender ideology. In fact, Mark Yarhouse notes that most gender dysphoric individuals he’s met have problems with gender ideology in its most radical form as it doesn’t gel with their own experience.
Keeping in mind the distinction between gender ideology as an academic movement, and transgenderism as a lived experience, what then do we take away from what the Pope has to say?
Instance #1: Interview in Pope Francis: This Economy Kills – January 2015
In an interview with journalists Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, Pope Francis lists a number of modern phenomenon he believes are part of “a new sin… against God the Creator.” He mentions the dangers of nuclear arms, as well as “genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.” It’s from this quote that we get sensationalist headlines like “Pope Francis Compares Transgender People To Nuclear Weapons.”
Francis goes on to say that “[the] true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate.” In other words, any agenda that frames humanity as a commodity is dangerous, whether that commodity is expended as a casualty in impersonal warfare, a lab rat in manipulative experiments, or a consumer body that is as trivial and malleable as a home makeover. Any of these ideologies, insofar as they minimize the meaning and dignity of human life, are bad.
The Pope concludes by saying that “God has placed man and woman at the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth. The design of the Creator is written in nature.” As human beings, we are afforded a special place in the world. With this specialness comes an abiding responsibility toward the rest of Creation. We both find the world already made, and find ourselves with the power to manipulate it. Francis is teasing out what has been and will continue to be a major theme of his pontificate: our responsibility to that which God has given us in stewardship. We need to let the world speak to us about its needs before we go about exercising our own creative power over and above it.
Here Francis focuses on gender ideology as a destructive force, and I think it’s worth reflecting on. In the context of listening to nature, we need to have a certain amount of realism about sexual differentiation. I think gender ideology is correct in noticing the ways in which extrinsic voices impose superficial, often damaging, meanings onto our natural bodies; it also realizes with great clarity how people use gender binaries to exclude those who don’t fit in. However, it also ignores the organic ways in which our bodies, or nature, or the environment, speak to us.
Instance #2: The General Audience – April 15, 2015
In a General Audience Pope Francis took on issues of sexual complimentarity. He began with his firm belief in a natural yin-yang between the masculine and feminine. Both sides of the coin should be in harmony with each other rather than at war.
Not insignificantly, he then acknowledges the goodness of recognizing a natural variation and diversity within this overarching binary. “Modern and contemporary culture,” he says, “has opened new spaces, new freedoms and new depths for an enriched understanding of [sexual] difference.” He bemoans, however, that this recognition “has also brought many doubts and a great deal of scepticism.” He then asks if gender ideology in it’s most deconstructive form “may also be an expression of frustration and resignation due to our incapacity of confronting a problem. Yes, we risk backtracking. Removing the difference is the problem, not the solution.”
In other words, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It’s worth noting how Francis delineates the problem. He doesn’t deny that within the grand scheme of human sexuality there is a natural diversity, as well as varied ways in which masculinity or femininity express themselves. His specific axe to grind is with responding to this diversity by tearing down all ideas of difference. The proper solution, he believes, is to celebrate the difference rather than eliminate it.
I, among other transgender people, am somewhat relieved to hear this. Oftentimes transgender narratives are weaponized to deconstruct the meaning of gender, whereas the experience of many transgender people confirms the inescapable meaningfulness of gender. If everything were pure social construct, there’d be no basis for feeling such deep, inescapable gender dysphoria. For many of us, our struggles would be trivialized if society was made over to be completely androgynous.
Instance #3: The Encyclical
In the Pope’s most recent Encyclical, Laudato si, he talks at length about the ecology of the human body and the importance of sexual embodiment. He starts by quoting Pope Benedict XVI, who said that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” Our bodies, says Francis, are the means through which we relate to the world around us, and to fully accept the world requires that we also accept our bodies. This precludes “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies,” which he thinks often leads to having the same attitude toward the rest of creation.
Addressing sexual difference in particular, he says:
Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.
This passage takes a crack at gender ideology because it says our bodies aren’t merely interpreted one way or another, but bear meaning in themselves. Our bodies speak. They are an essential part of who we are, and the means by which we experience life, the world, and other persons. Part of our embodiment is our biological masculinity or femininity, so it’s a part of the being-in-the-world we experience through our bodies.
I think it’s precisely because of the importance of the body, and if its sex, that transgender people feel such a strong disconnect throughout our bodies. If we hold, as Francis does, that we know others primarily through the facticity of our body, then it’s essential that our body is able to be in correct relationship with the world around us.
It is also important, as I mentioned before, to recognize the work of God in how we are. If we are meant to be attentive to our own masculinity and femininity, this cannot end at being attentive to our genitals. And if a transgender person, in being truly attentive to the marks of masculinity/femininity that exist not only in their genitals, but also in their brain, their consciousness, and their palpable experience of embodiment – if that person discovers the hand of God in their gender dysphoria, then this gives meaning to their predicament.
So what do we know?
What Francis has to say about gender ideology is conclusive: he thinks the most radical forms of academic gender theory do not mesh with belief in a Creator God.
With regards to transgender people specifically, his words certainly bear on the transgender experience in an indirect manner. A transgender person cannot see themselves as their own creator, free to do whatever they wish to their body, without any concern for their design or final destination. However, this doesn’t necessarily preclude transgender people from transitioning, any more than it would preclude a blind person from having eye surgery. There is a world of difference between dominating the body and being a steward of it, even if these two different paradigms might often lead to the same medical, psychological, and social interventions.
What we DO know about Pope Francis’ relationship with transgender people is his exemplary compassion. The only direct interface he’s had with trans* people has been loving. In January of 2015 he met one on one with a trans man from Spain. To the man’s question “is there room for me in the Church,” Pope Francis simply embraced him. In May of 2015, when visiting inmates of an Italian prison, the Pope went out of his way to invite gay and transgender inmates to the table.
I believe Pope Francis’ observations do not invalidate the transgender experience. Not only that, but they also positively inform it. Gender dysphoria is a brute reality, and even if we cannot interpret it through the lens of radical gender deconstructionism, the reality remains to be dealt with. I hope that Pope Francis’ paradigm can inform our discussions about gender without being weaponized to invalidate trans* people.
A stewardship narrative of gender transition
As a transgender person, the Pope’s insights help inform my own process of discernment. I do not believe my body is merely a shell to be discarded. However, my process of coming out as transgender and even to transition arose precisely from my attentiveness to my body. It was in hearing what my conflicted nature – my bones and hormones, so to speak – had to tell me that I began to come to terms with the order of creation in me, and how God might be calling me on to better stewardship.
Recognizing the nature of things – in other words, God’s intention for the world – is not merely to observe facts in the world, but to also be attentive to our final destination. This is very much in line with the themes of the Pope’s encyclical. If we dominate, we don’t care about where we came from or where we’re going. If on the other hand we are stewards, we’re mindful of what we’ve been given and what we’re heading toward.
I think the stewardship paradigm is much more fulfilling for transgender persons. We can recognize the gender predicament we’re born with, and also prayerfully seek who we are in God’s eternal reality. With both those in mind – the start and the finish – we can treat our gender identity not as a choice or right, but as a gift that must be properly cultivated.
Some people – usually those on the outside looking in – will conceptualize gender transition as colonizing, raping, or commodifying the body. This is certainly the dilemma of trans women portrayed in the media. Whereas we all have rich narratives to tell about our femininity, the media always focuses on the most superficial elements of transformation. Documentaries always show us putting on makeup, and interviews usually include before-and-after pictures to ignite the audience’s imagination with the idea of “sudden transformation.” Transgender women are almost exclusively portrayed as wrecking their bodies with “frilly femininity” for the sake of some abstract mental reality.
This is evident in the way more progressive people often approach me. I’ve had more than one person come up to me and say “I accept any choice you make about your lifestyle.” What they’re telling me is that I, as a free individual, am at liberty to do what I want with my body. Their reassurance has its roots in Pope Francis’ “gender ideology.” While I appreciate the gesture, these assurances usually fall flat for me. I didn’t choose to be transgender. I didn’t choose to be gender dysphoric. I chose to do something about it because I have my eternal destiny in mind, and as long as God has created me to be me, I’d better go ahead and honor his creation by living authentically.
A much more meaningful reassurance for me would be: “I appreciate you in your gender complexity. I appreciate you as Anna.”
My transition journey began when I heard the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30). In this Gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable in which the master of a house gives talents (or money) to each of his servants. Two of the servants take what the master gives them and produce interest so that when the master returns, they can give him the fruit of their labor. The third servant, however, is afraid and buries his talent in the ground. When the master returns, he rebukes this fearful servant for not making the best of what he was given.
I see gender dysphoria the same way. There is a factual conflict between my brain and my genitals, my psycho-social gender reality and my reproductive equipment. This dilemma is a “talent” I’ve been given. I could be like the fearful servant and do nothing about this dilemma, but since that Gospel reading I’ve known I must act.
Not everyone who has gender dysphoria tries to resolve it the same way. Some people are in favor of fixing the brain to be in alignment with the genitals, although there’s little evidence that this is even possible. Other people, like me, favor aligning the rest of the body with the brain. Either way, there is a dilemma – a talent – that we need to respond to. The question is how.
As an alternative to the “colonizing the body” narrative that we hear from the media, I discerned my transition in terms of stewardship – in a paradigm not unlike that of Pope Francis. God gave me this gender-dysphoric body, so what am I to do with it? I drew the analogy in my mind of a garden. Our bodies are our gardens, and we’re obligated by God to tend them well.
Let’s say most people’s gardens are populated with either potato or lily seeds. Let’s also say that there’s one kind of fertilizer that helps grow potatoes, and another fertilizer that helps grow lilies. Before I transitioned, it was like I had a lily garden (a female mind) but the only fertilizer I had was for potatoes (testosterone). I tried for years to grow potatoes with that fertilizer, but it didn’t work because the seeds weren’t there. When lilies began to grow, they immediately died because they were choked by the wrong fertilizer.
In transitioning, I’m switching to lily fertilizers (female hormones). Now that I’m using the right fertilizer, all my crops are growing beautifully. I changed fertilizer not because I hate my garden, but because I love it and want it to flourish.
In my own narrative of being gender dysphoric, I’ve rejected radical deconstructionist gender ideology. I take seriously the nature of my body, with it’s apparent male physiology but underlying gender ambiguity, and I tend to it as I would the body of a loved one. I also take seriously the importance of gender: that I’m not merely a unique snowflake, but part of something bigger -in my case, womanhood.
As we consider what a specifically Catholic anthropology looks like, let’s allow Pope Francis’ words to inform rather than cancel out the experience of those who were created outside the binary.