On September 1, 2015, the Bishop of Cadiz and Ceuta publicly issued his ruling regarding trans man Alex Salinas, who requested to become a godfather. At first the Bishop denied the request, but then later reversed the decision and said yes, he could be a godparent. However, with media attention growing around the issue, he decided to turn to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for guidance.
After handing over the case to the CDF, he came back with another denial for Salinas. Salinas was not to be made a godparent, which the bishop says shouldn’t “be seen as discrimination, but only the acknowledgment of an objective lack of requirements which by their nature are required to assume the ecclesial responsibility of being godfather.”
The bishop then quotes the CDF, which told him in no uncertain terms that:
“transsexual behavior reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one’s own sexuality. Therefore it is clear that this person does not possess the requirements to lead a life according to the faith and the position of godfather… and may not therefore be admitted to the charge of godmother or godfather.”
The bishop goes on to quote Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (which I discuss here), where the Pope says:
“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,”
“It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”
The sum total is that Salinas is considered unfit to guide a child in the faith because he is conceived as publicly cancelling out sexual difference rather than embracing his God-given femaleness.
Obviously this recent development has major implications for being transsexual in the Church, so I think it’s necessary to look further into what this ruling means.
What this ruling means at face value
First of all, I should mention that the ruling on Salinas was a pastoral and canonical decision, not a doctrinal one. So far, all dealings with transsexuals by the Church have been on this level. There is no “official teaching” per se, only some scattered, confusing decisions about what to do with transsexual persons who happen to be Catholic.
Second, in these canonical dealings the Church is primarily dealing – as far as I can tell – with transsexual persons as opposed to transgender persons in general, i.e. persons who have or are currently undergoing a medical transition to live as their desired sex, and who presumably experience crippling sex dysmorphia and gender dysphoria.
What’s most troubling about the decision is that Salinas isn’t only denied godfatherhood, but godparenthood in general. It would be one thing if, being born biologically female, he was denied godfatherhood (as a male institution) but permitted godmotherhood (as a female institution). Such a ruling wouldn’t have been very affirming for Salinas, but it would have preserved his ability to function in some capacity in the faith life.
As far as I can tell, the decision went so far as to say that Salinas isn’t only incapable of godfatherhood because he was born female, but incapable of being any kind of godparent because he’s transsexual. This means the CDF takes issue with what they conceive as a transsexual ‘lifestyle’ – or “behavior,” as they put it.
As long as Salinas lives as a man, the CDF believes he is incapable of godparenthood. The quoted “moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one’s own sexuality” implies that Salinas wouldn’t be capable of said godparenthood unless he chose to resolve his transsexual tension in some way other than transitioning.
What this ruling means in light of other canonical pronouncements
On some level the ruling on Salinas doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me. In 2003 John Norton reported that the Vatican had issued a “sub secretum” document to many bishops outlining the current canonical opinion on transsexual issues. There has never been, to my knowledge, any substantial evidence that this document exists. However, the document was reportedly authored by Rev. Urbano Navarete, SJ, who based it on an earlier canonical paper he published in 1997 called “Transsexualism and the Canonical Order.” In this document, Navarette suggests that transsexuals are psychically incapable of marriage (as a husband or wife), Holy Orders (as a nun or monk), or priesthood. Once again, the opinion isn’t that a trans man cannot be a husband because he was born female, but can’t get married at all because he’s transsexual and suffers from a “lack of psychic equilibrium.”
The document treats transsexuality specifically as a psychic disturbance, “not as a symptom of some more profound psychic illness, as is schizophrenia, but as a typical phenomenon of dissociation between the observable physical sexual data and their psychic perception.” Navarrete is careful to say that his study forgoes “any ethical or moral issues in this subject area,” especially regarding whether medical transition is a good thing for transsexuals. He acknowledges that “if these operations are judged to be the efficacious means to free the patient from an intolerable psychological conflict,” they may be permissible.
I can only assume the CDF’s decision considered the precedent set by Navarrete. If this document is any indication, the Church views transsexuality in almost exclusively pathological terms.
The differences between the Navarrete document and the CDF’s position highlight the shortcomings in the Salinas case. While Navarrete’s opinion about the role of transsexual people in the life of the Church is not particularly encouraging, he still manages to draw out some nuance. Among the nuances he introduces are:
1. Transsexual surgical procedures are a medical issue that may be permissible and even necessary for the functioning of a transsexual person. The canonical difficulties of situating a transsexual person in the life of the Church are a separate issue from whether transitioning is moral and efficacious.
2. His document treats transsexuality as a psychic disturbance that has no biological (intersex) substrate. This leaves room for science to demonstrate that transsexuals are in fact intersex, in which case the canonical ruling would probably change.
I’m reminded of Catholic bioethicist Albert Moracewski’s assertion that: “[I]f the biological interpretation of transsexuality is correct to any considerable degree, then there might be a basis for saying… that a sex change operation would be corrective and be similar to other operations which seek to compensate for, or overcome, a difficulty that is genetic or embryological in origin” [Ethics and Medics, Sept./Oct 1977, emphasis added].
It’s noteworthy that while the evidence isn’t conclusive, numerous studies including Zhou (1995), Kruijver (2000), Gooren (2006), Swaab (2004), Schneider, Pickel, and Stalla (2006),Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab (2008), Ramachandran (2008), Berglund (2008),Luders (2009), and Rametti (2010) point to a biological theory of transsexuality.
Insofar as the CDF thinks Salinas cannot be a godparent because he suffers from a transsexual condition, I’m not surprised by the ruling. What’s truly troubling – and what both the CDF and Navarrete bring to light – is the lack of options left open to transsexuals. Like Navarrete, the CDF pathologizes transsexuality. Unlike Navarrete, the CDF acts as if transsexuality can be overcome or resolved by a simple change in “behavior.” This puts transsexuals in an impossible situation. We cannot participate in much of Church life because of our supposed pathology which is so severe as to render us incapable of any meaningful vocation. At the same time, this pathology which is so severe as to almost erase our personhood is also nothing but a lifestyle we need to somehow get over.
There’s a double standard working here that crushes transsexuals between a rock and a hard place. This ruling leaves someone like myself in the same predicament I’ve always been in, but now with impractical standards that are impossible to apply to my life.
It’s hard to see this ruling as anything but an all-doors-closed approach to transsexual people. It’s likewise hard to see this as sensible or pastorally sustainable. For a Church whose very name means “universal,” it’s as ludicrous to shut transsexuals out of vocational life as it is to forbid hirsute women from going to Mass.
Luckily, I think there’s room for the Church to grow in her canonical rulings. However, if such growth is going to happen, the Church needs to examine transsexuality not as a secular social agenda, but as a factual phenomenon that is concretely experienced by individuals in the Church.
Transsexual “behavior,” “experience,” and facticity
I already mentioned that the canonical and pastoral ruling of the CDF on Salinas is extremely problematic. It assumes that for a transsexual person, there is a viable way to resolve their sexual identity without transitioning. The CDF is primarily concerned with the fact of Salinas’ birth sex, but without any substantial acknowledgement of the fact of his transsexuality as a persistent condition.
Considering transsexual “lifestyle” purely in terms of “behavior” brushes over the actual (factual) experience of being transsexual. Salinas’ life as a man is not “behavior” in the same sense that wearing a clown costume to Mass is “behavior.” If anything, it’s much closer to a non-transsexual man’s “behavior” when he walks into Church as himself (or if we’re going to conceive it pathologically, then perhaps the behavior of a person with tourettes is a better example).
Acknowledging Salinas’ transsexual experience is not the same thing as denying objective facts for the sake of subjective “feelings.” Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDR, notably warned against putting “any so-called lived realities” on the same level as tradition. We need to balance this with John Paul II’s assertion that:
“In the interpretation of the revelation about man, and especially about the body, we must, for understandable reasons, refer to experience, since corporeal man is perceived by us mainly by experience” (26 Sept. 1979).
I can understand Müller’s wariness; there’s something nihilistic, indeed atheistic, about assuming that a person’s inner will automatically trumps God’s created order. It’s an assertion of man over God. However, collective experiences and phenomenon within the human condition are still meaningful data.
For example, if bishops were to assert tomorrow (as natural philosophers once did) that a woman must orgasm in order to conceive (thus giving a reproductive teleology to the clitoris), they would simply be wrong because the empirical truth of the matter is that women conceive without orgasm; and the assertions that they orgasmed without knowing it would be an ad hoc argument made from bad faith. Pastoral or catechetical rulings that completely ignore the facts of human experience, development, and predicament are neither compassionate nor true, no matter how well-intentioned or provisional they are.
The fact is – regardless of how you interpret it – that transsexuality in the form of sex dysmorphia, and often even gender dysphoria, is a crippling state of affairs. The fact is that I’m incapable of living according to my birth sex. If transitioning is primarily a moral reality, and if I’m morally implicated by transitioning, then I can only assume that God predestined me for Hell given how little choice I have in the matter.
The CDF talks about “the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one’s own sexuality.” Here they seem to be advocating for reparative therapy (aka. “conversion therapy”), i.e. trying to cure transsexuality through psychoanalytic means in alignment with the transsexual’s birth sex. Before I transitioned, I tried every possible form of reparative therapy. I went to prayer healings, counseling, frequent confession, even an exorcism. I went to a reparative therapist of my own accord for a while, and then was subjected to another reparative therapist against my will. During most of this time – twenty years – I lived my life as a personal reparative project. I cannot tell you how many years of my life were completely obsessed with embracing my masculinity and self-curing my sex dysmorphia.
All these forms of change therapy had only two results: (1) my sex dysmorphia and gender dysphoria became worse every year, and (2) I became increasingly suicidal. I didn’t even admit I was transgender until I reached the point where failure to do so would spell death for me.
What I’m talking about here isn’t a vague inner premonition that trumps the facts of life, but the cold, hard facticity I have to deal with every day. The CDF is trying to have it both ways: at once pathologizing the issue, but then asking for easy answers when there are none.
My physical transition is a public stigma. People can visibly tell that I’m trans in a way that isn’t true of, say, most lesbian women. The idea that my transition “reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative” is extremely troubling. Rather than implicate my “behavior,” this statement questions my very existence. Is my persistent experience of sex dysmorphia an “attitude,” especially when I have no control over it? From where I’m standing this statement means that I, being transsexual against my will, am inherently opposed to a moral imperative of sexual alignment. My transition, after all, is nothing but a public revelation of what was already there.
I’m sure the CDF didn’t intend their statement to imply a predestined moral corruption, but when what they say is applied to how things actually are, the implications are unthinkable.
Final concerns and hopes
The Church has chosen to medicalize and pathologize transsexuality. This is certainly a valid paradigm on transsexual issues, but the Church cannot address transsexuality as clinical without learning from medical practitioners. Psychologists have been attempting to cure transsexuality since the birth of psychology, but to no avail. On the other hand, physical transitioning has proven itself to be extremely efficacious.
Asking a transsexual to grow a sexual identity in conformity with their birth sex is like asking a paraplegic to grow new legs. Similarly, asking a transsexual with severe sex dysmorphia to forego transitioning is like asking a cancer patient to forgo chemotherapy. If the Church is going to pathologize and stigmatize the issue, it needs to properly medicalize it as well.
From what we know, a transsexual will always remain transsexual regardless of reparative interventions. If such remains the case – which is likely – then the Church needs to reach a little deeper into its pastoral toolbox. Canonical definitions of sex aside, transsexuals need a home; and not only a home, but a meaningful life with a committed vocation oriented to God.
There are no easy answers here, but that’s okay. When Christ promised the Holy Spirit to the Church, he didn’t say that we’d get all the answers, only that the Spirit would continue to teach us. I’m certain this ruling by the CDF won’t be the last word on the matter, and I’m incredibly hopeful that as the Church encounters more and more transsexuals in the facticity of their lives, she will eventually find a place for them in the Body of Christ.