Critics and supporters of the Vatican’s latest document on gender and sexuality may find little common ground on the issue, but they can agree on this: The church needs to further a dialogue about transgender individuals.
“Male and Female He Created Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” issued June 10 by the Congregation for Education, in large part repeats church teaching found elsewhere. It addresses issues of education in schools, the role of parents as primary educators and what the authors refer to as “gender ideology.”
Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland, Calif., chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Catholic Education, issued a brief statement welcoming the document. He said, “in a difficult and complex issue, the clarity of church teaching, rooted in the equal dignity of men and women as created by God, provides the light of truth and compassion that is most needed in our world today.”
The authors of the document point to areas of agreement in the gender debate, including the need to “respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.)” (No. 16).
“It is essential that the right conditions are created to provide a patient and understanding ear, far removed from any unjust discrimination.”
“Every school should therefore make sure it is an environment of trust, calmness and openness, particularly where there are cases that require time and careful discernment,” according to the document. “It is essential that the right conditions are created to provide a patient and understanding ear, far removed from any unjust discrimination” (No. 56).
In terms of the dialogue surrounding the issue, the authors prescribe “following the path of listening, reasoning and proposing” (No. 52).
“I can certainly agree with a portion of the title which calls for dialogue, and the opening paragraphs which stress the importance of listening,” said Luisa Derouen, a Dominican sister who began serving the transgender community in 1999. The rest of the document, she said, lacked grounding in lived experiences.
“I found it quite jarring...that after those initial paragraphs there was abundant evidence that those writing this document had certainly not engaged in open, reverent, listening dialogue with transgender people,” Sister Derouen said. “I have accompanied them for 20 years and I do not recognize the people I know from the harsh and dangerous description of them in this document.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago also noted the invitation to engage in a dialogue about transgender issues.
“The document points out that dialogue must be free of ideologies, whatever their origins,” he said. “We should also keep in mind the essential principle Pope Francis has often articulated—that realities are greater than ideas. This principle is especially important when dealing with pastoral situations, which always require us to be in touch with the experience of people’s everyday lives.”
“The document points out that dialogue must be free of ideologies, whatever their origins.”
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, a moral theologian at Fordham University, also stressed the importance of experience and called the document an “interim response” from the Vatican on questions of gender and gender identity.
“The hierarchy has had comparatively little time to absorb and reflect upon the findings in the human sciences about the complexity of gender and sexuality,” he said. “It is up to theologians, trans Catholics and all of us to help our leaders as they continue to arrive at a fuller understanding of human experience.”
Deacon Ray Dever, who has a transgender child, said that “the church is long overdue to have this dialogue.” The document’s footnotes only refer to previous statements and writings from the church, he said, and is “divorced from scientific knowledge and the lived reality of transgender individuals.”
Deacon Dever hears from Catholic schools across the United States that are struggling with the issue. All of his children have gone through Catholic school, including Catholic universities. “My family couldn’t be more Catholic,” he said.
“The hierarchy has had comparatively little time to absorb and reflect upon the findings in the human sciences about the complexity of gender and sexuality.”
“Personal experience can be very educational and can change people’s minds and hearts,” he said of getting to know those who are transgender. “It has done nothing to undermine our family. It has never been a threat to our family.”
His greatest concern about the document is that it will be used to discriminate against transgender children. Almost 2 percent of U.S. high school students identify as transgender, according to a recent study posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the advocacy group The National Center for Transgender Equality, which included responses from nearly 28,000 transgender adults from across the United States, 40 percent of transgender individuals said they had attempted suicide at least once in their lives. Of those who were “out,” 77 percent reported experiencing some form of mistreatment in grade school or high school. One in 10 of those who were out to their family said they experienced violence from a family member.
“It’s not a choice,” Deacon Dever said of being transgender. “When you live with someone who is like this, it’s clear as day.”
The congregation is coming from a different point of view, according to David Cloutier, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America. “The document’s reading of history presents a stark option: Either respect the God-given intrinsic connection between gender and biological sex or reject that order in favor of subjectively chosen self-definition,” he writes in a recent essay for America.
“The further we get from a relatively discrete trait (e.g., sexual attraction), the more difficult it becomes to sustain ‘born that way’ arguments without falling into contradictions,” Mr. Cloutier writes. “If male and female are social constructs, then it makes no sense to claim that a person is ‘really’ female.”
Mr. Cloutier writes that respecting a person’s dignity does not always mean supporting a person’s choices. “Affirming desires is never sufficient,” he writes, “one needs an account of the ends toward which the person and their sexuality aim.”
James Martin, S.J., in another essay for America, wrote that the congregation’s document does not address “scientific understandings and discoveries about gender.” Instead, Father Martin wrote, the authors rely “mainly on the belief that gender is determined solely by one’s visible genitalia, which contemporary science has shown is an incorrect (and sometimes even harmful) way to categorize people. Gender is also biologically determined by genetics, hormones and brain chemistry—things that are not visible at birth. The congregation’s document relies heavily on categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that were shaped centuries ago, and not always with the most accurate scientific methods.”
"The congregation’s document relies heavily on categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that were shaped centuries ago, and not always with the most accurate scientific methods.”
The document notes, for example, intersex individuals, those who are born with an ambiguous biological sex. Yet, Mary Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, cautions against grouping intersex individuals and transgender individuals together. The explanation that “something went wrong in utero” for those who are born with ambiguous genitalia, causing them to be not clearly male or female bodies, cannot be applied to transgender individuals, she said.
Ms. Hasson said readers of the document should keep in mind that the congregation was writing for a global church. “There has been increasing conflict for Catholic schools in how they interact with the state on a number of issues,” she said. That makes what the congregation said about parents as primary educators crucial. Governments should make space for Catholic schools to be true to their religious identity and not impose one particular view, she said.
She described the prevailing gender ideology as one typified by “self-determination,” meaning that individuals are free to determine their gender. The congregation was pushing back against this notion, Ms. Hasson said. That is especially needed because, she said, public schools are supportive of a gender ideology that she believes conflicts with the church teaching articulated in the document. Most Catholic children in the United States attend public schools.
“You’re not going to find a bridge. It’s a completely different view of what it means to be a human being.”
“The church is pointing to a clash of anthropologies,” she said. Ms. Hasson does not believe there is common ground between the congregation’s view (that God creates human beings as male or female) and the cultural view (that a person’s biological sex can be determined by the individual). The church, she said, is starting “from a place of revealed truth.”
“You’re not going to find a bridge. It’s a completely different view of what it means to be a human being,” she said.
“We’re all about caring for someone who is going through this,” Ms. Hasson said of those who are transgender. “We can talk about what might be causing those feelings. But we’re not going to deny what’s true. That’s not going to help anyone.”
The Rev. Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said the document addresses the issue “in a way that is respectful of the [Catholic] tradition and at the same time recognizes profound realities of the human person.”
“There has to be a willingness to take biology at face value,” he said. He called the contemporary treatment of transgender individuals in medicine and psychology a “radical departure,” and one that is a “capitulation to a kind of ideology.”
As an example, he cited Dr. Paul McHugh, who ended gender reassignment surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1979. (The hospital restarted reassignment surgeries in 2017.) Dr. McHugh believes that transgender individuals need psychotherapy rather than surgery.
According to some reports, doctors and parents of transgender children in the United States are becoming more accepting of minors who identify with a nonconforming gender, even as young as 3.
“In the past, there was a willingness to engage on a level of counseling those that were struggling with dysphoria,” Father Pacholczyk said. “The starting point for this issue is being born with a particular gift of being male or female.”
There is a disconnect about what constitutes legitimate science between those who support and those who disagree with the congregation’s document. Science free from ideology “will always serve us well,” Father Pacholczyk said, noting that women are born with XX chromosomes and men with XY. “Arguing that genes mean nothing, that’s simply not true. That’s not doing justice to the science.”
Separating gender from biological sex “is a kind of dualism,” he said. “If the real me is who I profess to be and if the body does not agree, then the body is pathological. It needs to be ‘fixed.’”
“Arguing that genes mean nothing, that’s simply not true. That’s not doing justice to the science.”
While Father Pacholczyk agrees that the lived experiences of transgender individuals “would provide insights,” he added that testimonies need to include “the growing number of individuals who are reverting to their original sex,” he said. “They should not be omitted from the dialogue.”
Hillary Howes is the head of TransCatholic, a group she founded about eight years ago to provide resources for Catholics who are transgender, as well as for their families. She found the Vatican’s document “shocking,” she said, because “they’re talking about gender theory and their definition of it is something from the 1950s that has been refuted by science and medicine.”
“Here we have the hierarchy, a male patriarchy really, essentially taking this theory from the ’50s, one that’s been debunked by now, and blaming everything that’s wrong with Western civilization on it,” said Ms. Howes, who converted to Catholicism following her transition about 20 years ago. She said the document “smears not only transgender people, but gays and anyone who is feminist, frankly.”
Ms. Howes pointed to positive moments in terms of how the church relates to its trans members, including a 2016 article in a publication of the Catholic Health Association that urges Catholic hospitals to provide medical care to trans people and to use their preferred pronouns. But she said the new document feels like a step backward.
“When the document talks about gender theory and so on, it clearly isn’t involving any of the life experiences of any transgender people. The process of being transgender isn’t a matter of changing our sex or changing our gender, it’s a matter of revealing to the world who we truly are,” Ms. Howes said. “The fact that [transgender people are] different from their narrow of idea of humanity is challenging for them.”
Michael O’Loughlin and Kevin Clarke contributed to this story.