What does God reveal in transgender bodies? A conversation on Catholic teaching and gender
Editor’s note: Last year, America asked two professors of theology with backgrounds in gender studies, Elizabeth Sweeny Block of St. Louis University and Abigail Favale of the University of Notre Dame, to respond to the 2019 Vatican instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” America then invited each scholar to respond to the other in “Conversation: How should Catholics think about gender identity and transgender persons?”
In light of their fruitful discussion and in recognition of the fact that debates about gender identity and gender theory continue to be part of the political and ecclesial conversation in the United States and elsewhere, America asked both scholars to respond to each other again. What follows are their responses to the initial conversation.
Teaching and accompaniment
My thanks to America and Professor Block for this opportunity to dialogue. Dr. Block writes favorably of Pope Francis’ recent meetings with transgender persons, drawing a supposed contrast between Francis’ approach and the Congregation for Catholic Education document. This is a false bifurcation. “Male and Female He Created Them” contains almost two dozen references to Francis’ addresses and writings; Francis is its most-cited source. In fact, more than any other pope or Vatican office, Francis has offered direct and forceful challenges to the framework of gender theory.
On four public occasions, Francis has described the popularization of gender theory as a form of “ideological colonization.” What, precisely, does he find so objectionable? First, Francis rejects the foundational premise of gender identity theory, specifically, that biological sex does not ground one’s identity as man or woman (“Amoris Laetitia,” No. 56). Secondly, he warns against the biomedical “manipulation of sexual difference” that “eliminates both human dignity in sexual distinctiveness and the personal nature of the generation of new life.”
Francis’ most expansive critique of contemporary gender discourse can be found in “Amoris Laetitia,” where he rebuffs “an ideology of gender” that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman” and that separates “personal identity” from biological sex (No. 56). According to Francis, this framework, and its accompanying model of biomedical modification, inverts the relationship between Creator and creature:
It needs to be emphasized that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’ […] It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created. (No. 56)
Francis situates the gender question within his broader critique of humanity’s technological conquest of nature. He draws a connection between how we approach our bodies and how we approach creation as a whole: “Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 155, AL, No. 285). Bodily acceptance is a recurrent theme in Francis’ discussions about gender, and he enjoins us to help young people especially “accept their own body as it was created” (AL, No. 285).
This is the aspect of Francis’ approach that is overlooked by Dr. Block: the ministry of teaching, articulating the faith in light of contemporary challenges. This ministry is inseparable from Francis’ parallel pastoral work of accompaniment, his attention to individual persons and willingness to listen, to dialogue, to walk alongside. As a teacher, he articulates the truth of Catholic anthropology and the doctrine of creation. He rejects the flawed anthropology of gender theory. But as a pastor, he models accompaniment, meeting the individual wherever he or she might be, and walking the way of Christ—the way of the cross—with patience and gradualism.
Abigail Favale: “More than any other pope or Vatican office, Francis has offered direct and forceful challenges to the framework of gender theory.”
I believe Francis’ two-fold approach is the best way forward, a way that maintains a fidelity to both love and truth, which in Christ are inseparable. We must avoid the misreading of the rigorist, who sees Francis’ meetings with L.G.B.T. persons as a failure of his papal ministry, rather than a fulfillment. Yet we must also avoid the mirror-image mistake of the relativist: commending Francis for these summits while disregarding entirely what he’s actually preached on the subject. Both make the same error: seeing fidelity to church teaching and the work of accompaniment as mutually exclusive.
Francis shows us a path out of the false dichotomy between relativism and rigorism, one in which accompaniment is grounded in truth, and truth is expressed in love. The distinction I made in my initial remarks—that we must distinguish between persons and ideas in our response to gender theory—is a distinction I see reflected in the words and actions of Francis. He attends compassionately to the situation and experiences of the person; yet he does not grant “lived experience” the power to determine ultimate truth.
I would like to add a final word about accompaniment, appealing to my own—dare I say it—lived experience. When I first became Catholic, my gender theory framework was challenged by numerous church teachings. The church’s stance on contraception, a male priesthood and same-sex marriage all contradicted my personal beliefs, and I was reluctant to harmonize my life with the church. So I didn’t. Not at first, and not for a while.
Abigail Favale: “Francis shows us a path out of the false dichotomy between relativism and rigorism, one in which accompaniment is grounded in truth, and truth is expressed in love.”
My road toward Catholicism was pretty lonely, but I had one person accompanying me, a former student-turned-seminarian. I would bring to him all my feelings of dissonance; I would ask my hard questions, make my objections. And he would always listen with gentleness and patience. He would never finger-wag or pressure me to get in line. But neither did he sweep the countercultural claims of the church under a nonthreatening rug. In this way, I was invited into a truth bigger than myself, vaster than the narrow frame of my experience—a truth with the power to give actual transformation, a truth with the power to save.
Dr. Block ends her previous remarks with an appeal to humility, a value I share. But the elevation of human experience over divine revelation is the opposite of humility. Humility’s starting point is an awareness that we are creatures, not self-creators; that we do not determine our nature but receive it as gift; that we are wounded by natural limits and ignorance and sin; that we are in need of salvation. And—contrary to that first, primordial lie—we are not our own gods. We cannot save ourselves.
The lived realities of bodies created by God
Dr. Favale and I continue to have points of overlap in our conversation. Dr. Favale is eager to affirm that there is a reality that exists apart from cultural frameworks regardless of whether we affirm this reality or not. I concur. Humans do not invent moral truth; we discern and discover it through a variety of sources in dialogue. This means we do not invent truths about gender and sexuality; we discern these truths in creation.
However, it is the work of our entire moral lives to discover that moral truth, to refine and adjust our grasp of reality as we uncover new information and discover God’s revelation in new places. I am less sure than Dr. Favale that we know perfectly God’s plan for human gender and sexuality. We are learning and discovering, and our understanding is always a work in progress, informed by new information we encounter.
Dr. Favale gives less weight to human experience than to other sources of moral wisdom. I agree with her that our consciences must be formed—by church teaching and tradition, but also by experience, reason and knowledge from a variety of disciplines. I prioritize human experience because it has been an undervalued source of moral wisdom and because it is the root of Scripture and tradition. By experience, I do not mean whatever feels good to one individual or even one group. Experience refers to the shared realities of millions of people who, in this case, know God’s plan for their flourishing. Recent studies suggest there are more than 1.6 million transgender people in the United States alone.
Elizabeth Sweeny Block: “I am not willing to close off the possibility that God’s self-revelation is disclosed in transgender and nonbinary bodies.”
Dr. Favale observes that our experiences are refracted through the cultural frameworks we have on offer. Indeed, we are formed and shaped by many forces that influence how we perceive our experiences. But so too is our understanding of church teaching and tradition. Does this mean we are unable to say anything at all? No. Rather, we keep working to uncover our biases and privileged blind spots in dialogue with one another and with the voices of the marginalized, and we stand ready to revise our grasp of the truth as we proceed.
Many external forces shape our self-perceptions, but I would not venture to say that all transgender people are transgender because they were influenced by “the concept of subjective gender identity and a medicalized approach to gender.” Also, in many cases, a medicalized approach to gender provides relief and hope to transgender people. Moreover, theoretical frameworks are informed by, and can help us to get closer to, reality and truth. Indeed, theory helps us to make sense of human experience and does not merely obscure it. Can gender theory, in conversation with church teaching, illuminate human experience? Can these three sources work together and learn from each other? I think so.
That there are women and men is not a point I dispute. Not everyone fits into this binary, though, and why should we force them to do so? Nothing short of their human flourishing is at stake. Even if those who do not find a home in this binary or in their assigned gender are small in number compared to the cisgender population, why would we deny them their flourishing? Those who take gender transition to be immoral are quick to point to statistics that show that the transgender population is small. This makes it all too easy to say “transgender people are exceptions to the binary rule” and to dismiss them as outliers, rather than taking their moral insights seriously.
I deeply appreciate the work of Catholic theologian Dr. Craig Ford Jr., who observes that we are all on a gender journey, no matter how we identify, which requires us to work toward acquiring the virtue of gender alignment. Each of us will achieve alignment differently, in the same way that we achieve justice or courage differently. Each of us expresses gender uniquely.
Dr. Favale rightly observes that there is a ground of truth beyond ourselves and that we should be formed by God’s self-revelation. Absolutely! But truth is not just “out there,” it is also in the lived realities of bodies created by God. I am not willing to close off the possibility that God’s self-revelation is disclosed in transgender and nonbinary bodies.