According to Catholic teaching, what are the parameters of a pastoral response to persons who have transitioned genders?
I recently submitted this research paper to my university. Feedback from my assessor are in italics and brackets:
A pastoral response in any situation would be based on Psalm 78:52, that is, a response that is figuratively shepherding the flock, or leading the sheep through the world. In order to understand what the Catholic parameters are in pastorally responding to persons who have transitioned genders, related terminology ad concepts need to be defined first. In addition, this research paper will use his/him pronouns for ease, when referring to the human person regardless of gender. (An interesting verse to choose. You should indicate why you chose this verse in particular, and also consider its context. It is surrounded by verses describing God’s dealing with the enemies of Israel, and leading them to the promised land.)
Gender transition is the process where a person shifts towards a gender identity different from sex assigned at birth. Assigned at birth here refers to assignment by other persons involved in the birth, directly or indirectly. Transition may be social, such as new names, pronouns and clothing, and/or medical, such as hormone therapy or surgery, in order to challenge sex assignment. (An interesting word choice. Did you mean “change”? Or what do you mean by “challenge” here?) One would challenge their sex assignment in this way based on their gender identity. Of note, medical transition generally disrupts fertility and original sexual function. (At some stage, though perhaps not within this paper, it might be worth examining the theological meaning of names, and exploring the suggestion that names are more than merely social factors.)
In this paper, gender identity refers to one’s inner sexual sense of being male, female or an alternate gender, which may or may not align with sex assignment at birth. Those whose identity is misaligned in this way could be considered transgender, and may or may not have a history of gender dysphoria (GD). GD is distress arising from such misalignment.
These definitions, especially that of sex assignment, are not consistent with Christian anthropology. (It depends on how they are understood and acted upon. It is quite within Catholic theology to observe that someone’s sense of themselves may differ from their biological sex, which can have a negative impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. The point of departure is the definitions of sex and gender, and whether it is possible to change it.) God created the human person in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27). In the lead up to Gen 1:27, what is known about God is that he is Creator of that which is good. He shaped the good, which enabled him to uniquely name the created good to distinguish it from His other created goods according to its distinct telos. For example, he shaped the light to separate it from the darkness, and he created fruit tree that bears fruit and not vegetables.
Gn 1:1–12 provide the clues on what creation in God’s image means; a creature of God is good, intelligible and teleologically distinguishable, moving from solitude to communion to form an economy of signs. To demonstrate this point further, prior to Gen 1:27, God commanded the non-human animals to be fertile and multiply precisely because they are good, intelligible and teleologically distinguishable from each other. Unsurprisingly, God’s first commandment to the human person, male and female, is also to be fertile and multiply for the same reasons (Gn 1:28).
Therefore, sex assignment is a perception that such human determination at birth should not be rooted in what is God-given (Gn 1:31), intelligible and teleologically distinguishable due to a divorced gender identity. In this light, gender identity, especially if it is not male or female, is not a gift from God, is not intelligible from a Christian anthropological worldview, and is divorced from teleology as seen through bodily signs. But it is a worldview, a gender theory, that does make gender transition and being trans intelligible and potentially venial. (You may be mixing categories here. You jump from the discussion of whether ‘transitioning’ is logical within the framework of a gender ideology to whether this is a kind of sin. Too many factors are involved in this question to be dealt with by a single comment.)
Gender transition is a moving away from imago dei because it self-denies the dignity of being interdependent in the way that the Trinity is internally interdependent. Self-giving images God-givenness, where what God has given is purposefully designed for flourishing — the human person is designed to be self-giving, which moves him towards becoming “one flesh” with the other (Genesis 2:24). This is an invitation to obey, rather than comply, in a participated theonomy, so any move away from this design is a distorted sense of human freedom. (Your argument is valid, but you may be confusing categories a little. Someone may, for example, still desire to participate in self-giving love, but want to shift their assigned position within that giving. You quite rightly point out that this implies a rejection of the intended communion, but the language of obedience is a little heavy here. Perhaps it could be said that the pre-requisite for self-giving is to give oneself over to our created purpose (and identity), in order to give oneself in love?)
At present, other than Male and Female He Created Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, there is no known contemporary and explicit Magisterial teaching on those who have transitioned genders. However, there are some Catholic teaching on what the parameters are on the pastoral response to such persons.
At least part of the pastoral response is truth-telling. In fact, a type of pastoral response is that of little more than telling the truth explained thus far in this paper. This is seemingly so, for if someone has sinned against another, the sinned against is obliged to point out the sin to the sinner in private in the first instance (Matthew 18:15). From personal experience as a trans woman, a mere truth-telling exercise will not spur me to repent for being a trans woman — I am confident here in speaking on behalf of many trans people. (Your personal experience is invaluable in this paper, but it is customary to express such input in a way that acknowledges its anecdotal nature, and usually after some evidence that this reflects a broader evidence base.)
Since madness is part of the Fall (Deuteronomy 28:28), it could be unpastorally argued that being trans, especially if it is driven by GD, is a form of madness, and on this basis, mere truth-telling would just escalate to the point of excluding trans people from Christian fellowship (Matt 18:17). (Describing psychological distress as “a form of madness” would indeed be a poor pastoral approach. There are many kinds of psychological distress which are commonly recognised as mitigating culpability, but which are not described as madness.) This is well below the parameters of an appropriate pastoral response. Indeed, when taken too far in the psychotherapeutic context, certain forms of gender identity conversion efforts are associated with increased risk of lifetime suicide attempts and exacerbated psychological distress. (Yes, but it would be helpful to identify what these parameters were earlier in this paper.)
In the same context, the seemingly pastoral response is comprehensive exploratory assessment of the trans patient, covering early and gender developmental history, trauma and abuse history if any, state of emotional functioning, state of intellectual and educational functioning, and state of personal relationships including family. Yet whilst this response enables critical thinking on the part of the healthcare shepherd and the member of the trans flock under their care, and lack of such assessment has been associated with transition regret, it is nevertheless agnostic towards a Christian anthropology of what is given and normative. (Is there any reason such an analysis and assessment could not be carried out within Christian parameters?)
Such a state of trans healthcare is a reflection of the dominant culture healthcare works within, where natural law could be acknowledged as based on reason, but rather, such reason, even if de-Catholicised, is as effective as a blunt instrument. (While it is possible to understand your point, the sentence could do with a re-write to make your meaning clearer.) It is clear that a pastoral response based on mere truth-telling does not decomplicate the matter. A case in study is Male and Female He Created Them (MaFHCT), published by the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) to provide Catholic educational guidance on contemporary public discourse surrounding gender theory.
MaFHCT posited that gender identity is a fluid choice driven by radical autonomy, and the response to this was varied. Some Catholic bishops praised the document for reaffirming the Catholic position on gender, and the obligation of educators, including parents, to teach such anthropology. Others cautiously welcomed the document for prompting dialogue amongst Catholic theologians and philosophers, but appears to have excluded the trans flock and those involved in their lives from a shepherd-led dialogue. Perhaps a more appropriate pastoral response lies in the Catholic traditions of liberal arts education.
As part of liberal arts-style self-education, the shepherd cultivates his humanity by means of critically self-examining his worldview, re-examining tradition, and aspiring for communion by means of cultivating humanity of self and others, leading to critical empathy. This approach seemingly differs to that of Matt 18:15–17, which MaFHCT is more aligned towards in approach. (Matthew 18: 15–17 is dealing with a specific pastoral situation, where a Christian person is engaging in specific acts which are clearly defined as sinful, and claiming that these acts are good and pleasing to God. This is quite different to listening to the experiences of a person and walking with them in the journey of discovery of God’s “way”.) Whilst MaFHCT did critically examine the Church’s anthropology on gender, and concluded that such anthropology is sound, it was missing the ingredient of cultivating (I’m not sure what word would be better here, but this one seems out of place. “working towards a flourishing humanity” perhaps?) the humanity of trans people.
In order to holistically develop the human person, he should be developed as a person-in-community rather than individually, where persons in communion with each other acknowledge and respect diverse lived experiences. To this end, MaFHCT did not appear to attempt to empathise with trans people without compromising on Catholic teaching. Liberal arts tools available to the Catholic Church to rectify such pastoral shortcoming include the Socratic Method, the Interdisciplinary Paradigm, and the Wonder Approach. (This is true, but this discussion might include consideration of the nature and function of such documents in the Magisterium.)
The Socratic Method fosters respectful dialogue, leading to cognitive growth. In such dialogue, sometimes silence enhances dialogue in rebalancing power imbalances that say, trans people may perceive about their relationship with the Church. Yet there is no explicit evidence to suggest that the trans flock were consulted over MaFHCT prior to publication. Had such Socratic consultation taken place prior to publication, MaFHCT would have explored why trans people fall outside sound Catholic anthropology. (Your basic premise here is an interesting idea. But Socratic method is aimed at educating, drawing the interlocutor to a predefined conclusion. It does not (in its purest form) seem to be ideally suited for ‘consulting’ that takes on board new and unexpected experiences and worldviews. Your point would stand even if you suggested a slightly less defined method of engaging with another’s perspective.)
This type of silence would give voice to those who perceive a power imbalance has been in play, that is, they may start to feel listened to, whether consensus will eventually be reached or not. But it will lead to the formation of independent critical empathy that adds value to dialogue. Because an appropriate restraining of one’s words demonstrates knowledge, intelligence and understanding, regardless of whether he is considered a fool or not (Proverbs 17:27–28).
In order to reach equilibrium in dialogue if even possible, disequilibrium usually comes first. The protracting disequilibrium in public discourse about trans issues was an opportunity for the CCE and the wider Church, and trans people to listen to each other, self-reflect, and then on this basis, seek common ground. Had the shepherds of the Church taken such an approach proactively, MaFHCT may have explored Catechism of The Catholic Church paragraph 1735, because it appears that being trans, especially having a history of GD, is relevant to CCC 1735.
CCC 1735 is explored further in paragraph 302 of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in the context of marriage and sexuality. However in the same paragraph, reference to pastoral discernment is not consistent with how it is referred to elsewhere in the document. Specifically, pastoral discernment in this paragraph is a third-person observation of past action, whereas pastoral discernment in paragraph 300 is a first-person singular personal and pastoral discernment.
It is not clear on this basis, what the parameters are for a Catholic pastoral response to persons who have transitioned genders. Perhaps this is why MaFHCT, released well after Amoris Laetitia, lacked pastoral fortitude to explore outside the Church’s position. (If this is a Magisterial (teaching/prophetic) document of the Catholic Church, it can hardly ‘explore’ outside the teaching of the Church. Having said that, your suggestions above are well within the parameters of Catholic teaching.) To be fair, the recent knowledge overflow relating to LGBTQ issues has probably contributed to dialogical integration issues, thereby incentivising compartmentalisation of knowledge. Therefore the step-up from the Socratic Method is the Interdisciplinary Paradigm. (You seem to be comparing apples and oranges here. The Socratic method is a ‘method’ of philosophical argument, whereas interdisciplinary refers to multiple academic disciplines engaging in the pursuit of a particular study.)
Pope John Paul II’s argument in Fides et Ratio that faith and reason go hand-in-hand is an indirect endorsement of interdisciplinarity, that is, efforts to integrate different disciplines that overlap such as religion and science. Since faith and reason do no contradict each other, this would explain why currently there is no known contemporary and explicit Magisterial teaching on those who have transitioned genders, because the science of being transgender is still maturing.
As the science of being trans is maturing, this provides the opportunity to critically think about the different perspectives available in public discourse in order to reach the truth eventually. This is an ongoing effort, and it is not known if the moral dilemmas associated with gender transition can ever be resolved, for this is how fallen the world is. But in light of CCC 1735, Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, and the unknowns of the science of being trans, placing extra emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance is not necessarily the sustainable solution either. (This statement would stand even without reference to the above studies and teaching documents. Penance requires, both in the confessor and the penitent, an adequate understanding of the nature of dispositions, contexts and acts.)
Based on my life experience as a trans woman, sincerely acknowledging the lived experiences of trans people without necessarily agreeing with their ethical life choices is critical to pastoral ministry. Also critical to this ministry is the compelling story behind the theology of the body that needs to be told, but it seems that there is relevant knowledge that remains unclear or unknown for the time being, even in a state of Interdisciplinary Paradigm. Realistically, this leaves one liberal arts-related parameter left for the Catholic pastoral response to grapple with: wonder. (This is also true of quite a number of moral problems Christian people have faced. Perhaps part of our approach must be to humbly acknowledge our limitations and capacity to judge things as God can? (I believe you made a similar point earlier in this paper?))
In a state of wonder, having gone through the Socratic Method and the Interdisciplinary Paradigm, one opens up to unfamiliar experiences, eager to learn more about these by suspending judgement and bracketing off without dismissing say, Catholic theological positions. Or one could be left lost for words at the mystery of the trans experience — such a state of wonder would allow one to be aware of the limits of his understanding of the world, but maintain hope nevertheless.
I have been experiencing an ongoing Thomistic ‘mihi videtur ut palea’ state of wonder. During this Study Period, I found my spiritual home at the Anglo-Catholic Christ Church St Laurence (CCSL), and accordingly, I was received into the Anglican Communion last month. All that I have written for my Master of Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame Sydney, most of which in hindsight was a perennially futile attempt to reconcile ‘transgender’ with ‘Catholic’, now seems like straw to me. I may not be ‘happy’ with my lot in life, but I have finally and truly found God thanks to CCSL. When I read about St Thomas’ similar moment, I thought he was a fool for talking down his Summa Theologiae — turns out he wasn’t a fool.
(You have engaged in a formidable project here! There are so many underlying definitions, assumptions and logical progressions that it is hard to keep up with them all. I think you could improve the paper by defining your terms more clearly in places, especially what you mean by the use of some philosophical/theological shorthand (eg “Socratic method”). Your attempt to suggest a paradigm for going forward was ambitious, impressively so, but was always going to be difficult to argue convincingly within the confines of such a short paper. You had me convinced that it might be an idea worthy of further exploration (once key terms were more clearly defined), but then you seem to dismiss the discussion as “straw” at the end? In response I suggest that, although Thomas’ contribution may be straw when compared to the awesome mystery of God, his, and your, contributions are not insignificant in our human journey to understanding these things.)
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Schinkel, Anders. “The Educational Importance of Deep Wonder.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 51, no 2 (2017): 538–553.
 “Feminizing hormone therapy,” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, accessed June 10, 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/feminizing-hormone-therapy/about/pac-20385096.
 American Psychological Association, “A glossary: Defining transgender terms,” Monitor on Psychology, September 2018, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/09/ce-corner-glossary.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 1862.
 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Out Sunday Visitor, Inc (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 47.
 Joseph Ratzinger, “Truth and Freedom”, Communio: International Catholic Review 23, no 1 (1996): 28.
 David Albert Jones, “Truth in transition? Gender identity and Catholic anthropology,” New Blackfriars: A Review 99, no 1084 (2018): 756.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1734–35.
 “AusPATH: Public Statement on Gender Affirming Healthcare, including for Trans Youth,” AusPATH Board, effective June 26, 2021, https://auspath.org.au/2021/06/26/auspath-public-statement-on-gender-affirming-healthcare-including-for-trans-youth/.
 AusPATH Board, “AusPATH: Public Statement on Gender Affirming Healthcare, including for Trans Youth.”
 Pablo Expósito-Campos, “A Typology of Gender Detransition and Its Implications for Healthcare Providers,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 47, no 3 (2021): 273.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval: Meeting the Challenges of the Future, trans Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 38.
 Debora Donnini, “Vatican document on gender: Yes to dialogue, no to ideology,” vaticannews.va, June 10, 2019, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2019-06/vatican-document-on-gender-yes-to-dialogue-no-to-ideology.html.
 Congregation for Catholic Education, Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, Document, Vatican website, June 10, 2019, http://www.educatio.va/content/dam/cec/Documenti/19_0997_INGLESE.pdf.
 Marilyn Rodrigues, “Bishops back gender clarity call,” catholicweekly.com.au, June 13, 2019, https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/bishops-welcome-gender-clarity/.
 Martha Nussbaum, “Cultivating Humanity,” Liberal Education 84, no. 2 (1998): 38.
 McLaughlin, “A School for the Human Person and of the Human Person,” 160.
 Sarah Davey Chesters, The Socratic Classroom: Reflective Thinking through Collaborative Inquiry (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 32.
 Chesters, The Socratic Classroom, 29.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 15.
 Francis, Amoris Laetitia, Apostolic Exhortation, Vatican website, March 19, 2016, https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.
 E Christian Brugger, “Five Serious Problems with Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia,” catholicworldreport.com, April 22, 2016, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/04/22/five-serious-problems-with-chapter-8-of-amoris-laetitia/.
 John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Apostolic Constitution, Vatican website, 15 August, 1990, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html.
 John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Encyclical, Vatican website, 14 September, 1998, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html.
 Rebecca S Nowacek, “Why being Interdisciplinary is very hard to do? Thoughts on the Peril and Promise of Interdisciplinary Pedagogy,” College Composition and Communication 60, no 3 (2009): 495.
 Anders Schinkel, “The Educational Importance of Deep Wonder,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 51, no 2 (2017): 538.