Being transgender and Catholic — a Christian pastoral dilemma
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”
— St John Cardinal Henry Newman, Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Feast Day: 9 October
God has created me in His image, in the image of God He created me, male He created me, to do Him some definite service by my design. But I became a transgender woman instead, more than a decade ago. And then in 2021 I started my Master of Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. At the time I started this chapter in life, a dear friend quipped, “Fancy starting your Catholic theology studies in your year of Jesus!” I did not plan to start my Master’s at the age of 33; perhaps this series of life events is a sign that He truly has committed some work to this trans woman, which He has not committed to another. So how did I get to this point?
I was born into a conservative Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, and was involved in the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement. But in the midst of all that, I started to struggle with gender dysphoria as a teenager. At some point in my teenage years, I approached a religious sister for pastoral guidance, about my dysphoria. It was obvious that she was not equipped to respond; she ended up being shallow towards how I felt, and I was left feeling hopeless. I then lapsed as a Catholic, before then starting my male-to-female transition — I have not looked back on my medical transition since.
Life went on, until I fell on hard times, mental health wise, some years ago now. Things did not get better for a very long time, and then at some point, I started to shop around for a Protestant church. I was not sure what I was seeking exactly, but clearly, I was desperately seeking. And then, towards the end of 2020, I came to my senses that God was calling me to return to my Catholic roots. It became obvious that I have been a Prodigal Son (Daughter?), yearning for an intellectual faith tradition, through which I would resume forming the knowledge of and love for God I had before I lapsed as a teenager.
I wanted to do my Prodigal Return right, so I looked around, and I have not looked back on my Master’s ever since. One could quip, fancy a trans woman coming to a traditional Catholic university to study theology. I started off with a four-course series in Catholic Thought, to lay the foundation for the rest of my degree. I decided in the beginning, to take every opportunity I could throughout the degree to write my assessable essays, papers and so forth, around the transgender experience, in order to attempt to help me reconcile being trans with being Catholic. It has been a novel Newman-esque journey, and at times, a messy experiment.
Once I finished the Catholic Thought series, as fun as it was, I started to face the harsh reality of the true, good and beautiful. Is that not an oxymoron, one might ask? My attempts at mental gymnastics, especially my non-philosophical tangents, during my Natural Law course, did not serve my cause well, and I struggled to understand this until I studied Phenomenological Thomism and Catholic Theological Bioethics. My Bioethics course pointed me to the straight and narrow on why my trans ‘life choices’ may not be reconcilable with the Catholic position after all, which was reinforced by my study of Karol Wojtyła’s Love and Responsibility.
My final pre-dissertation coursework, Marriage and Sexuality, finally cleaned up on the question of what is true, good and beautiful for me. And yet, I still feel that my female identity, based on my gender dysphoria history, still remains written into my heart. Even my intense study of Pope St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body could not erase this. My circumstances are comparable to the absurd fate of the cryopreserved embryo, where embryo adoption is praiseworthy for its strong pro-life intention, but cannot be licitly pursued from a Catholic perspective because it is morally problematic in ways not dissimilar to surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation.
One could easily imagine what I would pursue my Supervised Dissertation on, just as one could easily imagine the absurd fate that such dissertation would face. But in a world, especially in the West, that seemingly continues to turn its back on the true, good and beautiful, I know deep in my heart, that this is not the time to relapse in my faith. I have now reached a point, in spite of the absurd fate that I have discovered, where I cannot unlearn that God has created me for a unique mission, which I may never know its precise details by the time I reach my deathbed.
So in the meantime, it could reasonably be established that until a few years ago, I have been the missing, unique chain link at my uni. It has been a joy in sharing my life story with my peers and staff alike, where I have challenged their worldview, and in turn, they have challenged mine. What a privilege, and what an honour, it has been to strengthen our communion in the spirit of mutual respect and charity. My Master’s studies has transformed me to be equipped to invite the world outside of Notre Dame to renew its heart’s desire for dialogue.
I have spent recent time, showing the diverse world, what the virtue of dialogue in action looks like. Some, like myself, may face an absurd fate, but this does not change what is true, good and beautiful. I have been academically catechised, and I can now sanctify the world, by showing what a complicated personal identity can offer to the world in need of truth, good and beauty. No doubt, I shall be told in the next life if I am indeed currently on the straight and narrow, but in the meantime I will continue to transcend my absurd fate, and set the world on fire in a way that would even keep St Catherine of Siena on her contemplative toes.