Male and Female He Created Them, but how does Liberal Arts education and pedagogy provide opportunities for the Catholic Church to better respond to transgender people?

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
18 min readDec 24, 2021


We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it. — St Thomas Aquinas

I found out recently that earlier this year a Kim Cannerstad, studying at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Karlstad University, published an Advanced Research Essay in Gender Studies called “Transmedicalism: A critical discourse analysis on transnormativity in online discussion websites
and publishing platforms
”, where Kim referenced my blog. Click on the Essay link and search for “Pham” throughout the document, if you’re as intrigued as I initially was by what would prompt Kim to analyse my blog on.

Essentially, Kim disagreed with me on a transmedicalist blog post I wrote in 2019. Which was fine… up until the following statement:

“Pham (2019b) continues to ask, “But how do we as trans people build a bridge with society at large?” (para. 9). She adds that “What bothers me is trans activists taking little to no interest in building a bridge, and not respecting freedom of speech” (Pham, 2019b, para. 9). She concludes that “Pronoun policing . . . burns bridges, and I [do not] want to live in a society where bridges burn” (Pham, 2019b, para. 9). It is unclear whom Pham (2019b) expects trans people to build bridges with, namely bridges that would seemingly improve our living conditions. However, since trans activism has a significant history regarding critique against medical gatekeeping, this thesis will presume it is the medical care sphere she is referring to. What is clear is that Pham (2019b) considers trans activists as disruptive in building bridges with cisgender people. These viewpoints, similarly embraced by trans-exclusionary feminists, claim that trans activists allegedly cause more harm than good for everyone involved.

How do we then ensure that this bridge does not lead to even more pitfalls for trans people? Is it worthwhile to build a bridge that leads directly into the mouth of a volcano? Who will become the gatekeeper of this bridge, and which trans people are allowed to cross it? Who will ultimately have the strength to cross this bridge, and what shall we do with the trans people who do not have the tenacity anymore? If simple pronoun correcting antagonizes the people on the other side, is it worthwhile to build bridges with them? What about the people who put no effort into building bridges with us, should trans people continue to carry their burden? If so, what tools are granted to us if we attempt to assemble this bridge, and will the blame fall on us if the bridge becomes inadequate? Freedom of speech is yet another minefield since it generally functions like a double-edged sword within trans discourse. Opponents of trans liberation regularly utilize freedom of speech as a shield to justify misgendering trans people. When criticized for doing so, they accordingly claim that identity politics is antithetical to freedom of speech. Meanwhile, almost no one considers the freedom of speech for trans people to self-identify, namely their freedom to embrace the gender identity they find harmonious.”

It has occurred to me during my Master of Liberal Arts studies at the University of Notre Dame Australia this year, that the battle to reach the middle ground is lost, but that there’s still a war to reach higher ground to be won. Long story short, dialogue is hard. Hard to kick off, even harder to keep it going, to achieve true communion as people. I want to win the war to reach higher ground (one day), and I’m very grateful for the opportunity my uni has given to me in this regard. So without further ado, I recently submitted this research paper — my final Catholic Thought assessment for the year. Feedback from my assessor are in italics and brackets:

Male and Female He Created Them

Male and Female He Created Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, is a document published by the Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) in 2019, intended as an instrument to provide Catholic guidance in the educational context, on contemporary public discourse surrounding human sexuality, specifically, gender theory.[1]

The document relied on Amoris Laetitia to define gender theory as that which envisages a society that denies the complementarity of man and woman, and therefore the procreative end of sexuality: the natural family. To enact this vision, educational programmes and legislation that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy not based on such complementarity, are required.[2]

Sex refers to one of the two biological categories: male and female. Gender refers to the differences between the sexes depending on the culture, as perceived by the soul. Male and Female He Created Them (MaFHCT) asserts that sex and gender are distinct from each other but nevertheless connected due to complementarity, and that gender theory disconnects sex from gender. The consequence of this is that the human person’s gender identity is their fluid choice. Therefore the document posits that if gender is a choice driven by the radical autonomy of the human person, and the chosen and/or perceived gender does not correspond to biological sex, this is transgenderism.[3]

Such transgenderism is incompatible with the Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person. Of all creatures of God, only the human person is able to be called by grace to a covenant with God. Since the human person is created in order to have an opportunity to have faith in God, herein lies the fundamental dignity of the human person.[4] This love manifests in the human person being in the image of God, a dignity associated with self-knowledge, self-possession and freedom to enter into communion with other persons.[5]

The human person is both at once corporeal and spiritual, whole and entire, willed by God.[6] As such, the human person’s dignity is also associated with the union of body and soul, because the body is animated by the soul, a good to be honoured, that shall be raised as a body-soul composite at the Final Resurrection.[7] The soul is the form of the living body, which forms a single nature, and is not a unity of two natures.[8] This forms the basis of Catholic anthropology.

Finally, the human person is either a man or a woman, equal and complementary in their dignity, where man is willed for fatherhood, and woman for motherhood.[9] This is the Imago Dei of the male or female body-soul composite, where the human person with a male body, a man, cannot have a soul that is not male, and a woman cannot have a soul that is not female, for man and woman are made for each other to be fruitful and multiply via marriage.[10] This is cooperating in the Creator’s work, and therefore transgenderism, which is for a completely different end, is not in support for the dignity of the human person.

(Please clarify this point. Does the Catechism provide a gendered definition of the soul? At paragraph 363 it states that in Scripture the term soul refers to the human life or to the entire human person, and that soul also signifies the spiritual principle in man. I cannot find anything in 372 that refers to a gendered soul, nor in the works of theologians past (e.g. St Augustine; St Thomas) and present (e.g. Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis; JPII’s theology of the body).)

Responses to MaFHCT varied. Some Catholic bishops around the world publicly welcomed the document in clarifying faith and reason in the context of the transgender debate, and that educators, including parents, must help teach an anthropology as argued thus far in this research paper. Others, such as prominent American Jesuit priest Fr James Martin SJ, conditionally praised the document for attempting to initiate dialogue amongst philosophers and theologians, but could and should include transgender people and those involved in the lives of trans people.[11]

In response to Fr James, this research paper will now re-examine liberal arts education to determine if this exercise provide opportunities for the Catholic Church to better respond to transgender people, post the release of MaFHCT.

Re-examining Liberal Arts education

In liberal arts education, cultivating contemporary humanity refers to critical self-examination, critiquing tradition, and continuously improving habit. It also refers to aspiring for world citizenship, where the citizen student cultivates both their humanity and that of others. All of this should lead to critical empathy.[12] On this basis, it appears that the CCE did critically self-examine its view on anthropology, and concluded that Catholic anthropology remains on solid grounds. In doing so however, the Church did not successfully critique tradition on anthropological teachings, thereby not effectively cultivating the humanity of trans people.

In an anonymous opinion piece published by The Guardian, the Catholic mother of a trans child disputed MaFHCT’s claim that the child’s gender transition will necessarily destabilise the family unit, given the anonymous family’s positive experience in this matter. On this basis, she argued that trans people do not choose their gender, because they already know who they are, and therefore wish to live authentically and happily.[13]

Notwithstanding that the anonymous mother here has an understanding of gender and body-soul composite that is different to the Catholic Church’s, the desire for authentic and happy living may indicate a desire to address some form of hurt experienced, such as Gender Dysphoria (GD), which was not explicitly mentioned in the opinion piece. Assuming that this is a fair representation of the situation, GD in children is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a marked incongruence between the child’s experienced and expressed gender, and their sex assigned at birth, lasting at least six months, as manifested by at least six of eight criteria listed in DSM-5, associated with clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning in life.[14] Due to word limit, this research paper will only examine the transgender experience based on GD — some people claim to be trans without having dysphoria.

From a liberal arts education perspective, it would be critical to build upon the Church’s understanding of the body and soul as one nature. This would allow the Church to better recognise the humanity of transgender people who, by the very nature of their lived experience, especially if it includes GD, contradict critical and well-grounded teachings such as Catholic anthropology. Given the serious nature of GD, and that this condition was not mentioned in MaFHCT, this document would have better responded to trans people if it took a critical empathy approach of balancing faith-based anthropological teachings with the reason of evidence-based healthcare.

In integrating critical empathy into the transgender debate in the Catholic educational setting however, this setting is still behoved to be for the human person and of the human person.[15] After all, “We are talking about a child. There will be people who don’t understand”: these were the words of the Parish religious sister when the anonymous mother in The Guardian opinion piece met with the senior leadership team of the Catholic primary school her trans child attends. However, liberal arts pedagogy can be effective in responding to this in order to balance faith and reason.

The educational setting is not necessarily the classroom in a Catholic school, where a student comes out trans. This setting could broadly be one where a human person comes out as trans in an environment that is unfamiliar with trans people, and therefore everyone here is a student from different perspectives. Regardless, in order to holistically develop the human person in this setting the student is developed as a person-in-community rather than as an individual, and such a community would also need to acknowledge, respect and honour the validity of different individual experiences.[16] In the words of the religious sister in the opinion piece, “The world is changing, and the church can be slow to catch up. But your child should be treated with love, compassion and kindness. Who are we to turn our backs on her?”

To this effect, staff at the Catholic primary school explained to the trans student’s peers, in an age-appropriate way, why the trans student would be using a different name and gender pronouns after school returns, and her mother contacted some of the parents about her child’s gender transition. She claimed that she received overwhelming support in return.

Liberal Arts pedagogy in a general environment (not children only)

There are three types of liberal arts pedagogy relevant to this research paper, which are the Socratic Method, the Interdisciplinary Paradigm, and the Wonder Approach to learning. Education via Shared Inquiry will not be examined due to word limit.

As part of the Socratic Method, dialogue aims to not only respect the human person, but to also cognitively grow him or her.[17] Despite the Catholic Church’s general defence of the dignity of the human person, trans-identifying or not, there is a perception that the Church does not respect trans people, and that MaFHCT reinforced this perception. Vox First Person interviewed trans Catholics for their response to the document and their general thoughts on the Church — their responses were not overwhelmingly favourable towards the Church and the document of concern.[18]

One of the Vox interviewees, Colleen Fay, came out as transgender in 2007 to her Parish music director, who then dismissed her from her paid position in a District of Columbia Catholic church choir. The reason for the dismissal was that her Parish leaders decided that a baritone dressed as a woman would cause scandal in the Parish.[19] It is worth noting that it appears that Colleen was diagnosed with gender identity disorder (now known as GD), but there was no Magisterial teaching on this then, nor is there such teaching on it now, and MaFHCT does not specifically address GD.

Unsurprisingly, Colleen told Vox, “I’m hurt by the Catholic Church every single day… They want me and they don’t want me.” Noting the challenges associated with the gap in Magisterial teaching, this is nevertheless not a dignifying position to place a trans person in. Dialogue demands respect for silence interwoven with speech, both of which reciprocate and balance power dynamics in dialogue.[20] By initiating a dialogue about gender amongst philosophers and theologians, but not including trans people and those who work with them in said dialogue, the speech of MaFHCT has not been interwoven with silence.

Had there been a Socratic dialogue between the CCE and trans people, the CCE would have explained Catholic anthropology to trans people, then asked trans people why they are the exception to this reality. This allows silence to occur, where stakeholders take the opportunity to listen to and consider different ideas about gender, leading to self-cross examination across the board, and therefore independent thought that can add value to the dialogue.[21] On this basis, and in response to the exception question, trans people in this dialogue would have likely to respond that their decision to transition genders is based on their desire to alleviate the GD-related suffering that they experience.

As demonstrated by the previous paragraph, dialogue starts with an attempt to reach equilibrium between stakeholders, only to then discover disequilibrium, at least initially.[22] The GD experience presents an opportunity for the CCE and trans people to self-reflect, in order to practically explore how to improve their understanding of the different viewpoints in the trans debate.[23] To this end, in order to bring about a joint understanding that may restore equilibrium, both sides could refer to Catechism of The Catholic Church paragraph 1735 (CCC 1735), which could be interpreted that imputability and responsibility for gender transition can be diminished by psychological factors such as GD.[24]

Therefore, based on the facts of Colleen’s case as it is publicly known, had her Parish leadership strived to collaborate with Colleen and other parishioners in dialogue, rather than anticipate an oppositional debate to erupt, and therefore accept winners and losers of the situation at hand by default,[25] the leadership would have likely found a way to maintain the Parish as for the human person and of the human person, without necessarily the need to dismiss Colleen from her position.

CCC 1735 is an example of balancing faith-based teachings with reason based on evidence, since faith and reason are different but complementary lenses for viewing the cosmos, and when this is not balanced and in dialogue with each other, reality and truth is not clarified.[26] Indeed, GD is believed to be a facet of human biology in that it is derived from the sexual differentiation of the brain. Evidence suggests that certain abnormal biological processes increase the likelihood of GD arising. Evidence further suggests that brain anatomy and neuronal signalling pathways are likely to reflect a person’s perceived gender identity.[27]

The integration of faith and reason is an ongoing endeavour, especially given the recent explosion of knowledge, such as GD biology. But such knowledge overflow can slow down the integration, due to rising compartmentalisation of knowledge to stem the overflow.[28] Whilst there may appear to be a biological and genetic underpinning to GD as per the previous paragraph, the evidence for this is insufficient, requiring further research. This lack of clarity on reality and truth may explain why the transgender issue is more in a state of oppositional debate based on compartmentalised knowledge, rather than a state of dialogue pushing for further research, as highlighted in this research paper thus far.

Given the apparent complex nature of GD, which requires further psychological research to be better understood, embrace of the Interdisciplinary Paradigm as an aid under the Socratic Method would have helped deepen dialogue about trans people, like Colleen. Under interdisciplinarity, which integrates coexisting independent disciplines that overlap such as religion and science, the human person would be empowered to critically think not only about different perspectives in order to reach the truth.[29]

In the face of further scientific research required to better understand GD, the Interdisciplinary Paradigm prompts the human person to fine-tune their ethical decision-making, as incentivised so by Position Statement 103 by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. Building upon DSM-5, the Statement acknowledged that there are competing views, backed by a paucity of evidence, on medical gender transition, especially that relating to young GD patients.[30]

As such, in order to provide adequate, person-centred care for trans people, comprehensive assessment is required, informed by not only evidence, but also by in-depth exploration of patient history and experience, including comorbidities and family history, leading to an interdisciplinary formulation of an appropriate gender transition plan. The relevant natural law-related principle applied here is Pope Pius XII’s principle of totality, where parts of the body are sacrificed for the sake of alleviating GD. In applying the principle, three criteria must be met:

  1. Lack of an appropriate gender transition plan will continue to render GD unalleviated
  2. The GD associated with the body parts in question is unavoidable, and can only be alleviated by said plan; and
  3. It is reasonable to expect that a net positive effect will arise from said plan.[31]

(This is an important Church document, and one that is often not referred to in public debate. Reference Pope Pius XII, The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment, 1952. The importance of this document in relation to this context could be further discussed.)

Ultimately, unalleviated GD could lead to self-destructive behaviour, the existence of which challenges the natural law claim that the human person naturally self-preserves.[32] Whilst Evangelium Vitae condemns suicide, it acknowledged that psychological conditioning, like unalleviated GD, may induce a patient to act radically, thus invoking CCC 1735.[33] It is for this reason that Interdisciplinary Paradigm is crucial for defending the dignity of trans people who are not necessarily able to have the self-knowledge, self-possession and freedom to enter into communion with others in accordance with Catholic anthropology.

Conclusion — the Wonder Approach as the effective overarching Liberal Arts pedagogy

This research paper has demonstrated how the Socratic Method combined with the Interdisciplinary Paradigm can provide opportunities for the Catholic Church to better respond to trans people. Both pedagogies fall under the umbrella wonder-based pedagogy, rooted in the Socratic claim that to philosophise is to wonder.[34] Wonder moves the human person to reality, and is particularly critical to addressing the shortcomings of MaFHCT.

(Dana, a well-written and well-structured essay presenting an evidence-based argument on how Liberal Arts pedagogy can provide opportunities for the Catholic Church to better respond to transgender people. There were only a couple of points which would have deserved further development, one of these being the implication of there being a ‘gendered soul’. Please see my note in this regard in margin to your paper. You refer to the principle of totality enunciated by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment (1952) as a means to address the issue of GD within the context of Church teachings. The importance of this document and how it could contribute to finding a way forward in the debate could have been further discussed. Overall, a good essay.)


American Psychiatric Association. “What Is Gender Dysphoria?” Accessed October 03, 2021.

Anonymous. “My Catholic, trans child is living proof of how wrong the Vatican is on gender.”, June 13, 2019.

Blondiau, Eloise. “5 trans Catholics on the Vatican’s rejection of their gender identity.”, June 12, 2019.

Boucher, Ferdinand J O and Chinnah, Tudor I. “Gender Dysphoria: A Review Investigating the Relationship Between Genetic Influences and Brain Development.” Adolesc Health Med Ther 11 (2020): 89–99.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.

Chesters, Sarah Davey. The Socratic Classroom: Reflective Thinking through Collaborative Inquiry. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions). 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.

Francis. Amoris Laetitia. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Vatican website. March 19, 2016.

Gremmels, Becket. “Sex Reassignment Surgery and the Catholic Moral Tradition: Insight from Pope Pius XII on the Principle of Totality.” Health Care Ethics USA 24, no. 1 (2016).

Donnini, Debora. “Vatican document on gender: Yes to dialogue, no to ideology.”, June 10, 2019.

John Paul II. Evangelium vitae. Encyclical Letter. Vatican website. March 25, 1995.

John Paul II. Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Apostolic Constitution. Vatican website. 15 August, 1990.

L’Ecuyer, Catherine. “The Wonder Approach to Learning.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8, (2014): 1–8.

McLaughlin, Denis. “A School for the Human Person and of the Human Person.” British Journal of Religious Education 22, no. 3 (2000): 150–163.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. “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): 493–516.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Cultivating Humanity.” Liberal Education 84, no. 2 (1998): 38.

Rodrigues, Marilyn. “Bishops back gender clarity call.”, June 13, 2019.

Schall, James V. “Liberal Arts Education — Missing Many Allusions” in Political Philosophy and Revelation. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, sv “Suicide.” Metaphysics Research Lab. 2021, November 09.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. “Recognising and addressing the mental health needs of people experiencing Gender Dysphoria / Gender Incongruence.” Accessed November 12, 2021.

van Dyne, Larry. “Becoming Colleen: Why Peter Fay Decided to Become a Woman.”, June 1, 2008.


[1] Debora Donnini, “Vatican document on gender: Yes to dialogue, no to ideology,”, June 10, 2019,

[2] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Vatican website, March 19, 2016,

[3] 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,

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 356.

[5] Ibid., 357.

[6] Ibid., 362.

[7] Ibid., 364.

[8] Ibid., 365.

[9] Ibid., 370.

[10] Ibid., 372.

[11] Marilyn Rodrigues, “Bishops back gender clarity call,”, June 13, 2019,

[12] Martha Nussbaum, “Cultivating Humanity,” Liberal Education 84, no. 2 (1998): 38.

[13] Anonymous, “My Catholic, trans child is living proof of how wrong the Vatican is on gender,”, June 13, 2019,

[14] “What Is Gender Dysphoria?” American Psychiatric Association, accessed October 03, 2021,

[15] Denis McLaughlin, “A School for the Human Person and of the Human Person,” British Journal of Religious Education 22, no. 3 (2000): 150.

[16] McLaughlin, “A School for the Human Person and of the Human Person,” 160.

[17] Sarah Davey Chesters, The Socratic Classroom: Reflective Thinking through Collaborative Inquiry (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 32.

[18] Eloise Blondiau, “5 trans Catholics on the Vatican’s rejection of their gender identity,”, June 12, 2019,

[19] Larry van Dyne, “Becoming Colleen: Why Peter Fay Decided to Become a Woman,”, June 1, 2008,

[20] Chesters, The Socratic Classroom, 29.

[21] Ibid., 29.

[22] Ibid., 13.

[23] Ibid., 15.

[24] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735.

[25] Chesters, The Socratic Classroom, 15.

[26] James V Schall, “Liberal Arts Education — Missing Many Allusions” in Political Philosophy and Revelation (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 85.

[27] Ferdinand J O Boucher and Tudor I Chinnah, “Gender Dysphoria: A Review Investigating the Relationship Between Genetic Influences and Brain Development,” Adolesc Health Med Ther 11 (2020): 89–99.

[28] John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, apostolic constitution, Vatican website, 15 August, 1990,

[29] 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.

[30] “Recognising and addressing the mental health needs of people experiencing Gender Dysphoria / Gender Incongruence,” The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, accessed November 12, 2021,

[31] Becket Gremmels, “Sex Reassignment Surgery and the Catholic Moral Tradition: Insight from Pope Pius XII on the Principle of Totality,” Health Care Ethics USA 24, no. 1 (2016).

[32] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, sv “Suicide,” Metaphysics Research Lab, November 09, 2021,

[33] John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, encyclical letter, Vatican website, March 25, 1995,

[34] Catherine L’Ecuyer, “The Wonder Approach to Learning,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8, (2014): 2.

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Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own ⚧️✝️🇦🇺

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