The Vatican’s New Document on Gender: Is There Hope?
Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida, who is the parent of a transgender daughter.
When I read the Vatican’s newly released document on gender identity in the last few days, I kept thinking about my experiences this past year
Over the last 12 months, I have heard from many Catholic schools, parishes, and families from across the US seeking counsel on issues related to the acceptance and accommodation of transgender students. In some cases, this process has been a very rewarding experience, but in others, it has been very discouraging.
As an example, I was invited a few months ago to spend a couple of days at an all-boys Jesuit high school in the Midwest, to have an honest, respectful conversation with administration and faculty about transgender issues and how best to address those issues in a Catholic context. I was enormously grateful for their openness and their sincere desire to do what is right.
On the other hand, I also recently heard from the principal of another Catholic high school in the Midwest who was being forced by the diocese to stop accommodating an openly transgender student and to essentially expel the student at the end of the school year. In addition, the diocese was proceeding to develop a policy that would effectively ban openly transgender students from attending any Catholic school in the diocese.
How to accommodate transgender students in a Catholic educational context is a complex and challenging question that just about every Catholic school or parish has encountered or will encounter at some point.
In an apparent attempt to address this question, this week the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education published the document “ ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education”, a document that has rapidly elicited strong reactions from both ends of the spectrum.
I have a number of serious concerns with the document, but my single greatest pastoral concern is that this document will be used as a reason for Catholic schools and parishes to unjustly discriminate against transgender students, and in the process do some real harm to them and their families. For a church called to follow the way of Our Savior Jesus, the way of love and compassion, the way of inclusion not exclusion, this type of unjust discrimination is simply unacceptable.
Many objections have been raised to the document’s narrow focus on so-called “gender theory” and to its apparent denial, often in harsh terms, of the reality of transgender individuals. It has also been observed that the document seems to be totally disconnected from the significant and growing body of scientific and medical knowledge about gender identity and from the lived reality of transgender individuals, observations with which I would concur. With virtually every national and international professional organization that represent the vast majority of doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists affirming the reality of transgender individuals, researching and documenting how gender identity is determined, and strongly supporting appropriate health care and non-discrimination protections for transgender people, the portrait of gender identity issues presented by this document is outdated and at odds with the published science.
As the parent of a transgender daughter and as a deacon whose ministry includes pastoral care to Catholic families with transgender members, it is also painfully apparent that the document is totally divorced from the lived reality of transgender people. The model on which the entire document is based is fundamentally flawed. It claims that the growth and influence of gender theory makes people believe that they can simply choose their gender. I think that anyone with first-hand experience with gender identity issues will confirm that for an authentically transgender person, being transgender is not a choice, and it is certainly not driven by any gender theory or ideology.
But my primary interest here is not in parsing and debating every detail of the document but in addressing what the potential negative impact of the document may well be in practice. Imagine you are a Catholic parent with a son or daughter who comes out as transgender. This awareness comes after a long, painful process of their struggling with and finally embracing their authentic identity. None of this was a choice.
Imagine how your normal parental concerns for the well-being of your children would be amplified in the case of your transgender child. Imagine knowing that your son or daughter would face a path in life characterized by the constant threat of hatred and discrimination, just because of who he or she is. Imagine having to live with the knowledge that the likelihood of your son or daughter being a victim of violence or of dying by suicide—both of which are significantly greater for transgender people than for the general populace. It is difficult for me to adequately express how painful it was when our transgender daughter said that she was reluctant to make any long-term plans because if statistics about transgender people held true, she was not likely to live to age 40.
Now since you are a struggling Catholic parent who is trying to pass on the faith to your children to help them find the ultimate meaning of their lives, you turn to your local Catholic community for support. Instead of support, you are told that your transgender son or daughter will no longer be allowed to attend the local Catholic school.
At the parish, you are told that he or she will not be allowed to attend faith formation or sacramental preparation classes, or to continue participating in youth group.
For a family of faith who is already struggling with all the issues that having a transgender child brings, the experience of also being rejected by the church can be incredibly painful and damaging on many levels. And these examples are not hypothetical situations, but situations that I know have happened at a number of Catholic schools and parishes across the US. With the addition of this most recent Vatican document to the discussion, I would not be at all surprised if these instances of unjust discrimination increase.
I certainly hope that this confused document will not have the negative impact that I fear it will, but that it will be kept in proper perspective by thoughtful people of faith. If there is anything positive that can be taken from the document, it might be its call to a process of dialogue on these issues (although it obviously it would have been much better if the Church had done that dialogue before publishing a document like this). I think that the Church is long overdue to engage objectively with the science of gender identity and learn from the lived reality of transgender people.
If the Church is serious about that dialogue, then it needs to start taking some formal steps to make it happen and to ensure that it is not just another dialogue with hand-selected individuals who already support the Church’s strongly stated points of view. It needs to be an open, honest, objective dialogue with the larger medical and scientific communities with expertise in gender identity, and most of all, it needs to be a dialogue with transgender individuals and their families.
I hope and pray that true process of dialogue happens. If it does, perhaps the institutional church will discover what so many fortunate Catholic families like mine have discovered about their gay or trans children: they are part of God’s beautiful, diverse creation, not aberrations of nature or products of some confused ideology. Their presence in our lives has helped open our eyes to not just the LGBTQ community but to all the marginalized and oppressed people that we as Christians are called to embrace and love. Our daughter has done absolutely nothing to undermine Catholic marriage and family but has in fact has brought our entire family much closer together.
But until a process of open, honest dialogue and learning takes place, I am deeply concerned there will be many transgender students and their families and friends that will be hurt by this document and its recommendations.
Deacon Ray Dever, June 13, 2019