The Vatican’s New Document on Gender: Is There Hope?


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


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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    What an excellent article in response to a truly appalling document from Rome. I am waiting patiently to hear Francis’ response or, hopefully, rebuttal.
    I wonder are we experiencing another Humanae Vitae moment.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    I have just posted this on the ACI FB page and agree with you, Paddy. We need to debate and discuss, not dismiss.
    It isn’t so very long ago that we learned to accept the reality and normality of same sex relationships.
    A Church which discriminates against any marginalised group is not a Church that follows the Nazarene.
    As a left handed woman I would have been burned in the Middle Ages with the Church’s blessing, no doubt, and let’s face it, women are still THE most discriminated, marginalised group in the Catholic Church.
    How can we, in all seriousness, not be moved to compassion and understanding when we read such stories as the one above. I am disappointed in Pope Francis’ attitude to women and to transgender people considering the man has shown such wonderful genuine warmth towards other marginalised groups like refugees and the disabled.
    WWJD? Surely we need to keep learning and to keep our minds and hearts open. Too many innocent souls are suffering.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    The new document contradicts Amoris Laetitia:

    ‘But it is also true that masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories. It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame. Children have to be helped to accept as normal such healthy “exchanges” which do not diminish the dignity of the father figure. A rigid approach turns into an overaccentuation of the masculine or feminine, and does not help children and young people to appreciate the genuine reciprocity incarnate in the real conditions of matrimony. Such rigidity, in turn, can hinder the development of an individual’s abilities, to the point of leading him or her to think, for example, that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership.’

    The CCE’s battle is not with some recent postmodern deviation of ideologists but with the entire process of enlightenment on sexuality and gender of the last two centuries (the matrix of the much-maligned sexual revolution), and also with the ample record of transgender behaviour in Catholic tradition.

  4. Margaret Hickey says:

    Joe O Leary, AL you quote challenges gender stereotypes and does it very well.Transgenderism is about non-acceptance of the ‘self’ you are with all its messy quirkiness.The opposite of what Francis is writing about here. Looking at someone like Caitlin Jenner TG seems like changing from one stereotype to another.
    What adults do is a matter for them of course unless it affects children. Does anyone on this page have an issue with a trans-man raising the child ‘he” gave birth to as that child’s ‘father’?

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Margaret, the Vatican itself is now rolling backward to disavow the document, possibly composed by some anti-Francis faction; the CCE says it now passes the buck to the CDF, which very much suggest a leap from frying-pan to fire. The whole think is a performative contradiction, a call for dialogue from folk who on their own admission have never dialogued directly with those they are pontificating about. I realize that the issue is a very difficult and fraught one, but that is all the more reason for the Church to give an outstanding example of how to conduct dialogue, in the spirit of Vatican II and Ecclesiam Suam.

  6. Margaret Hickey says:

    Joe, Versaldi as I hear him is not pushing back,just regretting the document (Male and female he created them) was not more sensitively nuanced. I disagree. The problem with a lot of recent Vatican utterances is that they were nuanced close to meaningless. At this point a clear statement is needed to challenge the sexualization of young children. Check out US Pride parades.Children as young as seven strutting about in drag to the frenetic cheers of bystanders. Check out drag storytelling in libraries by artistes with dubious titles ( Dublin, Dunlaoghaire Rathdown) This document is timely and needs to make a clear point. I am afraid there is a continuum in this sexual liberalization once you depart from the male/female template the Church proposes and this document re-iterates. ‘Mothers’ as ‘fathers’? ‘Fathers’ as ‘mothers’? All in the name of that most abused term ‘compassion’.

  7. Paddy Ferry says:

    Margaret, simply saying “male and female he created them” will just not do anymore. A large body of scientific knowledge now tells us with certainty that things are not as simple as that, no matter how much we may hanker after the certainties of the past. And, I must say, I don’t see very much wrong with compassion.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    There are some fourteen PHYSICAL conditions known as Intersex. There are also a number of PSYCHOLOGICAL conditions, just as undeniable, described negatively as gender dysphoria and more positively in trans ideology.

    The church in the past wsa not hung up on gender essentialism, which like biblical fundamentalism, is a modern ideology.

  9. Margaret Hickey says:

    Church not hung up on ‘gender essentialism’in the past. Sure because ‘gender essentialism’was never contested. No, nothing ‘much wrong’with compassion Paddy. A lot wrong with its manipulative co-option to support sundry liberal causes.

  10. Paddy Ferry says:

    Margaret, nothing much wrong with liberal causes either. I would certainly like to think of myself a liberal. What else should one be?

    And, of course, the reason that gender essentialism was never contested was very simply because the knowledge did not exist. In one of his books the late, great Fr. Sean Fagan made the point that when some of the church’s fundamental dogma was being formulated there was no knowledge of the human sciences.

  11. Margaret Hickey says:

    Paddy,liberal these days infers support for a lot of things I ‘d be surprised you’d support as a Catholic priest.
    The same liberal agenda co-opts science like it co-opts compassion.Science tells us that we are chromosomely either XX or XY. The Church does accept that. Science also makes it possible, to alter ourselves surgically and chemically to take on a different identity to the world. The Church doesn’t or shouldn’t co-opt that kind of science

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, you echo Goethe who said, “I’m a liberal as every decent person is” or words to that effect.

    Was gender essentialism never contradicted in the Christian past? There is lots of discussion of this. Gender bending is enacted by many Christian saints.

    Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for the heresy of dressing as a man.

  13. Eddie Finnegan1 says:

    Paddy, I see Margaret@12 has just ordained you. You must all along have been one of these ‘viri probati’ I keep hearing about – yes?

  14. Margaret Hickey says:

    Joe at 13,suffice to say that Joan of Arc ‘s attire was not heresy. Then as now the Church held to the view that humankind is male and female.
    Eddie what applies to clergy applies to laity where moral teaching is concerned

  15. Paddy Ferry says:

    Margaret, what an awful slur to cast on our priests –as if things were not bad enough –to suggest that the ordained priesthood is not compatible with a liberal outlook on life. I decided to check the dictionary meaning of the word liberal –you have certainly stimulated my further education, Margaret –and so, what did I find: (a.) open-minded; generous; unbiased; catholic; favouring democratic ideals and freedom of religion …….
    I think I better stop now as this might start to sound like bragging.

    You must know, Margaret that there are many wonderful men who are priests and who have a liberal, progressive outlook on life and religion both internationally and at home in Ireland. The very existence of the ACP is testimony to the calibre of our Irish priests though it is so sad that so few of them contribute to this, their own site. I often find myself–despite everything–bragging over here about our Irish priests at home: so many great scholar priests and great prophet priests.

    Margaret, by way of stimulating your further education, could I respectfully suggest that you have a look at Fr. Seán Fagan’s “What has happened to sin”.
    I am now wondering if it is, infact, available. I know Angela Hanley will be republishing his books though I am not sure if that has happened yet.

    Joe, thank you for your affirmative mention of Goethe.

    And, Margaret, I expect you have gathered from Eddie’s comment that I am not, infact, a priest.

    Eddie, thank you for the unexpected elevation. To be honest, I must confess, I did always fancy myself as one of those “viri probati !!

  16. Brian Mathews says:

    Dear Margaret of 12. May I respectfully suggest looking at the research into Sex Chromosome Abnormalities and you will discover there is a continuum of genetics between XX and XY.

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