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Catechesis, Policy and “Gender Theory” in Milwaukee: An Informal Commentary
We appear to be entering a new era of diocesan policies on LGBT issues.
We appear to be entering a new era of diocesan policies on LGBT issues – with last month’s document, from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, being nationally the second document in as many months. And while I cannot give each and every document the same level of attention, I do think there is real value in attempting to unpack and address these documents as they emerge, so that – through rigorous engagement with their strengths and flaws – we can reflect more clearly on articulating ways to improve them in the future.
For this purpose – and on this occasion, rather than another excessively-long Twitter thread – I offer the following personal commentary, addressing each section of the Milwaukee “Catechesis and Policy on Questions Concerning Gender Theory” document in turn, and in-depth. Will it also be excessively-long? The answer is… absolutely, yes, I’m sorry but last month’s series of 105 tweets is going to look like a high-school book report by comparison. But if we’re serious about learning how to do better, we have to really dig deep, because there’s just so much to unpack. So, let’s get started.
A complete PDF version of the commentary (containing both parts) can be accessed here.
“Christ’s words to his disciples call Christians in every age to embrace the truth of who we are as children of God, for only in embracing this truth can we be set free.”
This is a point of deep resonance and (presumably accidental) agreement at the outset, since the notion of “embracing the truth of who we are” in order to be set free is something that approximately everyone – on all sides of “the transgender debate” – identifies as a critical goal that we should be striving for. The real disagreements have nothing to do with this principle, and everything to do with how we understand the full complexity of “the truth of who we are”.
“Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life…
It is ever the duty of the Church both to listen patiently to the struggles of her children and also to instruct them clearly on the path to the fullness of life and freedom.”
In the abstract, all of these sentiments are (obviously) unobjectionable. But as they say, it is one thing to “talk the talk” and another thing entirely to “walk the walk”. Is this document actually speaking in language intelligible to every generation? Does it actually adopt and utilize the same terminology as the culture, to communicate effectively? Did the authors actually listen patiently to the struggles of the persons it seeks to address? (Did they actually engage with any modern literature on the subject, or at least have real conversations with a representative sample of transgender persons in their community, before attempting to issue a catechesis on it?) Is this document really instructing them clearly? Or is it simply implying that it has done these things, as if acknowledging the goal should help convince us that the goal has been accomplished?
“In the past decade, there has been increased attention paid to gender dysphoria and gender discordance…”
The use of this language – speaking not only of gender “dysphoria”, but also of gender “discordance” – is a noteworthy positive note at the outset of the document. For it seems to acknowledge a critical and often-overlooked point: that while transgender persons might always experience a certain “discordance” between their biological sex and gender identity, it is not always correct to speak of (or presume) an experience of “dysphoria” (this being: a state of generalized unhappiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction, or frustration). Therefore, shifting our terminology toward a more descriptive and non-clinical notion of “discordance” or “incongruence” seems like a valuable step in the right direction. And it would have been great to see this concept actually used in the following sections of this document. But unfortunately, this term appears only once, here in the Preface, and then never comes up again.
“… coupled with the widespread notion that the solution to such dysphoria is to affirm one’s “experienced gender” over and against one’s biological sex.”
Now this is a minor point, but I have never personally encountered the terminology of “experienced gender” in common usage. Having looked into it, I do see that the term is used by some sources, such as the American Psychiatric Association – perhaps this is a source that the authors relied on, without citing it explicitly. Still, the phrase “experienced gender” seems unnecessarily awkward, when simply saying “gender” would have sufficed, and when (once again) this document will never re-use that term in the following pages.
In any case, the “widespread notion” of a monolithic solution (here implicitly framed as “the solution”, not just as one possible solution) is something that I have almost never encountered… except, that is to say, from concerned authors who seem to assume it as an unshakable premise, based on their perception of popular opinion. It would have been better if the authors here had at least cited some reasonable source documenting the existence of this “widespread notion”, so that we could know they had done at least some research into the literature on this question, and not simply gestured at a rhetorical straw man opponent.
But this aside, there is a critical and loaded qualification here, casually embedded in the notion of affirming one’s gender “over and against” one’s sex. For indeed, if we value the body as a real and constitutive part of the human person, it seems only fair to hold that affirming gender “over and against” one’s sex is problematic. But immediately we are thrust into a thicket of thorny questions: What does it mean to affirm something “over and against” another, concretely? What determines when that is happening, vs. when gender is being affirmed alongside one’s biological sex, or otherwise without denying biological sex? If we are seeking integration, is not the correct stance to affirm both simultaneously: setting neither sex nor gender “over and against” the other? Or are we supposed to believe that setting biological sex “over and against” gender is undoubtedly a safe and non-problematic position to maintain? Not only does this document fail to grapple with such questions (or even acknowledge that they might exist), but the whole framework of setting something “over and against” another thing immediately evaporates – again – never to return on the following pages.
“This prompts the Church to provide catechesis and policy for all the faithful…”
In the abstract, this sounds entirely fair… but there are real questions and dangers lurking just beneath the surface, which anyone familiar with the theological drama of Cardinal Bellarmine and the Galileo affair might be attuned to.1 For we must ask: to what extent is a particular subject matter (e.g. the geocentric earth) properly a scientific question that the Church has no special competence to address, vs. to what extent are there legitimate theological elements (e.g. the infallibility of Scripture’s description of the earth) that the Church can and should speak to? Similarly, to what extent is the transgender experience something that can truly be an object of “catechesis” in the proper sense, vs. to what extent are we dealing with biological-physiological questions that the Church’s teaching authority has no special competence to address? This is a profound and critical question to grapple with, and one that really must be addressed before we can invoke or appeal to any theological authority to help resolve these questions.
“2.1 The Church teaches that the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, is a ‘unified creature composed of body and soul.’ The soul is the spiritual principle of each human person and the ‘subject of human consciousness and freedom.’ Yet man is truly himself only ‘when his body and soul are intimately united.’ The human person is not a soul or a mind that has a body merely as a biological accessory. Rather, the human person is a body formed by a soul.”
This is all perfectly well and good… but it is not at all clear why this deep level of metaphysical analysis really matters here. (And let’s set aside the fact that desiring one’s body and soul to be “intimately united” is precisely a core reason that many people pursue gender affirmation surgeries.) Yes, many people incorrectly believe that they “are a soul that has a body”. But I think many more people – especially in our modern, materialistic culture – trend far closer to holding a materialistic anthropology in which they are a body, full stop. Survey the culture, and you will find elements of both errors at play: “fundamentally I am just a soul” and “fundamentally I am just a body”. Whether the individual speaker identifies as transgender, or cisgender, it will make little real difference, because transgender persons are not uniquely united in subscribing to any specific human anthropology, any more than cisgender persons are. But this bears repeating: gender confirmation procedures are often sought under the belief that the body is of fundamental significance for the human person. That is not a real point of disagreement.
So while all of these things about the human person are true, they don’t really matter any more in the context of this discussion than they would outside of it. One can simultaneously embrace all of these things, and still hold that the transgender experience is a perfectly real experience within the ensouled bodies of some persons. There is no singular or monolithic “transgender anthropology” floating out there in the world, uniquely established to oppose the traditional Catholic vision of Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphism. So if you think a deep-dive on hylomorphism is going to have some sort of game-changing influence on this debate, you’ve just implicitly admitted that you don’t really understand what you’re talking about.
“The creed expresses a belief in the ‘resurrection of the body,’ or the belief that all persons will ‘rise again with their own bodies which they now bear.’ The body which will one day rise is the very body which each person received as a gift and in which each person lives out his vocation to holiness.”
Again this is perfectly true, but – especially in the context of such a brief document – I don’t see why we’re spending time talking about a very basic Christian belief that is not going to have a significant impact on this topic. Either this is deeply irrelevant… or it is begging the question: i.e. attempting to put biological sex “over and above” gender, and insinuate that a transgender person will be resurrected with an identical bodily sex but a “healed” (cis)gender identity. But if (if) this was the deeper intention, rather than a waste of time, then I’m afraid the authors have bitten off more than they are prepared to chew, for we are now about to plunge into an absolute minefield of speculative theories about how we might imagine the healing-or-retaining of various scars, wounds, “defects”, “disorders”, and “disabilities” (etc) in the Resurrection.
Yes, on the deepest levels, healing will take place; this is not the question. But what will healing look like? After all pain and tears have been wiped away, will heaven’s grand diversity not truly be able to contain (for instance) autistic persons, and persons with Down syndrome? Will it not contain asexual people, gay people, intersex people, and transgender people? Will the beautiful elements of deaf culture necessarily be obliterated in the ages to come, as a result of “healing”, or will they not be preserved and perfected? If Christ retained His scars as part of His glorified body, then it is impossible or inconceivable that our resurrected bodies – “the very body which each person received as a gift” in this life – might still contain, in a real but glorified manner, those “defects” that shaped and marked and defined our earthly lives and personalities so deeply? (The answer is: Yes, it is conceivable. And therefore, however fun it might be to debate or speculate about how these things might be retained in a glorified manner that no longer causes any pain or suffering, this is not a theological rabbit hole that anyone needs to plunge into right now. It is a profound distraction for such a brief document. Let’s move on.)
“2.2 Our biological sex, expressed by our body… is unchangeable.”
I don’t know how else to say this charitably: “CITATION NEEDED.”
I’m not joking. You might remember how, at the end of the preface, I cautioned that we should remain alert to asking: “To what extent is a particular subject matter (e.g. the geocentric earth) properly a scientific question that the Church has no special competence to address?” Reader, this is unquestionably one of those subjects. The alleged immutability or changeability of human biological sex is properly a scientific question, which theological authority has no special competence to address.
And no, I’m not sitting here confident that biological sex in humans is changeable. Given the full import of what that would require (vis-à-vis biological reproductive potency), there are some perfectly good reasons to think it might be a practical impossibility. Historically, sex has widely been considered an “inseparable accident” in the Catholic philosophical tradition. Even in our modern culture today, you’ll find that a majority of the transgender community doesn’t attempt to argue that biological sex is truly changeable (hence the drift away from speaking about “sex reassignment” to “gender affirmation” procedures).
But there are animals on this planet that do fully change their biological sex. We know that this is not a logical, philosophical, or metaphysical absurdity. (Here we might think of human cloning, as a sort of parallel place: I am old enough to remember encountering philosophical and theological debates about whether human cloning was even really possible.) But whether or not advancements in genetic engineering can eventually bring about such a possibility – and whether or not our human biology is capable of surviving such a transformation – these are not things that we know today with any real certitude, and there is simply no point in attempting to make bold, theologically-rooted proclamations about what is-or-is-not scientifically possible.
In fact, there was a period of time in human history where we (incorrectly) believed that a functional human hermaphrodite could exist – that is, a person simultaneously biologically male and biologically female – and even this did not occasion any sort of world-shaking theological crisis. As one 1975 Rotal decision explained (Canon Law Digest 8: 758-759), the Church navigated this by simply affirming that “the hermaphrodite’s [legal] sex must be considered that which is predominant in the person. Canonical teaching and jurisprudence follow this rule.” Theologians thoughtfully accepted, and integrated, whatever facts seemed to be scientifically possible. There was no anxious rush to invoke “but male and female He created them!” as some sort of theological “gotcha” card to deny the possibility of a human hermaphrodite.
“…in the very act of creation, God bestows upon each human person a biological sex — “Male and female he created them” [Genesis 1:27]...”
I’m jumping slightly ahead in the text here, but perhaps you see where this is going.
One cannot simply “prooftext” from Genesis to end this conversation, as if that biblical truth singlehandedly rules out the possibility of (hermaphrodite or) intersex or transgender persons existing in the world today. And if we only step back for a moment, to survey the broader picture, the reason for this is fairly simple, if not blindingly obvious: Whatever simplicity God originally planned for humanity in Genesis 1:27 – whatever clean binary He created for humanity at the beginning – the Fall of our first parents shattered that original plan, reduced the human race in many respects to the level of the animals outside the Garden, and thus made our physical bodies susceptible to all manners of biological “defects” and complexities that (indeed) might otherwise have never touched a human being marked by the preternatural gifts.
As the Lady of the Galadhrim once famously said: The world has changed. Our original biological simplicity is no longer clear-cut. Deeply-complicated intersex conditions do exist. Transgender persons exist. And since indeed we are bodily creatures – and since (if we adhere to the Thomistic view) we do not believe that it is possible for the human soul to be “sexed” in a way that can ever “conflict” with the body – there is every reason to presume and expect that the transgender experience must originate in some sense from the physical body. And if we subscribe to the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of nature as being "always or for the most part", then we should have no difficulty framing the (fallen) human male-female binary as something that is observed to happen "for the most part", with no crisis if some exceptions are discovered. Human hermaphroditism might not be real, to the best of our knowledge today, but if it were there would still be no reason to fear it.
On that note, let us return again to the same 1975 Rotal decision previously mentioned, for it continues with an even more stunning observation: "Further, because at that time [i.e. historically] hermaphroditism was thought (falsely, of course) to be not only organic but also functional so that those affected by it could, as regards generation, act at will either as a man or a woman, the prevailing canonical teaching recognized for them the right be joined in marriage as a man or as a woman. However, once a choice had been made, a change of it was considered to be gravely illicit…" (Canon Law Digest 8: 759).
Can anyone fail to see the vast difference between this historical approach to hermaphroditism, and our modern squeamishness with the relatively-less-radical claim of a transgender person? There is simply no excuse for hiding behind the text of Genesis. There is nothing here for us to be afraid of. If the Church has already successfully navigated a world in which a person was believed to simultaneously have two biological sexes at the same time, then we are sufficiently prepared to navigate a world in which a person is considered to have one biological sex alongside a different “psychological sex” (or “gender”), whatever the origin of this psychological identity might turn out to be. And we are well prepared to begin debating what sort of pastoral responses might be possible in future centuries, should the possibility of a “true” human sex-change ever be demonstrated and accomplished.
Note well: It is certainly possible that a “true” human sex-change might only ever be achievable via “intrinsically evil” means. In this case, we would observe a certain parallel to the moral difficulties already posed by human cloning, as well as IVF, deliberate sterilization, and various gender affirmation surgeries. That is to say: while we might have an obligation to preach against these things, we also have an obligation to befriend and evangelize and support people who have done these things, and integrate them into our community of faith.
“A person’s biological sex… cannot be changed because it is bestowed by God as a gift and as a calling, and ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.’” [Romans 11:29]
Again, I don’t know how else to say it kindly: This is laughable. The “logic” at play here is a house of cards built on sand, tucked under the umbrella of a sloppy Scriptural prooftext, ultimately begging the question with absolutely no regard for the logical fallout.
“Biological sex… cannot be changed because it is bestowed by God.” It seems we should conclude, then, that a healthy person cannot cut off their right hand, and cannot pluck out their eyes: because their limbs and sight were bestowed upon them by God as gifts, and the gifts of God are irrevocable. The hair color you were born with cannot change, because it was encoded into your body as a gift at the very moment of your conception. Can anyone fail to see how ridiculous this is? Whatever the moral considerations, the fact that something was bestowed by God does not make it immutable. If that was what the citation from Romans really meant, our first parents would never have been capable of sinning in the Garden.
The truth is more complex. We don’t know that biological sex cannot be changed, and – even if we did determine that it was physically immutable – that is simply not what Scripture intends to convey here. Treating a biological question as if it were a theological one is a category mistake – and it is (this bears repeating) exactly the same as invoking 1 Chronicles 16:30 (“the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved”) in an attempt to prove geocentrism.
“It is a calling because we work out our salvation via our masculinity or femininity. In other words, human persons… experience the freedom and joy of salvation [not] despite their biological sex, but only in it and through it.”
There are two ways to interpret this, and neither is good.
The first interpretation is technically true, but borderline meaningless, and contributing absolutely nothing helpful to the conversation. It unfolds like this: Because we are bodily creatures, we work out our salvation “via” our bodies (e.g. we engage in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in and through our bodies). And because our bodies are sexed, we work out our salvation even more specifically through our sexed bodies (i.e. a biological female carries out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in and through her biologically female body). That’s it, that’s the whole thing. It is vapid and uninformative… and it implodes spectacularly in this context, if we simply realize that anyone can re-use the exact same framework to make an equally true insight: “We work out our salvation via our cisgender or transgender bodies. In other words, human persons experience the freedom and joy of salvation not despite their gender identity, but only in it and through it.” Why not?
The second interpretation, meanwhile, is relatively more exciting – not only because it is so deeply undefined and theologically unsourced – but because it runs us right up to the ledge of flirting with some wild heretical notions. What does “working out our salvation via our masculinity or femininity” mean? How does a sexed person do this, concretely? Does the salvation of a biological male depend on his being a “good” biological male? If a man doesn’t behave in at least some identifiably “masculine” ways, isn’t he failing to live out his masculinity? If he’s not living out his “masculinity”, is his soul in danger of eternal hellfire? Must he work to utilize his biological masculinity in some sense, and if so, is there any truly uniquely masculine use for his biological sex apart from marrying a woman and getting her pregnant? (After all, Catholic theologians from Augustine to Aquinas have traditionally defended the view that the only reason for the creation of sexual difference was biological procreation.) And what about the lurking theological implications? If Christ brought about our salvation “in and through” His masculinity – while we are saved “in and through” our own masculinity or femininity – it starts to become difficult to explain how His salvific work, accomplished “via” biological masculinity, could have had its salvific effect on those with biological femininity. The cliffs of insanity draw near… but we can simply step back and recall that Scripture does not hint at anything even remotely like this claim, as being something necessary for salvation. Therefore, the more charitable interpretation of this passage is the first one – which, to be clear, is still terrible and vapid.
Nor does it help if we simply attempt to pivot toward a framework in which – it might be said – by definition everything a biological male does is “masculine”, and everything a biological female does is “feminine”. Sure, there might be some truth to this… but again, it is an empty and unhelpful insight that (logically) tells us absolutely nothing practically useful. For if everything a biological male does is “masculine” by definition, then he is doing something “masculine” when he pursues feminizing hormone therapy or gender affirmation surgery, and wears the clothes associated with the opposite sex. This is just not a helpful approach.
“2.3 A person’s ‘gender’ is inseparable from biological sex. The Catechism states that ‘Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul.’ Therefore, while biological sex and ‘gender’... can be distinguished, they can never be separated.”
Once again, the logic is not strong with this one: a claim that biological sexuality “affects” all aspects of the human person – however true – does not prove inseparability. But beyond this, the claim remains borderline meaningless, inasmuch it is not clear what “inseparable” is really supposed to mean. After all, distinguishing gender from biological sex involves nothing other than a type of separation in the mind… but everyone seems to agree that we can “separate” gender and biological sex at least in that way. So “inseparable” must refer to something else.
Is it simply supposed to indicate that “gender” cannot exist in the world apart from a sexed body? Maybe that’s true – and in the same way, biological sex is “inseparable” from a physical body – but who exactly is claiming otherwise, and why does this even need to be said? (Note that this would also provoke some complicated questions about the ways that many languages often attach “gender” to words and various inanimate objects – as any first-year Latin student could tell you – which sure seems like “separating” out gender and putting this concept back into the world apart from a sexed body. But perhaps this can be set aside, as simply being “gender” only by analogy.) And of course, even if gender cannot exist apart from a sexed body, it does not logically follow that the specific gender, or the specific sex, is therefore immutable – those would be separate claims entirely, each requiring their own arguments.
Alternatively, we could interpret this claim as simply being that a person’s gender is “inseparable from” their biological sex: in the sense that “biological masculinity is inseparable from a masculine gender”, and “biological femininity is inseparable from a feminine gender”, full stop. But this would be nothing other than an a priori denial of the transgender experience – outright dismissing their lived experience (of some internal “separation”) as something that cannot be real – closed off to any possibility of actually listening to them, and seeking (alongside them) to articulate their experiences more precisely within a shared philosophical framework.
“Should someone experience a tension between biological sex and ‘gender,’ they should know that this interior conflict is not sinful in itself, but rather reflects ‘the broader disharmony caused by original sin’ and often results from the residue of social ills and cultural distortions of what constitutes ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’”
This would have been a great opportunity to revisit that earlier notion of “incongruence” – and abandon the dysphoria-flavored language of “conflict” – but the first half of this is good enough: an experienced internal tension is certainly not sinful. This is important to affirm. I think it is also reasonable to frame this, in a generic way, as something tied to “the broader disharmony caused by original sin” (as so very many experiences are).
But the claims in the latter half – amounting to theories regarding the origin of this incongruence (claiming that X “often results from” Y and Z) – are entirely unsourced, doubtful, unsafe, at least mildly distasteful (“the residue of social ills”) and above all simply unnecessary. It would have been far preferable to simply imitate the Catechism’s stance regarding homosexuality, and simply affirm that “its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained”. And again, if the authors of this document have any framework for defining what properly constitutes “masculinity” and “femininity” as such – by reference to which they (or we) can then measure the alleged cultural “distortions” of those things – they’re not giving it to us here.
“Such persons should be treated with respect and with charity, and ‘no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults, or unjust discrimination’ based on such experiences.”
This is certainly good, and important to affirm… but there are (as any Catholic familiar with this discourse knows) a tremendous number of layers built into the qualification of “unjust” discrimination, which have a tremendous impact on how we put this principle into practice. Where does this-or-that form of discrimination cross the line from “just” to “unjust”, and how should prudence guide us if people disagree about how to draw those lines? There be dragons.
“However, charity ‘needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth’...”
This is certainly true, but it immediately risks begging the question. What is the truth, when it comes to claims about psychological identity? Does the lived experience of a transgender person not possibly speak to some sort of truth about their body or their biology? Because if it does, then their acknowledgment of (and adherence to) that experience is nothing other than a first step into “the light of truth”, as they seek harmony through self-knowledge.
“…and thus such persons should be encouraged to seek harmony between their biological sex and ‘gender’ not through a rejection of one or the other, but through turning to Christ and to all that the Church provides.”
This actually contains one of the better thoughts in this document, although it seems (based on other passages) as though the author did not fully think through the implications of what they were saying. Seeking internal harmony is a great goal, yes… but how does one proceed toward that goal, and what does this harmony realistically look like for a transgender person, concretely? (This is not a simple question, and I will not propose a simple answer. We should probably even expect that authentic “harmony” will look different for different people.)
The affirmation that harmony should be sought “not through a rejection of one or the other” – that is to say: not through a rejection of biological sex or gender identity – is almost shockingly good, and echoes back to that idea of not setting either biological sex or gender “over and against” the other. And yet, what defines the “rejection” of either one of these things? Is a person rejecting their biological sex, if they embrace social conventions not typically associated with their sex? Is a person (even a cisgender person) rejecting their gender identity, if they force themselves to wear clothes in public that make them experience psychological distress? Is a person rejecting the gender identity of their neighbor if they refuse to use the pronouns that their neighbor has asked to be addressed by? These are important questions – and the upcoming Policy section of this document will reveal that the authors have their own, very strong opinions about the matter – but no work is being done here to build the necessary arguments.
“Only by turning to Christ can one acknowledge and accept one’s sexual identity in every aspect — physical, moral, social, and spiritual — and only through such an acceptance can the human person in turn experience the freedom promised by Christ.”
On the one hand, this sounds nice. On the other hand… it’s another technically-true but borderline-meaningless claim. For here we are speaking about a question fundamentally concerned with very basic elements of physical health, mental health, and psychological integration – not questions about sacraments, sanctifying grace, or anything else uniquely revealed by Christianity. So what does “turning to Christ” actually mean in this context, and how much of a solution is it supposed to be, exactly? It’s a nice idea, but without a sense of concrete application, it offers no real practical assistance to those who might be struggling. (I hope most everyone can agree that “pray harder” is a deeply inadequate solution, and therefore that any sane interpretation of “turning to Christ” will presume the existence of additional non-religious elements: as we “work out our salvation” “in and through” the full complexity of our lived experiences, with the support of trusted doctors, therapists, friends, and family.)
“2.4 Respect for creation is also a respect for one’s biological sex. …The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift…”
Look, I agree that “the acceptance of our bodies is vitally important”, I really do. I also think it’s correct that this is linked in a deep way to our role as caretakers for creation. But – and I cannot repeat this enough – unless you can prove that the transgender experience has no real bodily origin – an insistence on putting biological sex “over and against” gender is begging the question, and presuming (without rigorous argument, and contrary to the widely reported personal experiences of many human persons) that gender identity is “less real” than biological sex, simply because it might not be an externally “verifiable” experience.
(One wonders: If someone reports being sincerely happy or sad or anxious, how much external verification should be required before we believe their reported subjective experience? Do we need biological scans and measurements, to verify brain waves and heart rates and blood pressure? If the tests fail to indicate happiness, do we tell the person “sorry, we’ve been unable to verify your experience, maybe you’re just mistaken about being happy”? If the tests deviate from the “typical” depressed person, do we tell them “hey it turns out you’re not actually depressed, you just mistakenly think you are”?)
Nor does “the acceptance of our bodies” prevent us from acknowledging the importance of mental health. If a person actually reports struggling with dysphoria – this being (again) “a state of generalized unhappiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction, or frustration” – then invoking “the acceptance of our bodies” does not prevent us from asking hard questions about treatment options, and applying the principle of double effect to an analysis of various medical or surgical procedures that are (at least for the sake of the argument) expected to produce helpful results. Still less does it rule out the consideration of non-medical and non-surgical options (such as clothing, or other changes to social presentation) that are in no way damaging to the physical body. The principle of accepting and respecting our bodies is good… but it does not automatically supply all of the answers, and it certainly does not shut down all debate over what moral options we have to help transgender persons seek internal harmony, and thrive.
“…whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”
Who, exactly, is proposing “that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies”? (The answer is: Approximately nobody, aside from perhaps some transhumanists on Reddit.) On the contrary, I’m very confident that most transgender folks would acknowledge that the control they have over their body is limited – indeed, far more limited than they might wish – and accept the fact that their natal biology will retain a real medical-physical significance for the rest of their lives.
“Learning to accept our body, to care for it, and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.”
This sounds great, but again there is an array of loaded terms here that need to be carefully unpacked and thought through. What does it mean to “accept” (or “reject”) the body, concretely? What does it mean to “care for” (or “respect”) the body – especially if we agree that mental health is a real component of health, understood holistically, and even something can have a direct impact on physical-bodily health? What precisely is the “fullest meaning” of the body, and (again) is it really inconceivable that a person’s “psychological sex” might give us a window into something real about their body, which itself should be “respected”?
“Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”
Look, I realize this entire section has been a direct quote from Pope Francis’ Laudato si, and (having reviewed it in the original context of its location in his encyclical) I’m confident that these words have a broader meaning and truth which can be defended. But copy-pasting Francis’ words into this narrower context of transgender “Catechesis” is intellectually sloppy at best, if not intellectually dishonest.
For if we actually followed the (implied) meaning here to its logical conclusion, it would amount to a claim that it is impossible for you to recognize yourself in an encounter with someone who shares the same biological sex as you – and it is impossible to find mutual enrichment through joyfully accepting the specific gifts of someone of the same sex – because it is not an encounter with someone who is biologically different. But I am not going to waste time discussing this, because I find it is self-evidently absurd – and anyone who has ever had a close friendship with someone of the same sex (to say nothing of a close friendship with an identical twin) can explain this to you further, if you really need help understanding why real human encounter is not only possible between individuals of different biological sexes. (Anyway, if that’s what Pope Francis really meant to say, then I’m happy to argue that he’s wrong on this point. But I don’t believe that’s really what he meant, in the context of closing out a section titled “Ecology in Daily Life”.)
“It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’.”
Agreed! That sure seems like an unhealthy attitude. But when the rubber meets the road, we need to talk about the importance of articulating what it actually means “to cancel out sexual differences”, because – and this is not controversial – there are definitely at least some specific contexts in which sexual difference does not and should not matter. (Or should we also attack Galatians 3:28 of “canceling out” sexual differences in a theological sense?) Therefore it is incredibly important to be clear about when sexual difference matters (e.g. for priestly ordination in the Catholic Church), and when it doesn’t (e.g. for driving a car, and voting in elections).
And if we acknowledge (as even Pope Francis does) that sometimes social norms tied to sexual difference can be problematic, and should be changed, then changing those social norms is not an attempt to “cancel out” sexual difference. Whatever attitude Pope Francis was really concerned with, in the original context of this passage, the truth is that it’s just not very applicable to transgender people, and casually invoking it in this context is a mistake.
Before we dive in, it merits noting that very little if any of what follows in this Policy section has any clear basis or coherent foundation in the previous Catechesis section. So little of what follows (regarding pronoun usage, dress code, bathrooms, etc) was grappled with or even gestured at prior to this point – so much so, that it feels like these sections were likely drafted by entirely different authors. And since, as we previously noted, the Preface also exhibited its own strange disconnect from the rest of the text, perhaps this is exactly what happened? In any case, there is a frustrating lack of coherence and harmony shared between the various parts of this document – we might even call it an internal discordance, if we’re feeling witty – which suggests that the conclusions were decided upon in advance, and the arguments were retroactively drafted to justify those conclusions, rather than carefully articulating first principles, and providing a coherent and persuasive basis for reaching the following policy decisions.
“The following policy seeks to provide guidance in applying the Church’s moral teachings regarding the challenges presented by ‘gender theory.’”
If we are about to apply the Church’s moral teachings, then it would have been really nice if the previous section had actually attempted to cite or articulate any of those moral teachings. We could have reflected on the moral evil of causing deliberate harm to the body (with regard to questions about mutilation or deliberate sterilization), and explained how the “principle of totality” can sometimes interact with the “principle of double effect” to justify common surgeries that do cause harm to the body, but for the sake of a proportionately greater good.
We could have highlighted the fact that “the Catholic ethical tradition holds that destruction of a part or function of the body is morally acceptable only when it directly benefits the health of the person as a whole (or at least, does not involve permanent harm)... On this principle, forms of gender reassignment surgery that destroy sexual or reproductive function, such as genital ‘reconstruction’, hysterectomy, and double mastectomy, are unjustifiable. Such surgery does immediate harm to the body of the patient while the hoped for social or psychological benefits are indirect and uncertain. …[But abstracting] from issues of marriage, sexual ethics in a narrow sense, and surgery that destroys sexual or reproductive function, there is no consensus among Catholic moral theologians as to whether an adult who transitions is thereby departing from Catholic moral teaching.”
We could have acknowledged the fact that “gender reassignment surgery… has never been mentioned in any official teaching document of the Church. It has not been mentioned explicitly in any papal address or encyclical. It is not mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor in any statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
We could have delved even deeper in to that same 1975 Rotal decision, and read the following: “[When] a radical disassociation is found between the psychological sex on the one hand and genetic, gonodal, hormonal and somatic sex on the other hand [so that such persons feel like the soul of a woman in the body of a man or vice versa], nothing prevents predominance from being attributed to psychological sex as regards those matters which do not exceed the juridical capacity of the subject. For the canonical teaching which, in cases of doubtful sexuality, recognized the right for the subject to make a definitive choice of sex, can be applied ‘when there is question of ordering one's purely external and social life, e.g. of wearing men's or women's clothing, of giving testimony in instruments, of the right to determine an heir.’ However, as regards marriage, since there is question of a contract whose essential formal object is the right to acts which are of themselves apt for the generation of children, the capacity to contract it depends on the potency for perfect carnal copula, namely, on biological sex and not on psychological sex.” (Canon Law Digest 8: 759).
But we didn’t get any of that good stuff, or the nuance that it requires. We didn’t even get a gesture toward Pope Francis’ affirmation that: “It is true that we cannot separate the masculine and the feminine from God’s work of creation, which is prior to all our decisions and experiences, and where biological elements exist which are impossible to ignore. But it is also true that masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories.” (Amoris laetitia, n. 286.) Instead, we got slapdash “Catechesis” with almost zero truly-relevant doctrinal citations.
“As a general rule, in all interactions and policies, parishes, organizations, and institutions are to recognize only a person’s biological sex. This policy applies, but is not limited to, all Church employees, personnel, volunteers, and those entrusted to the care of the Church, including all contracted vendors when they are on-site and may have contact with those entrusted to the care of the Church.”
This “general rule” generates a double problem: not only does it hinder real-life evangelization and effective communication with gender minorities on the margins, but it also forces people of good will into some deeply awkward-and-unnecessary situations. Or what else is supposed to happen, if an employee doesn’t know the biological sex of the person they are speaking with – or maybe they think they know the biological sex of the person they are speaking with, but then it turns out they’re actually wrong and made an incorrect assumption?
In order to “recognize only a person’s biological sex”, are employees going to be forced to ask an invasive question, when they are not certain? Are they even going to be allowed to believe the answer they are given, or are they going to demand medical proof? (Will they be forced to clarify “sorry I wasn’t asking for your preferred pronouns, I was asking for your biological sex”?) And we haven’t even started to acknowledge the complexity that will inevitably get dragged into this, with modern trends in legal identification documents. If it ever happens that a person presents an identification card showing that they are legally “male” – but the pastor believes that the person they are speaking with is biologically “female”– then that pastor will be logically and immediately forced to choose between (1) breaking the diocesan policy, or at least believing that he is breaking it, or (2) being profoundly rude: explicitly doubting the document, and requiring further proof from this person, who is absolutely going to be offended and pushed away from the Church by the pastor’s rigid adherence to this diocesan policy.
“3.1 Designations and Pronouns. Any parochial, organizational, or institutional documentation which requires the designation of a person’s sex is to reflect that person’s biological sex. No person may designate a ‘preferred pronoun’ in speech or in writing, nor are parishes, organizations, or institutions to permit such a designation.”
There’s no way around it: in my opinion, this is an absolutely awful, pastorally disastrous policy. (It’s actually hard to think of a worse policy, realistically.) It would have been one thing to caution or recommend against the use of preferred pronouns, leaving the Christian faithful in the diocese with at least a small measure of freedom to exercise prudential discretion in individual cases. But it’s something else entirely to universally prohibit even an option for discretionary flexibility, especially regarding something upon which (it bears repeating) the Church’s magisterium has in fact pronounced zero actual doctrinal teaching.
Approaching this more constructively: there are at least three reasonable prudential moves that could have been made here, and this policy embodies absolutely none of them:
 You could authorize using the “preferred pronouns” of the person you are speaking with. It’s controversial (I understand, we’ll talk more about this below), but the fact remains that you could do this, by understanding that your words truthfully correspond to their experienced gender identity (this being is a real thing, that they experience), without any intention of referring to their biological sex. Alternatively, you could do this as an act of charity and basic social politeness, exactly the same as when (for instance) the Church itself concedes to refer to an invalidly-ordained priest or bishop by their preferred religious titles in an ecumenical setting, regardless of what we believe theologically about the validity of their sacraments. The fact of the matter is that we do many things like this already; it’s not an inconceivable option.
 You could mandate the use of pronouns corresponding to the legal sex of each person. In this case, whether that happens to correspond to their biological sex or their gender identity, you do not need to figure it out, because your stance is making no endorsement: you are simply acknowledging an existing legal fact under civil law – whether it is a legal fiction or not – for the sake of a practical, charitable, and/or other basic social purpose. Again, it’s the same move as when you refer to a divorced-and-invalidly-married woman with the pronoun “Mrs” attached to her current legal surname, rather than rudely demanding to know her birth surname and/or the surname of her first husband. (Or for the sake of consistency, will the diocese implement a policy forbidding pastors, students, faculty, and staff from using the “preferred last names” of parents who have divorced and remarried without a declaration of nullity?)
 You could encourage simply referring to a person by their name (no pronouns needed), and/or using only gender-neutral pronouns – effectively dodging the whole question about what constitutes an im/moral use of “wrong” pronouns at all, if you absolutely must.
“Permitting the designation of a preferred pronoun, while often intended as an act of charity, instead promotes an acceptance of the separability of biological sex and ‘gender’ and thus opposes the truth of our sexual unity.”
So, first of all, it seems just a little bit dishonest to casually toss the caveat “often intended as an act of charity” out the window, as if charity toward our neighbors couldn’t possibly amount to a real moral justification for doing something, even outweighing other possible dangers. (Or perhaps dining with tax collectors and sinners, while intended as an act of charity, instead promotes an acceptance of sinful lifestyles, and thus opposes the truth of Christian revelation?)
Second, you might recall my earlier frustration that the claim about sex and gender being “inseparable” was neither clearly defined nor particularly coherent. The danger was that “separation” can mean whatever the author (or reader) wants it to mean, and we don’t really have to think about this alleged principle that we are invoking. Suddenly cautioning against “the separability” of sex and gender like this – when it’s rhetorically useful, without really making sure it’s coherent – is exactly what I was worried might happen. We will return to this later.
And still all of this is a distraction from the deeper, simple, blunt question: Do “transgender” persons – with a real “gender discordant” experience – actually exist, or not? Because if we agree that they do – and that they directly experience an internal “separation” between their gender identity and their biological sex (indeed this is what discordance presumes: at least two real things, existing in tension with each other) – then perhaps the simple truth is that an idealized “sexual unity” in human persons does not always exist in a world marked by the Fall of our first parents, and finding ways to express that truth is not a “lie”. In fact, it starts to become really obvious that all of this concern about “promoting the acceptance of the separability” between sex and gender is really just a highbrow code for saying “you know, actually, we’ve already decided that these things are inseparable, therefore your internal experience of their separability cannot be real” and “your claim to exist as transgender seems opposed to the truth of our sexual unity, as we understand it, therefore at the end of the day we cannot really accept your claim to exist as such”.
But enough about this. If we want to start thinking more constructively, and engage with a far more balanced reflection about the arguments surrounding the use of “preferred pronouns”, you are encouraged to download this brief theological paper by Greg Coles. Here’s one small excerpt: “As ethical communicators, we have a responsibility to be aware of who we are communicating with. In order to convey true information to others, we need to consider our listeners’ definitions of words as well as our own. If we speak words that seem truthful to us while ignoring how other people will hear and understand our words, we’re not really communicating. We’re just talking to ourselves, for our own benefit. This isn’t linguistic integrity. It’s linguistic narcissism.”
“3.2 Bathrooms and Locker Rooms. All persons must use the bathroom or locker room which matches their biological sex.”
Look, at this point, none of this is surprising. It’s very predictable, and on a certain level I do understand where it’s coming from, and why it initially seems reasonable on the surface. But something tells me nobody has really thought through what is going to happen if someday a socially “passing” trans man actually enters the women’s bathroom, as instructed.
“Archdiocesan parishes, organizations, and institutions are permitted to have individual-use bathrooms which are available for all members of the respective community.”
If we’re really going to double down on legislating the bathroom stuff, why is it merely permitted to have unisex bathrooms? Why is it not encouraged, at a bare minimum – or even mandated in new buildings, or when renovations are taking place? If we really care about balancing our rigid beliefs with pastoral solicitude for transgender persons, why not actively seek out and promote small ways to accommodate them, rather than merely “permit” such accommodations?
“3.3 Attire. All persons are to present themselves in a manner consistent with their God-given dignity.”
What does “a manner consistent with their God-given dignity” actually mean? Is this just an awkward way of saying “all persons are to dress with basic modesty” – and if it is, why not just say that instead of phrasing it like this? Or is there supposed to be an implication (without an argument) that “masculine” or “feminine” clothing (undefined) is necessary for one's dignity?
“Where a dress code or uniform exists, all persons are to follow the dress code or uniform that accords with their biological sex.”
Again the whole dress code thing is not surprising at this point. But it does exist in an awkward tension with the previously-affirmed caution against “cultural distortions of what constitutes masculinity and femininity” – which a rigid dress code is certainly adjacent to, if not deeply intertwined with. Thus again, more constructively: why not mandate the creation of more unisex options in the dress code, or encourage more flexibility to help alleviate the psychological discomfort that you know your policy will be causing to trans students?
“3.4 Athletics and Extra-Curriculars. Participation in parish, school, and extra-curricular activities must be conformed with the biological sex of the participant. Some sports and activities may be open to the participation of individuals of both sexes.”
Why is this a “must be” followed only by a “may be”? Why not say “should as a general rule” and permit that exceptions might be made for a just cause? More constructively: why not encourage the reduction or elimination of single-sex restrictions in various activities, whenever this is reasonably possible and not truly beneficial – especially outside of athletics? (How many parish, school, or extra-curricular activities truly require a single-sex restriction or separation?)
“3.5 Single-Sex Schools, Buildings, and other Programs and Institutions. Admission to single-sex programs, including but not limited to single-sex schools, camps, and retreats, is restricted to persons of the designated biological sex. Dormitories or other single-sex buildings are restricted to persons of the designated biological sex.”
Again it seems obvious that nobody who cares about the value of single-sex dorms has actually thought through the implication of allowing a socially “passing” trans woman to enter and/or reside in a men’s dormitory. And what happens if, for instance, someone suspects a campus visitor is falsely claiming to be a transgender woman, in order to access the men’s dormitory? Or will someone on campus be responsible for “verifying” the biological sex of all persons, including guests? Look, I’m not saying the solution here is simple – but I am saying that it does not appear to have been carefully thought through. Is biological sex really the standard we want to commit to enforcing in every situation, and if so, exactly how do plan to enforce it?)
“3.6 Medication. No person is permitted to have on-site or to distribute any medications for the purpose of gender reassignment. Also, students and those entrusted to the care of the Church are not permitted to take ‘puberty blockers,’ even if self-administered, on parish or school property, with the purpose of a potential or actual ‘gender reassignment.’”
This all just feels weirdly specific and deeply unnecessary. (Was this truly a real problem that any parish or school in the diocese was actually having, such that it was even remotely necessary to promulgate as a diocesan policy?) In any case, it would be one thing to simply have a consistent and universal policy regarding the self-administration of all prescribed medications for children. But if some medications are being singled out for special treatment, and other medications are not subject to the same supervision, then how is this supposed to be even remotely enforceable, at least without engaging in some very ugly privacy violations?
“3.7 Protecting the Vulnerable. Those entrusted to the care of the Church who express a tension between their biological sex and their ‘gender’ and others directly affected by this tension (parents, guardians, etc.) should be directed to appropriate ministers and counselors who will help the person in a manner that is in accord with the directives and teachings of the Church.”
Perhaps it’s just the pessimist in my soul being uncharitable, but this sure sounds a whole lot like code for “quietly send them to conversion therapists”. (And let’s ignore the fact that “the directives and teachings of the Church” on these questions might not even truly exist, at least not in the detailed ways that you might wish they did.) The bare minimum in this context – if we care about prudence, and building trust between diocesan leadership and the laity – is that there must be a publicly-available list of everyone who is considered an “appropriate minister and counselor”. Otherwise, quietly directing people to “approved” but undisclosed counselors and resources gravely risks causing irreparable harm, over and over again.
“Parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions or organizations should take the necessary precautions, in accord with the policies of this document, to avoid bullying and to protect the integrity of those who may express tension or concerns about their biological sex.”
This sounds great… at least if you read it fast, and don’t really stop to think about it. Of course bullying should be condemned, absolutely, full stop. And we should take precautions against bullying… “in accord with the policies of this document”? But this is the policy section of this document; what other policies in this document are supposed to be helping us implement the necessary precautions against bullying? Are we just gesturing toward a non-existent thing, because it sounds good? Or is this just a backhanded way of saying that anyone who claims to be upholding and enforcing the policies of this document, by definition, cannot be “bullying”?
And what does it mean to “protect the integrity” of those who might be questioning their gender identity? This whole notion of “protecting their integrity” is obviously just code for making sure they don’t “separate” (even if they might “distinguish”) their gender identity from their biological sex, right? So this is really saying: take precautions to protect kids both from bullies and from themselves... presumably, by sending “those who may express tension or concerns about their biological sex” to ministers and counselors who will discourage them from any adherence to a gender identity that allegedly threatens their “integrity”? (Please, convince me I’m misunderstanding. I would love to be wrong.)
4. Resources and Pastoral Implementation
“In prudently implementing this policy, the circumstances of a case could be so particular that it may demand the advice of experts. Some specific cases may not find an answer in this document.”
In theory, I think this is a wise move. But under the circumstances, it’s also a little bit terrifying: because it represents a significant centralization of discretionary authority into the hands of a few individuals, whose personal views and education on this subject we know very little about. In any case, the further we wander down the “contact us to discuss specific situations, don’t make decisions on your own” path – especially on a diocesan level – the more critical it becomes for there to be openness and transparency in decision-making, and consistency in advice coming from different departments. Otherwise, the danger of inconsistent (i.e. unjust) and evolving “unspoken policy” over time is fairly extreme.
“For an updated list of Catholic therapists and other behavioral resources within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee…”
This is perfectly fine in theory, but (again) such a list must be publicly available – not locked behind a gatekeeper – so that the faithful have basic transparency about whose resources, education, and expertise is actually guiding these conversations behind closed doors.
I am not saying that this is necessarily an easy demand to meet. I understand that various legal concerns can arise, and individual therapists may desire to have their identities protected. But the Church has now endured multiple decades of abuse scandals, directly tied to a systemic lack of transparency. We have suffered the effects of false “experts” like Monsignor Tony Anatrella, who told homosexual seminarians “you’re not gay, you just think that you are” and is now preparing to stand trial for the sexual abuse of those same seminarians. (Would any of the Archdiocese’s approved therapists similarly tell a student “you’re not transgender, you just think that you are”, operating on dangerous or abusive theories about the supposed “origin” of the transgender experience? We don’t know – and this is precisely the problem.)
Vigilance in this regard is critical, lest harmful dynamics reappear in new contexts – or (in the context of conversion therapy) lest harmful, discredited, and abusive therapeutic practices be given a new foothold to operate quietly under the cover of ecclesiastical approval. If a diocese is giving even a semblance of approval or endorsement to therapists or organizations, then the faithful have a right to know whose work and resources is considered approved. And if the list is merely descriptive – with no special approval or endorsement intended – then there should be no reason why it cannot simply be posted online, with an appropriate disclaimer.
“5.1. Biological sex: The sex with which a person is born, regardless of acceptance or perceived identity.”
This definition is an abject failure on all fronts. Not only is it circular (“biological sex is the biological sex which a person is born with”), but it begs the question regarding how sex is to be determined. What if a person is born with ambiguous genitalia, and/or an intersex condition that defies simple analysis? What if a truly hermaphroditic individual (“not only organic but also functional”) is discovered? There are intelligent ways to approach these difficulties when attempting to define biological sex, whether philosophically or legally – but these require rigorous engagement with modern scientific observations in human biology.
A better approach would involve acknowledging the possibility of biological complexity (e.g. Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, biological mosaicism, even “true hermaphroditism”), and then utilizing the notion of “that which is predominant in the person” to ascertain which biological sex seems to predominate in the body considered holistically, at least for legal and canonical purposes. But this would require acknowledging that chromosomes are only one indicator of biological sex, and grappling with tricky questions about whether there are any circumstances in which an innate gender identity (or “psychological sex”) reported by the person can be taken as a significant factor in weighing what “predominates”.
Finally, why tack on “regardless of acceptance or perceived identity”? This specification has absolutely no value or useful role to play, especially in the context of this definition.
“5.2 Gender: As understood by the Church, gender is the socio-cultural role of sex and particularly how it informs one’s psychological identity.”
Framing this definition of gender “as understood by the Church” is a bold claim, particularly when the Catechism doesn’t even yet have a robust concept of sexual orientation, much less of gender as something distinguished from biological sex. Now, yes, the footnote on this definition does point to the 2015 Final Report of the Synod of Bishops, and the same language was subsequently taken up by Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia. (We’ll return to this again below.) But the problem is that a deeper, inconvenient fact remains: that’s not how any of this works. Synodal reports and Apostolic exhortations carry extremely little, if any, actual magisterial weight in the Catholic Church. Neither document is proposing – nor could either document actually succeed, even if it wanted to propose – a doctrinal definition of “gender”.
And yet, in a broader sense, there is something valuable still happening here. Ecclesiastical authorities actually acknowledging “the socio-cultural role of sex” is a solid first step in beginning to dialogue with a world that has been talking about “gender expression” and “social gender roles” for decades. But still: defining “gender” primarily as the socio-cultural role (rather than the psychological identity) is at least a little bizarre… and doubly so, in the context of a Glossary that is about to utilize the “psychological identity” notion of gender in the very next definition.
And further, if gender is going to be understood as the socio-cultural role of sex, then we have deeply undermined the earlier claim (cf. Catechesis 2.3) that “a person’s gender is inseparable from biological sex”. For not only have we distinguished between gender and sex, but it seems we have now logically conceded that they are very separable: for as the socio-cultural roles assigned to the biological sexes are clearly not inseparably fused, but demonstrably vary across human societies and cultures.
“5.3. Gender dysphoria: the state in which a person claims to experience an incongruity between psychological identity and biological sex.”
There’s an incredibly problematic and offensive phrase here – and if it’s not immediately slamming you in the face, it’s almost certainly because you’re a cisgender individual who has never actually engaged in extensive dialogue with a transgender person. The offending phrase is: “claims to experience an incongruity” – and it doesn’t take a whole lot of work to understand how building that phrase into the definition can function as a form of gaslighting, as opposed to simply saying: “experiences an incongruity between psychological identity and biological sex”.
This would have also been another great opportunity to ditch the “dysphoria” language, or at least pair it up with the improved “gender discordance” language that we originally glimpsed in the Preface. Anyway, after the previous definition, it’s pretty funny how the “psychological identity” framework for defining “gender” naturally (and correctly) slips right back in. For indeed it does make far more intuitive sense, and corresponds with how the word generally functions in common usage. Philosophical or emotional dissatisfaction with the socio-cultural role assigned to one’s biological sex might have some role to play in individual cases, but it is rarely what anyone in the context of this conversation is fundamentally trying to talk about.
“5.4 Gender Ideology/Theory: An ideology or theory that denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman, and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
This is a very bold, specific, and even frightening definition. But it makes a ton of sense that this is the enemy the authors believe they are fighting against – it speaks clearly to a fear-based, war-for-our-survival framework for relating to the culture around us. It speaks to a frame of reference in which the outside world is an enemy to defeat, rather than something broken but redeemable, containing people that we are called to befriend, accompany, and evangelize. It speaks to a mindset in which trans persons are fundamentally seen as victims of a “lie” being spoken in the culture around them, and therefore whose “integrity” must be aggressively protected.
But let’s back up for a moment, because I see that this “definition” is taken directly out of Amoris laetitia. Unfortunately, it is missing a critical caveat: for even in the original citation from which this is pulled, Pope Francis gestured to “various forms of an ideology of gender”... which is kind of the whole point. There is no single, monolithic “gender ideology”. There are many gender ideologies, many theoretical frameworks for how to best understand and articulate the meaning of “gender, and they must be carefully studied and distinguished. (And, this is a huge tangent, but really worth absorbing: in exactly the same way, there is no single, monolithic definition of “socialism”, which is why Pius XI put effort into articulating the different types that he saw, and even conceding that some versions of “socialism” match up incredibly well with Christian principles.)
So sure, if you want to drill down on criticizing a hyper-specific and obviously-frightening type of “gender ideology” – then fine. There may be some merit to that sort of project. Do some people hold the extreme “gender ideology” described here? Sure, probably. But if you aren’t attentive to the fact that not every person holds the same “gender ideology” and not every “gender ideology” fits the same definition – if you’re not asking people “what do you believe” and listening closely enough to notice when (and understand why) they’re defining certain words differently – then as Greg Coles put it, you’re not really communicating: you're just engaging in linguistic narcissism, while attacking a straw man version of the diverse ideologies around you.
“Thus, ‘Gender Ideology’ or ‘Gender Theory’ promotes a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.”
There’s not much more to say here, except that the notion of “radical separation” is interesting, and could potentially be a more fruitful path forward: i.e. conceding that there are many ways that sex and gender can be “separated”, but perhaps only “radical” or absolute separation is illegitimate. Then we can devote more thought to unpacking what constitutes a “radical” separation, as opposed to lesser forms of “separation” which might be perfectly legitimate.
“Consequently, human identity becomes a choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.”
I truly do not understand how anyone actually listening to the culture today could fail to hear the dominant message that gender identity (like sexual orientation) is fundamentally something innate and not chosen… which makes this whole line of criticism vanishingly relevant. A key feature of the transgender experience for many is that their identity cannot be chosen, but only affirmed or not affirmed: their transgender experience is not one characterized by choice, but by realization.
Are there some authors who do advocate for a more radical philosophy of gender? Sure. Then be clear about the fact that you are not attacking every “gender theory” when you criticize one specific school of thought. Put some effort into understanding and distinguishing between the different types of “gender theory” that exist, and ascertaining which elements of which theories are actually being affirmed by the culture. Do not collapse multiple incompatible schools of thought into a monolithic phantom ideology that you must uncritically refuse to engage with.
“Ideologies of this sort… manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised.”
Setting aside everything else: this is actually pretty close to a logical moral position. That is to say, pretty much everyone – including the Catholic Church – believes that children should be taught only true things, and that teaching error to children is harmful, and therefore seeks to dictate (if not mandate) how children should be raised. This is not some sort of strange or insidious feature of “gender ideology”... it’s just a basic moral response to a conviction about truth and error, whenever truth and error are believed to be known with certitude.
“It needs to be emphasized that biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.”
So it turns out that maybe Pope Francis wasn’t trying to define “gender” dogmatically – nor was he speaking at all about gender according to the distinct notion of “psychological sex” – in the context of this quote. That uh… throws a wrench into the hardcore “distinguish but never separate” principle, when you really start to unpack it. Starts to make it look like we didn’t really understand what Francis was getting at, and didn’t really think through the consequences of what would happen if we picked up his words and ran to copy-paste them into another context.
So maybe we can “separate” sex and gender abstractly, when we distinguish between them. Maybe we can also “separate” them in yet another sense, when (for instance) referring to an inanimate naval ship by feminine-gendered pronouns. Maybe we can also concretely “separate” a whole bunch of specific cultural gender roles from their historical link to one specific sex – e.g. allowing women to wear pants, and vote, and join the military – without radically separating every facet of human society from the biological difference between male and female. Maybe increasing gender equality still further is not only conceivable in the course of a dark campaign to engineer a society without any sexual differences whatsoever. Maybe here’s more nuance here, which we can unpack thoughtfully, rather than reflexively shouting “sex and gender are inseparable” whenever someone proposes an accommodation for trans people.
“Footnote 20: In Catholic moral theology, the term ‘disordered’ has a particular meaning which may not be identical with how the term is used by psychologists and medical professionals.”
This is very correct, and very important to keep in mind – and if you want to dive deeper on this moral theology concept, then you can dive into my breakdown of the terminology here. Maybe there’s still something to be said for that notion of “linguistic narcissism” – if bishops and pastors definitely see this massive equivocation happening with the word “disordered”, but still insist on using it loudly in catechetical materials – but that’s a reflection for another time.
“According to the Catholic moral tradition, every inclination, desire, and action is ordered to some particular purpose or end (i.e., consuming medicine is ordered toward health; sexual relations are ordered toward unity between spouses and procreation; etc). Any inclination, desire, or action which impedes this purpose is considered “disordered” (i.e., the inclination to take medicine in order to commit suicide; or engaging in contraceptive sexual relations).”
Again, so far so good. But it is critical to understand in this context that a desire (or inclination) (or temptation) is something ordered to an action: I desire to do this. I am inclined to do that. Therefore, if the action that you desire to do (or are inclined to do) is immoral, then we can say that the desire (or inclination) is “morally disordered”.
“Since the purpose of the body (as given by God) and the soul is to be united forever in the presence of God, an inclination which disrupts this unity – such as an experienced tension between natal sex and ‘gender’ – would be considered ‘disordered.’”
No. This sentence just broke the rules of the analysis. At best it is now equivocating in a profound manner, and we are no longer talking about moral disorder. An “experienced tension” between biological sex and gender is not an inclination at all. Rather: that tension or gender discordance (similarly also: sexual orientation) is something deeper – a morally neutral background condition of the human person – which (yes) might give rise to various inclinations or desires, and (yes) those inclinations or desires can become proper subjects of a moral analysis. But the application of “moral disorder” stops there.
If this isn’t making sense to you, I urge you to read this piece by Nick Roen, and to really reflect on the full implications of his words here: “Also, notice that I said attraction leads to desires, plural. As I noticed Rick with pleasure, the attraction produced all sorts of ‘I want…’ desires in me. One of those desires was a sexual desire. No, I wasn’t immediately imagining what it would be like to be in bed with him, but the seed was present. However, I also experienced many heightened desires toward Rick that had nothing to do with sex. I desired to go talk to him, shake his hand, get to know him, laugh with him, and serve him by bringing him a glass of punch. In other words, not only were the seeds of sexual desire present, but the seeds of desires for friendship, hospitality, emotional intimacy, sacrificial service, and love were there as well. All different desires, all colored by the same initial attraction. It is this experience of persistent attractions toward other men leading to multiple heightened desires that constitutes my definition of SSA, experiencing a homosexual orientation, or ‘being gay’. The whole experience, not merely the sexual parts.”
If you actually dialogue with a transgender person, I guarantee that you will discover an identical array of various desires – plural – all stemming from their deeper “gender identity”: e.g. the desire to associate with people of the other biological sex, the desire to look like them, sound like them, behave like them, fit in with and support and stand alongside them. They might not immediately be imagining what it would be like to have a body of the opposite sex – or even immediately desiring to “transition” (socially, or medically, or surgically) into a new socio-cultural role (“gender”) matching their internal identity (“gender”) – but the seed is present. And each of these distinct desires is subject to its own distinct moral analysis: some desires might be unequivocally immoral to act on; but other actions might be possible, or defensible, or even praiseworthy.
As we unpack these questions, we must listen carefully, engage in real dialogue even with authors that we disagree with, and avoid displaying linguistic narcissism toward our neighbors. We must be extremely careful to avoid laying down greater burdens than Church actually requires, and we must strive to help make legitimate distinctions that enable our transgender brothers and sisters to thrive while they strive to adhere to the Catholic faith. And most difficult of all, we must be willing to extend the benefit of the doubt where we lack certitude.
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. I hope you found something valuable.
Maybe someday we’ll succeed in doing better.
For further reading on this topic, see "Galileo And His Condemnation", by Ernest Hull: https://archive.org/details/galileoandhiscon00hulluoft/page/n5/mode/2up