Why Catholic arguments about trans persons don’t work
To the extent the Congregation for Catholic Education is talking about "transgender persons," it's not talking about the trans people I know.
In her essay, “What Is It to Believe Someone?”, the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe begins with a question of logic. She puts it in the form of a hypothetical:
“There were three men, A, B, and C, talking in a certain village. A said ‘If that tree falls down, it’ll block the road for a long time.’ ‘That’s not so if there’s a tree-clearing machine working’, said B. C remarked, ‘There will be one, if the tree doesn’t fall down.’ The famous sophist Euthydemus, a stranger in the place, was listening. He immediately said ‘I believe you all. So I infer that the tree will fall and the road will be blocked.’”
“Logic” and Moral Discourse
Anscombe notes that Euthydemus implies there will be no machine working, from A’s and B’s remarks. And From this and C’s remark, he concludes the tree will fall.
But, ultimately, Anscombe says, “Euthydemus’ utterance is crazy.” She says that Euthydemus can believe A’s statement (Premise A) at the time it is made, but that it’s ridiculous for Euthydemus to just assume that A’s statement will necessarily hold true within the context of B’s statement. Euthydemus’ mistake is that he “makes no check on A; he does not wait a moment to see how A reacts to what B and C say.” Euthydemus mistreats of logic in a way only done by American philosophy undergraduates—and Catholic apologists.
Ethydemus’ key mistake is to take the words of A only at their face value, and not to consider what A might mean by them and how A might understand his statement (and amend or qualify it) when placed within the context of other statements.
This is a mistake made again and again by Catholic apologists. Consider, for example, the 2019 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards A Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” The statement responds to “gender theory,” which it says “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.”
As a start, one might note that Simone de Beauvoir did indeed say, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” But one need look no deeper than the second paragraph of the Wikipedia page on gender studies to find that her view (presupposing that “gender” refers to socio-cultural constructions, rather than being male or female) “is not held by all gender theorists.” Perhaps by the term “gender theory,” the Congregation for Catholic Education (“CCE”) means “certain trends among certain scholars of gender theory.” Its presentation of “gender theory,” thus qualified might then be accurate enough. Unqualified, however, it reads like a first-year philosophy student giving an “authoritative critique” of Plato. I’m only an early amateur in the study of gender theory, and even I know this.
To the extent the CCE is talking about “gender theory,” it’s only talking about certain strains or tendencies associated with certain gender theorists. The CCE seems to acknowledge this in a limited way when it distinguishes between “ideologies of gender” and “other work on gender… which tries instead to achieve a deeper understanding of the ways in which sexual difference between men and women is lived out in a variety of cultures.” But even this fails to acknowledge the narrowness with which it treats “gender theory.” The CCE also fails to recognize that, to the extent it responds to the claims of “gender theory,” it itself might be said to engage in gender theory, even if in an amaeteurish way.
The CCE could have taken the approach of John Paul II, who did not dismiss “feminism” altogether because of certain radical scholars working at odds with Catholic teaching or because “feminists” were promoting access to contraception even in feminism’s earliest years. Instead, John Paul II called for a “new feminism” which drew on foundational feminist ideals (equality, recognition, affirmation) and sought to explore them in the context of Catholic anthropology. Concerns about denaturalisation and dualism in gender theory are fair enough. But the shallow misrepresentations of the CCE’s statement put even its good critiques and analyses at risk of total dismissal by the better-read public. John Paul II’s approach to feminism might provide an alternative way forward.
The CCE also says that, under gender theory, “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” This appears to be aimed at the claims of trans persons.
Though I have worked with many trans persons, have had trans and non-binary friends, and have read many accounts of trans persons, I have never heard them describe or understand their experiences or identities in this sort of framework of “choice.” Rather, the key framework tends to be one of affirmation/non-affirmation with regards to a reality discovered and re-discovered, not entirely unlike the Catholic understanding of vocational discernment, whereby one lives in a way that seeks to affirm God’s will which is hidden but unveils itself to us over time, experience, study, dialogue, and contemplation. Trans persons tend to reject the idea that they could choose to be trans, or could choose their gender. They speak, instead, of a gendered or non-gendered way of being which they discover as a reality, and to which they try to conform various aspects of their lives. They speak in terms of discovering the truth, and then seeking to conform their lives to it.
So to the extent the CCE is talking about “transgender persons,” it’s talking about someone other than the trans people I know. It defines “transgenderism” as viewing gender “as dependent upon the subjective mindset of each person, who can choose a gender not corresponding to his or her biological sex, and therefore with the way others see that person.” Again, the emphasis on “choice” here is misrepresentative, in ways similarly to which some Christians had previously viewed “homosexuality” as a matter of choice (and thus weren’t really talking about “homosexuals” like me when they used the word). The CCE’s statement approaches moral discourse in the mode of Euthydemus, and not of Elizabeth Anscombe. It collapses the person behind the experience for the sake of a simplified argument. Most of the transgender persons I know can ignore the CCE statement, because it’s not actually about them. The statement is about some other tree blocking the road. And while that tree may be worth talking about, we should at least be honest about what it is: not any trans person I know.
A Repeated Mistake, and Its Consequences
One significant problem is that Catholics are making the same mistake with regards to trans persons that they made with regard to gay persons ten years ago. It was commonly an argument against homosexuals that we, as the Boy Scouts put it in their 2000 Supreme Court case, were not “clean” and “morally upright.” Many Christians critiqued “homosexuals” and “homosexualism” (yes, they did use this term) by saying we were inclined to be child molestors and social degenerates. The work of social scientists, and the actual experiences of gay persons and our families, unveiled that these arguments were not only wrong but harmful and tended to be self-fulfilling prophesies in abusive Christian communities. When this unveiling occurred, it was then assumed by many that, because the most common arguments against same-sex sex and relationships were based on harmful unfounded prejudices, that all arguments against same-sex sex and relationships were so founded.
Catholic apologists, at that point far behind in developing tools to engage the actual realities of gay persons, went through a sloppy mess of trying to catch up and rebrand, which a large proportion of them have not yet been able to do. This damages the credibility of the Church not only on matters of (homo)sexuality, but on all matters. The strongest argument against the Catholic teaching on homosexuality has often been along the lines of, “Well, if that Catholic speaker was so horribly wrong about my son/brother/friend Jimmy, then why should I (or Jimmy) accept anything that speaker (or the Church, for that matter) says about sexuality (or anything else)?” The public is moving in this direction with regards to their trans friends and the statements by many Catholic leaders. The similarities between today’s equivocal Christian critiques of “transgenderism” and the past failed (and since abandoned) Christian critiques of “homosexualism” are in great abundance. It’s amazing that Christians are failing to learn from our own cautionary tale of cultural disaster.
There can be a better conversation, but I don’t think it will happen at the level of congregations of bishops or Catholic apologetics. It would probably be best led by trans Catholics. I hope we don’t drive them away.