When she began working with the trans community in the late 1990s, Monica could confidently say, when asked about the official Catholic position, “Nothing, yet.” She counted that as a blessing. If the church did declare something, given its track record with lesbian and gay issues, it was not likely to make transgender lives any easier.
Then, one morning in January 2003, Monica turned on her computer to find frenetic emails appearing from trans Catholics she knew around the country. They linked to an article on the Catholic News Service website: “Vatican Says Sex Change Operation Does Not Change a Person’s Gender.” Her friends begged to know what this meant for them.
The article told of a document that had been produced in 2000 and sent “sub secretum” — secretly — to church leaders around the world about how to handle cases of sexual transition. The document reportedly counsels that the sex stated on baptismal records should not be changed for trans people, whether there is surgery involved or not. Transsexuals cannot validly enter into marriage. On the basis of mental instability, they shouldn’t be considered for religious orders. Their condition is to be treated as a species of psychosis, above all; the document did nevertheless allow that reassignment surgery might be morally licit if needed to treat an especially far-gone patient.
Monica set off in search of the document itself. She asked everyone she could think of and has yet to find it. Even a big-city bishop who quietly encourages her work didn’t have a copy. The best she could do was track down a Latin version of a canon law journal article upon which the document was based, which a friend of hers translated, painstakingly, into English. The author of the text was Urbano Navarrete, a Jesuit priest from Spain and former rector of the elite Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. When it appeared in 1997, he was 77 years old. Navarrete died in 2010, three years after Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal; the pope sent a telegram of condolences and preached at his funeral.
Catholicism is sometimes accused of forsaking the material for the spiritual, but not here. Navarrete accepts solely the most straightforward visible and genetic evidence at birth for determining a person’s sex — an “objective reality” compared to any mere “perceived sense” of a conscious adult or child. For laypeople who perceive a gender identity different from that presumed when they’re born, the article draws harsh lines barring them from marriage or the priesthood; regarding clergy, at least, it is measurably gentler, advising a solution for them “which heals, as far as possible.” Monica doesn’t generally share this text with those whom she is trying to help.
A harder blow to the Catholic trans community came a few years later, just before Christmas in 2008. In the midst of a holiday reflection on the highlights of his year and the nature of the Holy Spirit, Pope Benedict denounced what he called the “manipulation” of human sexuality. He likened those who contradict a strict gender binary to those who burn down rain forests. Then in 2012, again at Christmas, Benedict took up the subject once more. “People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity,” he said. Media headlines announced another attack on the trans community — even if it’s trans people who struggle more than anyone to live according to what they take as their given nature. Again Benedict compared his perception of the “new philosophy of sexuality” with environmental destruction.
At the time, Mateo Williamson had just arrived in Florida to undergo gender-confirming surgery. He is a college student (double-majoring in Spanish interpretation and microbiology) who transitioned two years ago, and he met Monica soon after that. Williamson grew up in a strenuously Catholic family, an altar server since he was 8. He loves his faith and wants to keep loving it, though his parents and priests haven’t always made that easy. They taught him to feel that wanting to pick up a football was not just unladylike, but a grave sin. The news of Benedict’s speech brought childhood horrors flooding back.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” Williamson recalls. He wondered, “Why now? Why right around Christmas?” Another of Monica’s trans friends, an electrical engineer in his 40s, marks Benedict’s words as the reason his Catholicism lapsed.
Pope Francis I has shifted the Vatican’s tone on sexual diversity somewhat; further Christmas condemnations seem unlikely to be coming from him. “Who am I to judge?” he famously asked with regard to good-willed gay people. The mother church of his Jesuit order in Rome held a much-publicized funeral in January for a murdered homeless trans woman, though he has yet to speak about living transgender people specifically.
There is a lot more to the Catholic Church than ponderings emanating from the Vatican. Williamson says, in his experience, “the Catholic Church is one of the most affirming groups toward LGBT people” — in the pews, he means, not the hierarchy. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that U.S. Catholics affirm a rather vague statement about transgender rights at a rate somewhat higher than the national average.
James Whitehead is a theologian who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago. In recent years he and his wife, Evelyn, a psychologist, have devoted themselves to understanding the transgender experience in Catholic terms. They had been studying lesbian and gay issues for years, and as they sought out trans people it struck them how familiar the arc of their lives seemed.
“This is the same old story,” he says. “The kind of transition that trans people are talking about is very similar to the journey of faith through darkness and desert that people have been making for thousands of years.” He has found, in his teaching and writing, that when he describes trans experience to Catholics in terms of a spiritual journey, a light goes on, and they get it.
Hints and echoes of what we now speak of as gender transition lie scattered throughout Christian tradition. An Ethiopian eunuch is the first person baptized in the Book of Acts, and the third-century theologian Origen castrated himself after reading Jesus’ remark about those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Stories of ancient ascetics recall women “surpassing” their gender through spiritual advancement, or by simply disguising themselves as men. In the Middle Ages, St. Joan of Arc was executed for refusing to stop cross-dressing; legends circulated of a female pope, also named Joan, who was also killed for gender-bending. Medieval mystics sometimes referred to Jesus as a mother and saw visions of milk dripping from his breast. The Catholic Church as a whole, led by a hierarchy of costumed men, is traditionally referred to as She and as the Bride of Christ.
The resonance goes beyond appearances. “Catholic tradition is all about the dignity of the human person,” says Edward Poliandro, an advocate for LGBT Catholics and their families in New York City. “Transgender people have a particular prophetic mission just to live and to challenge society simply by saying, ‘I’m a person.’”
Still, as Father Navarrete put it in his article, transgender experience as conceived of today is something “not yet foreseen” in the church. Prominent Catholic voices tend to hold a hard line. The physician Paul McHugh, for instance, closed down the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s clinic for reassignment surgeries when he was psychiatrist in chief, a decision he has continued to defend. A 2009 article in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly denounced such surgery as a “category mistake.” But there has yet to be a statement from the hierarchy definitive and public enough to count as dogma.
“The interesting thing about the Catholic Church is that there isn’t an official policy about this,” says Elizabeth Bucar, a professor of religious studies at Northeastern University who has interviewed Vatican officials in Rome about their thinking on gender. They’re waiting and seeing.
Powerful religious institutions have risen to the defense of trans communities before. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of theocratic Iran, was moved to issue a 1983 decree in favor of reassignment surgery after a trans woman burst into his study and revealed her breasts, testifying, “I’m a woman, I’m a woman!” Today, homosexual activity can be punishable by death, but transsexual surgeries are subsidized by the Iranian government. Bucar, however, advises trans advocates not to be so insistent in asking for clearer statements from the Catholic hierarchy: “If you push the issue you might end up with a decision that is problematic.”