Transgender persons, human dignity and our response

(October 9, 2014 – Catholic Spirit – Jason Adkins)

This past summer, Time Magazine had a cover story called “The Next Civil Rights Revolution,” chronicling the movement to create legal mandates for the accommodation of persons who either identify as transgender or who refuse to identify as male or female altogether.

A stream of stories has also appeared locally, describing the lives of transgender-identifying individuals and their fight to end “gender identity discrimination,” most recently concerning the Minnesota State High School League’s proposed Transgender Student Policy. Although the policy was tabled until December, the discussion is far from over and questions about the policy and transgenderism from concerned Catholics abound.

How should Catholics respond to persons who identify as transgender? How does the Church speak to a world that more and more ignores biological sexes in favor of “gender,” and which views gender as socially conditioned, malleable at will, or operating on a spectrum — rather than through the “binary” of male and female?

The gender confusion and sexual brokenness that we see all around us, in which people feel alienated from or in conflict with their bodies, is a sign of a deeply hurting world. It requires on our part a compassionate and proactive response.

A much deeper problem

The national story of Ryland Whittington is one that is particularly moving and saddening, and underscores the need to think and pray deeply about these issues. Ryland is a young girl whose parents helped her “transition” to a boy between the ages of 2 and 5. Ryland now appears at events promoting transgender awareness. Presumably, she will eventually have what is referred to as “sex reassignment surgery.”

The story has made national headlines and generated wide-spread applause as being a model of compassion and openness. The proposition that toddlers can choose or know, with absolute certainty, their gender identity at such a young age seems almost indisputable among the purveyors of supposedly enlightened opinion who attempt to end the debate before it has even begun.

Yet, amid the mistruths that have formed to normalize “gender transition,” some voices of truth are making themselves heard.

Dr. Paul McHugh is the head of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University. Writing this summer in the Wall Street Journal, he notes how he stopped allowing sex change or “reassignment” surgeries at the university hospital after research and experience showed that the surgeries in which men sought to become women did not cure underlying psychological problems present prior to surgery, and that the desire for the surgery was instead the byproduct of other psychological and sexual disorders.

In the words of Dr. McHugh: “We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it.”

The problem is not a question of how to help people make their bodies match their subjective psychological state. The problem is much deeper.

The Church as mother and teacher

The matter of gender confusion is a sensitive topic that requires sharing countercultural truths with compassion. In the words of St. John XXIII, whom Pope Francis has echoed, the Church must be both mother and teacher. She is mother in the sense that she loves in the way a mother properly loves: everyone is embraced and welcomed. As Pope Francis has said in describing the Church, everyone wants to come home to mom. While we may often fall short of creating a welcoming home, this is how every person should feel about the Church; she is truly a “field hospital” and welcoming refuge for broken persons, which includes all of us.

The unconditional love of a mother necessarily embraces the responsibility of being a teacher, even when the children ignore the advice or reject it altogether. The Church, as mother and teacher, must continue to courageously speak the truth while at the same time welcoming everyone in her embrace.

Gender and human dignity

The truth is that God has created us male and female and has made us with a soul and body that are inextricably linked to one another — their union forms a single nature. The body is not merely a shell encompassing my spirit or “real self,” which many who support the new gender theory believe. The body is, indeed, the physical manifestation of my personhood. It is truly me, along with my soul, and my identity as male or female is integral to who I am as a human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church 362-68).

As Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI noted in an important address to the Roman Curia in 2012, a rejection of the reality that we are created male and female is, even if unwittingly, a rejection of the Creator and his creation.

Therefore, cultural currents or policies that seek to institutionalize or “mandate” affirmation of gender “reassignment” (as opposed to anti-discrimination laws, some of which ensure that people have access to the basic necessities of life) cannot be supported because they perpetuate the confusion, brokenness, or pain that someone who identifies as transgendered is experiencing, instead of trying to get to the root of the problem and recognize his or her human dignity as created by God.

St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” reminds us that our masculinity and femininity are not limitations to be overcome, as so many cultural forces make us feel, but rather gifts to be lived and shared. Each sex has its own equal, complementary dignity and importance in human relationships, and living in accordance with the way we are made is, ultimately, the source of our happiness and social well-being (CCC 369-73).

Try as we might, we cannot change our sex. Little Ryland is still a girl no matter how many hormones doctors prescribe for her or how many operations to which she might be subjected.

I hope and pray that Ryland will lead a happy and healthy life, but the experience of post sex-change patients is not encouraging, as Dr. McHugh and other international researchers have found.

Truth and love

God loves Ryland. God loves her parents. God loves every person who identifies as transgender, as well as their allies fighting for what they believe to be their rights and dignity.

The Church must actively extend the mercy of Jesus Christ and the healing and compassion he brings to all people. This includes contesting destructive social trends, imprudent public policy and harmful ideologies.

Yet, we also need to do something in the lives of real people. This requires not just talk, but an encounter with actual persons — persons who struggle with gender-identity confusion or sexual brokenness — and actively listening to their needs and concerns.

We must defend their authentic rights; protect them from cruel, dehumanizing acts; pray for them; and help them to know the father’s plan for how he created them.

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NRSV).

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.