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Pope Francis has abandoned transgender Catholics

Originally published: Pearls and Irritations on April 16, 2024 by Francis Sullivan (more by Pearls and Irritations) (Posted Apr 17, 2024)

In a recent official Declaration on Human Dignity, Dignitas Infinita, the Pope has endorsed a document that effectively outlaws sex change for transgender Catholics. The Declaration is both harsh and unrelenting in its tone, dismissive of new science and judgemental of those Catholics who in good faith make life choices contrary to the edicts of the Church. Nothing new here, but just another slap in the face for people who seek to live their God given lives as authentically and honestly as possible.

This latest Vatican missive was five years in the making. Pope Francis was across its development and final construct. It can rightly be taken to be in accord with his mindset. This mindset does little to depart from the tightly argued and immovable prohibitions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia and now the quaintly termed ‘gender theory’ movement.

The Pope, along with the other celibate doctrinal advisors, has been spooked into an ideological battle with a ‘straw man’; that being, an alleged movement, ‘gender theory’, that seeks to ‘play God’ over gender reassignment and the equal treatment of transgender people in civil society. Obviously, the ‘Religious Right’, particularly evident in the US Catholic Church, has won the day in the Vatican. Once again the politics of sexuality has trumped the pastoral instincts of the faith.

Transgenderism has become the new Rubicon for the Catholic Church. Holding this oppositional line is now an ‘article of faith’ in a confected cultural war where the victims are innocent lives cast aside in the interests of ideology. The risk for the Church is that blanket moral bans become counter productive and alienating. They undermine genuine attempts to plumb the depths of complex human experience. They pass judgment without listening. The ethics becomes selective and discriminatory, partisan and arrogant.

To date this has been an unfamiliar characteristic of the Francis papacy. He has resisted any judgement on homosexuality, challenged the world to be pastoral to refugees and urged courageous action on the climate crisis. He has showed little enthusiasm for doctrinal purity and preferred a pastoral, realistic disposition. This makes his alignment with the Declaration’s stridency all the more disappointing.

The Declaration is unequivocal in its opposition to sex change therapies. It recognises no justified reason for a person to seek to change their biological assignment on the grounds of gender identification. As with IVF and other assisted conception methods, the Church baulks at any medical intervention that undermines the ‘natural order’ of things. To many this ‘head in the sand’ approach to scientific and medical advancement has echoes of the last disastrous encyclical, Humanae Vitae. That Declaration clamped down on the use of artificial contraception by Catholics. The widespread rejection of that teaching by Catholics is well known.

The only difference is that the Catholic revolt brought on by Humanae Vitae will not be replicated this time as most Catholics have already moved on!

The sad thing is that Pope Francis had the chance to set a more pastoral course. The most helpful element in the Declaration is the description on what is termed ‘ existential dignity’. This refers to aspects of what is commonly referred to as a ‘dignified life’. The Declaration states that “ while some people may appear to lack nothing essential for life, for various reasons, they may still struggle to live with peace, joy and hope”, as a consequence these hardships “ may drive people to experience their life conditions as ‘undignified’” (sec 8).

Here was the opportunity for Pope Francis to acknowledge, as the medical profession across the world already does, that gender dysphoria is real. Rather than casting the challenge of transgenderism into some faux cultural war, the Pope could have opened his mind and heart to the realities for some Catholics. That is, some people feel that they are born in the wrong body. That these people can be treated to live more dignified lives than to feel trapped in an undignified existence. Yet the Declaration provides no hope. Instead, the Declaration, and in turn the Pope, implies that any suggestion of alleviating suffering for people in these circumstances was ‘playing God’ and needed to be quashed.

Where is the heart of the Church in the face of this rejection of human lives? Where is the approach to theology that the Pope claims needs to be based on human experience? Where are the voices of transgender people and their families?

For decades the Church has stumbled on matters of human sexuality. It is stuck in the past and the ‘faithful’ have passed it by. For all the rhetoric of being a ‘church of the poor’ and having a mission ‘to the peripheries’, this Declaration demonstrates the timidity and defensiveness of a Roman Curia populated with celibates paranoid about maintaining control and power.

So where to from here for Catholics? Well when it all boils down, when the stridency is stated and the restrictions are in place, an individual Catholic needs to follow their conscience. At the foundations of the Church’s teaching is the sanctity of a person’s conscience. Catholics have the freedom to make the right choices for their lives and families. They still may have to endure the mood of prohibition from Rome, but they can confidently make the personal calculus over what brings them life, ‘peace, joy and hope’. Let’s also hope that their clergy will steer them along this pastoral and realistic path. And accompany them to where it leads.

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