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Catholic Social Justice and Transgender Ideology
We must affirm everyone as a child of God while setting boundaries
I first learned about gender dysphoria by chance in the early 1990s. Studying for a bachelor of arts in social science at the University of Maine at Augusta, I signed up for “abnormal psychology.” Everyone was doing their term paper on the same few mental disorders—depression, anxiety, bipolar, and schizophrenia. I wanted to be different.
Flipping through the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), I found “gender identity disorder.” It hadn’t occurred to me that some people think they were born in the wrong body.
I embarked on my social work career after graduating in 1996. One person I worked with initially presented as the definition of tall, dark, and handsome. But he said he always felt like a girl. He said he did everything to become a man. He prayed. He joined the Army and later got married. But nothing worked. Self-medication led to a heroin habit. That, in turn, led to legal problems.
Once a month we’d go to drug court. Then a new legal issue emerged. The attorney and I went to court with my client, who wore a dress and makeup. I told the judge that our residential facility and an ankle bracelet would ensure compliance with day treatment and court appointments. He told me to shut up, told the defendant to “be a man,” and handed down a prison sentence. Everyone knew that prison meant repeated rape.
It wasn’t until 20 years later, when Bruce Jenner started going by Caitlyn, that I thought again about transgender issues. And my, how things have changed. Today, you’re either a groomer or a bigot. Except that most of us are neither.
If being transgender had been this visible 2,000 years ago, Jesus probably would have broken bread with gender nonconformists, just as He shared meals with prostitutes, tax collectors, and Pharisees. The message is, you are wounded but Christ is not turning away from you. Only you can turn away from Christ.
We are all broken in some way, and God meets us where we are. Acknowledging our brokenness—that we’re no different than anyone else—is a step toward accepting God’s grace. And this includes recognizing our struggles with mental health—that no one’s health, mental or physical, is perfect; and that we never know what struggles the future holds. Everyday we must strive with rather than against our neighbors to affirm the best of what God wants us to be.
But transgender ideology implies a gnostic-ish belief that one’s “true self” or essence is independent from one’s body. This is not what the Church teaches, though. Catholics believe that our bodies are essential to who we are. The unity of body, soul, and spirit—and the promise of the resurrection—elevates the physical.
I’m allegedly a bigot, though, because I affirm that sex is a natural phenomenon, not a social construct, so transgender women are biologically male.
Transgender activists have made it clear that we cannot be neutral, and neither is our faith neutral. But as Catholics, we must be compassionate toward people who struggle with difficulties—which is everyone, including ourselves. We must not attack people, even as we push back against their agenda. But not affirming someone’s gender identity is not the same as attacking them.
One estimate is that 390 in 100,000 adults are transgender—a fraction of one percent of the general population. Strikingly, annual referrals to Britain’s National Health Service for gender identity issues have increased 17 fold in the past dozen years, and there’s no reason to think the United States is any different.
It seems unlikely, though, that gender dysphoria went largely unnoticed only a few years ago. And with the previously unheard of phenomenon of gender dysphoria emerging with girls at puberty (gender identity is usually fixed by age 7), the view that this is a “social contagion” seems likely.
However, the NHS acknowledges that, “Little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria.” And other professionals say that for most children, gender dysphoria eventually resolves in favor of their biological sex. Yet, Planned Parenthood (which requires parental consent for 16 and 17 year olds) states that, “In most cases your clinician will be able to prescribe hormones the same day as your first visit. No letter from a mental health provider is required.”
Catholic social justice demands that we respect everyone as a child of God. But that doesn’t mean unquestioned acceptance of a political agenda. It should be obvious that accepting one’s biological sex is the best outcome even though this won’t happen for everyone. Today’s political climate, however, demands that we endorse an agenda that encourages children to embrace a transgender identity, and labels support for accepting their biological sex as “conversion therapy.”
Many women are concerned about biological males who identify as women demanding a place in women’s sports and even in women’s prisons. (I support a separate wing for transgender and nonbinary individuals.) And the LA Dodgers chose to honor a group that mocks and demeans Catholic sisters and nuns, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary at their June 2023 Pride Night. But this activism doesn’t represent all transgender people.
As Catholics, must avoid contemptuous rhetoric, despite activists being unlikely to reciprocate. Jesus said not only to love our neighbors, but to bless those who curse us. That is, we can affirm the human dignity of every person as a child of God without affirming social constructionism, and while standing firm against radical activism.