In June, the Vatican released “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” its first extensive statement on transgender identity. While including a call for love and respect, the document rejects the idea that gender is distinct from biological sex. A transgender identity, the document asserts, seeks to “annihilate the concept of nature.”
Given the Vatican’s previous statements, the document did not come as a complete surprise. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the office responsible for safeguarding and promoting church law, once published a treatise that labeled homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” and a “moral evil.” Pope Francis, speaking to bishops in Poland in 2016, expressed shock that “today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this?” He called such “terrible” lessons an “ideological colonization.”
The recent document builds on those remarks and sends a message directly to the church’s global network of Catholic schools, including more than 6,200 in the United States. It was written as a guide for Catholic educators, parents, students, and clergy, and it was signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, a Pope Francis appointee who leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.
The document argues that identifying outside of a gender binary is “nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants.” Similar to the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality, this argument insinuates that non-binary and transgender individuals are acting on impulses that should instead be perceived as challenges to “overcome.” The treatise defines transgender identity as a “theory” and leaves unexplored the personal narratives of an estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in the U.S. alone.
Jonathan Coley, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University and author of “Gay on God’s Campus,” argues that this document could have wide-ranging implications for Catholic schools.
“My main concern with the Vatican’s recent statement is the impact it will have on trans children who don’t have access to safe spaces,” Coley said. “I worry that some people will hear about these new teachings and they will use that as a license to bully LGBTQ youth. The Catholic Church says that it doesn’t condone bullying and violence, but in practice, I wonder if we’ll see a rise in bullying and harassment.”
“Male and Female He Created Them” comes at a tenuous time for LGBTQ Catholics in the United States. The timing of the document was particularly painful: it was released during Pride Month; the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which launched the modern fight for LGBTQ rights; and not long after Trump administration announced a proposal to reverse protections against transgender discrimination in healthcare settings.
DignityUSA is a Chicago-based organization whose mission is to work for respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities in the Catholic Church. (“Gender identity” is a term used to describe a self-understanding of gender that may differ from one’s outward appearance.) For DignityUSA President Chris Pett and many others, the timing and content of the Vatican document highlight a disconnect between the Church and the lived realities of LGBTQ Catholics.
“More and more people in the Church and in society say, ‘This doesn’t make sense, this doesn’t take into account modern and credible science,’” Pett said.
The Vatican document does not acknowledge a more complex story unfolding in some parishes around the country. Some who identify as LGBTQ have found the Catholic Church to be a place of affirmation and a spiritual home. To paraphrase from “Male and Female He Created Them,” some LGBTQ Catholics find their gender and spiritual identities coexist harmoniously, and they find the Vatican’s dismissal of that reality to be a denial of nature.
Murphy Guinane, 28, grew up Catholic, is gender non-binary, and was confirmed in 2016 at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Minn. As part of the sacrament of confirmation, an initiation ritual that reaffirms faith in Christ, many Catholics add a saint’s name after their given first and middle names. The gesture is deeply symbolic, as the confirmed will turn to the saint for guidance throughout their lives. Guinane chose “Joan,” after the 15th-century French martyr Joan of Arc.
“Saint Joan of Arc has been the perfect patron saint for me because she, too, had gender problems and was always ready to fight,” Guinane said. “She was someone of faith whom the Church feared and couldn’t understand because they couldn’t fit her in any boxes. They couldn’t believe that the saints and angels would choose someone like her, and they killed her over it. But Joan never lost her faith or her love of it. She was young and scared, but she wouldn’t apologize for her own existence, and I need that strength.”
Guinane has adopted a gender-neutral first name, a fairly common practice for transgender people who have found navigating a legal name change to be notoriously difficult. Much to Guinane’s relief, when they asked if the parish required use of the legal name for the sacrament, the parish liturgy director replied with a question: “What name would you like to use?” Guinane was so moved, they cried while the Rev. Mike Tegeder administered the sacrament before the parish altar in a ceremony attended by Guinane’s roommate and parents, who flew in from the East Coast for the event. In a way, it was the first time they’d been officially recognized with their chosen name.
“It meant a lot to me, the ease of it,” Guinane said. “It was the first time in a long time that I not only felt like God was present in that space, but also I was part of that, that God saw me.”
Yunuen Trujillo is a lesbian who volunteers with the Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which aims to provide a safe and welcoming environment for LGBTQ individuals and allies through liturgy, outreach, education, and fellowship. Through this work, she says she finds deeper meaning in her faith. Trujillo identifies as an “LGBT Catholic,” a term she uses to highlight the fact that her Catholic identity is central to her self-understanding. She compares it to the intentional use of the word “queer.”
“Being an LGBT Catholic makes me a better, more loving person, and I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world,” she said.
After reading “Male and Female He Created Them,” Trujillo said she felt like the Vatican ignored a significant part of her identity.
“The document does not reflect the lived realities of LGBTQ Catholics,” she said. “Unfortunately, the leaders of our Church have, for too long, been far away from their LGBT brothers and sisters. Like it happens in any family where two-way communication is lacking or non-existent, the document published by the Vatican reflects that estrangement.”
LGBTQ Catholics aren’t the only ones at odds with the Vatican’s stance on LGBTQ issues. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Catholic Republicans and 76 percent of Catholic Democrats believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry legally, despite the Church’s opposition to LGBTQ marriage. Furthermore, the study found 69 percent of Catholic Republicans and 84 percent of Catholic Democrats believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.
While Pope Francis is viewed as less conservative than his predecessors — approximately half of Republican Catholics label the leader as “too liberal” —his track record on LGBTQ rights remains inconsistent. When asked about priests identifying as gay, the Pope responded, “Who am I to judge?” In 2015, Pope Francis reportedly met with a transgender man, who called Francis “kindness personified.” The recent Vatican statement, however, has cast a chill on those moments of warmth for LGBTQ Catholics.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the Vatican statement on gender, and the Vatican’s views on LGBTQ issues still significantly influence local communities. Incidents of discrimination against LGBTQ Catholics persist, from Rhode Island, where a bishop recently posted a Tweet opposing Pride Month, to Indianapolis, where the archbishop recently ordered gay teachers to be fired from Catholic schools.
Instances like these have led to greater dissonance between the teaching of sexuality and the lived realities of Catholics, said John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, a national interfaith network of nearly 50,000 clergy and faith leaders.
If anything, documents such as “Male and Female He Created Them” reflect a lack of understanding between Catholic leadership and parishioners, Gehring said.
“The idea that a male celibate hierarch would lecture us about human sexuality is somewhat galling; there’s a theological arrogance at play,” he said. “You have a very sheltered group of celibate men who don’t have really any experience with what it means to be in a healthy, sexual relationship wagging a finger at the world saying, ‘Listen to us.’”
Additionally, mistrust in Catholic leadership persists as reports of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to surface. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of U.S. Catholics have reduced their mass attendance, and 26 percent are donating less money to their parish in response to recent reports of sexual abuse.
DignityUSA leader Pett, who identifies as a gay man, said it appears the Vatican is aiming to counteract these stories of sexual misconduct and regain a sense of control.
“Their authority has been diminished, especially with the child abuse cases, so they’re on the defensive,” he said.
DignityUSA has fought for transgender issues since at least 1998, when it joined more than 30 national religious leaders from many faith traditions to support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the wake of a Christian-sponsored anti-LGBTQ campaign. The organization broadened its mission statement in 2009 to add that it supports people of all gender identities.
After a recent Sunday Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Rose Vennewitz, 83, said her grandson is helping educate her about gender identity. When the 12-year-old recently mentioned his dance teacher, Vennewitz asked if the teacher was male or female. Her grandson responded, “They haven’t told me yet.”
“He told me about pronouns, and I learned something,” Vennewitz said.
When asked about the Vatican’s recent statement on gender, Vennewitz noted that she believes Catholics have free will when it comes to following documents such as “Male and Female He Created Them.”
“We are all responsible for our own ethics and morality,” Vennewitz said. “The Pope speaks for Christ, but even so, we have to base it on our own experience.”
Bryan Massingale, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, a Jesuit university in New York, sees the Vatican document as an attempt to contribute to an international conversation on gender identity. He also asserts the Vatican should have consulted with LGBTQ and gender non-conforming individuals before releasing it.
“If Church leaders are going to issue statements, they need to engage in a process of genuine dialogue with those who are directly impacted by these decisions,” Massingale said. “This document can’t be seen as a definitive statement; the dialogue is just beginning.”
Despite the challenges, the LGBTQ Catholics who choose to stay in the Church say they hope to join that future dialogue. For Trujillo, who works with the gay and lesbian Catholic ministry in Los Angeles, leaving the Church would mean relinquishing a sense of home and community. By staying, she hopes to create a place of affirmation for LGBTQ individuals and allies alike, and to help navigate a new future for the Catholic Church.
“If we leave, who will build those bridges of communication?” Trujillo said. “If we don’t do it, who will?”
For others, staying in the Church not only means contributing to change, but perhaps taking on a leadership role someday. Guinane of Minneapolis spent the past year working towards a master’s degree from the Pacific School of Religion, a multi-denominational seminary that focuses on social justice. Guinane says the seminary is one of the few places where they could feel at home as a non-binary Catholic. Maybe, Guinane says, it will take a non-binary leader to change the Church’s understanding of gender theory.
Guinane’s message to the Vatican: “I’m going to be your problem, and you’re going to have to deal with me until you ordain me or excommunicate me.”
“Male and Female He Created Them” is not likely to be the Vatican’s final word on the topic. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith reportedly plans to release a more in-depth document on transgender and gender identity issues later this year.
Bonnie Horgos is an independent journalist based in Minneapolis.