Before we can begin to really analyze transgender issues and Catholic Social Teaching, it is necessary to explain who transgender people are and what the Catholic Church teaches about us. I do not plan to go into the science of being transgender at all, and I am definitely not going to evaluate any critical theories. I want to explain, in as plain language I can, who we say we are to give context to later blog posts. Essentially, a transgender person is someone who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. From GLAAD’s Transgender 101 page; “Gender identity is someone’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or as someone outside of that gender binary). For transgender people, the [gender] they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match.” Transgender people identify as men, women, and often as some combination of both, neither, or something else entirely. If the concept of people outside of male or female seems strange, keep in mind that cultures outside of the Christian west have understood there to be more than man or woman. The challenges of people who live outside the binary are slightly different than those of us inside, but we still all suffer from systemic social injustice.
If this seems a bit difficult to understand, try to think of it like this; if you woke up tomorrow and you found that your body has somehow become that of the opposite sex, you would probably feel uncomfortable. Your body would feel strange, the way people treat you would seem alien, and you would probably want to do whatever you could to feel more like how you see yourself. That is something of the lived reality that many transgender people live in.
The question of “What does the Catholic Church say about transgender people?” is a bit more difficult to answer. In a Catholic News Service article from 2003, John Norton reported that, “After years of study, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation has sent church leaders a confidential document concluding that “sex-change” procedures do not change a person’s gender in the eyes of the church. Consequently, the document instructs bishops never to alter the sex listed in parish baptismal records and says Catholics who have undergone “sex-change” procedures are not eligible to marry, be ordained to the priesthood or enter religious life, according to a source familiar with the text.” So, we can see that the Catholic Church probably does not hold a favorable view. The reason why I say probably is because, even eleven years later, the text has not been made public. All we are left to do is make assumptions based off the interpretations of those who have read the document and what bishops and popes have said over the years. However, I am willing to say that while we cannot definitively point to any teaching of the Catholic Church that condemns transgender people or prohibits transitioning, it is still reasonable to say that any reading of tradition that would support us would not be the same reading as those in charge would have.
I mention this, not to sink the project I am undergoing before it begins but to place it in the correct context. The Catholic Church, in my reading of Catholic Social Teaching and in my experience as a transgender woman, is completely wrong. The Catholic Church makes arguments about the rights of workers to fair wages and right to healthcare, for example. However, attitudes like the Catholic Church’s on transgender issues justifies the systemic ways in which transgender people are unable to access these things. What I am trying to do, then, is to offer an alternative reading to the Church’s social teachings in order to critique the Catholic Church’s attitudes about transgender issues. I am posting these online so that you, the reader, might be provoked into thinking about these issues. Perhaps you are already aware of transgender issues. You may even be aware of the church’s teachings on transgender people. You may not, however, be aware of some of the documents I will discuss and the ways they can be read as supporting transgender people’s basic rights.
I hope you all will be patient as I attempt, over the following weeks, to analyze transgender issues from the lens of Catholic Social Teaching. I hope this post gives you the context you need to incorporate these posts into your own way of viewing church.