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Catholicism's transgender debate

  • 15 September 2023
This is a difficult subject, and I enter upon it with more than a little trepidation. The Catholic Church traditionally has been notably unsympathetic to what is known as ‘gender theory’, that is, the belief that one’s gender is not necessarily determined by one’s sexual characteristics, that gender is a ‘social construct’ and is defined, not by one’s sex, but by the autonomous determination of the subject based upon the subject’s experience of self.

Successive Popes have been outspoken in condemning gender theory. Pius XI, Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all explicitly addressed and condemned gender theory. Magisterial and doctrinal statements have been equally dismissive. While recommending that transgender persons should be treated with respect, sensitivity and pastoral care, there is no tolerance of gender theory as such. For the official Church, our gender is defined by our sexual characteristics. As the first chapter of the Book or Genesis stipulates: ‘Male and female he created them’. We are not at liberty to change or alter God’s creation.

Earlier this year, (March 20, 2023) the Committee on Doctrine of the American Bishops’ Conference addressed the topic of transgenderism in a Doctrinal Note on The Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body. Subsequently at their Spring session, they voted on June 16 to review their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care. These Directives, first published in 1971, substantially revised in 1995, and most recently amended in 2018, are recognized as authoritative guidance on ethical matters for US Catholic healthcare institutions. It was to incorporate the Committee’s Doctrinal Note into the Directives that moved the Bishops’ Conference to vote for an extensive review of the Directives, especially that part that addresses the relationship between Catholic medical professionals and their patients. In effect, the force of the Doctrinal Note is to prohibit Catholic healthcare facilities from engaging in hormonal or surgical procedures aimed at changing the biological sex characteristics of potentially transgender patients.

Transgender procedures are a hotly debated area of current medical practice. In 2020, the NHS in the United Kingdom prompted an an independent review of children's gender identity services, leading to the closure of the Tavistock Centre, the leading clinic in transgender medicine. It was sparked by clinicians who raised alarm, worried that vulnerable children were having their puberty halted by medication after rushed assessments that failed to explore other factors in their lives. This was compounded by a number of ‘detransitioning’ former patients in their twenties, expressing regret that they had consented to