How my Catholic faith helped change my beliefs about gender

Views Emily Garvey / August 15, 2022 Print this:
(Photo courtesy of Pexels/Luis Quintero)

In college, I majored in philosophy. I loved weaving my way through concepts and generating multiple answers to questions. But I did not like classes that required one “right” answer. In fact, I avoided fulfilling my math requirement until the last possible second, taking the course in the spring semester of my senior year.

But a few years later, I became a parent. Suddenly, I was desperate for yes/no, right/wrong answers. I wanted a list of instructions on how to run my life and the lives of my children. This desire for rules and regulations reared its head again a few years ago when my eldest child told me that they were transgender. 

Gender and sexuality have been growing topics of discourse worldwide, so there were a lot of resources when my child came out. But I wanted to know what the Catholic rules and formulas were for navigating it. I wanted a list of do’s/don’ts. Well, I did not find them right away. But now I see that the answers I was seeking were there all along, in the constitutive call of my Catholic faith to encounter and love others. 

In his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Cardinal Walter Kasper notes that the starting point for the doctrine of God is when Moses encounters God, who says “I am who am,” in the burning bush (Ex 3:14). But there is a difference between the Hebrew translation of the “am” (the verb “being”), and the Greek translation. In Greek, it is “I am who am,” but in the Hebrew translation, the relational aspect of God is more amplified: “I am the one who is there.”

The answer that Yahweh gives to Moses conveys that God is there with us and by us. The foundational doctrine is thus based on encounter and relationship.

Both the Catholic Catechism and various papal encyclicals repeatedly stress the need to adopt this loving and relational posture “within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations” (“Caritas in veritate,” 9; cf. CSDC, 76).

That sounds lovely in theory. But how does one just start living it in real life? This is where encounter and bewilderment are helpful.

A few years ago, my eldest child read a letter to me in which they stated, “Mom, I’m a boy. I’m transgender. I’m your son, not your daughter.”

It was an uncomfortable and bewildering moment for me. I did not see this coming. But whether I was prepared for this news or not, I still had to respond to my child at that moment. This was real life, not some philosophy paper I was writing or theological text I was reading. 

“A few years ago, my eldest child read a letter to me in which they stated, ‘Mom, I’m a boy. I’m transgender. I’m your son, not your daughter.'”

But in the subsequent days, I reflected that as a parent, I had actually encountered many bewildering moments before. For example, no one can adequately prepare you to care for a newborn, help with seventh-grade math or teach a teenager to drive. To some extent, I was used to encountering the new as I lived life as a parent. So, using that posture of encounter as a bridge, I opened myself to learning about chest binders, testosterone shots and conversations on top and bottom surgery. 

I wanted to have an open mind about the transgender topic, an issue that some people think goes against social norms. It was helpful to have Jesus as a model of someone who had that open mind, and who also went against social norms. Jesus did it through civil disobedience when the heads of grain are plucked and eaten on the Sabbath (cf. Mk 2:23), subversive associations when he eats dinner with tax collectors and other “sinners” (cf. Mk 2:15) and disobeying purity restrictions with the hemorrhaging woman (cf. Lk 8:48). 

So, with Jesus as a model, I started asking, reading and talking with others, including my child, about gender. In the beginning of my journey, I stumbled around the quote found in Genesis that “male and female God created them” (Gen 1:27).

Yes, I love my child and I support my child. But we are all born as either girls or boys, right?

What I discovered is that the understanding of Genesis 1:27 can be enriched by the reality of contemporary experience and science. In other words, it is simply not accurate to say 50 percent of people are “male” and 50 percent are “female.” There are millions of people whose bodies alone do not fall into the “either/or” buckets of woman or man. Modern science and life experiences allow us to affirm both that God created man and woman, and that God created much more. 

Much ink has been spilled about Genesis and gender. I found it helpful to know that Biblical scholars note that it employs a merismos, a Greek word meaning a narrative device where something is described or referenced in its entirety. God created man all the way to woman, not a binary, but a spectrum. Genesis 1:5 notes “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’” This is another merismos—dawn, day, dusk, night, etc.

In other words, the phrase in Genesis “male and female God created them” is a merismos nested within an awe-inspiring panoply of creation.

Dei Verbum,” the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, addresses how Scripture may, at times, appear to differ from science or today’s reality. Vatican II held that scriptural statements need not be taken literally, because the Bible does not set out to teach science or history. The church uses Scripture so that “we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express” (13). God animates an infinite variety of humans, and sacred scripture is meant to underscore, among other things, the gratuitous aspect of God’s creativity. 

Since the time that my child told me they are trans, I have read a lot and had conversations with a variety of people. As a result, my views about gender have developed. I now recognize that sexuality and gender are complex, and that people can be “knit together” (Ps 139:13) in myriad ways. My story is not the same as others, and I do not claim to speak for all Catholics or all parents of gender diverse children.

What I am saying is that when my son told me he was trans, I was thrown for a loop and wanted directions. And it turns out that my Catholic faith had those directions. Pope St. John Paul II says it best in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” where he writes about the need for a radical personal and social renewal “capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty and openness.”

Certainly, there is a long and difficult road ahead; bringing about such a renewal will require enormous effort. … [W]e must not be seduced by ‘the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person and the assurance that he gives us: I am with you! It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new programme.’

The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem'”(577; cf. “Novo millennio ineunte,” 29).

The church is divided on several social issues at the moment, one of which is gender. My hope is that Catholics can practice a patient deferral on deciding what the “right” answer is about gender. That we can embrace bewilderment and a humble posture of encounter as more scientific, psychological and genetic factors come to light. 

“Modern science and life experiences allow us to affirm both that God created man and woman, and that God created much more.”

I believe that the church will eventually develop its teaching on gender as it has so many other topics in its long history. For example, Galileo was denounced as a heretic by the church for claiming that the earth moved around the sun.

Popes considered slavery as justifiable in certain circumstances until well into the 19th century. And the death penalty was considered admissible under specific circumstances until 2018. Today it is “inadmissible.” The church eventually developed its stance on these issues in the face of science, real life stories, reflection, prayer and not a little confusion and bewilderment. 

My journey to fully embrace and support all gender diverse people was a journey of faith. I know I will never be sufficiently grateful for the gift of the Catholic Church and the ways it offers a manner of living that is based in encounter, radical inclusivity and love.

Emily Garvey

Emily Garvey obtained her bachelor's degree in philosophy and her master's degree in systematic theology. She worked for social services agencies for several years, serving people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, and dementia. Originally from central Illinois, she lives in northern Indiana.

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2 Comments
  1. Interesting that it is Male and Female, not Male or Female. Jesus teaches us ways to approach things or people that do not conform to our expectations or fit within our norms. He demonstrates compassion and displays respect for the people whom according to the ethos of his community he should not accept. Differences are not barriers to him. The essential value of the individual is not lost on him. To plagiarize the poet “Love is not love which alteration finding, alteration makes.” “The Spirit helps us when we do not know how to pray”, and also, it seems, when we do not know how to understand. It is normal to be perplexed by different ways of perception, but those who accept uncertainty are closer to reality than those who see through the narrow window of the conventional wisdom. “I am Who am” is also I am what is.

  2. Thank you for this article. I’m a devoted Catholic who’s youngest child earlier this year told me she was now a they and last month had top surgery. At first it really knocked me back, but a friend in our Sunday group told me to lead with love which I have. Our relationship is good and I’ve supported them and it’s been easier on me than I thought. I do imagine how Jesus would also lead with love and mercy.