Exclusionary diocesan policies on gender and sexuality can harm LGBTQ students’ mental health

Views David Palmieri / March 6, 2023 Print this:
Photo courtesy of Changbok Ko via Unsplash

This is the second part of a three-part update on gender-identity policies in some Catholic dioceses in the United States. The first part is available here.

In some recent U.S. diocesan policies on gender identity and sexuality, we continue to see destructive language and harmful stereotypes. For example, the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa repeats a controversial claim that “gender dysphoria can be validly compared to the condition known as ‘body integrity identity disorder,'” where “one’s physical status that is detached from objective reality.” 

The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., advances this line of thinking by selectively quoting Pope Francis to imply that LGBTQ ministry is a “sort of therapy supporting [someone’s] self-absorption.” But this suggestion fails to consider the full context of the Pope’s comments in Evangelii Gaudium. In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is broadly defining the art of accompaniment and leading people toward God. He is not specifically addressing matters of sexual orientation and gender identity:

Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father (no. 170).

The clearest example of such hurtful language is found in the policy from the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., which ten times repeats the phrase “transgender lifestyle.” This phrase is defined in their glossary as a reference to any “individual who regularly and publicly demonstrates behaviors that are consistent with the other gender or that violate cultural norms for personal conduct.” Also, the term “transgenderism” appears four times, although that word continues to be widely seen as derisive toward the transgender community.

The use of “transgender lifestyle” (likewise, “gay lifestyle”) is a pejorative term that unfairly characterizes transgender persons as one kind of person, typically perceived to be promiscuous, predatory and perverse—especially when around children. In fact, Sioux Falls diocesan schools are asked to be on guard when “evaluating candidates for positions that involve direct ministry with youth and which have a high probability of the adult spending extended time alone with youth.”

Consider, for a moment, why we must be exceedingly careful with these kinds of stereotypes. This criterion should apply to all adults, not just transgender adults. Perpetuating stereotypes of this kind is unjust, calumnious and profoundly hurtful. This kind of “unjust discrimination” (Catechism, #2358) is a source of great pain and anxiety.

Gender and sexual minorities tend to experience mental health concerns, suicide and a range of other difficulties at higher rates compared to non-LGBTQ persons.

There is enough evidence in research studies, as well as in people’s lived experiences, to note a correlation between unwelcoming environments for LGBTQ youth and poor mental health outcomes.

See, for example, the 2022 national survey report from The Trevor Project, which surveyed approximately 34,000 young people. The data shows that 61 percent of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 report experiencing symptoms of depression. And studies from the Centers for Disease Control in 2016 and 2019 show alarmingly elevated risks of suicide among LGBTQ teens.

To address these mental health challenges, what do U.S. diocesan policies recommend? Here are some examples:

  • “The Diocese [of Green Bay]…supports and encourages counseling for those who suffer from or are diagnosed with gender dysphoria by licensed counselors or other medical professionals who hold a correct Christian anthropology of the human person and who understand and adhere to Catholic teaching.”
  • “It is important to note that youth in their formative years struggle with many issues of identity and acceptance … In some instances, it may be important for administrators to support and, where appropriate, refer for psychological counseling/therapy that accords with Catholic anthropology and teaching and aims to help students discover and resolve the underlying issues” (Sioux Falls).
  • “Such persons should be encouraged to seek harmony between their biological sex and gender not through a rejection of one or the other, but through turning to Christ and medical and psychological services that are rooted in an authentic anthropology” (Des Moines).

Gender and sexual minorities tend to experience mental-health concerns, suicide and a range of other difficulties at higher rates compared to non-LGBTQ persons. To encourage individuals to see mental-health professionals who adopt a Catholic anthropology does not mean that those providers will be trained in responding to issues that are as complex as gender dysphoria.

In fact, real harm can be done when providers act outside of their scope of competence, and practicing a Catholic anthropology that does not on its own mean competence in working with specialized cases.

Moreover, such policies suppose there are many options available when it comes to finding qualified mental-health professionals who have both a robust Catholic anthropology and the clinical training needed to work with these clients. 

Practicing a Catholic anthropology does not alone signal competence in working with specialized cases.

Unfortunately, there are not many clinical experts in matters of gender identity, and even fewer who offer services that are grounded in Catholic faith and practice. While there is an understandable concern about engaging these issues with secular clinicians, there are certainly balanced, thoughtful and qualified professionals out there who can support Catholic families.

To dismiss this possibility reinforces a distrust that already exists between the mental health field and the Catholic Church. This dynamic exacerbates slippery slope claims like the following:

  • “[Parents] will likely face pressure—either directly or indirectly—from the prevailing culture to affirm and validate their loved one’s newly adopted gender and, in conjunction with medical personnel, to ‘resolve’ the dysphoria by electing to pursue surgical and hormonal interventions” (Des Moines).
  • “To some, supporting aspects of social transition may seem benign, even humane, such as using someone’s preferred pronouns and actively affirming his or her perceived gender. However, while well-intentioned, this kind of endorsement may help shepherd a young person on a path of unnecessary medicalization” (Portland).
  • “GAC [Gender Affirming Care] is neither patient nor inquisitive, but quick to impose a one-size-fits-all framework that obscures [co-morbid] conditions, complex circumstances, and the developmental process of adolescent identity formation.” (Portland).

Faithful Catholics must absolutely oppose rash decisions that cause irreparable harm to children. But we also have to slow down and remain within the boundaries of our competence when dealing with complex psychological matters.

While the policy from the Archdiocese of Portland cites a number of medical studies to support its position, it also admits, “There are very few studies that track the long-term outcomes of medical transition, and most studies lack controls, rely on convenience samples and/or small samples and have considerable lack of follow-up.”

Overall, our church bears a responsibility to employ the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance to avoid conflicting messages that make Catholicism look like one of the cautioned ideologies or “-isms.”

The Word Became Flesh

A news search for US diocesan gender guidelines will reveal that these policies are not being well received across the country. To that point, in cases of conflict between Jesus and his opponents, often religious leaders, Jesus always found a way to hold the opposites in tension—revealing the both/and mystery of the Incarnation. In the case of paying taxes, he said, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt. 22:21). When challenged about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, he said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). After healing a paralyzed man, he asked his challengers, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’” (Lk. 5:23).

The most entrenched policy enthusiasts are practicing conceptual theology and defending ideas without consulting those who are most affected.

Even when Jesus is asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus proclaimed the twofold basic principle of Catholic moral theology: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).

As the Incarnation of God, Jesus Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). The truth here is not an ideology. It is neither a sword used to divide people, nor an epithet used to curse enemies. No, Jesus Christ himself is the truth—a person, not an idea. Thus, the primary way to know the fullness of truth is through relationships with God, self and others. 

In the Office of Readings for the optional memorial of Saint Columban on November 23, the second reading offers this beautiful thought:

We must restore [God’s] image with love. …The image we depict must not be that of one who is unlike God; for one who is harsh and irascible and proud would display the image of a despot. Let us not imprint on ourselves the image of a despot, but let Christ paint his image in us with his words: My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you. But the knowledge that peace is good is of no benefit to us if we do not practice it.

Love is not a feeling, but a steadfast commitment. It is not a proposition to be defended, but a virtue to be lived. Love is also where we discover the Living God—not only in desk-bound theology but also in field-hospital ministry. Here we find the both/and complementarity of the Incarnation: Christ the Teacher and Jesus the Good Shepherd. “Truth cannot contradict truth,” said Pope Leo XIII.

And what can we learn from the hospitality of Jesus Christ? He welcomed lepers, paralytics, widows, tax collectors, the sinful woman, demoniacs, children, the bleeding woman, the woman at the well, the poor, criminals, a Roman centurion and his servant; as well as both his betrayer and his denier. If Jesus is able to sort the sheep from the goats, then he doesn’t need us to be the guards of the Narrow Gate.

Proponents of diocesan policies are correct in arguing that the institutional Church has a duty to uphold faith, morals, order and discipline. Catholic school programs similarly must do good by remaining faithful to doctrinal truths and avoid evil by not promoting confusion or scandal. Yes to both of those arguments.

But the most entrenched policy enthusiasts are practicing conceptual theology and defending ideas without consulting those who are most affected: school administrators, teachers, parents, children and LGBTQ persons themselves. This widespread devaluation of human experience (and synodality) contributes to a Catholic ideology that de-prioritizes the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and elevates ideas over people.

We cannot forget that teaching as Jesus did means committing to the Gospel through both words and deeds.

In the conclusion of this series, the author will discuss responses gathered by the U.S. Catholic bishops during Synod listening sessions across the country.

David Palmieri

David Palmieri is a contributing writer for Outreach and a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass. He is a D.Min. candidate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

All articles by David Palmieri

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