A Catholic Case for Choosing Your Own Pronouns

Views Jim McDermott, S.J. / April 21, 2023 Print this:
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In recent months, a number of Catholic bishops in the US have spoken out against transgender and non-binary people’s decision to alter their pronouns, names and bodies. Some have even insisted that Catholic schools must continue to use the birth pronoun and names of transgender and non-binary students in their schools, despite the pain that non-binary and transgender people have expressed over this practice.

The arguments of these bishops and others have been built on Catholic moral teachings and interpretations of Scripture. And as I’ve read their statements, I’ve wondered whether there’s another theological case that can be made in favor of the decision by transgender and non-binary people to alter their pronouns and names. 

So I reached out to three theologians: the moral ethicist Fr. James Keenan, S.J., at Boston College; Gina Hens-Piazza, Ph.D., a Scripture scholar at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.; and Annie Selak, Ph.D., an ecclesiologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

In each case, I asked them whether they thought a Catholic theological case could be made for the acceptance of a person’s stated pronouns and name from the standpoint of their own discipline.

Here’s what they had to say.

The Moral Requirement of Accepting Agency: Fr. James Keenan, S.J.

“I don’t understand the problem,” Fr. Keenan tells me as we begin our conversation. “People may think I’m naïve, but it just strikes me that I don’t call somebody a name that they don’t want to be called.”

I note the argument made by some that what is at issue is the truth of who those individuals are.

“It’s their truth, though,” Keenan responds. “That’s what we’re talking about: their truth. How does a bishop have more capability of grasping other people’s truth than they themselves do? There’s something deeply disturbing about claiming you understand a person’s truth better than they do.”

I wonder what Keenan makes of the decision by some bishops to frame transgender persons’ desires as indicative of a mental health crisis rather than a legitimate desire. “These bishops, are they physicians?” Keenan asks. “If you take away a person’s way of declaring their self-understanding, where is there room for any dialogue? You’ve said, ‘I’m not going to talk to you on your terms.’ Who does that? Even in  mental health places, I don’t think they do that.” 

In terms of Catholic ethics, Keenan looks to foundational concepts. “Catholic moral principles need to begin with a sense of respecting the dignity of a human person,” he explains. “In the horizon of meeting one another,” Keenan explains, “we have to allocate the agent their experiential self-understanding as privileged.” There can be no getting to the truth, he argues, “if you’re not going to attend to agency.”

He notes that this is demonstrated in Scripture as well. How does God enter into relationship with Israel through Moses? By introducing himself. “The beginning of all discussion is getting the name right.”

There’s another moral principle at work for Keenan, a virtue he’s alluded to already: humility. “To say you know better than they know themselves, it strikes me as almost a divine perspective. How could you have such a transcendental viewpoint?” Keenan compares this way of proceeding with that of his doctoral director Joseph Fuchs, SJ, who served on the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control first established by Pope John XXIII in 1963. Prior to his appointment, Keenan explains, “Fuchs always thought that he knew what the moral law was.” But listening to married people talk about their experiences revealed the deficits in his own analysis. It did so to such a profound degree, in fact, that Fuchs “revised his entire moral theology,” says Keenan. Fuchs decided “The question of competency for a moral judgment rests with those who are closest to the experience.”

Keenan acknowledges that  a person’s experience “has to be filtered through all sorts of other things. But knowing what is there requires the subject to be able to convey it.” If the church insists that a person’s fundamental self-understanding is in error, there’s no room for them to convey what they know. Refusing to allow people to self-identity, he says, sends the message “If you don’t meet me as I want you to meet me, then I won’t meet you.”

“All you’re doing is silencing them,” Keenan insists. “There can be no dialogue if there’s no respect.”

The Inmost Self: Gina Hens-Piazza, Ph.D.

In considering the question of self-identification, the Scripture scholar Gina Hens-Piazza begins with Psalm 139, 13-16:

“You formed my inmost being;
    you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
  wonderful are your works!…
  Your eyes saw me unformed;

    In your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.”

The clear sense here, Hens-Piazza explains, is that “the self that has been created by God is more than the physical self. The inner self is being lifted up here. That “inmost self,” she says, is “what really defines a person” for the Psalmist, rather than any notion of physicality. “Psalm 139 celebrates the creation of the innermost self as the actual act of God.” 

In this context, claiming the identity that we discover within ourselves over time, rather than being a sin or error, is the way in which we are true to God. “The person can, by virtue of their in-touchness with themselves, praise God for being so wonderfully made.”

While the question of personal pronouns is not something that comes up in Scripture—“it is just so far outside the mindset of antiquity”—Hens-Piazza notes that any number of biblical characters do change their names. “Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Saul to Paul.” And she notes, these name changes always come back to that same feeling expressed by transgender persons of one’s inmost self: “All of these [changes] are in conjunction with identity changes, with their deep self-understanding.”

Hens-Piazza also points out that in other respects religion is very open to these kinds of name changes. “For someone who becomes ordained, we start calling them Father; for someone who is married or divorced, we use the last name they want; or there’s religious profession.”  

These sorts of contradictions make Hens-Piazza wonder whether the resistance to pronouns and name changes doesn’t reflect a deeper transphobia or homophobia, and a misunderstanding of scriptural references to homosexuality (which a number of Scripture scholars have commented on). “In my own life, I’ve always been called ‘Jenna.’ My baptismal name was Virginia, but I was always called ‘Jenna.’” She posits, if someone insisted on calling her ‘Virginia’ on some kind of religious ground, that would be widely understood as strange.

So why, she wonders, would it be appropriate for a Christian or Catholic to object over a choice of pronoun? “What’s really at the root?” she asks. “I am suspicious.”

Contending with the Wounds of the Church: Annie Selak, Ph.D.

A lot of the Georgetown ecclesiologist Annie Selak’s current work focuses on the wounds carried by the church. “My basic thesis is that the church can only credibly be church if it attends to its own wounds,” she says, listing racism, sexism, clericalism and the exclusion of the LGBTQ community as amongst them. “There are some in the church who say if we recognize the sin in the church, then we harm the holiness of the church,” she acknowledges. “My argument is the opposite. My argument is that the church can only live into its mission if it grapples with its own wounds.”

In ignoring our wounds, Selak argues, we undermine our mission. She points to the treatment of LGBT+ people: “I look to the four marks of the church: unity, catholicity, oneness, holiness,” she explains. “How are we holy if we are telling people that they don’t belong? How are we one if we’re excluding members from the body of Christ, from the people of God, if we’re saying some people are in, some people are out? That hinders the one holy catholic, apostolic church.”

“If we look at that most foundational understanding of church by those four marks, I think all of us are harmed when some people are included and others are excluded.” And we see the evidence of that harm within the body of the church, she notes. “I think a lot of people are leaving because they don’t want to be complicit in real harm and hatred. Then I know a lot of people, myself included, who stay because we say the way the church is being church isn’t actually it. We want to work to make the church look a little bit more like the reign of God.”

“I think that same love for the church motivates each way.”

Practically speaking, confronting our wounds involves “truth telling,” Selak says. “I think sometimes the church is scared to confront its own woundedness, because what we know now is comfortable.” 

I wonder if part of the threat posed by confronting our wounds is that we don’t know what lies on the other side of honest assessment. We don’t know where it will lead us. Selak agrees: “If we recognize the harm that’s done, what does it look like to repair that harm? Does it mean we’re changing governance practices, changing programming, asking different questions about where the money goes?”

“I want to believe that God is always calling us to something greater, something deeper, something truer, something more authentic, something more whole,” Selak says. “And that’s also more scary because we don’t know what that looks like.”

Intriguingly, the journey she imagines for the church in confronting its own wounds seems very much akin to the journey of transgender people. “If we’re all created in the image and likeness of God,” she poses, “there’s also a sense of self as mystery.” Reconsidering one’s name, gender or pronouns, she argues, is part of the broader dynamic of growing in our sense of self that we all go through over the course of our lives. “New contexts bring out new parts of ourselves, new life phases bring out new parts of ourselves.” 

In the end, says Selak, “We are all naming our gender, our identities for ourselves.” And recognizing that, “We’re ethically obligated, when people tell us who they are to honor that, to respect that and to recognize that.”

Jim McDermott, S.J.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor at America magazine.

All articles by Jim McDermott, S.J.

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  1. Thank you for these explanations. They are so simple and obvious. I’ll be carrying this article in my bag for whoever might need to be reminded.

  2. If you look at the Catholic Religion, you will see that every bit of it is created by a human and their opinions. For me, God , Our Father, is the only person who will Judge.

  3. The allyship represented here is very welcome and deeply appreciated.
    But it leaves me questioning: why are there no trans voices here?

    When the all male leadership of the Church speaks on issues impacting women, it is rightly named that more women need to be consulted and given an opportunity to speak. The same holds true when cisgender people speak on issues impacting the trans community.

    Trans and gender nonconforming people do a great deal of theological reflection on who were are in relation to our faith. Please seek us out. Please be in community with us.

  4. Thank you for this. Having a transgender grandchild I feel very deeply about allowing her to be who she is. I get comments from people that I know who don’t believe it. It’s something they making up. They’re just misunderstood teenagers. Not the truth. When did we stop believing in a God who loves everyone for who they are?

  5. Thank you for this story, which is very helpful in challenging the inherent arrogance present when one person or institution asserts more knowledge about an individual than the individual’s own self-understanding and self-knowledge. I must admit, I do find the use of a plural pronoun confusing when speaking of a specific individual; and I wish English had a non-gendered singular pronoun that non-binary persons could use instead of “they.” My husband has a cousin whose elder child (pre-teen) is likely transgender, though this young person now has opted for a name-change and the use of “they.” In the service of clarity and to be respectful, I find myself using the young person’s new name rather than referring to the child as “they,” as I will also be asking about “they” in the same situation and be referring to the several members of the family (i.e. using “they” as a plural pronoun). “So how is New-Name doing? Are they still going to family therapy?,” etc.

  6. valeriasbanks@aol.com having a grandchild who is struggling to find out where he belongs has made me look at the church through different eyes. He feels that the church is not welcoming to him and that makes me sad. I said to him as a woman,Catholic and black l haven’t felt welcome at times. but if I leave they win and I don’t intend to let them win.

  7. Did people call the former leader of the Catholic Church Pope Bennedict? perhaps we should have insisted he only be called his legal name: Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger