A March lecture on gender identity at a Catholic parish in Massachusetts described some transgender people as mentally ill and blamed both academia and the mainstream media for a national increase in young persons identifying as transgender.
The Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Yale-educated neuroscientist in the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in Philadelphia, addressed a crowded parish hall at St. John Neumann Church in East Freetown, Mass.
His talk, “Welcoming in Truth and Charity: The Church and Transgender Issues,” alleged the influence of small gender studies departments at American universities in promoting a “gender ideology” that “came out of the ivory tower and went mainstream.” He also explained the growing prominence of transgender persons in public life as a product of the mass media, which has influenced public opinion through “a blitzkrieg approach.”
Comparing transgender people who undergo surgical intervention to someone who claims to be a pirate and amputates his hand for a hook, Father Pacholczyk claimed that the transgender experience “spreads almost like a contagion through high schools” once one student comes out. During the question-and-answer session after his talk, an audience member, who described herself as a beekeeper, suggested that chemicals in our foods are turning people transgender.
Could this conspiracy be the case? Maybe, Father Pacholczyk theorized, as women eat these foods, pass the chemicals into the water supply people ingest and this, perhaps, distorts our hormones.
To be clear, there is no evidence that water consumption or food additives affect gender identity. The New York Times has noted that, according to experts, younger people now have the words to describe their gender diversity, which may explain a steep rise in Americans who identify as transgender.
Last June, the Pew Research Center found that only 1.6 percent of all U.S. adults say they are transgender or nonbinary; that number is 5.1 percent among people ages 18 to 29. These figures, while significant, do not suggest a type of fast-spreading “contagion.”
“The hypothesis that transgender and gender diverse youth assigned female at birth identify as transgender due to social contagion does not hold up to scrutiny,” wrote Alex S. Keuroghlian, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, last August.
A sought-out Catholic voice on medical and social ethics, Father Pacholczyk has appeared several times on EWTN, with anchor Raymond Arroyo, and written for The Wall Street Journal. His employer, the not-for-profit National Catholic Bioethics Center (N.C.B.C.), is an influential force in the American church that provides analysis to the Holy See and the U.S.C.C.B.
“Over the past few years, [the N.C.B.C.] has received numerous inquiries from Catholic school principals and superintendents asking for guidance on how they can … respond to gender ideology,” reads a September 2019 essay from the Center’s journal. “The N.C.B.C. reviewed various Catholic school policies concerning transgenderism to identify best practices.” (Outreach has published several articles on these diocesan policies.)
The talk drew heavily from current church guidance on transgender concerns and the Vatican’s rejection of “gender ideology,” a term used by some Catholic leaders, including Pope Francis, to account for seismic shifts in society’s understanding of gender.
A recent doctrinal note from the U.S.C.C.B. affirms a Catholic anthropology that describes the male-female binary as an intrinsic part of the natural order and strongly opposes “technological manipulation” that seeks to physically alter the body. The bishops’ note states that human beings do not possess “unlimited rights” to change what was created by God.
“The body is not an object, a mere tool at the disposal of the soul, one that each person may dispose of according to his or her own will, but it is a constitutive part of the human subject,” reads the U.S.C.C.B. directive.
The concept of gender ideology, which the church describes as a dangerous cultural force that seeks to uproot long-understood differences between males and females, has been sharply criticized as inaccurate by transgender people and LGBTQ advocates. In an article for Outreach, James Martin, S.J., notes that most trans people “are responding to often decades-long feelings of deep dissatisfaction with their gender” rather than to any ideological movement.
In a response to Outreach, Father Pacholczyk wrote that he did not state all transgender persons are mentally ill, but that “there is often a mental disorder” that calls for psychotherapy. “When an otherwise healthy biological male believes he is a female, or an otherwise healthy biological female believes she is a male, on objective psychological problem exists,” he wrote in an email.
His talk was not unique to one Massachusetts parish. In 2018, some 100 parishioners in the Diocese of Providence attended a lecture by Dr. Michelle Cretella, the president of the American College of Pediatricians. (The College, which promotes anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, has been designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s largest pediatricians’ group.)
Her talk—which was met with around 20 protestors—compared gender dysphoria to anorexia and rejected medical intervention as appropriate healthcare for transgender youth. Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper, described Dr. Cretella as “a leading critic of the ideology behind transgenderism.”
Providence and Fall River are not the only U.S. Catholic dioceses to address transgender experiences in recent years, as numerous American bishops have issued policies that aim to curtail LGBTQ expression in schools and deny transgender Catholics roles in church ministry.
Calling its policy on transgender expression “intentionally exclusionary,” the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., states that “those living a transgender lifestyle” should be barred from the Sacrament of Confirmation and excluded from receiving the Eucharist “until they fully accept the teachings of the church.”
The Diocese of Marquette, in Michigan, issued similar guidance in December 2021, moving to restrict LGBTQ Catholics from baptism and wider church ministry until they “repent.” The policy, as reported by NBC News, again compared being LGBTQ to suffering from anorexia—a psychological illness.
Transgender persons are more likely than cisgender people to experience negative mental health outcomes. Gender-affirming care, in general, significantly decreases depression and suicidality within the first year, but the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that “less is known” about immediate effects. It is important to state that we do not have all the answers to this complex social and psychological phenomenon.
In an article for Outreach, Christine Zuba, a transgender Catholic woman from New Jersey, explained that her gender identity is not part of a social agenda. “I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being transgender,” she wrote. “Our lives are no different than anyone’s else’s. We live, we work, we pray. We have families.” Claire Gallagher, a transgender woman and practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, hopes that the church and broader society will understand the dangers of marginalization.
“Terming a transgender individual’s treatment of a potentially morbid dysphoria a ‘lifestyle choice’ is to completely misunderstand … the pain and struggles that lead a transgender person to transition,” she wrote late August.
As noted by Sister Luisa Derouen, a Dominican Sister of Peace who has ministered among the transgender community since 1999, instances of depression, suicide and drug addiction are not the result of being transgender, but being ostracized from communities to which they seek to belong.
“What I have witnessed in my ministry hundreds of times, up close and personal, is that transgeneder people experience all of this because they try to suppress who they are,” wrote Sister Derouen, “and because of the pervasive rejection they experience.”