There’s a West African folktale about why a spider has a tiny waist. It recalls an ancient time of the feasts for festival season. Spider was greedy for food, so he tied ropes around himself and gave the loose ends to the villages nearby. His instructions were to pull him in when the food was ready. But he didn’t expect the feasts to be ready at the same time. As the villagers met resistance on the ropes, they pulled harder. Spider was caught in the middle of a tug of war. That is why he has a tiny waist.
I know what it feels like to be pulled in different directions. As many Catholic dioceses are locked in conflict over gender identity policies, I find myself trying to walk the narrow ridge between two chasms. I’m holding rope in both hands, trying to live in the tension between both sides.
I understand why Catholic dioceses need to guard faith and morals. The church has a duty to protect Catholic identity from the secular creep of the modern world. Order and discipline beat uncertainty and ambiguity. Surety inspires confidence in the mysteries we celebrate.
But I also see how gender identity policies miss the mark. They are written to enforce strategies of containment without consulting the people most affected—school administrators, teachers, parents and LGBTQ students themselves. The rules become like millstones. The result is a fierce and damaging tug of war. Our church can do better.
At the recent Outreach conference, I was blessed to participate in a panel titled “LGBTQ Ministry in High Schools.” Yes, this is a hotly-contested issue, but that’s why we engaged with it. We need to learn how to dialogue without being self-righteous and cruel.
It is necessary to understand that each person’s story is unique and personal. And we need to master the art of listening to stories. The best pastoral ministers are also very effective at tending to and honoring stories. This is the way of Jesus.
When faced with conflicts over rules, Jesus always tried to transcend disputes by inviting people to think in new ways. For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he rose above the fray. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt. 22:21).
In another case (and there are many), the Pharisees try to accuse Jesus by asking if it was lawful to cure on the sabbath. He said in reply, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Mt. 12:9-14). Again, Jesus found a way to outwit his challengers.
Concerning the contentious gender policies in Catholic dioceses, I offer three examples of how we might witness to this model of Jesus by seeking a posture of transcendence over conflict.
1. Make gender-neutral clothing options available
First, diocesan policies commonly share a rule that “students are to wear only those uniforms and conform to all dress codes in accord with their biological sex.” The underlying principles here seek to uphold standards of professionalism and modesty.
An alternative policy might read, “Students are required to wear a school uniform. Gender-neutral options are available.” This seems to be a reasonable dress code policy that respects the underlying principles but still allows school administrators some degree of flexibility on the ground.
2. Refer to students by their preferred names
Second, the prevailing rule is “all persons will be addressed and referred to with pronouns in accord with their biological sex.” This is tough. It outright rejects a basic pastoral principle that we should meet people where they are, because we can’t meet them where they’re not.
As an expression of pastoral care, what about this compromise? “Every individual has the right to decide the name by which they are known. In cases of conflict, names will be used in place of pronouns. External school records will require a student’s legal name.” This approach seems realistic and manageable. It respects the complexity of realities over ideas.
3. Provide for single-occupancy restrooms and locker rooms
Third, the prevailing rule reads, “All persons will use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their biological sex.” This is another highly volatile issue. There are competing interests here concerning accommodations and child safety.
The solution is simple. “All persons shall have the right to a single occupancy space if requested.” The right to privacy wins here—for everybody.
Admittedly, it is difficult to stand in the middle and get pulled around like the] spider. It’s much easier to pick a side and cast stones, but it’s also anti-Christian because it trespasses against our neighbor. Choosing transcendence is the better option. As Pope Francis says, unity “is always higher than conflict.”
To avoid getting pinched in the tug of war, I’m discerning a new strategy. Instead of holding on, let go of the ropes. Stop pulling. If we turn our palms up in a posture of prayer, then we surrender to Christ and trust him to show us the way forward.