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Transgender Catholics call the church to listen, says this Franciscan sister

Views Julia Walsh, F.S.P.A. / April 8, 2024 Print this:
Photo courtesy of iStock/RuslanDashinsky

Editor’s note: This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the Vatican declaration “Dignitas Infinita.” In a spirit of synodality, we have invited authors with a range of views on gender identity and its relation to Catholic teaching to present analysis and opinion. We invite you to read more of our coverage, including:

This morning, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published “Dignitas Infinita,” a declaration on human dignity. Released in conjunction with the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 24-page document provides philosophical explanations for the Catholic Church’s central teaching on the dignity of the human person.

The Vatican declaration includes sections on “gender theory” and “sex change,” two portions of the document that provoked questions and concerns for me. “Dignitas Infinita” does not use the word “transgender” when declaring that “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.” What does the church mean by “risks threatening”? Is there evidence that the church has listened to people who are transgender? And do they have a sense that the church values their life?

An element of the human dignity we Catholics hold sacred is our agency to discover our personhood. I’ve served as a vocation minister, spiritual companion, jail minister, retreat leader and educator. No matter the context, it seems that each person I accompany is exploring two major questions: Who am I and what is God’s will for me?

As I listen, I frequently wonder about two other overlapping questions: How do people come to know who they truly are? And what helps people to become healthy, happy and holy?  

I believe that including transgender people in Catholic community is more than necessary. It’s an urgent life-or-death situation. 

I am a visually impaired person who sometimes needs help, such as a person to guide me through a space while describing the environment. Sometimes when a person guides me, they’ll casually mention that they really don’t know what I can and cannot see. This is often communicated like an apology, as they acknowledge that my inner life and needs are a mystery to them. But I don’t mind. I appreciate their humility.

I believe that including transgender people in Catholic community is more than necessary. It’s an urgent life-or-death situation. 

Although my eyesight cannot be corrected to 20/20 vision, there’s nothing wrong with me being different and needing companionship to navigate the world. When others listen well, they don’t make assumptions about my experience. I am grateful for how every listening companion honors my identity, experience and agency—and therefore my human dignity. 

No one ought to be told who they are and have their experience defined by another person. Unfortunately, when it comes to other forms of difference, such as gender identity and expression, many people are being told who they are by others.

During freshmen orientation in college, I met Eli. I liked Eli right away and felt impressed with her kindness and intelligence. We became friends and went to dances, concerts and study groups together. I don’t remember being confused about Eli’s gender, even though she didn’t wear especially feminine clothing. I remember Eli asking me about my perceptions of her gender and knowing too little to say anything. I hope I chose to listen and ask questions instead.

I believe that as a person grows and develops their identity, authenticity and freedom are ingredients that allow for holiness, whereas joy and peace are indicators that holiness is brewing in a soul. Henri Nouwen has written, “The imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his.”

And Thomas Merton mused, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore, the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.” For myself, I discovered that my Catholic identity matters more to me than my gender, racial, cultural or sexual identity.  

David Palmieri: “The methodology of Jesus Christ is to just meet a kid where they are and say, ‘I’m going to walk this out with you.'”

When I was invited to write this article, I knew I was unqualified and had a lot to learn. I am a celibate ciswoman who aims to be an ally to LGBTQ community. I knew it would be better if a transgender Catholic were the writer. I tried to say no to the call to write about Catholicism and transgender people, but my discernment reminded me of my Christian discipleship. The Gospel calls each of us to share our gifts for the sake of others. So, I said yes because I believe that including transgender people in Catholic community is more than necessary. It’s an urgent life-or-death situation. 

I spoke to Dr. Craig A. Ford, Jr., a theology professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., who told me that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are each called forth in order to offer our true selves in service of the Gospel. This applies to transgender people as well. “Calling really emphasizes God’s initiative and our response,” Ford said.

He highlighted that God wants each of us to ask the question of what it means to flourish and co-create our identity with God, according to what we discover. “We’re meant to be in the front row of that process, not in the back seat. We are called to be partners with God and respond to that flourishing… And for transgender and gender nonbinary people, that invitation involves curating one’s gender,” Ford says.

As Catholics, our worldview and beliefs are informed not only by faith, but by science and other scholarship. Ford acknowledged that there’s a lot of tension and inconsistencies in the Catholic Church regarding the way we presently understand gender and sexuality. He said that the current situation is similar to what Galileo faced when was trying to impress to the church that the sun is the center of the planetary system.

“We have to realize that this ‘us against the world’ is not going to work because God created us and the world, and truth is unitary. We can’t be afraid,” Ford said. And much of the truth that God reveals doesn’t fit within human-made categories and binaries. Much of the truth is a mystery that must be revealed. 

Carter Fahey: “Transitioning has allowed me to more fully appreciate God’s creation and dedicate myself more fully to His service and the church.”

For David Palmieri, a contributing writer for Outreach, his desire to oppose fear and promote the Gospel motivates his discipleship. When one of his LGBTQ students attempted suicide, he established Without Exception, a network of support for Catholic educators. Over 450 people from almost every American state (plus countries such as Canada, Australia and Belgium) now subscribe to his monthly newsletter and occasional Zoom calls. The mission of Without Exception is to serve “Catholic secondary educators dedicated to discerning the art of accompaniment for LGBTQ+ students in Catholic schools.”

“What I am trying to empower in educators is just [to] listen, encounter. The methodology of Jesus Christ is to just meet a kid where they are and say, ‘I’m going to walk this out with you,'” Palmieri said.

Just as I hope to be included and don’t want anyone to make assumptions about what my experience as a visually impaired person is like, it is highly important for each of us to listen to people who are experiencing gender dysphoria.

Palmieri hopes that church leaders will change the narrative from focusing on behavior and morality to stressing mental health and wellbeing. “But it’s important to distinguish that [queer identity] is not a mental health issue, but that community faces a substantial amount of mental health crises because of the stigma, because of the silence, the walls, that are out there,” Palmieri noted. Experts agree. Medical researchers correlate minority stress with mental health challenges for the LGBTQ community. 

Ford said that for a person who senses a disconnect with their gender assigned at birth, they are called to a journey of integration like each of us. “If you are a trans person, that inkling may be ‘I’m not who people say I am. I want to show the world who I am,'” he said. “And all of us Christians have to ask: ‘Who does God want me to be?’ For the trans person, that aspect involves [gender] transition.” For some transgender people, that gender transition could be a change in name or pronouns, while for others it involves hormone therapy or gender confirmation surgery. 

I don’t want to assume what it’s like to experience a conflict with my gender identity. I want to listen and learn.

Carter Fahey, a trans man and Catholic student at the University of Oxford, shared that being Catholic matters more to him than his gender identity. “Transitioning has allowed me to more fully appreciate God’s creation and dedicate myself more fully to His service and the church,” he said.  

I don’t want to assume what it’s like to experience a conflict with my gender identity. I want to listen and learn, to expand my awe for the wonder of God’s creativity. It is estimated that 1.7 percent of people in the United States are born intersex, with sex characteristics neither exclusively male or female. Our God is creative and expansive, bigger than our human categories and limited understanding. We can celebrate human diversity in every form, even that which is mysterious to us. 

Yes, Scripture says, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Much of Catholic tradition informs us about the beauty and graces of being both male and female. Yet tradition also allows us to see God beyond the gender binary. St. Francis of Assisi knew God as both mother and father. And as a Franciscan sister, so do I. Could God have made us each part male and female because God wants each of us to be in touch with the goodness of femininity and masculinity?

“We have this notion of things that are given—our embodiment, our proclivities and our certain tendencies—but then it’s our job to tend to them [and] grow them in concert with God’s call,” Ford said.

A few years after I graduated from college, I entered the convent and reconnected with Eli. She told me that she was transitioning from female to male. I listened and learned. When I discovered that Eli was transgender, I found this news jarring at first, because I didn’t anticipate nor understand it. More than jarred, though, I felt curious and glad for my friend. I appreciated a chance to learn about another part of the human experience, something different than my own. 

Eli, now Erik, is a happy and healthy professional and a dad. He is authentically himself, and I am grateful to know him. When I recently spoke with Erik, we talked about the changes that had occurred in our lives. He shared that his own dad accepted his gender transition by acknowledging that he’d rather have a living son than a dead daughter. 

Catholic leaders have opted to either receive or reject transgender people in a variety of ways. In 2023, a group of Catholic women religious signed a public statement that they “wholeheartedly affirm that transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive individuals are beloved and cherished by God.”  

Our God is creative and expansive, bigger than our human categories and limited understanding.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa has taken a listening stance. After hearing input from transgender Catholics, the diocese published “Guidelines for Pastoral Accompaniment of Sexual and Gender Minorities” in October 2023, declaring “our first response should be one of welcome, love, and respect. …Most sexual minorities and their families who are seeking a relationship with the Church are not trying to sabotage our institutions or challenge all of our beliefs, but are simply looking for a safe, welcoming place to worship, learn, grow in their spiritual journey, and encounter Christ.” 

According to Dr. Ford, “It just comes down to respect. We can’t control people. The only way we’re going to get people to enter into authentic relationship is if we allow them the freedom to say yes.”

When the Catholic Church—the body of Christ to which every baptized Catholic belongs—shares safety, acceptance and care with each transgender person who is seeking to become their authentic self, we encounter God as we listen. “God loves trans people and trans people love God,” Fahey said. Building up a loving and listening church honors God’s creativity and protects life.  

Julia Walsh, F.S.P.A.

Sister Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. She holds a master’s degree in pastoral studies from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Her work has appeared in America, the National Catholic Reporter and Global Sisters Report. Her most recent book, "For Love of the Broken Body," is now available.

All articles by Julia Walsh, F.S.P.A.

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1 Comment
  1. Julia, kudos to you for this article ! Thank you for your bravery and your love. I was so distressed to read what the recent document from the Vatican said about “trans”. Clearly they haven’t known or talked with a human being who has experienced this dilemma.