We need your help to continue and expand the Outreach ministry.

Vatican condemnation of “gender theory” a moment of whiplash for LGBTQ Catholics

NewsViews Michael J. O’Loughlin / April 8, 2024 Print this:
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City seen at night in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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:

For over a decade, LGBTQ Catholics have grappled with what it means to balance having a pope who literally and figuratively embraces their community but who nonetheless approves documents that seem to call their very dignity into question. That reality is playing out again today, with the release of the Vatican declaration “Dignitas Infinita,” 12,000-word treatise articulating previous church teaching on a number of issues related to human dignity. 

Many Vatican analysts point out that rather than presenting new teaching, Dignitas Infinitamore or less summarizes existing church doctrine touching on a number of issues related to human dignity, including war, poverty, sex abuse and human trafficking. The document, which has been in the works for the past five years, cites other popes and Vatican documents, but also tries to synthesize the thoughts of Pope Francis. 

The whiplash that accompanies being a Catholic and member of the LGBTQ community today is present even within this single document.

That’s because the sections that touch most closely on LGBTQ issues actually include a couple of bright spots—before offering strong condemnations of “gender theory” and “sex change” surgeries. 

The whiplash that accompanies being a Catholic and member of the LGBTQ community today is present even within this single document.

What does the new declaration say?

First, Dignitas Infinita reiterates church teaching that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”

Then it goes a step further, condemning laws that criminalize homosexuality, stating, “it should be denounced as contrary to human dignity the fact that, in some places, not a few people are imprisoned, tortured, and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.” 

For years, LGBTQ activists had urged Pope Francis to speak out against laws that criminalize homosexuality, particularly statutes and bills in some African countries that had the support of local bishops. Francis took this step last year, becoming the first pope to condemn laws in at least 67 countries that criminalize homosexuality, and now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has further bolstered the notion that Catholics should not support these kinds of prohibitions. At a press conference following the release of the document, Cardinal Víctor Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, described it as “painful” to learn that some Catholics support laws criminalizing homosexuality and said “we do not agree with criminalization.”

James Martin, S.J., the founder of Outreach, said in a statement that he is “grateful that the Vatican has reiterated its official condemnation of every kind of violence against LGBTQ people, including imprisonment and execution. That cannot be repeated too often as an offense against human dignity. The LGBTQ person, like everyone else, has infinite dignity.”

The document is also notable for what it doesn’t contain, namely, some of the harsher language present in an earlier Vatican document about gender identity—and even some of the phrases spoken by Pope Francis himself around this topic. But those omissions will probably offer little comfort to the transgender Catholic community and their families and allies, who will undoubtedly be hurt by what is included. 

James Martin, S.J.: “The LGBTQ person, like everyone else, has infinite dignity.”

In five paragraphs condemning gender theory, and the subsequent section prohibiting “sex-change intervention,” Dignitas Infinita explains why it believes evolving attitudes on gender represent a threat to human dignity on par with extreme poverty, violence against women and abortion.

“Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel,” the document states.

The document is also notable for something else it lacks: namely, any strong indication that the lived experiences of transgender people served as a source in formulating its contents. The language in the document feels clinical in its tone. There are many mentions of theory, but few instances of concrete realities. The term “transgender” does not appear a single time.

Given the pope’s twin emphases on creating a merciful and listening church, it strikes me as strange that this document seems to lack ideas for how Catholics are to approach difficult pastoral realities that will undoubtedly arise following the publication of today’s document. My mind goes back to 1986, when the Vatican published a document that condemned same-sex relations. Pastors of gay-friendly parishes back then were left in the cold when it came to responding to the anger their flocks felt after reading the document. That document led to the dismissal of LGBT Catholic groups from parishes and a mass exodus of gay and lesbian Catholics from the life of the church; and its harsh language has been used for decades by those who don’t want to see LGBTQ people fully embraced by the church.

Because Dignitas Infinitadeals largely with theory and not lived realities, it runs the risk of having a painful history repeat itself. 

It will be difficult for some LGBTQ Catholics to square this doctrinal document with the pastoral reality of Pope Francis, who has made meeting with LGBTQ people a not-insignificant part of his papacy. 

Francis DeBernardo, the head of the Catholic LGBTQ group New Ways Ministry who recently met with Pope Francis in Rome, said in a statement that the document includes a “stunning lack of awareness of the actual lives of transgender and nonbinary people.” 

There are many mentions of theory, but few instances of concrete realities. The term “transgender” does not appear a single time.

Further, Mr. DeBernardo contends that the “authors did not listen intently to the lived experience of people who have discovered, often after painful and torturous journeys, that God has naturally created them with a gender identity beyond social expectations, usually based on physical appearance.”

Historical parallels

Whenever I speak to Catholic groups about LGBTQ issues, I’m almost always asked a question about how church leaders are managing issues related to the treatment of transgender people and their families.

Most of these talks are centered around my research on the church’s response to the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. As a gay Catholic, I’m interested in how lessons from that time can inform the church today.

So when people ask me how the church could do better, I usually respond by pointing to a story about a Catholic hospital in New York City that served a large patient population of gay men with H.I.V. and AIDS.

Protesters frequently targeted St. Vincent’s Hospital, because even though it served many gay men, they didn’t always feel welcome and cited verbal abuse and discrimination from some hospital staff. After one particularly boisterous protest, in which an activist desecrated a crucifix, the Sisters of Charity of New York were told by their lawyers that they could press charges and have the courts intervene as a way to quell the disruption. But the sisters discerned their response and decided instead that they needed to listen to the protesters to learn how they could better meet their needs. As a result of those listening sessions and changes in policy, St. Vincent’s went on to become an invaluable partner in the fight against H.I.V. and something of a landmark in LGBTQ history in the United States.

I see similarities in how the church approaches today’s admittedly thorny questions related to gender identity. There seems to be an instinct to point to doctrine before the laborious and difficult work of deep listening has taken place.

There seems to be an instinct to point to doctrine before the laborious and difficult work of deep listening has taken place.

The Vatican publishes many theological treatises each year and most Catholics in the pews will never know they exist, much less have their lives affected by them. Even in the LGBTQ community there may be a sense that we have endured worse and are still here. One more document might not be pleasant, but our faith in God and thirst for the sacraments remains resilient. But given the current cultural reality, it would be a mistake to think that the document doesn’t have the potential to cause serious repercussions.

Many dioceses in the United States are grappling with how to respond to the increased visibility of transgender people in parishes, ministries and schools. Some bishops have released guidelines addressing these topics, and Dignitas Infinita will almost certainly result in many more diocesan guidelines that result in transgender people not feeling welcome in the church. 

That’s the fear of Marianne Duddy-Burke, who heads the LGBTQ group DignityUSA.

“Every time the Vatican puts out a statement that dehumanizes people, it is the final straw for some Catholics who have been struggling to remain connected to the church,” Ms. Duddy-Burke said in a statement. “These people feel pain and alienation when they or their loved ones are dehumanized. They no longer see the church as a home. Many grieve the loss of the sacraments, rituals that both comfort and challenge, and the communities where they can share their hopes and joys. We mourn these terrible wounds to the Body of Christ and pray that these people can find new spiritual homes.”

If transgender persons don’t feel that they would be treated with respect as a result of this document, might they put off seeking needed care?

At the same time, Catholic hospitals are trying to emphasize that their facilities are open to all people, including transgender people, even if they usually do not offer some surgical interventions referred to as gender-affirming care. It has been difficult for some institutions to thread that needle, and the fallout from this new document is likely to make that task even more difficult. In some places, Catholic hospitals are the only option for people seeking care, especially in underserved areas of the United States. If transgender persons don’t feel that they would be treated with respect as a result of this document, might they put off seeking needed care?

Not knowing how this document will trickle down into parishes and schools and possibly be used as a cudgel against an already marginalized group of people is also concerning. It’s not difficult to imagine a bishop tightening restrictions on gender identity in schools, citing this document, causing feelings of ostracization and perhaps even bullying among children and adolescents who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

Pope Francis demonstrates often that he wants the church to be more merciful to the LGBTQ community, including as recently as November, when a group of transgender activists from Rome were invited to the Vatican for lunch to take part in the church’s commemoration of the World Day of the Poor. As the Associated Press reported, Francis and a group of transgender women forged something of a friendship, initially prompted by challenges related to the pandemic. They seemed to have kept up that relationship, resulting in their invitation to the Vatican.

One of the participants told the A.P. how much the pope’s gestures, including a decision that allows transgender Catholics to be godparents, meant to her.

Any church door open to LGBTQ people cannot be taken for granted.

“Before, the church was closed to us. They didn’t see us as normal people, they saw us as the devil,” Andrea Paola Torres Lopez, a Colombian transgender woman known as Consuelo, told the A.P. “Then Pope Francis arrived and the doors of the church opened for us.”

One lesson that has stuck with me in my decade of reporting on LGBTQ issues and the Catholic Church is that any church door open to LGBTQ people cannot be taken for granted. Those cracked doors are open because of the courage of generations of LGBTQ Catholics who told their stories, who held fast to their baptismal rights and responsibilities and who looked at future generations when they refused to let those doors be shut. 

Michael J. O’Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin is the executive director of Outreach and the author of "Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear." Previously, he was the national correspondent for America. Twitter: @mikeoloughlin

All articles by Michael J. O’Loughlin

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.

  1. How wonderful for our community to be included in a 20-page document about poverty, war, sexual abuse, violence against women, abortion, and euthanasia. I can’t think of a more welcoming gesture to LGBTQ+ folks. It’s especially refreshing to have our dignity honored in such a loving way.

    As a gay man who left the Catholic Church when I came out 40 years ago my advice to LGBTQ+ Catholics and their allies has been and remains: Life is short. Find a denomination that honors us, cherishes us, and deems our relationships as holy. They’re out there, preaching the truth of Jesus. Enough lip service from the Catholic Church. It’s hurtful.

  2. As a gay catholic, it’s a good summary of catholic teaching/thought.

    Pastors need to help us (all) reconcile certain aspects of our personhood so that we can live in accordance with our inherent dignity and God’s plan for us all. This includes our sexuality, whatever that may be.

    This does include hearing some hard truths sometimes. However, we need to be shaped by God’s word, not the other way round.

    The document is wonderful- it reminds us all of our inherent dignity, while maintaining truth eternal.

    Always happy to chat, if you’re interested in other opinions.


  3. My husband and I are the parents of a young transgender man. When I was pregnant with him we didn’t know or care if he would be a girl or a boy. I prayed that he would be healthy and that I would be a good mother to him. As he grew up and showed us, long before he ever told us, who he was—not the daughter the doctor told me I had, but a second son for our family—I drew upon my Catholic faith and prayed again that he would be healthy, that I would be a good mother to him and that I would never be convinced by anyone to see him as anything other than the gift God intended him to be to me, to our family, to the world. Isn’t that how we are taught by the Church to see every child? In his goodness, God answered those prayers positively. He has grown up healthy, responsible, kindhearted, creative and funny. He might not have said it every day of his teen years, but he tells me now that I was a good mother and we are both grateful God granted that prayer.

    Truly, he is a gift, like my older daughter and son are. I thank God for all three of them every day, for all that they have taught me and their father, for all the love that God has blessed us to share with one another.

    I respect his dignity by recognizing that he is exactly who God made him to be. Gender theory—whatever that may be— had nothing to do with it. He began this journey of becoming himself before he was two years old—long before either he or even I had ever heard of gender theory. He continues to grow into the best version of himself. He continues to share himself with others—those like him and those different from him.

    To quote this document “human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God.” My son did not ask to be transgender—but he and I and the rest of our family decided long ago that he and the gift he has always been would “be accepted with gratitude and placed at the service of the good.” If only the Church could learn from her own wisdom to see trans people as the gifts they truly are and to be grateful for the goodness they can bring.

    • God bless you, your son and your family. You are truly gospel values in action and an inspiration to all parents of transgender children.

    • Peggy, you are a wonderful mother! People talk about the church as a mother as well, but not nearly as wonderful I’m afraid…

      You, your son, your family are blessed. You are a gift to us and to this church in need of listening and learning.

    • It’s my understanding this document was five years in the making–yet it’s obvious not even five minutes were spent listening to transgender people and their families.

      The message from the document reads like it was paraphrased from The Wizard of Oz:

      “Pay no attention to the institution behind the curtain; the great and powerful church has spoken.”

      It this document weren’t life threatening it would be hilarious.

      Duane Sherry
      (He / him)
      Proud parent of an adult transgender daughter

      • Your courage in standing with your daughter is precisely what the gospel teaches. “See how they love one another.”

      • My apologies, this was meant to be a general comment, not a response to Peggy E, whose comment was greatly appreciated, and which brought me to tears of gratitude as a parent of an adult transgender daughter.

    • Dear Peggy, please know you, your son and your family will remain in my prayerful heart. May you all always feel you are surrounded by great love, care and concern from the Body of Christ.
      When I read Dignitas Infinita these scriptures came to mind: “Listen O House of David, is it not enough that you weary human beings, must you also weary God?” Isaiah 7:13
      “In the Spirit we are all baptized into one body…God placed each one of the parts in the body as God intended… there is no division in the body, the parts have the same concern for each other.” 1 Cor12:13,18,25
      “If I comprehend all the mysteries and all the knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Cor 13:2
      Please know many of us embrace Jesus’ teachings of unconditional love and nonjudgmental acceptance and even as we suffer with you as you read this document, we stand with you, with Christ.

  4. Just when I thought the door was opening up enough for me to walk in again in prayer and with love for the Catholic Church, the document Dignitas Infinita is published and that very door is slammed in my face. The inherent contradiction within the document is shocking. Pope Francis cannot ask that people not be criminalized for being homosexual, and in the same breath refuse to offer support for transgender people seeking gender reassignment surgery.
    Refusal to acknowledge and support the transgendered gives leverage to the laws that right wing extremists like the Governor of Florida (a Roman Catholic) and his followers have imposed on transgendered individuals making them criminals if they seek medical care. The Church cannot have it both ways. Are we to criminalize the transgendered or not?
    Furthermore, I am angered that the Church, once again, is in denial of the science that supports the range of human sexuality and gender. When will Church leadership open their minds to mankind’s research, knowledge and understanding of the world we live in? When will the Church recognize and honor mankind’s God given intelligence?
    I’m not suffering from whiplash, my neck is broken. I am done.

  5. Here in some secularised Western European countries the situation is different. Here the tables are turned and People who ask gender critical questions are often harassed or discriminated. Laws are passed that make changing your sex legally as simple as changing the address of your driving licence. In some places surgeries are done without an in-depth psychological assessment. We now have pronoun-bullying with people loosing their jobs and also Lesbian and Gay people are attacked like e.g. Lesbian activist Tonje Gjevjon because she stated publicly that men cannot be lesbians.

    When I did send around flyers about a new Gay and Bisexual men’s Spirituality group, one national Christian LGBT organisation in the UK let me know that they will not do it until I add the word Trans. Pointing out to me that because of “Trans sensibilities” Gays (and therefor Lesbians) should be no longer be allowed to meet separately! So the term Gender ideology is not so far off the mark. There is much resistance growing now against this ideology like https://sex-matters.org/ and LGB Christians are also starting to stand up: https://lgbchristians.org.uk/ I am aware that there is a thin line to walk as we also care about the wellbeing of Transgender people but I think any such ideology harms them as well. Do not know how much there is a parallel in the USA but we are very concerned here in Europe.

    Urs Mattmann, Author of COMING IN – Gays and Lesbians reclaiming the spiritual journey. Foreword by Richard Rohr. Wild Goose Publications.