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Amid Nation’s ‘Transgender Moment,’ US Catholics Engage With Truth and Charity
Faithful Catholics are rearticulating the Church’s teaching on sexual identity and applying it to the challenges raised by gender ideology.
By Jonathan Liedl
WASHINGTON — Four prominent U.S. bishops joined leaders of other Christian traditions in publicly reaffirming the inherent beauty and reality of each person’s God-given sexuality.
In an open letter, entitled “Created Male and Female” and released Dec. 15 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church leaders spelled out the harmful elements of gender ideology, which denies both the innateness of biological sex and the intrinsic link between gender and sex.
The authors also urged members of their faith communities to respond to those struggling with their sexual identity with “compassion, mercy and honesty.”
“We hope for a renewed appreciation of the beauty of sexual difference in our culture and for authentic support of those who experience conflict with their God-given sexual identity,” read the letter, whose authors included Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska; and Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania. They are all U.S. bishops’ conference committee chairmen.
In many ways, though, the call to respond to gender ideology in truth and charity is already being answered by Catholics across the country.
From theologians to think-tank fellows, medical doctors to millennial ministers, faithful Catholics — most of them laity and many of them women — have been busy rearticulating the Church’s teaching on sexual identity and applying it to the challenges raised by gender ideology.
Positive and Pastorally-Focused
An example of this sort of local approach rooted in truth and charity unfolded recently in St. Paul, Minnesota.
On Dec. 11, the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, along with the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute, and the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture, hosted a daylong symposium on “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation.”
The event included presentations from medical and social-science perspectives, in addition to theological and philosophical accounts, in an effort to rearticulate the reality of God-given maleness and femaleness and demonstrate the complementarity of faith and reason on the question of human sexuality.
Presentations addressed such areas as the multitude of innate biological differences between the sexes and the different but complementary ways in which moms and dads parent, as well as the philosophical contradictions inherent in the gender-ideology worldview.
Professor Deborah Savage, Ph.D., the principal organizer of the conference as well as a presenter, said the event was less of a defensive response to gender ideology on its own terms and more of a constructive account of sexual identity from the heart of the Church.
“We wanted to concentrate on building something good,” said Savage, whose current academic research focuses on developing a theology of the nature and complementarity of man and woman grounded in both Scripture and philosophical anthropology. “An understanding of who we are as human persons — man or woman — is the starting point for both challenging the claims of gender ideology and supporting those struggling with their sexual identity.”
Although the conference was held on a university campus, its pastoral focus was clear from the start.
An opening presentation from Walt Heyer, who started a ministry for those struggling with their God-given sexual identity after his own experience living as a transgender female, helped set the tone for the day, which was intended to equip clergy, pastoral ministers, educators and lay leaders with the insights needed to reach out to those they serve.
According to at least one attendee, the event succeeded with its stated goal.
“It was helpful to learn some basic facts about [gender ideology] and to see the distinction between individuals and their pain and an ideology that seeks to change our culture,” said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Bishop Cozzens added that he and his brother bishops “have heard from many people asking us to help bring the clarity of the Gospel and Church teaching to this difficult area so that families and individuals can be strengthened.” The event, which was attended by five of Minnesota’s seven bishops, was a step in that direction.
“I hope attendees will feel empowered to speak compassionately to others who disagree with the Church’s teaching,” said Bishop Cozzens.
Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, rector of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, attended the symposium and felt that this gathering showed an authentic pastoral sensitivity for a question that challenges people in their understanding of sexual identity in God’s plan of creation.
“The conference also revealed the need to welcome, accompany and integrate God’s people into the life of the Church, as Pope Francis does in his encounters with all people of goodwill,” he said.
A Key Catalyst
The “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation” conference was the most recent example of the Church addressing challenges raised by gender ideology at a local level, but it hasn’t been the only one.
A similar event was organized by Susan Selner-Wright at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver this past spring; it was attended by clergy and diocesan employees from as far away as Cincinnati.
But seminaries aren’t the only institutions helping the Church respond to the “transgender moment.”
The Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF), an initiative that aims to bolster the voice of Catholic women in the public square, has played the role of catalyst, helping to spark initiatives and collaboration among its membership, which includes some of the nation’s top female Catholic public intellectuals.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ own concern with gender ideology and in consultation with the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (now part of the Dicastery on Laity, Family and Life), CWF hosted a women’s symposium on gender ideology in April 2016.
The symposium helped serve as a springboard for many CWF members to begin applying the Church’s teaching on sexual identity to their own areas of expertise and speaking out.
One of the most active among them is Mary Rice Hasson, CWF’s director and a scholar with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Over the past year and a half, Rice Hasson has been busy working with Catholics to develop responses to gender ideology. Together with her sister, Theresa Farnan of St. Paul’s Seminary in Pittsburgh, she has presented at several workshops for diocesan staff as well as at clergy-formation days and Catholic conferences in dioceses such as Arlington, Virginia, and Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
She has also spoken on sexual identity and gender ideology at Catholic colleges, including Ave Maria University and Benedictine College.
Rice Hasson says the sheer number of engagements and initiatives she’s been asked to participate in reflects the great need felt by Catholic leaders to understand gender ideology and articulate an adequate response.
“The transgender issue seemed to erupt overnight, leaving Catholics reeling,” she said. “Catholics who are on the ground — in schools, parishes, college campuses and apostolates — are hungry, and very grateful, for sound resources, practical guidance and persuasive speakers.”
In addition to Rice Hasson’s public speaking, CWF is also aiding the Church’s response in other ways.
The initiative’s website includes an impressive list of resources and answers to frequently asked questions on gender and sexuality.
Furthermore, CWF has helped foster a fruitful collaboration between Rice Hasson, Farnan and Selner-Wright aimed at developing guidelines and documents to assist dioceses in applying Church teaching to challenges raised by gender ideology.
Under Farnan’s leadership, the scholars have produced working documents on catechetical principles related to gender ideology, as well as guidelines for Catholic schools and dioceses.
Other documents touching on pastoral questions and support for parents are in development.
“The ‘gender revolution’ is the crisis of our time,” said Rice Hasson. “It’s a direct attack on the idea of who we are. We need to expand on what we’re doing, because it’s so needed.”
Medicine, Politics and Pastoral Care
The gravity of the threat posed by gender ideology was not lost on the authors of the recent open letter released by the U.S. bishops’ conference.
The religious leaders said gender ideology attacks “a more fundamental precept of our shared existence” than even natural marriage — namely, the reality and distinctiveness of maleness and femaleness.
For this reason, they stated that the response of their faith communities can’t just be a private affair; it must also be made in the public square, in areas such as politics and medicine.
“We desire the health and happiness of all men, women and children,” the faith leaders wrote. “Therefore, we call for policies that uphold the truth of a person’s sexual identity as male or female and the privacy and safety of all.”
Catholics have already been busy at work in these two areas.
Many physicians and psychologists, such as Michelle Cretella, Suzanne Hollman, Paul Hruz and John Rice, have braved ridicule and professional backlash to speak out about the unscientific basis of gender ideology and the very real health dangers of gender transition “therapy,” especially for children.
On the public-policy front, state Catholic conferences have done their part to slow gender ideology’s infiltration of the legal system, including through opposition to so-called “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” laws, which critics say aim to gut religious-liberty protections and violate the privacy of others.
Prominent Catholic political commentators, like the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, are also focusing increasingly on gender identity and its societal implications. Anderson presented at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity’s conference and also wrote a book on gender ideology entitled, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.
But Catholics aren’t neglecting another area of considerable importance called for in the religious leaders’ open letter: pastoral care.
Courage International, which for decades has provided support to Catholics who experience same-sex attraction and their families, is now exploring how it can best serve those struggling with their sexual identity.
Courage’s director, Father Phillip Bochanski, is clear that confusion about sexual identity and same-sex attraction are different things, but he believes aspects of Courage’s model could be helpful — especially for parents of young adults who don’t believe their physical body matches their real sexual identity.
“Every parent wants their kid to be healthy and happy,” said Father Bochanski, who says a number of parents have come to EnCourage — a ministry within Courage for the parents and family members of those experiencing same-sex attraction — seeking support after finding out their child was struggling with his or her sexual identity.
While parents may initially be wondering how they can “fix” their child, Father Bochanski says EnCourage offers a different approach: one based on empathy, unwavering love and entrustment to the Lord.
“We want to help parents get to a place where they can say to their struggling child, ‘I love you every bit as much as I did the day before,’” he said, noting Pope Francis’ observation that we can accompany people only by first meeting them where they are.
EnCourage members provide emotional and spiritual support to each other, sharing insights into helpful ways of relating to their children in truth and charity. Father Bochanski says Courage International will continue to explore ways it can make a meaningful contribution to the Church’s pastoral response to those struggling with their sexual identity and that the topic will be focused on at Courage’s 2018 “Truth and Love Conference.”
A millennial-specific approach is being spearheaded by Eden Invitation. The new apostolate seeks to provide young-adult Catholics grappling with questions of sexual identity and attraction with a space where they can feel welcomed and understood, but also supported in their pursuit of holiness.
Eden Invitation staff personally reach out to all who contact them, connect people to counseling and spiritual direction in their local areas, and provide a sense of community for people with similar experiences through things like web-based book clubs and discussions.
“People need to be heard; they need to be received,” said co-founder Anna Carter. “We help young Catholics struggling in these ways see that they’re not alone, that true self-integration is possible, and that intimacy with God is possible.”
Although the dangers posed by gender ideology are very real, the Catholic response to this challenge may also bear unforeseen fruit.
For one, the Catholic response to gender ideology has given laywomen a chance to step into what St. John Paul II taught in Christifideles Laici is their rightful role: that of “assuring the moral dimension of culture.”
“As women, and in many cases, mothers, we are genuinely concerned,” said Farnan of St. Paul’s Seminary in Pittsburgh. “The ideology that is being pushed on children leads them down a path that involves harmful treatments and ongoing confusion.”
Rice Hasson of the Catholic Women’s Forum adds that gender ideology “denies the meaning and value of womanhood and condemns motherhood as oppressive.”
Savage of St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity believes that women are particularly well-equipped to deal with these questions. Because of their natural orientation toward persons, she says women are able to speak to such a personal and sensitive issue as sexual identity with a potent blend of care and insight.
“Women who can speak to the heart — and at the same time know the Church’s teaching — are voices that need to be heard,” she said. “I think it might be true that women hold the key to the recovery of our culture.”
Additionally, in engaging with the culture during this “transgender moment,” the Church has the opportunity not merely to respond but to rearticulate and even enhance its own understanding of the human person and sexuality.
Farnan has experienced this in her own work on the issue.
“When I give a talk or workshop on gender ideology, I see it as an opportunity — not just to explain the errors of gender ideology, but to really identify how Christian anthropology presents a persuasive and realistic account of the person, the family and our relationship to God.”
Savage agrees, saying that a little adversity can help bolster appreciation for the truth of the human person in the sexual realm.
“We cannot assume the truth of sexual identity anymore; we need to provide a substantive account of it,” she said. “And in doing so, we’ll have the chance for a deeper and fuller recovery of what it really means to be a man and what it really means to be a woman beyond stereotypes.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Interested parties can reach out directly to Mary Rice Hasson for access to pertinent documents at email@example.com.
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