E. Christian Brugger is Professor of Moral Theology at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, FL. He has a BA in biology from Rutgers, Master’s degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. in moral theology from Oxford. From 2015-2017, he served as a Theological Consultant to the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB. He publishes widely in sexual ethics, bioethics, natural law theory, and Catholic Social Teaching. His most recent book is Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He lives with his wife, Melissa (of 25 years), and three of his five children in Briny Breezes, Florida.
Q. The Church teaches that having a same-sex attraction is not itself a sin. Only when a person acts in a way to satisfy that attraction does he commit a sin. Do we apply the same rule to persons with gender identity questions? In other words, questioning one’s sexual identity is not sinful, but an action in accordance with that perceived identity is? Does the public profession of a “transgender” identity, through changing my appearance or name or other simple behaviors, constitute a sin? — Father Sean Code, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
A. People with strong intrusive feelings that they are the wrong sex suffer from a condition known as gender dysphoria. The feelings are no more sinful than are those of a skinny person consumed with feelings that he’s too fat.
Before the rise of what Pope Francis refers to in Amoris Laetitia as “ideology of gender” (56), these powerful feelings were seen to be expressive of a mental disorder known as gender identity disorder. In the past, the disorder was treated with the aim of overcoming the conflict between the patient’s feelings and the reality of his biological identity.
Gender ideology has convinced a generation of credulous but (I presume) well-meaning health care practitioners that the problem with these patients is not with their mental condition, not with the powerful and chronic feelings of dissatisfaction with their bodies, not with the intrusive inner voice telling them that their true selves are something other than their biological selves — no, the problem is with their bodies; their bodies, not their thoughts and feelings, are the problem. Treatment, therefore, aims to alter their bodies to fit their feelings. Enter the age of so-called sex-reassignment surgery.
As I understand it, the genesis of these feelings is still not well understood.
But one thing that is understood, indeed well understood, by those who accept a Catholic Christian philosophical anthropology — those, that is, who reject an account of gender where “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time” (Amoris Laetitia 56) — is that we are our bodies. To be sure, we are more than our bodies. But whatever else we are, we are certainly our bodies.
Sacred Scripture provides us with a sure compass for navigating confusing waters. It teaches that engendered bodies are willed by God: God created humanity male and female. Maleness and femaleness represent two unique complementary embodiments — embodied manifestations — of humanity, each having his respective significance for himself and for the other according to the divine plan. It is part of God’s will that every human being come into existence, grow, mature, die and rise again as a male or female.
It is therefore always false to affirm that a biological male is a female and vice versa. Affirming falsehood is always bad. It leads us down blind alleys. The more radically a falsehood separates us from the truth, the worse it is to affirm it and make decisions based upon it.
The falsehood affirmed by gender ideology separates us from the truth in a most radical way. I say radical because this falsehood strikes at the very roots (radices in Latin) of our personal identity, of what we are. It literally distorts me, because I am male or female; and I discover what I am by looking at my body. Although an imaginary mental me may exist apart from my birth biology, there is no actual me that exists apart from my body’s maleness or femaleness.
As I said, affirming falsehood is always bad. It follows that affirming a falsehood about my gender identity is bad. If I act upon that affirmation by changing my appearance, name and behaviors, this is worse, since it deepens my commitment to the falsehood; and if I go further and surgically alter my primary or secondary sex characteristics based on the falsehood, this is worse still.
Are these actions sins? They are if I do them with sufficient knowledge that I am acting upon a falsehood, and if I act freely. This may be the case with one who claims a transgender identity out of a kind of adolescent rebellion, or to be trendy or different.
What if I do them sincerely thinking that I am doing something good?
If I believe they are good, then I am in error. If my error is not my fault; and there is nothing here and now I can to do to overcome the error; then Catholic moral theology refers to this as an invincibly ignorant conscience.
On this, Vatican II teaches: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (Gaudium et Spes 16).
“Without losing its dignity” means without culpability, without guilt, i.e., without sin.
But if my error is my own fault, then my ignorance offers me no protection from guilt, even grievous guilt. In the immediately next sentence, Vatican II writes:
“The same cannot be said when someone cares little for truth and goodness, and conscience by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of a practice of sinning.”
What if one who has had reconstructive (so-called “bottom”) surgery discovers his error and makes a good confession — must he surgically reverse the procedure to live guilt free? He should make every reasonable effort to surgically bring his body back into conformity with his true sex. But if he is prevented by serious obstacles, whether financial or health, or for some other reason, he may endure for a time, or even indefinitely, the altered physical state without any guilt.
What about people who are “intersex,” that is, who are born with ambiguous genitalia, gonads or sex chromosomes? There is considerable legitimate debate about how we should medically understand this condition and how people with it should be treated. But I think Genesis 1-2 require us to conclude that God created each intersex person either male or female, even if it is sometimes difficult to make this determination. But intersex seems to me irrelevant to claims of “transgender” people, whose biological sex — and so personal identity — is not in doubt.