Dissenting Women Religious Launch Another Media Stunt

COMMENTARY: A small minority of the nation’s religious sisters have publicly contradicted the Church’s transgender doctrine.

Activists participate in a Trans Day of Visibility rally April 2 in Sydney, Australia.
Activists participate in a Trans Day of Visibility rally April 2 in Sydney, Australia. (photo: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Here we go again: Some women religious who claim to “represent thousands” of sisters have issued a declaration at odds with Catholic teaching, and the national media are depicting it as another situation of savvy nuns correcting the rigid Catholic bishops.

This time, the issue is a March 31 public letter titled “In Solidarity: Vowed Catholic Religious Honor Trans Day of Visibility” and signed by some women religious. The letter declared that March 31 was “a time to celebrate, acknowledge, and uplift folks who identify as transgender, nonbinary, and/or gender-expansive,” and “to wholeheartedly affirm” that these individuals are “beloved and cherished by God.” 

The letter was composed by representatives of “several” women’s religious communities and is posted on the website of the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. It claims that the 28 signers “represent over 6,000 vowed Catholic religious and partners in mission in over 18 states.”

“May we act to transform our hearts, our church, our politics, and our country to ensure that the dignity of our trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive siblings are acknowledged, boldly accepted, and celebrated,” the letter declares. And, it contends that vowed religious will “remain oppressors” until they “cultivate a faith community” where these individuals “experience a deep belonging.”

The timing of the document appears to be a response to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ March 20 “Doctrinal Note on The Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body” written by the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. It outlines moral guidelines for Catholic health-care facilities, which have been dealing with multiple lawsuits attempting to force them to perform sex-transition surgeries and procedures.  Also, there have been ongoing attempts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to weaken conscience protections for hospitals and medical personnel.

That doctrinal note explains that God created an order in human nature and in the world that must govern our use of technology. Thus, the bishops directed: “Catholic health care services must not perform interventions, whether surgical or chemical, that aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex or take part in the development of such procedures.”

The bishops continued: 

They must employ all appropriate resources to mitigate the suffering of those who struggle with gender incongruence, but the means used must respect the fundamental order of the human body. Only by using morally appropriate means do health care providers show full respect for the dignity of each human person.

In contrast, the “In Solidarity” letter makes no mention of the natural-law violations involved in gender-change procedures, but instead focuses on affirming people who have made that choice. Further, the endorsers do not seem to realize that women religious are being used as moral cover by other entities who have their own disputes with the Catholic Church. This is evidenced by the “In Solidarity” letter urging vowed religious to sign onto another 2023 statement titled “Beloved by God: A Declaration of a Catholic Commitment to Trans-Affirmation,” That statement is quite similar to the “In Solidarity” letter, for it reads, “We pledge to make an open commitment to support justice, equity, and affirmation for transgender and nonbinary individuals throughout the Catholic Church and the world,” who are “living into the dream God had for them long before their birth.”

The contact for the “Beloved by God” statement is Dignity USA, which describes itself as “Catholics working for justice, equality, and full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in our church and society.” Dignity signed the “Beloved by God” declaration along with more than 20 other dissident so-called “Catholic” groups, including Catholics for Choice, New Ways Ministry, Call to Action, TransCatholic, Women’s Ordination Conference, FutureChurch and Corpus (organization for an “inclusive” priesthood). 

Also signing on were eight congregations of women religious or their leadership teams: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet; Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods; Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Leadership Team; Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, Kansas; Sisters of Charity, BVM Leadership Team; the Leadership Team of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities; and the Leadership Team of the Congregation of St. Joseph. The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who posted the “In Solidarity” declaration on their website, also endorsed the “Beloved by God” statement.

When vowed women religious align themselves with such dissident groups and openly contradict the bishops, the media play up this intra-Church conflict. Consider these March 31 headlines:

  • The Washington Post: “Thousands of Catholic nuns declare trans people ‘beloved and cherished by God.’”
  • Daily Caller: “‘Dismantle The Systems’: Catholic Nuns Call For ‘Full Inclusion’ Of LGBTQ Community On Transgender ‘Day Of Visibility.’”
  • AlterNet: “Nuns rebel against anti-trans stance of Catholic leadership.”

If these headlines sound familiar, it is because since the 1960s activist sisters have vocally contradicted or challenged Church authority with few repercussions, but with some success. In 2010, for example, a group of fewer than 100 sisters — who claimed to represent all 59,000 U.S. sisters — were a major force in getting “Obamacare” passed by convincing Catholic members of Congress that abortion would not be covered in the bill.

The U.S. bishops had rightly predicted that abortion was in the bill, and their media office debunked the activist sisters’ claim that they represented all U.S sisters, but the bill still garnered enough votes to pass. 

Thus, it seems like déjà vu this year, with sisters contradicting bishops on a moral issue and trying to influence legislation. Sadly, they also are working against other Catholic sisters who, for years, have been engaged in legal battles to protect conscience rights in Catholic health-care facilities. Among them are the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Franciscan Alliance and the Religious Sisters of Mercy.

Like the “Obamacare” endorsement, the “In Solidarity” letter writers also are on very shaky ground by claiming that the endorsers “represent over 6,000 vowed Catholic religious and partners in mission.” The letter gives no indication as to how many of those 6,000 are vowed religious and how many are “partners in mission.”

Additionally, while some of the endorsers are leaders in a religious order, a leadership role does not mean all sisters in the order take the same stand their leader does. So, to indicate that the signature of one or two people is representative of hundreds who have had no voice on the matter is inaccurate and unfairly maligns those sisters who disagree on the topic.

Additionally, only 25 out of the more than 400 orders of U.S. women religious are among endorsers of the letter. These orders are only 6% of the orders of women religious in this country, hardly a strong endorsement of the issue.

So, even given that only a small number of sisters actually endorsed the “In Solidarity” letter, what motivated those women religious to do so?

“Sisters feel called to walk with people who are hurting,” explained a sister who was not involved with the project. The transgender topic is much more complicated than many people realize, she said, so she speculated that sisters who signed the “In Solidarity” letter were thinking subjectively about caring for people and not objectively about the natural-law implications. 

“Nobody wants to see transgender people hurt, but there are unintended consequences when we create people in our own way and not according to natural law,” she said. “The Church calls us to accompany others, but that doesn’t mean the Church has to change to do so.”

Likewise, it does not mean that the role of vowed religious is to reject Church doctrine in order to make people feel better about themselves. In fact, that position belittles the very people the sisters are defending, as if those individuals are incapable of understanding the natural law that is imprinted on every human soul. Rather, the role of religious is to “contribute to the salvific mission” of the church (Canon 574) by educating and guiding individuals onto the path to holiness so they can achieve the promise of eternal life. 

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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