Transgender Seminary Applicants: What Is the Church’s Pastoral Response?

Such individuals can’t be ordained, but formators stress the need to accompany these persons with love and understanding.

Seminarians from the North American College in Rome pray the Rosary in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis on March 13, 2016.
Seminarians from the North American College in Rome pray the Rosary in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis on March 13, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA/EWTN)

The Church’s pastoral care for persons who experience gender dysphoria has taken on a new and complex dimension for seminary formators, amid reports of women, self-identifying as transgender men, having been unwittingly admitted for priestly formation. 

Considerations regarding the pastoral response to biological women presenting as male for seminary training follow reports from last September of a yet-undetermined number of transgender-identifying individuals having successfully entered seminary.

While passing through a screening process as a woman suggests a clear intent to falsify one’s personal history, formators say that this does not necessarily negate a sincerity of faith or their right to pastoral care in discerning God’s will for them. 

“They are not the enemy of the Church,” said Anthony Lilles, academic dean at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. 

“It’s true they may have engaged in some fraudulent behavior to get into seminary. They may have not transparently represented themselves,” he told the Register. “But they’re still children of God and fellow disciples of Christ, and we need to find a way to engage them with a continued dialogue of salvation, so that they can discern the mission that Jesus has for them.”

“Pastoral charity demands that we come to understand what’s going on in their hearts and why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Lilles said. “It requires that we be able to affirm everything good that they aspire to, and it also requires that one provides an explanation that helps them accept the decisions that get made.”

The Catholic Church firmly holds that only men who have been baptized can be validly ordained to holy orders, and seminary formators are required to restrict admittance to male applicants only. 

“While the seminary staff has the solemn duty to reject the individual’s application, they should, nevertheless, take great pains to communicate that they are not rejecting the female-to-male (FTM) transgender person,” said Timothy Lock, director of psychological services at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. 

“To the contrary, the seminary staff should communicate that they accept the person as a child of God and as someone who is invited to the heavenly banquet,” Lock said. “This transgendered person has unlimited worth in the Heavenly Father’s eyes, and the seminary staff should try to reflect that loving glance of the Father in their interactions.” 

This approach ought to be applied in every case in which an applicant experiences some impediment to holy orders, Lock explained, implying that it is not exclusive to persons with an FTM transgender self-identity.

Although a physical and psychological evaluation are included as part of the standard for seminary screening, some transgender-identifying applicants nonetheless have been successfully accepted into seminary. The implication is that the applicants in question had already undergone some medical interventions in order to pass convincingly as male. 

When a “person who suffers from this cross-sex identification” has “gone to those lengths of chemical and surgical mutilation, what underlies all of that is the profound spiritual wound that needs to be addressed with sensitivity and love,” said Dr. Patrick Lappert, a deacon for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. A board-certified plastic surgeon, Lappert has worked with patients seeking to reverse some of the damage caused by gender-reassignment surgery.

“These are persons we assume are genuinely faith-filled people who suffer with this tremendous spiritual wound,” Lappert told the Register. “They deserve our greatest care, and they deserve the help of both pastors and professionals in managing, and perhaps overcoming, the intrusive ideas that have caused such destruction in their lives.”

For those who are discovered to manifest an FTM transgender self-identity during the application process, seminary staff should recall Colossians 3:15, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” said Lock. 

“This peace will be necessary as they navigate through these difficult conversations with the applicant,” wherein it is privately explained to the applicant “why they cannot be admitted to the seminary,” Lock added. “This is a moment for spiritual fatherhood, where the seminary staff can begin to accompany the FTM transgender person in their journey with the Lord.”

Hudson Byblow, a Catholic speaker for whom same-sex attractions and questions about gender identity are part of his story, addressed the contradiction inherent in the desire to be a priest while holding to an FTM transgender identity.

“When a person who is a female takes on the idea that they are male, they are countering the successful integration of their personhood, the successful integration of their sexuality and, as such, are countering the virtue of chastity, even though they may not understand that they are doing so,” Byblow said. “As long as a person is attached to that, they are attached to the rejection of the fullness of virtue, and attached to the rejection of the fullness of holiness, and attached to the rejection of the fullness of Christ.” 

Byblow challenged transgender-identifying people wishing to be priests to explore the Church’s teaching about “who we are as persons, according to what God has authored into creation.”

“My heart would go out to those people because I know it would be very difficult for them to navigate, because I understand the desires of the hearts and how those desires can be so strong and how some people interpret strong desires of the heart to be absolute signs from God,” he said.

“We must never forget that these people, through ongoing conversion with Jesus Christ, could become the world’s next greatest saints for the Church,” he said.

Although women who identify as FTM transgender are not called to the priesthood, Lilles cited the need in the Church for people with their experience. 

“Someone who we can accompany through their own journey with gender dysphoria is likely going to be an individual who’s much more compassionate and understanding to others who are suffering the same thing,” Lilles said. 

“Those kinds of compassionate souls are very needed in the Church today.”