Christian response to transgender conflicts needs charity and clarity, Arlington diocese says

Transgender Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock

Catholics need to show charity for self-identified transgender people without compromising their faith or adopting “simplistic” solutions offered by activists and misleading views of gender. That is the teaching of the Diocese of Arlington’s eight-page document, “A catechesis on the human person and gender ideology,” released Aug. 12 by Bishop Michael Burbidge.

“A disciple of Christ desires to love all people and to seek their good actively. Denigration or bullying of any person, including those struggling with gender dysphoria, is to be rejected as completely incompatible with the Gospel,” the Virginia diocese said.

It also warned of “a great danger of a misguided charity and false compassion”

In an accompanying letter, Bishop Burbidge said the catechesis aims to be an educational resource and an “evangelical document” to help teach the faith and “draw others to the truths bestowed on us by God.” It drew on “thorough and robust consultation” with experts in theology, bioethics, clinical counseling, civil and canon law, and priests of the diocese.

The Catholic faithful, the diocese said, should avoid “‘gender-affirming’ terms or pronouns that convey approval of or reinforce the person’s rejection of the truth.”

“To use names and pronouns that contradict the person’s God-given identity is to speak falsely,” it said.

Bishop Burbidge discussed the document in an Aug. 18 interview with CNA.

“We believe God created the human person as male and female. Well then, we use the pronouns that go with that,” he said. “To do otherwise would be inconsistent. We’d be saying one thing and doing the other.”

The diocese said, “We must love in the truth, and truth must be accurately conveyed by our words. At the same time, clarity must always be at the service of charity, as part of a broader desire to move people towards the fulness of the truth.”

When speaking with those who have gender dysphoria or identify as transgender, it is “essential to listen and seek to understand their experiences.”

“They need to know they are loved and valued, and that the Church hears their concerns and takes them seriously,” the diocese said. “In every case, the person’s dignity as a person beloved by God should be affirmed.”

A person with gender dysphoria or a self-perceived transgender identity, Bishop Burbidge said, is “like the rest of us in that he or she has been created by God … Nothing changes that. That is the truth for all of us. We are loved and created by God, formed in the womb, and he knows us by name.”

The Arlington diocese said everyone experiences their human nature “not as the original harmony intended by the Creator but as fallen and wounded. One of the legacies of original sin is the disharmony and alienation between body and soul.”

It invoked the story of Adam and Eve, who sought to conceal their bodies after their fall: “everyone experiences this disharmony in various ways and to varying degrees.” Personal experiences, the document said, do not “negate the profound oneness of the human person’s body and soul.”

Addressing those with gender dysphoria or a self-professed transgender identity, the diocese said: “Every one of us has a struggle that is unique. But none of us should feel alone or abandoned in his or her struggles. Like many others, you may feel alienated from your body, as though you are supposed to have a different one. Please know that, although you may struggle with your body or self-image, God’s unrelenting love for you means that He loves you in the totality of your body as well. Our basic obligation to respect and care for the body comes from the fact that your body is part of the person—you—whom God loves.”

“More than anything else, the Church desires to bring you the love of Jesus Christ Himself. That love is inseparable from the truth of who you are as one created in God’s image, reborn as a child of God, and destined for His glory,” the diocese continued. “Christ suffered for our sake, not to exempt us from all suffering but to be with us in the midst of those struggles.”

The diocese warned against “simple solutions” for the transgender-identifying that promise relief through changing one’s name, pronouns, or bodily appearance.

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“There are many who have walked that path before you only to regret it,” the catechesis said. “The difficult but more promising path to joy and peace is to work with a trusted counselor, therapist, priest, and/or friend to come to an awareness of the goodness of your body and of your identity as male or female.”

The diocese emphasized that the Church’s pastoral care extends especially to parents of children who suffer gender dysphoria or “feel distress over their God-given identity as male or female.”

These parents may experience “a profound sorrow as they witness their children’s suffering,” the diocese said. “Their sorrow is deepened if their children pursue ‘gender affirming’ therapy, a harmful and life-altering path.”

The diocese acknowledged the pressures on parents and on family life.

“In difficult circumstances, parents are often tempted to think—or are made to feel—that their Catholic faith is at odds with what is good for their child,” it said. “In fact, authentic love for their children is always aligned with the truth. In the case of gender dysphoria, this means recognizing that happiness and peace will not be found in rejecting the truth of the human person and the human body.”

While critics of Catholic teaching sometimes depict it as harmful, Bishop Burbidge told CNA that “the truth as given to us by God is the only path to freedom and to peace and to the joy that we are seeking.”

“For us, to convey that truth compassionately is what we do to help others,” he said. “We are not going to try to help and support others beginning with an error or falsehood. A falsehood cannot bring about peace and happiness in one’s life.”

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“While the answer to a problem might be complicated, we cannot begin with that which is untrue,” the bishop said. “That’s not the loving thing to do.”

Parents, the diocese continued, should resist “simplistic solutions presented by advocates of gender ideology” and seek to find “the real reasons for their children’s pain and unhappiness.” They should find trustworthy doctors and other care.

“Under no circumstances should parents seek ‘gender-affirming’ therapy for their children, as it is fundamentally incompatible with the truth of the human person,” said the diocese. “They should not seek, encourage, or approve any counseling or medical procedures that would confirm mistaken understandings of human sexuality and identity, or lead to (often irreversible) bodily mutilation.”

“Trusting God, parents need to be confident that a child’s ultimate happiness lies in accepting the body as God’s gift and discovering his or her true identity as a son or daughter of God,” said the diocese.

Its catechesis comes after a period of major cultural, legal, and political change regarding gender identity and transgenderism. Strict anti-discrimination laws and policies increasingly mandate transgender-affirming workplace practices and the provision of surgeries in health care plans and health care systems. Some states have banned clinical or counseling approaches sceptical of transgender self-identity, drug therapies or surgeries, classifying this scepticism as “conversion therapy.” The Biden administration is also working to make gender identity a protected class.

Bishop Burbidge emphasized the need to treat self-identified transgendered persons with respect.

“Whether a person is family or a neighbor, we do not dismiss, shun, bully, mistreat. None of those things are compatible with being a follower of Christ,” he said. “Nobody should be shunned or mistreated for experiencing disharmony between how they feel and the reality of their gender. We should work with them, we should let them know that we continue to love them, and we should continue in the most appropriate way possible to identify the root cause of this disharmony and help them to overcome.”

Just as it is not acceptable to mistreat someone with disharmonious feelings about their gender identity, the bishop said, neither is it acceptable to dismiss Catholics because of their beliefs or to accuse them of discrimination.

“True dialogue means respect, but that goes both ways,” Bishop Burbidge said. Catholics should be given respect and be able “to have a reasonable opportunity to share with others the reasons for their beliefs. They should also have that right to be respected.”

“This is their firmly held belief, that is who they are,” said Bishop Burbidge. “That’s a dialogue that is missing in society.”

The bishop said that young Catholics tell him they are mistreated when they share their beliefs, and Catholic workers tell him they are shunned in the workplace.

“We have to be true to who we are as followers of Christ, as Catholics, and to what we believe. It’s no different than it’s always been in the Church,” he said. “Sometimes it’s going to be very difficult. Sometimes you’re going to be labeled falsely or even discriminated against or called names that are not respectful.”

“There is a price to pay, to uphold the truth. But as Catholics we can’t run from that truth,” said Bishop Burbidge.

The diocese also spoke of the presence of gender theory in schools, defining this theory as “the claim that a person’s biological sex and personal identity have no necessary connection and could in fact contradict each other.” It cited Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, which emphasized that biological sex and the cultural role of sex or gender “can be distinguished but not separated.”

“It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality,” the pope said.

For parents, the diocese advised “vigilance against dangerous ideas and influences.”

“Transgender ideology is being celebrated, promoted, and pushed out over all social media platforms and even children’s programming,” it said. “Much of your good work and witness can be undone quickly by a child’s unsupervised or unrestricted internet access.”

“Another strong source of misinformation about the nature of the person, and the meaning of the body is, regrettably, the public education system,” it said, adding that many schools “aggressively promote a false understanding of the human person in their advocacy of gender ideology.”

The diocese pointed to policies that compel use of chosen names or pronouns or compel staff to affirm a child’s declared gender identity and facilitate a purported “transition,” even without notifying parents and seeking permission from them.

“Parents with children in public school must therefore discuss specific Catholic teaching on these issues with their children and be even more vigilant and vocal against this false and harmful ideology,” said the diocese.

In February Gallup released a report indicating that 0.6% of American adults identify as transgender. However, the overall margin of error on its survey was plus or minus 1 percentage points. There were significant differences in this identity among age groups. About 1.8% of Generation Z and 1.2% of Millennials self-identified as transgender, but only 0.2-0.3% of older generations did.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2019 there were about 11,000 purported sex reassignment surgeries, an increase of 10 to 15% over the previous year. The market for these surgeries was valued at $267 million that year, according to a market analysis report from the market consulting firm Grand View Research.

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