Recently I’ve been engaged in an e-mail conversation on the topic of Catholicism as it applies to transsexuals. It started off with some promise, but ended disappointingly when my fellow correspondent retreated into argument by authority. In matters of Catholicism the highest practical authority consists of the Church hierarchy, which was cited to me repeatedly. Had our conversation been geared around a religious topic, such as the role of personal prayer in one’s salvation, this might have had some relevance. But our topic was not religion. It was about the treatment options available to transsexuals. I find the assertion of the Church’s authority into this matter very troubling.
Despite pretensions to the contrary, the Catholic hierarchy has a very poor understanding of transsexualism and their teachings reflect this ignorance. Their current teaching on the matter is merely a recycled form of reparative therapy. If transsexuals follow this advice they’re putting themselves at risk. If non-transsexuals attempt to enforce adherence to this teaching they’re causing great harm.
My correspondent, drawing from their reading of Catholic teaching on the matter, came to the bizarre conclusion that transition meant substituting faith in God with a “religion of transition.” The Church fosters this nonsensical formulation by telling transsexuals that seeking the only known effective treatment for their condition – a treatment that includes transition – is hateful in the eyes of God. You can either have God’s Holy Church, or you can have transition as its replacement.
But of course, transition is no more a religion than going to a doctor when you’re sick is a religion. Transition is part of the course of treatment recommended by the leading medical and mental health providers for someone diagnosed as being transsexual. And they didn’t arrive at this conclusion lightly. Those same professions spent a good century after identifying this condition attempting to cure it by just about every other means at their disposal – psychotherapy, aversion therapy, hypnosis, drugs, lobotomy… the list goes on and on. None of it worked. Among the cures attempted over that time is the exact same thing the Church , after “careful study” of the matter, now recommends. This is not entirely unlike making a careful study of the treatment of polio and concluding that the use of penicillin is morally wrong, but leeches are fine.
The underlying problem is that, unlike advising polio sufferers, transsexualism puts the Church into a theological bind. It comes down to a concept pushed hard by the late Pope John Paul II called the “theology of the body.” In theological terms, this was JP II’s master work. If you want to see what it’s about just Google that term. But be warned, it is a lengthy subject.
The short version comes down to this: God created human beings as man and woman so that our dual nature would jointly embody the nature of God. When a man joins with a woman, it is analogous to God’s union with His Church. His never ending love for humanity is reflected in our marital fidelity. The physical act of union has the Godlike power to create life from nothingness. Etc. ad infinitum. From this basic metaphor, the late pope wove together disparate Church teachings into a single didactic logic. Taken on its own it’s quite a beautiful and impressive exercise of human intellect.
The problem is that this model wasn’t designed to account for anyone who doesn’t conform to the normative expectations of “male” or “female.” Homosexuals, transsexuals, the intersexed… we’re simply not covered by this theology. To an objective outsider this means the grand theology is merely an incomplete metaphor, rather than a comprehensive teaching of God’s plan for all mankind. But the Church doesn’t like that conclusion. To them the problem is not the incompleteness of their understanding. To them the problem is with those of us whose existence doesn’t conform to their model. As they have concluded that they know God’s plan, and as we fall outside of this plan, then clearly we are examples of sinfulness attempting to defy the will of God.
As a result he Church teachings for all of these non-normative groups are joined by a common thread. Their prescriptions for how all differently sexed and gendered people are supposed to live can be paraphrased as “either get in line, or shut up and get out of the way.” If you can’t live as a heterosexual conforming to the phenotype of your birth, then refrain from all sexual activity, don’t marry anyone, and live some kind of isolated, asexual existence until you die. If you can’t conform you must be isolated so as not to “infect” God’s perfect plan.
This is the model through with the Church attempts to instruct transsexuals. They don’t want to parse through all the natural variations in human sex and gender. They built their teachings upon the assumption that everyone was either male or female from conception onward, and damned if they’re going to revisit this stuff in light of the findings of modern science.
And so, even as science is redefining our understanding of human sexuality with new findings in fields like neurology, genetics, and molecular biology, the Catholic Church is stuck with their “Adam and Eve” model of human sexuality. Whereas the former is capable of explaining the diversity of human sexuality as the result of natural processes, the Catholic view continues to assert that anything other than normative male and female is somehow “unnatural,” and “disordered.” Obviously the advantage of the former view is that it conforms to the evidence, as to the latter… well, some people really, really like tradition.
The recommended Catholic treatment for transsexualism reads like blast from discredited transsexual treatments past. They would have us undergo discredited forms of reparative therapy. They implausibly call upon successful and happy post-operative transsexuals to return to their birth sex. They declare all transsexual marriages to be invalid from the moment transsexualism had been manifested (which, for the record, averages around age 4-5). They would even bar celibate and chaste transsexuals who conform to all these teachings from their priesthood as being mentally unfit.
None of this makes a bit of sense given the most cursory findings of modern medical and mental health care. Compare this paper published by the UK’s Gender Identity Research and Education Society on the topic of “Atypical Gender Development” with the Church’s findings on transsexuals published the same year. If the topic was curing measles or mending broken limbs rather than treating transsexualism, which approach would you trust to inform your own medical care?
The Church is not simply wrong in its position here. They’re pressuring an at-risk population to reject medical help in the name of their divine authority. That’s faith-healer stuff. It shouldn’t receive serious consideration in modern society.