The Catholic Herald

Long time no post…but honestly! January has been out of this world in terms of work and othe stuff.

So, to start getting back on track, here’s a piece published this week in the Catholic Herald. I say published this week – i don’t have access to whatever the subs have done with it.

In the meantime, however, here is what got submitted in the first place.


Catholic Herald piece – w/c 31/1/11:

Homosexuals are evil. Adulterers will burn. And anyone who steps off the sexual straight and narrow can expect little sympathy from the church.

That is, of course, caricature. As anyone who is in regular communion with the Catholic church will be well aware, the official position on all of the above is far more understanding, far more informed by principles of reconciliation and inclusivity than the simplistic slurs that originate outside the church.

Still, it was not without some sense of trepidation that earlier this year I spoke to my own parish priest, in the small Lincolnshire Parish of Bourne and Deeping about my personal decision to “transition”: that is, to start the transgender journey, opting for full medical intervention to bring about gender re-assignment, or what is more popularly referred to as a “sex change”.

After a lifetime of experiencing the church as a body capable of almost infinite charity in its dealing with difficult issues, I was still seized with the fear that once the cat was out of the bag, I would be beyond the pail. Understood – but also, unforgiveable.

My fears were not exactly diminshed by my early searches on the internet. The Christian Institute – admittedly not a particularly Catholic organisation – was fairly forthright on the issue. There are but two genders and, apart from a few rare instances, these genders are fixed and immutable.

The desire to “change” gender – “gender dysphoria” – was an issue of mental disorder, rather than genuine medical condition. Surgery to modify the body’s gender was therefore a mis-use of medical technique: a mutilation.

Although their briefing on the subject ends with the outwardly christian view that “the Christian response to a transsexual .. .should be prayer, care and counsel as for any with psychological difficulties”, it is not hard to form the suspicion, given their ongoing obsession with the subject, that behind this bland façade lies a rather less forgiving distaste for transsexualism.

They find significant echo in the views of surgeon and leading catholic voice on the issue, Paul McHugh, believed to be highly influential within the Vatican on sexual matters. In language unlikely to win many transsexual friends, he talks of post-surgical subjects as “caricatures of women”, was intrumental in closing the gender clinic at John Hopkins in the United States, and has made clear his distaste for the “fashion” of gender re-assignment.

The difficulty, of course, lies in locating the genuinely christian approach to such difficult topics, based on compassion and forgiveness. It is very easy for bigotry and prejudice to hide behind a mask of concern – just as it is easy, at times, for those outside the church to mistake subtle doctrinal nuances for outright condemnation.

Because, in essence, many of the points made by both the Christian Institute and Paul McHugh are valid representations of doctrine: it is just the rhetoric that is different. David Albert Jones is director of Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Roman Catholic academic institute that engages with the moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research. He agreed in outline with much of the above: the Catholic church takes an essentialist and binary view of gender. One is born male or female: one cannot “change” gender.

From that, various conclusions flow: one may not marry in one’s “re-assigned” gender (and relationships with the “opposite” sex would still attract the opprobrium of homosexuality); although a marriage contracted before surgery may continue.

Considering the stages encountered as one travels the transgender road, he noted that some theologians – including Aquinas – might object to cross-dressing, or transvestism, as immodest and scandalous.

The taking of hormones, both to improve mood and to start the process of bringing about bodily changes was more difficult, since in essence, the church’s objections to transsexualism lie in the last stage: surgery.

This is seen as mutilation and sterilisation, in much the same way as vasectomy: both sinful; and therefore both to be avoided where possible. The difference, of course, between this and cosmetic surgery, lies in the irreversibility of the techniques used.

However, since hormones might in some instances lead to a requirement for surgery, due to side-effects, it is not entirely clear whether they are, or are not, of themselves to be counselled against.

At the end of the day, a key issue lies in an individual’s ability to remain in communion with the church. If one is not in a state of grace, as someone who has undergone gender re-assignment surgery would not be, then at the very least, some degree of contrition would be required before they could return to full engagement with the sacraments.

Nevertheless, since the surgery is a one-off, as opposed to an on-going course of action, a transsexual who was able to demonstrate genuine sorrow over their choice may well be able to resume their life within the church post-operatively.

So much for the theology.

Since I started on a personal note, that seems an appropriate place to end. My priest, father Clement Orango, was a little perplexed, but quickly got up to speed: he presented the official church view, with no “side”, and was supportive.

Meanwhile, the parish have been a source of true joy over the last few months, displaying not one ounce of hostility, welcoming my new self and, if there was any disapproval at all, confining it to prayers for my soul. The Sunday school mums have supported me, whilst one church regular moved me to quiet tears… by looking out for me a few personal items of clothing that might otherwise have gone for jumble.

That, perhaps, is a model of how the church should be. I may be on a course that will eventually bring me into conflict with official doctrine – but that should never be cause for hate or public intolerance.

The problem lies in the rhetoric: perhaps also in the hijacking of church doctrine in pursuit of personal agendas. At the end of the day, though it is not church dogma, but inflammatory words that stir up hate and lead to real violence: real death and injury.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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