The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an open letter last month that to the skimming read seeks to provide a pastoral word about transgender persons, but a closer read reveals a highly insensitive, offensive, and negligent political statement harmful to an already at-risk group of people and asserting a made-up “fundamental precept” contrary to life-saving medical advice given to transgender persons.
The letter, signed by twenty people referring to themselves as “religious leaders” and only four of whom appear to be Catholic, rejects the valid existence of transgender persons. It also ignores the marginalization and ridicule experienced daily by transgender persons around the world while asserting that it is those (like the signers) who do not affirm transgender persons who face “deeply concerning” marginalization and ridicule. To add insult to injury, the letter is intentionally aimed at transgender persons and discusses them, but studiously refuses to use the word “transgender.”
Harmful, negligent, and offensive are kind words to use about this letter.
How could such a letter be issued under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops letterhead? It ought to be withdrawn by the Conference immediately.
The Letter’s Opening Proclamation
The letter, titled “Created Male and Female: An Open Letter from Religious Leaders,” proclaims that “the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female.” In other words, your gender (your traits, including behavior and thoughts) must correspond to the sex you are assigned at birth (according to your reproductive organs, for example).
Having made this proclamation that sex and gender must correspond, the letter goes on to talk about what is best and necessary for society only in terms of sex, sexual identity, and biology: the language of sex. It avoids talking in terms of gender, gender identity, and psychology.
Indeed, although the letter is aimed squarely at transgender people and their friends, family, and doctors, the letter does not use the word “transgender,” presumably because, under the letter’s opening proclamation, such persons “cannot be.”
We Said It “Needs to Be,” Not That We Will
Ironically, the letter includes two paragraphs with which few would disagree that say things like “a person’s … desire to be identified as the other sex … needs to be addressed with sensitivity and truth,” but the letter refuses to be sensitive and truthful enough even to use the word “transgender” a single time or to acknowledge any field of science besides biology, the one associated with sex.
The letter’s sensitivity level dips much further. While discussing transgender people—some of the most at-risk, marginalized, and ridiculed people on the planet—the letter writers paint those who will not affirm transgender people as the victims, describing the non-affirmers as facing ridicule and marginalization and explaining that the letter writers find such happenings “deeply troubling.”
This Is What Is Deeply Troubling
What the letter writers ought to find deeply troubling is USA Today’s report that 41% of transgender persons try to kill themselves at some point while the non-affirmers operate in the face of the New England Journal of Medicine explaining that “[g]ender affirmation — having one’s gender identity acknowledged and accepted in social, legal, and other settings — can greatly enhance overall psychological health.”
Some Scripture? No? Let’s Make Something Up
The letter’s title tells us it is from religious leaders, so perhaps there is lots of scripture cited for this treatment of transgender people? The sole verse cited is Genesis 1:27, though, which says “male and female he created them,” and it is hard to escape the concept that 1:27 likely refers to sex (biological) rather than gender (behavior, thoughts, etc.) when the very next sentence of Genesis says “God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply….”
Why didn’t the letter writers provide us with scripture and analysis supporting their main point that “the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female”?
The letter writers apparently made up the phrase “socio-cultural reality of gender.” A Google search for the appearance of that phrase before December 15, 2017 (the date of the letter) revealed zero (0) uses of it in relation to a gender-sex relationship and only one (1) use of it in any form, in a 2011 paper referring to a “socio-cultural reality of gender relations through African literature.”
Would the letter writers have to make up a phrase to describe something that is so clearly described in scripture that it is appropriate for them to invoke God’s name to condemn it, to call for political policies against it, and to declare its opposite a “fundamental precept of our existence”?
A Friendly Reminder
Respectfully, I would like to remind us all, including myself, of a couple of things from scripture.
The Apostle Paul writes,
“[Y]ou have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
The writer of Proverbs writes,
“Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
or else he will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar.”
What is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Anyway?
This letter is not from the Roman Catholic Church. It is not from Pope Francis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is separate from the Catholic Church in that it is not under the control of the Pope.
The Conference is made up of active and retired members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States and some Territories. It elects its own leaders.
In November 2017, the month before the letter under discussion was issued, the group met to elect leaders of various committees, and the National Catholic Reporter noted, “[t]he most important takeaway from the U.S. bishops’ plenary meeting this week in Baltimore is that they as a group remain determined to resist the pastoral impulse and approach to which Pope Francis is calling the church.”
And Who Are The Signers?
This letter was issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but, somewhat oddly, was signed by only four Catholic clergies. The 16 other signers came from nine other Christian denominations, two other Christian organizations, and an Islamic Society. It appears that they all signed as individuals, not on behalf of their organizations. The signatories are from:
- Anglican Church in North America
- North American Lutheran Church
- Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
- Scranton, Philadelphia, Lincoln, and Louisville Catholic Dioceses
- Islamic Society of the Washington Area
- Orthodox Church in America
- Church of God in Christ
- The Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty
- National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Presbyterian Church in America
- Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
The letter and a list of signers can be found here.
This letter ought to be withdrawn by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
By styling the letter as one from “religious leaders,” citing scripture, issuing it under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and including signers from several denominations, the letter gives the public—including transgender persons—the impression that the letter is a pastoral and thoughtful expression of God’s word on a matter that is endorsed by the Conference and those denominations as a whole when, instead, the letter is a highly insensitive, offensive, and negligent political statement that includes as its central assertion an alleged fundamental precept that is both contrary to what all the major medical associations say and obviously recently made up.
The letter essentially says to transgender people: We do not see you, we will not even name you, the medical professionals who support you are wrong, your suffering for non-affirmation is not real, it is the non-affirmers who suffer, and we care so little about you that we will make up a fundamental precept without careful and patient scriptural explanation for you.
How a group of 20 individuals holding various offices in various denominations can arrange to issue such a letter on the Conference’s letterhead—the letterhead of a national and respected religious organization—is baffling.
These types of letters are damaging to transgender people and ought to be withdrawn. It should not have come from the religious organization in the first place, but, hopefully, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will do what it should do and withdraw it.
(Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash.)
Sources & Notes
The letter under discussion, “Created Male and Female: An Open Letter from Religious Leaders,” is here: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/created-male-and-female.cfm
For a discussion of the difference between sex and gender, see my previous article.
New England Journal of Medicine article: Mark A. Schuster, M.D., Ph.D., Sari L. Reisner, Sc.D., and Sarah E. Onorato, B.A., “Beyond Bathrooms — Meeting the Health Needs of Transgender People” N Engl J Med (July 14, 2016) http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1605912?query=TOC&
“USA Today’s report“: Laura Ungar,”Transgender people face alarmingly high risk of suicide,” USA Today (August 16, 2015), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/08/16/transgender-individuals-face-high-rates–suicide-attempts/31626633/
Also see Harvard study: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/transgender-youth-at-risk-for-depression-suicide/
“National Catholic Reporter noted …”: Michael Sean Winters, “US bishops, as a group, still resist Pope Francis’ pastoral impulse,” National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 15, 2017), https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/us-bishops-group-still-resist-pope-francis-pastoral-impulse.
Google search described: … The Google search was carried out on January 18, 2018 as follows: Go to http://www.Google.com. Put the following into the search field (in quotes) and press enter: “socio-cultural reality of gender”. Click Tools (on the right-hand side). Then click “Any time” on the left-hand side. A selection-menu will pop up. Click “Custom Range”. Input “12/14/2017” into the “To” field. Click “Go”. A few results will come up. When I did it, 12 came up. When you click through them, you will see that that the text is actually the Catholic Bishop Letter and that the date-range is off for all but one of them, probably the first one on the list, http://www.academia.edu/2381273/Gender_Politics_Reflection_of_Inter-genpolitism_in_Buchi_Emechetas_Second-Class_Citizen. The text abstract in the search results shows “the socio- cultural reality of gender relations through African literature….”
When writing about transgender people, I now try to follow the guidelines from the cites listed below. If you notice a departure, please alert me to it, as I am trying to learn.
Scripture quoted is from the NRSV unless otherwise specifically noted.