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Dispatch and Appeal from a Colleague in Worcester, MA

For the June 2016 North American Forum I wrote “Dear Colleague” in response to the May 13, 2016 “Dear Colleague Letter: Transgender Students” issued by the Obama administration U.S. Departments of Justice and of Education with regard to Civil Rights for transgender youth in U.S. public schools. The piece was an appeal to you, Catholic theological ethicists in the world church, to learn more about transgender experiences and history. It is imperative that we develop informed competency on gender diversity.

In one of its first actions, the Trump administration reversed the 2016 policy in February 2017 (and noted gratefully by the U.S. Catholic Bishops). In just this past week, other Obama era policies with regard to LGBTQ+ persons have been challenged or rescinded by the Trump administration (again applauded by the USCCB, May 24, 2019). These policy shifts will impact children in our schools, patients in our hospitals, and personnel dedicated to defending the country. It will impact our families, friends, students, colleagues –people we love and care about.

I am appealing to you again.  A few weeks ago, our local bishop in Worcester, MA, gave a speech on “Transgenderism: The Multifaceted Challenges to the Moral” to participants of the 15th Annual Divine Mercy Conference on Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality (held at the conference facility on my campus, the College of the Holy Cross). Note that he specifically used the term “transgenderism,” a term which presents in itself an approach that frames the issue in a supposed ideology rather than in the lived experience of individuals. In that speech, which was covered in the local paper, Bishop Robert McManus made a number of claims about transgender individuals. One claim was that transgender identity is not supported by science. The bishop’s research for this speech included a controversial and debunked 2016 issue of The New Atlantis and When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018) by Ryan T. Anderson. Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation, writes at the outset that the aim of his book is to support the claims made by Dr. Paul McHugh, a controversial psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medical School and featured in The New Atlantis issue. The members of the Church deserve better than our bishops’ cherry-picked science and proof-texting. If the Church is to have anything meaningful to say beyond that all persons have dignity and are created in the image and likeness of God (which is, sadly, still a provocative but half-hearted claim), then it must be deeply engaged in the ongoing conversations and research in the sciences, humanities, and health care as well as conversations with transgender persons. There is always more to learn.

Another claim of Bishop McManus is that transgender identity is rooted in heresy and a violation of the natural law. This argument is not new. While calling on theologians like Aquinas can indeed be fruitful as we speak about sex and gender, I would like to think that Aquinas was working with the best science available to him at the time to inform his theological conclusions, and that he would demand the same of us. What Aquinas and others knew is that old heresies fall away in light of new information. I think Catholic theology is uniquely poised to work courageously and creatively with new information about sex and gender. As I wrote to leaders at Holy Cross in the wake of the bishop’s speech and the media reports that have caused particular harm to one of our faculty colleagues:

I think, and believe, that the experiences of gender-nonconforming persons offer privileged vantage points on central theological commitments to the ultimate mystery of the human and divine. Catholicism has a lively imagination: transubstantiation, transfiguration, transcendent, hypostatic union, the Trinity. If our LGBTQIA+ friends are generous enough (and in my experience they are, beyond what we could hope to ask for) to share their experiences and insights, we can unlock that imagination now.

Problematically, the bishop’s comments misrepresented the science and the experience of many transgender persons. He found a welcoming audience for his views and interpretation of Church teaching, and I concede that this venue was not a scholarly theological conference. However, if moral deliberation is to include engagement with multiple sources of knowledge, wisdom, and insight, including and especially in this instance, the biological and social sciences, it must do the utmost to consult the best science and to represent that science accurately. As a non-scientist, this care is a challenge for me. And so, before I consult the science, I consult scientists. Thus, as I did in 2016, I asked colleagues, this time in biology and neuroscience, to steer me in the right direction. They directed me to the journal Nature, for accessible coverage of responsible research: Claire Ainsworth, “Sex Redefined” (18 February 2015); Sara Reardon, “The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health” (24 April 2019); and video Adam Levy, “Understanding Transition” (24 April 2019). It is a small start. I will need to read more and ask many, many questions. There is always more to learn. I encourage you to please add your recommendations and findings to this short reading list in the comments section below! 

Colleagues, I realize that we might come to different conclusions based on the evidence we have presently and our readings of the Gospel and moral tradition. Let us seek out the best evidence as we have done on other issues like climate change. Let us listen to the experiences of transgender persons and those who provide their health care. Let us reach out to the scientists at our institutions to help us make sense of what we see and hear. And when we see something or hear something—look and listen first—then say something worthy of recipients of the Gospel of God’s mercy.