The Church is a home for all people. She exists to draw hearts to Jesus so that every human being, created in God’s divine image and likeness, might be able to participate in the divine life of God. The Church does this by calling us out of sin and into new life in Christ. Where the world settles for passing pleasures, the Church calls us to live for an eternal Kingdom. Oftentimes, this call is difficult, and every person who resolves to follow Christ will have to bear a weighty cross. Those who struggle with gender confusion carry a particularly challenging cross that the world would rather ignore.
The Church, out of love, calls these people, as she calls all people, to live according to God’s design for them, that they might know the fullness of life they were created for (for more on what the Church wants the transgender community to know, check out this blog).
The Church’s call, in most cases, is far different from what secular society teaches, so it can be challenging to navigate precisely what she teaches. However, it is worth the pursuit, which is why we’re answering questions about the Church’s teachings on sex, gender, and variations in the 21st century here:
Does the Church support the idea of gender fluidity?
The Church supports people being whole and healthy people. Our understanding of gender is tied to biological sex, which is also tied to the spiritual reality of a person. For this reason, the Church does not teach that a person’s gender can be different than their biological sex, that it falls onto a spectrum, or that it can be fluid.
However, this doesn’t mean the Church will not support those that are wrestling with gender identity or that the Church denies the great struggle and psychological difficulty that an individual wrestling with gender dysphoria experiences. The Church encourages and supports these individuals in their use of counseling and psychiatric assistance to help them understand their gender as being in conformity with their biological sex.
It is important to know that the Church’s teaching is not rooted in hatred or bigotry, but in compassion and the premise that God establishes natural laws which are ordered toward our good. This means that God, as Creator of all things, created people in a specific way that allows them to “work the best.” In our world, fallen by sin, we sometimes choose to disobey this natural law. When we do that, things don’t work as they should, and we can find ourselves very hurt.
When we examine creation, we note that reproduction occurs between a male and female of mammalian species. God orders things that way. In humans, this reproduction is naturally accompanied by the release of hormones that bind the male and female together as a couple. Why does this happen? Because it is good for a child (or children) to have both a man and woman taking care of them.
Again, we know that not every situation is like that for a lot of reasons, but we do need to examine and affirm that, naturally, this is the order to which our world works. God made things that way.
Natural law is important because if we want to know freedom, we need to conform to the way things are supposed to work. Think about it this way – if you wanted to build a desk, you would want to have the right tools and pieces. You have instructions for how to build the desk correctly from the manufacturer. But, if you decide to disregard the instructions, use the wrong tools, or substitute pieces, you will not build what the manufacturer intended. Throughout these questions, natural law is very important. The Church cannot rewrite what God has written, but we can seek to understand it and help people work through it because our world also isn’t perfect.
On what does the Catholic Church base the teachings on sex and gender? Jesus never talked about it, right?
Actually, Jesus does speak about gender and sex in Matthew 19. He is asked a difficult question about divorce, something that was very sexist and not good in his time, but also very well accepted. To provide context to His teaching, Jesus reminds people that “in the beginning [God] created them male and female.” Jesus is talking about the first two chapters of Genesis which are really important to our understanding of sexuality, gender, and our created purpose. Jesus, in this passage, teaches from the standpoint of a gender binary (male and female) and affirms that God creates people with their specific sex.
Is it okay to have sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy for someone who experiences gender dysphoria so they can heal the conflict between their body and their perception of their gender?
There are numerous issues with an individual seeking sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy as a treatment for gender dysphoria. First, in the studies that do exist on this matter, it is increasingly shown that individuals struggling with gender dysphoria are not helped by sex reassignment surgery or hormonal therapy. They continue to wrestle with depression, have a higher rate of suicide, and often exhibit regret from their transition.
Since this kind of plastic surgery and hormonal therapy are permanent and new procedures, we also can’t be sure of long term outcomes or other health risks. They are hard to reverse, expensive, and do not treat underlying psychological conditions that may exist.
Most importantly, the Church teaches that when we are created we are also created with a masculine or feminine soul. Our bodies, in their biological sex, reflect this reality. Seeking to distort the biological body in a way that is unnecessary is also a distortion of God’s creation. The Church encourages people to treat the underlying psychological distress of gender dysphoria through counseling and non-hormonal therapy to help a person come to a deeper realization of who they are as a unified body and soul.
If someone has had sex reassignment surgery or transitioned using hormone therapy, do they have to reverse it in order to be accepted into the Church?
No, though they would need to do a couple of things. Since sex-reassignment therapy only physically changes a person’s appearance but not their spiritual or genetic reality, that person can and should be welcomed back into full communion with the Church so long as he or she discontinues hormonal therapy, lives a life in accordance with his or her birth sex/gender, and receives the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Any person, however, may be welcomed into worship, dialogue and a journey toward Christ and His truth, regardless of how they are choosing to live. Note that there is a difference, though, between “full communion” and being welcome. All are welcome, but to be in full communion with the Church means that one fully accepts the teachings of the Church, including those on sexuality and gender.
Since sex-reassignment surgery sterilizes a person and makes them unable to participate in sexual intercourse through natural means as well as rendering them infertile and unable to have children, individuals that have received this procedure will not be able to be married in the Church unless that procedure could be reversed so they could have sexual intercourse through natural means (Canon Law 1084.1). They are called to a life of self-sacrificial love and service as they practice celibacy as their virtue of chastity. This is rooted in the Church’s teaching that marriage is ordered (directed toward) the good of spouses and the upbringing of children. You need to be open to having kids (and able to at least try to do so) in order to get married. You can’t enter into marriage with a 0% desire to have children.
A couple of objections to this teaching revolve around heterosexual couples that are infertile. After all, if naturally infertile heterosexual couples can marry each other in the Church, why can’t someone who has had a sex change operation but wishes to repent?
It is important to understand that if a person is infertile through disease or some other natural, biological reason he or she may not be 100% sterile. Even if a .000001 chance exists for conception, that is still better than a zero percent chance. Additionally, there is the possibility that medical advances in the future may allow the restoration of fertility so that a person may have sexual intercourse and conceive through natural means later on in life. When a couple consents to welcoming children in the Sacrament of Matrimony, this consent can be given even if one or both parties are declared medically infertile.
Second, a person may ask about individuals that have willingly chosen to become sterile, but not through sex-reassignment surgery and their ability to be married. Many of these procedures can be reversed, and should be, if the person has a conversion and wishes to be open to life. If, however, a person does not have this intention, they can’t validly enter into the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Can a female who has transitioned to male marry a female? Because that would look like a heterosexual marriage, which the Church supports, right?
No. Sex-reassignment surgery and hormonal therapy only alter the appearance of a person as male or female, but not the genetic or spiritual reality. Additionally, a person that has received either treatment may become infertile and unable to bear children, depending on the extent of the hormone therapy and surgery. An openness to life is a necessary aspect of marriage, and an individual that has voluntarily sterilized him or herself would be unable to receive the sacrament.
What about intersex individuals, people born with both male and female genitals, organs, or chromosomes? Did God make a mistake with them? Can they go to medical professionals for help?
In this case, a person can receive medical treatment for therapeutic means in treating their condition. Oftentimes, this intervention is performed at birth and is morally acceptable. Note that an intersex individual presents a biological condition whereas there has not been shown to be any underlying biological conditions regarding individuals that experience gender dysphoria.
Can someone who is intersex choose which sex they want to be? Should their parents be allowed to choose for them?
Oftentimes, this intervention is performed at birth and so parents make a decision along with medical professionals based on a number of factors (e.g. Chromosomal makeup, presence and development of sex organs) that will result in the best potential outcomes for the patient. It is not as arbitrary as, “Well, we really wanted a girl, so we will make this child a girl.” The decision of what kind of surgery to perform is based on medical realities, not the desires of the parents. In fact, to do so would run contrary to the duty given to parents in raising children (the duty to take care of them and do what is best).
How can someone who is intersex have a morally licit romantic relationship?
A necessary part of the sacrament of marriage is the openness to children. This means a person needs to have a chance (however small or infinitesimal) of conceiving. A person that is born intersex but had a surgery to present a male or female anatomy would need to have a chance of participating in a sexual act that was fruitful to life (at least potentially). If a person cannot (regardless of whether or not they are born intersex) they cannot be married. For most intesex individuals, this is a possibility.
In the rare case that it is not, it means that dating relationships would also be off limits, since a person dates in order to discern marriage. This does not, however, mean that person cannot have deep, abiding friendships, love other people and serve them, and enjoy the benefits of a lifelong friendship with people. It means that the Church has a definition of what marriage and the purpose of marriage is, and that a person may not fit that definition and so they don’t receive that sacrament. And that is OK. It is not a death sentence on love, but a challenge to understand love in the proper context.
Is the Catholic Church ever going to budge on any of this as science advances?
Throughout the ages there have been many “scientific” advances that the Church has stood against which eventually were proven false. Remember, science is evolving. At one point many scientists and doctors told people that smoking cigarettes was good for health. Years have passed and proven that notion false. Science tells us the “how” of the world and we absolutely need to pursue that. But our faith tells us the “why” – and the “why” is important. Sometimes we can do things, scientifically, that are not acceptable morally. Other times science may give us a hypothesis which is later proven wrong. We put our faith in the “why” that Christ gives us, and then use that to help place boundaries on science that helps rather than harms.
How can I as a practicing Catholic be friends with someone who is transgender or intersex?
The same way you are friends with anyone. You love and support them and seek to guide them to Jesus. You hold true to your convictions and are always ready to defend your faith, but you lead with compassion and love. You may be the only witness to the Gospel in that person’s life. It is as simple as that.