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The Church and the transgendered
(Part 3 of Thinking it through: The Church and “gender change”)

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 07, 2024

Sexual mutilation has been common in many cultures. Among males, I note the deliberate “creation” of a class of eunuchs in the ancient world and also the later castrati, who were mutilated to preserve high male singing voices. Among women, I note especially the sexual mutilation so common in Islamic cultures, but prostitution is a very closely-related reality—the sexual abuse of the body by essentially hostile forces. Similarly related are “same-sex sex”, contraception, abortion and what amounts to the manufacture of children through in vitro fertilization and related practices. These things are not so very different as we might think in terms of their ability to prepare the ground for those practices which actually involve deliberate bodily mutilation.

But however morally unacceptable all of these practices are, the abuse of our sexuality has reached new heights in gender-change surgery, which is an attempt to alter (or really simply to conceal) the person’s fundamental sexual identity as male or female through a technocratic rejection of both God and nature. The Church, of course, has condemned gender ideology as seriously false. As with ideology in general, it denies reason in favor of wayward desire, and so (again, as with ideology in all its forms) it leads directly to abuse of oneself and others. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, “sex-changing” (or “gender-changing”) is not even real. This is more like an extension of cross-dressing in the flesh, and it is a very fundamental personal abuse. As such, it is gravely evil to seek to change the gender of another person, but it is also gravely evil to seek to change one’s own gender. This is not only a butchering of the body but a particularly deep rejection of our Creator and His love for each one of us.

Of course, Catholic teaching assesses the understanding of the sinner at the time of the sin in order to determine the spiritual gravity of the sin. To sin mortally, we need to know that the action in question is seriously wrong and yet proceed to do it with full consent of the will. Even with mortal sin, the Church also always distinguishes the sin from the sinner. She is, in fact, full of sinners. Her best members are confessed sinners, her middling members are those who have confessed some sins but have not recognized others, and her worst members are those who refuse to recognize that whatever the Church teaches to be sinful really is sinful, and must be repented with a commitment to reform.

Moreover, these varying degrees of sinfulness and guilt, when unrecognized by the surrounding culture, create greater formational and even tactical problems for the Church than when the dominant culture’s moral sense has been formed significantly by Christian principles. Since the Church draws her membership from the surrounding worldly culture, the Church’s ministers and representatives find it far more difficult to preach against evils, and correct the corresponding sins, when those evils are broadly approved as good by the dominant culture. In varying degrees, this is a matter of being paralyzed by their own fear of rejection, by the difficulty of addressing endemic issues effectively without driving people away, and by not only the general moral confusion but their own confusion about reality—a confusion created in them by the culture which almost inescapably influences their ideas and responses.

But the Church also recognizes a difference between what we might call private and public sins. For private sins (contraception, for example), few or no people have evidence about who is committing what sins. Therefore, the unrepentant reception of Communion by those guilty of private sins does not in most cases create a scandal. However, for public sins, many people know that a man or woman has attached himself or herself to particular grave sins, and so their continued reception of Communion can scandalize others, by causing them to believe the moral failing is no longer considered serious. Two long-established examples of this today are divorce and remarriage without an annulment and promotion of and participation in abortion. One newer example is gender change.

It must be understood here that living in a state of unrepented and unconfessed serious sin means it is spiritually deadly to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. As St. Paul says, we eat and drink condemnation in that case (1 Cor 11:28-29). But it is one thing for this to be so in the case of private sins, by which others are not scandalized and weakened in their own commitment to Christ. It is quite another in the case of sins by which public scandal is given, such that others begin to think it a very light matter indeed to have flouted the laws of Christ and the Church.

Consequently, in some periods of Church history, public penance has been required for significant sins, and particularly for significant known sins, and sinners were in some periods barred from the reception of Communion until that penance was completed. Even now, in the Code of Canon Law, the Church’s ministers are instructed to withhold communion from those recognized to be living in public grave sin—including those who are publicly violating their marriage vows, those who have been involved in the sin of abortion, and so on.

Indeed, in marriage cases, it is supposed to be (and in some places may be taken to be) a sign that a marriage problem has been spiritually resolved that one or other of the former couple is now again happily receiving Communion. The Church’s practice in these uncertain times is often lax, and certainly needs to be strengthened, but it is also true that, in such a populous and mobile society, a pastoral awareness of the various situations is harder to maintain. Nonetheless, “transgendering” is typically a very public sin, and this publicity is often deliberately sought by those who undergo these procedures. Therefore, my point here is that the Church could reasonably deal with “transgendered” persons in a way similar to how she is supposed to deal (and sometimes does deal) with those who have divorced and remarried outside the Church.

Exclusion from and readmission to Communion

Therefore, when Pope Francis reaffirms that gender ideology is to be condemned, and not transgendered persons, it is obviously necessary to clarify that it is not just the ideology but the actual sin of “changing genders” that is to be condemned as seriously evil. Since this is an objectively serious public sin, regardless of the degree of personal culpability, the Church might well deal with it as she deals (or is supposed to deal with) divorce and remarriage without an annulment—that is, by exclusion from the reception of Communion until such time as the sin is repented and the situation rectified. At the same time, it is necessary to stress that the repentant sinner is always welcomed by the Church, and that even those who have sinned publicly, and sometimes with irreversible bodily consequences, may be readmitted to Communion through a process of confession and absolution of the sin along with whatever repair of the bodily damage is possible.

This leads me to a suggestion for the future. As a corrective to the public repudiation of one’s gender and sexuality by a mature person through “gender change”, the Church might create a particular formal penitential ceremony in which those who know the person involved could rejoice in his or her renunciation of the evil done. However the details may be worked out, it seems to me that—if Church leaders really think things through—they could stop pretending that unrepentant transgendered people must be treated liturgically and sacramentally just like everybody else, and instead provide them and the Catholic community as a whole with an important opportunity for reconciliation and healing in the Lord. Again, this might be done through a process of pastoral accompaniment similar to that which applies to the divorced and remarried who, after the fact, are willing to go through the annulment process and abide by the Church’s decision.

The two cases are not identical, obviously, but I raise the possibility here of the development of a formal process by which the “transgendered” person, along with the repudiation (and reversal insofar as possible) of the gender-changing procedures he or she has undergone, may be formally restored to full communion with the Church. In any case, were such a formal ceremony developed, it ought to be rooted deeply in the word of God in Scripture. My recommendation is that the Church, in all such cases, should emphasize the truth disclosed specifically in Psalm 139, verses 11-18:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
  and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
  the night is bright as the day,
  for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
  you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
  my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
In your book were written, every one of them,
  the days that were formed for me,
  when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
  How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
  I awake, and I am still with you.

Previous in series: 2: Male and female He created them

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - May. 11, 2024 1:42 PM ET USA

    Great series. Doctor Jeff, but I would have preferred you use "sex change" rather than "gender change." There are only 2 sexes, and gender refers to language. When we use gender change instead of sex change, we are submitting a little to the dominant culture, which I think we would do well not to do.