The Order of Creation and the Order of the Liturgy

Most readers of this blog, I assume, will by now be aware of the Vatican document titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” which was published by the Congregation for Catholic Education in early June. Conceived by the Congregation as opening a “path of dialogue on the question of gender theory,” the text received sharp criticism a) for its non-dialogue with the actual, lived experiences of transgender persons (the Vatican’s text essentially sets up something of a straw-trans-person in its reflections) and b) for its mis-reading of contemporary gender theory.  I happen to think that an equally damaging and in exceedingly dangerous problem underlies the Vatican’s claim as to what the “order of creation” and “biological and medical science” say about gender.

But first: Why should readers of a liturgy blog care about this?  We have to care because the foundational “text” of Christian worship, long before a Gospel book is carried in or a Missal used, is the gathered assembly.  And human worshippers always come to worship (as to everything else in life) embodied, including the various ways in which each person is gendered.  Another reason for caring about this Vatican text is the fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is also preparing its own, longer document on questions of gender.  It does not need a prophet to know that some of the basics that inform the recently published document will reappear in the yet to be published one.      

As the title already suggests, the Vatican defends binary gender as part of the God-sustained order of creation. In a sense, that is strictly a faith claim; and whether the reference to Gen 1:27 can bear this weight, is an open question.  Jesus himself, after all, knew that the picture of gendered human embodiment was more complex than Gen 1:27 rendered visible in its snappy summary.  In Jesus’ context and culture, people with intersex conditions (as we might describe them today), were included in the category “eunuchs by nature.”  So, we may say that Gen 1:27 is true as far as it goes, but that an additional half-sentence is needed that acknowledge that Gen 1:27 is obviously not the whole truth of what must be said about human beings and gender differences. This is precisely what much of contemporary biological and medical sciences are increasingly acknowledging.  Concretely, they have moved away from a starkly binary understanding of human gender differences, and are openly acknowledging what they have always known, namely that many human beings [roughly 1 in every 1,500 births] are born neither clearly male nor female. The Vatican document knows this too, but advocates that in such cases, medical intervention should force the child into either a male or a female bodily propriety. In other words, the Vatican itself here calls for and supports a forced *trans* surgery – in this case, from an intersex condition into an either male or female body.  And why? For the sake of an unnatural order of creation of its own fantasy. 

This makes me angry not least because many years ago, as a visiting professor at a European university, I taught with a person with an intersex condition who as a child had been surgically forced into being a woman.  The suffering of this person as an adult was harrowing.  Many people like this colleague of mine have, in the past twenty years or so, spoken movingly and convincingly of the trauma inflicted on them by very un-natural fantasies of the reign of binary gender.  Some institutions have listened and changed their ways.  My country of origin, Germany, for example, now has a “third gender”-option in its registry; and the Olympic Committee has had to re-think its strictly binary gender rules, not least in the case of Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medalist who has naturally high testosterone levels.  The Vatican, on the other hand, continues to be stuck with a biology of the last century — one that saw no harm in inflicting medically totally unnecessary surgeries on human bodies naturally born other than clearly male or female.

Why worry about this when it comes to worship?  For starters, some congregations are beginning to wrestle with issues such as the invisibility and suppression of human beings with intersex conditions in their midst, but questions await us all: what if a third-gender person in a country that legitimizes that existence wants to live their faith openly in a congregation?  Or, what if they experience a call to religious life?  Or, if they seek to marry?  As we begin to think through these issues, one thing I am passionately sure of is this: sticking an ecclesial head in the biological sand of a discredited twentieth-century “biology” is absolutely not helpful.

9 comments

  1. Thank you so much, Teresa, for posting this.

    Given the way that the Church has stumbled time and again over a literal proof-texting approach to Genesis 1, do they believe that it will go any better this time? In addition to ignoring the lived experiences of intersex or trans-sexed persons (and those who have cared for them, medically and psychologically), the emerging data from neuroscience about brain physiology and brain function in people outside the binary gender construct also seems to have been ignored. Again, sticking the ecclesial head in the sand.

    1. You have to wonder if they actually spoke to any affected individuals or to any doctors or psychs who work with them. I wonder if they considered how it would add fuel to the flames in some cultures.
      Yet again the HQ has left some of us sadly shaking our heads.

  2. How does contemporary medical science debunk the Church’s teaching on gender and sexuality? The existence of persons whose biological-sexual characteristics fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between biologically male and female does not excuse the fact that it is a STRONGLY bimodal spectrum, with the overwhelming majority of people falling towards either end. This isn’t just a matter of faith, it’s observable everywhere in nature; the Church isn’t burying her head in the sand.

    No doubt the LGBTQ+ community is a critically underserved part of society and especially in the Church, but charity cannot be divorced from truth, scientific or doctrinal (Pope Francis himself has said as much on this very issue on numerous occasions).
    My biggest complaint about the Vatican’s new document is that, like much of what it puts out, it’s written as if it’s intended to be read chiefly by academia or church leadership. But in the days of the internet, anything posted to vatican.va becomes an evangelistic document literally overnight and nearly everyone will read and judge it as such. There’s a lot more work to be done here.

    1. Yes, gender is strongly bimodal – but not exclusively so, which is what the Vatican is positing. It may be statistically normative, but that doesn’t make it universally “normal.”

  3. I would add that both the male-female binary AND diverse other existences of gender, including XXX, XXY, XYY, XO and occasional XXXX chromosomal patterns, are part of the God-sustained order of creation.

    1. I think that’s an important point, one in which “Male and Female” seemed to support at least implicitly on some level (at least that’s how I read it). Where this comes to blow with the current Church practice is how it relates to vocations, two of which are Sacramental (marriage and presbyteriate) where sexuality plays an outsized role on a doctrinal level. There’s a potentially a lot more latitude with the other two (religious/single lay life) in terms of how this demographic can be woven into the life of the Church.

      1. “Outsized role” is right, for much of the history of the church — the crucial question (at least for me) is: does it *have* to be so, into the future?

      2. oh, and religious life too is strictly binary (at least on the outside) up to now; I remember the case of a person with an intersex condition in Canada, a few years back, seeking admission to a female religious community, and — if I remember correctly –being advised to take specific meds to tilt her more toward the feminine side of the binary… This reminds me of the Olympic runner Caster Semenya and her struggle against forced testosterone-suppression, to allow her to continue to run as “woman”

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