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.