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Late last December, Homiletic & Pastoral Review ran an article by Stephen Adubato titled “Understanding the Vatican’s Document on Gender Theory and Education.” The document he refers to was released by the Congregation for Catholic Education last June under the title “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.”1 Adubato says that the Congregation’s document can raise confusion and concern for people “commit[ed] to embracing both the truths taught by the Church as well as their transgender friends.”2 The purpose of his article is, he says, to “break down some of the key insights of the text and analyze them through the lens of pop culture, pastoral psychology, and personal experience” in order to determine what “the document [is] saying to those of us who live ‘on the ground.’”

Much of Adubato’s article is both interesting and faithful to Catholic teaching. Towards the end of it, he expresses his agreement with the Congregation, saying,

young people ought not be told that their gender identity is arbitrary. The fact that your body is male means something. Your body, and all of the material world, is beautiful because it is a gift from God. It’s a gift that is full of meaning and purpose, in so far as it teaches you how to love others, and how to give to them in a particular mode.

He affirms that “gender theory” contradicts truths the Church is obliged to uphold because it “encourages people to think that they have the agency to determine their own identity. It assumes that nature does not exist and that we are free to construct our own truth.”

Unfortunately, almost immediately after that passage, when he turns to a discussion of pastoral care for those who self-identify as transgender, Adubato does not offer a Catholic pastoral perspective. In fact, the only view he discusses is that of a Protestant psychologist, Mark Yarhouse, who published Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture in 2015. This is the book which Adubato cites as offering “a nuanced approach informed by an authentic Christian anthropology and sound psychological research.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description and presenting it as such adds to the confusion around this issue.

In the book Adubato is citing, Yarhouse himself says, “As a psychological condition, Gender Dysphoria is such a rare condition that we have little good research from which to draw strong conclusions.”3 For Adubato to present Yarhouse’s views as informed by “sound psychological research” is simply incorrect. And in his book Yarhouse limits his reflection on the interface between Christianity and “gender” to interpretations of Scripture and the experiences of particular people who suffer gender incongruence. It is odd that anyone in the Catholic tradition would cite it as bearing an “authentic Christian anthropology” when it is almost entirely innocent of the theological anthropology developed over two millennia by Catholic Christian thinkers.

Let me be clear: my goal here is not to attack Mark Yarhouse. My quarrel is with his work being presented as pastoral psychology adequate for people working within the Catholic Church. I agree with Yarhouse that it is wrong for gender-dysphoric persons to be treated with anything other than compassion and respect, and that “shaming” is absolutely never the right response to any person. But, due in part to the lack of a sound metaphysics and anthropology in his own intellectual/theological tradition, Yarhouse ends up articulating a false dilemma which is unnecessary and potentially very destructive to the persons he sincerely wishes to help. In what follows, I first want to work through the “three lens” approach Mark Yarhouse proposes and which Adubato recommends to the readers of HPR, and explain why this approach is simply untenable for someone who wants to be faithful to Catholic teaching. Then I would like to offer the outline of an authentically Catholic approach to pastoral care for those who experience gender incongruity.4

Yarhouse’s Three Lenses

In Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Mark Yarhouse describes three “lenses” or “frameworks” through which people may view issues of gender incongruity. He labels these the “integrity lens,” the “disability lens,” and the “diversity lens,” and rightly notes that in discussing these issues with people, we will have much more fruitful conversations if we understand which lens is primary for them.5 The integrity lens emphasizes Genesis 1 and 2 and God’s “creational intent,” and, according to Yarhouse, this “is the primary (or even exclusive) lens for most evangelical Christians.”6 Yarhouse cautions that people who see only through this lens may be overly rigid in their “scripts for gender identity and roles,”7 which will cause them to be extremely uncomfortable with and even condemnatory of any “gender incongruence” in themselves or another.

Next is the disability lens, which emphasizes the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. According to Yarhouse, the person who privileges this lens is more able to see feelings and actions which deviate from God’s creational intent in non-moral terms and therefore to see gender incongruence as a mental health issue and not a matter of personal sin. The person looking through this lens is likely to emphasize that gender incongruence is not “chosen” by the person experiencing it. Yarhouse notes repeatedly that in his experience counseling people experiencing gender incongruity, his explicitly saying that he does not think they have chosen this comes as a great relief to them.

The diversity lens, finally, sees gender incongruity as “something to be celebrated, honored, or revered.”8 According to Yarhouse, this lens is very attractive to people experiencing gender incongruity because it “provid[es] a meaning-making structure for identity that is not found in the other two frameworks.”9 This is clearly the lens of activists who promote “conversion bans” seeking to outlaw any counseling aimed toward or even open to a person experiencing gender incongruity coming to integrate their “gender” identity with their biological sex. And this is clearly the lens of the jurists in the UK who ruled last September that “belief in Genesis 1:27 . . . [is] incompatible with human dignity and conflict[s] with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.”10

Yarhouse advocates for an “integrated framework” which “identif[ies] strengths” in the integrity, disability, and diversity lenses. He recommends that we “look through all three,”11 and so achieve the “cognitive complexity”12 required in order for Christians to respond adequately to gender incongruity. Adubato claims that Yarhouse “bring[s] together the best of these lenses, without compromising his commitment to the Truth of the person.”

I would like to make three points about Yarhouse’s view. First, the most glaring problem with this “integrated approach” is that the three lenses are incompatible with each other — the diversity lens is simply contradictory to both the integrity and the disability lenses — and looking through all three at once generates not cognitive complexity but cognitive dissonance. Gender incongruence cannot simultaneously be a lack of conformity to “creational intent” and also something to be celebrated by a Christian. Yarhouse’s integrated approach violates the principle of non-contradiction and therefore falls short not only of “the Truth of the person,” but the truth itself. Now, to be fair, Yarhouse is advocating for awareness of the different ways people think about gender incongruity, and that is surely a good thing, but to further advocate that we ourselves look through all three lenses at once begs the question at stake rather than answering it.

Secondly, given the speed with which gender incongruity has spread among young people, it is not at all surprising that they find the easiest welcome among those looking through the diversity lens. Gender incongruity is isolating, and an online community or friend group prepared to unconditionally affirm this experience as unquestionable and constitutive of one’s identity is naturally very attractive, at least at first. But it is misleading to claim that only the diversity lens “provid[es] a meaning-making structure for identity.” Identity as a matter of self-invention is itself a very new invention and we adopt this new-fangled idea at our peril! Christians have never been about “making” meaning, but about discovering it, and we have always rightly found our primary identity in our relationship to God, our identity as beloved children created by God, wounded by sin and redeemed by God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. If this fundamental identity is not being transmitted in the Church in a way that is meaningful, that is a very serious problem, but it cannot be solved by adopting the diversity lens’s “invent your own identity” approach.

Finally, Yarhouse has fallen into a false dilemma that unnecessarily and unhelpfully pits the natural against the individual. In his description of the integrity lens (rooted in Genesis 1 and 2), Yarhouse argues that people who privilege this framework risk holding the view that “‘gender and sexuality were designed in a particular manner for particular purposes,’” a view he thinks is dangerous because it “‘implies a universality and stability that discounts the constantly shifting diversity that we observe and experience.’”13 Yarhouse here unjustifiably presupposes that our traditional understanding of formal and final causes must be jettisoned in order to do justice to the diversity of individual experience. That is, he makes the distinctively modern assumption that thinking in terms of stable “natures” (or formal causes) of things which intrinsically order them toward specific ends (final causes) has somehow been proved unnecessary and even dangerous to individuality.

But the problem is that it is impossible to make sense of individual experience except in terms of formality and finality. How can I make an accurate judgement about whether my subjective experience of flying through the air when I first fall asleep is actually true if I am not aware of the fact that human nature precludes independent flight (formal cause)? And how can I make a well informed judgement about whether it would be good for me to disrupt my mental powers by regularly ingesting hallucinogenic drugs if I have no sense of what my mental powers are for, what role they have to play in my own flourishing and fulfillment (final cause)? To reject the reality that things are “designed in a particular manner for particular purposes” is to adopt a modern presupposition that is without foundation or justification and is, I would argue, an important source of the ever increasing anxiety and depression in our time.14 And given that it is a fundamental Christian tenet that God is our creator, that he has designed us in a particular manner for a particular purpose — for a Christian to reject this reality is oxymoronic.15

God’s Lens: A Catholic Approach to Pastoral Care for People Affected by Gender Incongruity

While Dr. Yarhouse’s three lenses are useful for understanding the perspectives of different people on gender incongruity, none of these can be the primary lens for a Catholic approach to pastoral care. The lens we are obliged to look through is God’s. The multiplicity of human lenses is a function of the limitations of any creaturely perspective. But we are called to put on the mind of Christ, who goes out of his way to echo the words of Genesis which, according to the diversity lens, constitute a violation of human rights. Jesus says, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.”16 The binary of male and female is not “negotiable” for the believing Christian. Good pastoral care will not, of course, lead with this fact, but any Catholic pastor or pastoral minister must, from the beginning, know and act in accord with this fact or their ministry is not, in fact, Catholic.

What authentically Catholic pastoral care will lead with is an affirmation of God’s absolute and unconditioned love for each human person, whatever their situation. Whatever else may be going on in particular persons, the first goal of Catholic pastoral ministry must be to communicate this truth. Arguably the most important way the minister will communicate God’s love and make it believable is by listening. Fr. Philip Bochanski says,

The pastoral minister who is a careful listener, and has taken the time in prayer and study to imagine where a person experiencing gender confusion might be coming from, will be able to reflect back to the person the important parts of the story — to help the person listen to himself, and see his own story through a different lens.17

In the midst of this journey of pastoral care, the minister must know and help others come to know that, given God’s absolute love for each of us, it is simply not possible that God has made a “mistake” and put a woman’s soul or mind or brain into a man’s body or vice versa. Nor is it possible that he has intended for a person to be non-binary. God would not put us in a situation where we had to disguise or mutilate our own bodies in order for them to “match” our souls or minds or brains. To think that God would accidentally or intentionally “mismatch” our given bodies and souls is to say something no Catholic can agree with on either metaphysical or theological grounds. Even someone who has not studied the metaphysics behind the Church’s view of soul-body unity ought to be convinced on the basis of God’s omnipotence and goodness that it is impossible that a human person’s soul, which the Church teaches is immediately created by God, is not a good “fit” for that person’s body. It can never be right for people offering Catholic pastoral care to encourage or even maintain long-term neutrality before a person under their pastoral care who takes steps to reject the sex of their natal body because these actions are not just a rejection of that body but of God as their loving creator.

Catholic pastoral care acknowledges and helps people to recognize that we sometimes don’t understand ourselves or our actions very well. Because we are complicated creatures and because we are from our very first moments dependent on other human beings, the reality of human weakness and sin, our own or very often the weakness and sin of others, can cause situations that obscure our understanding of ourselves. This lack of understanding can lead us to act in ways that are objectively harmful to us and to others. No Christian can forget that fact. But it must always be held in light of the equally important distinction between subjective culpability for our acts and the objective nature of those acts. Only God is able to judge the distinction between an act and my culpability for it — only God has full knowledge of my circumstances and what is in my heart, and God looks at these through the eyes of infinite love. This means that in the case of people who have already taken steps to “transition,” good pastoral care will assure them and the people who love them that God understands what lead them to these choices, that God forgives whatever needs forgiveness without our necessarily having to tease out what precisely should be “blamed” on whom or whether there is anyone at all who should be blamed or ashamed. The divine physician offers healing that requires only our receptivity to it.

Christians are called to love one another as God has loved us. Such love entails the capacity and willingness to recognize that sometimes those we love are in situations which may lead them to harm themselves, and we can never encourage or cooperate in their self-harm. While we must always affirm the person, we cannot affirm their disordered or distorted or misinformed thinking about themselves under the guise of “loving” them. It is not loving to let children play in traffic because they “really want to.” It could never be loving to calmly accompany a person with anorexia to an appointment for liposuction. Likewise, cooperating with a person’s decision to take cross-sex hormones for the purposes of “gender transition” or to have transition surgery is to cooperate in very serious self-harm.18

It is not easy for a limited human being to offer effective guidance to another. We all are (or should be) vividly aware of our own limitations and blind spots. But that can never cause a Christian to despair of offering good guidance to another. Our humility is false if it leads us to refuse to see self-harm as objectively wrong. Of course, we must always be aware that our guidance of others can take forms which are not consistent with the truth of God’s infinite love. Any mother of young children who has found herself screaming at them knows that our guidance sometimes is precisely not in a form which assures them of God’s love, much less our own. We must ask the forgiveness of those we have “guided” in this inept way. But our consciousness of our own failures can never justify a decision to fail to offer guidance to those in our charge. It is commonly said that the Church has failed to communicate its teaching about sexual identity in a way that makes Catholics who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex feel that they are welcome to carry this cross alongside the rest of us struggling toward salvation. Whether or not that is true, it is no excuse for failing to give good guidance to people experiencing gender incongruity who, absent our loving objection, may harm themselves in ways that are irreversible.

Finally, because of the profound confusion of our culture and the demonstrable contagiousness of self-identification of gender incongruence among young people, it is imperative that those in pastoral ministry work proactively to prevent the spread of these distorted ideas and actions to those not yet directly impacted by them. We must recognize that children are being subjected to propaganda through media and entertainment, celebrity messengers, and — most effectively — through the public schools. Professional medical and psychological associations have joined the ideological effort to promote autonomy of “gender identity and expression” as a matter of human rights. The words of Genesis and of Jesus, “male and female he created them,” have been designated by jurists as an affront to human dignity. We cannot hope that this will “blow over.” It is blowing people over and it is our job to help them back to their feet and to shelter those whom the gale has not yet reached.

by Susan C. Selner-Wright, PhD, originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review