Several years ago, the Archdiocese of Denver issued its guidance to Catholic schools concerning LGBTQ students, and the Denver Post recently published it. Despite a more open and progressive posture in the wake of Vatican II, the Church stubbornly clings to dangerous and outdated notions of sex and gender.
Organized religion is not immune to polarization, and the gulf separating church authority and the laity grows ever wider. Many trans and non-binary adolescents slip into this theological chasm, unable to climb back out. Up to 40% of America’s unhoused youth identify as LGBTQ, and in Colorado, our LGBTQ youth are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers.
This wasn’t the archbishop’s first attempt at silencing queer students and their allies and is in keeping with other parochial school rulings that seek to marginalize and eliminate trans bodies from Catholic spaces. The dismissal of the LGBTQ community is antithetical to the Christian faith, which prioritizes a right relationship with others.
That relationship is evident in scripture, which calls on us to intentionally prioritize those who have not been prioritized in the past. For instance, in his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul refers to the members of the body of Christ and instructs us to give more honor to the parts that have lacked it so that “there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.”
Catholic schools and administrators like to cite “Catholic values” as a basis for discriminating against LGBTQ students and educators. Paradoxically, other schools invoke the same values as justification for embracing the LGBTQ community. So, which is it? Which values are genuinely Catholic?
It’s telling that Pope Francis never mentions the word “transgender” in Amoris Laetitia, his encyclical on marriage and family (and, by extension, gender). The omission is akin to deadnaming — devaluing trans persons by refusing to refer to them by their chosen name. He suggests that the rise in non-binary identification is a consequence of modern secularism (never mind that humans have been challenging gender norms since before the birth of Jesus). The takeaway message is that trans individuals, by rejecting their assigned sex, willingly deny God’s creation and God as Creator.
Such an assertion is at odds with the laity: Catholics are more accepting of trans people than the archbishop would have you believe, think same-sex marriage is good for society, and have no problem with gay couples adopting children.
At bottom is a refusal to engage in a productive dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality. Rather than denounce inflammatory claims that liken adoption by gay couples to child abuse, the Church reiterates long-held positions that do not accurately represent the laity. It would rather speak for the faithful rather than with the faithful. The upshot is that the parents of gay children are caught between loving their child as God’s creation on the one hand and not wanting to endorse “sinful” behavior on the other.
In 2009, the International Theological Commission, a pope-appointed advisory body to the Catholic Church, released a document calling for greater reflection on the cultural, political, economic, moral, and religious dimensions of our social existence. The Commission envisaged a world that could find solutions to the existential threats of war, poverty, and climate change through discernment and consensus building. Yet it did not extend such thoughtful dialogue to matters of human sexuality. Instead, the Commission explicitly excluded sexual practices other than heterosexual procreation as “sins against nature.”
The Church cautions against absolutist thinking in a pluralistic society while simultaneously holding that Catholic teachings on human sexuality are unyielding. Times and cultures may change, but sex and gender are rendered immutable. In other words, the Church wants it both ways — to be a committed partner in the struggle for liberation and a guardian of patriarchal norms. This cannot hold.
If our Church is a pilgrim church in need of humility and an openness to change, its leaders, including the archbishop, must refrain from isolating and othering the most vulnerable among us. It must abandon gender essentialism and commit to an interpretation of the Gospel in which “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Vincent LaBarca, of Denver, is a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Regis University’s Loretto Heights School of Nursing.
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