The Transgender Moment and the Catholic Vision of the Human Person
Very likely there have been “transgender persons” around since antiquity but these individuals have always been more or less in the back-ground of social consciousness and there was never before an accompanying theory or movement. Clearly that has changed.
The Church has a developed teaching on the human person and human sexuality but there is little, as yet, on transgender issues. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis has this to say:
"Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated...
It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created."(1)
- Francis makes a distinction between transgender persons and transgenderism. He says, “It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality.” To be clear, a transgender person is an individual who identifies with a sex that is different from his or her biological sex. Transgenderism is a system of thought (i.e. a philosophy) that seeks to justify this experience as being in conformity with reality and, therefore, normal.
- He denies one of the key principles of transgenderism, namely a radical divorce between sex and gender. He says, “biological sex and the socio- role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.”
- He points out one of the negative implications of following through on this theory. He says that it will lead to “a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
- He hints at an underlying basis of transgenderism, namely a kind of creaturely rebellion against the Creator. He reminds us that, “we are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift.”
Divorcing sex from gender
As Francis suggests, a prominent feature of transgenderism is to drive a wedge between the notions of sex and gender. It is on account of this that an individual maybe said to be male according to his biological sex but female as to gender identity.
Until recently, the words “sex” and “gender” were synonyms.(2) Both words pointed to the categorization of human beings as male or female on the basis of their specific contribution to generation. At a bodily level (chromosomes, endocrine constitution, internal and external organs) the female is organized so as to generate within herself, while a male is organized to generate in another (i.e. in the female).
In more recent years, the meaning of the word gender has become less directly tied to the notion of generation; and, herein, lies a problem. Being unmoored in this way, it has floated off in various directions, making it hard to pin down. For some, it has moved close to the notions of masculinity and femininity which describe characteristics that are (sometimes more and sometimes less) associated with biological males and females respectively, such as psychological propensities (e.g. agreeableness or assertiveness) and dress codes. So we might speak of male attitudes and women’s clothing.
Even more radically uncoupling sex from gender, others claim that gender is nonbinary. A person’s gender can exist anywhere along a spectrum between male to female, in either a fixed or fluid manner. Or, going further and breaking out of the limitations of this spectrum, genders other than male and female are recognized. Finally, a person’s gender is understood to be unique and is whatever the individual says it is.(3) However, once totally set adrift from sex in this latter way, the word more or less loses any meaning.
The question presents itself: what is true and what is not true in these ideas about gender?
It is true that there are characteristics which allow us to distinguish male from female that are less directly tied to human generation than is biological-sex. Hence, we do need a vocabulary that can express this fact. Whether we ought to co-opt the word “gender,” rather than “secondary sex characteristics,” is another question. It is also true that one person can manifest these secondary characteristics more than another: there is a spectrum of sorts here. After all, some women are experienced as more feminine than others and some men more masculine; some girls are “tom-boys,” and so on.
What is not true is that all these secondary characteristics (elements that are notdirectly related to human generation) are merely imposed by society. It is important to note that the two examples given above – psychological propensity and dress-codes – rest on very different foundations. Psychological propensities such as “assertiveness” or “agreeableness” flow from biological sex much more immediately than do social conventions like dress-codes. Some, not seeing (or accepting) this distinction, erroneously claim that gender is wholly a social convention. Rather, it seems closer to the truth to say that some phenomena associated with gender are socially constructed (e.g. wearing dresses), but many are rooted in sex distinction itself (e.g. levels of agreeableness). Much of what is meant by gender is an effect of sex. Sex is primary; gender is derivative.
Using the words “Man” and “Woman”
The words “man” and “woman” or “male” and “female” are used most strictly in relation to sex. Sex, rather than gender, is the base line because when an attitude or form of behaviour is called “feminine,” it is done so because it predominates in those who are female as to sex.
Accordingly, if “woman” or “man” is used to describe the identity of an individual other than on the basis of sex, then these words are being used analogously or even metaphorically. For example, if a biological man is called a woman because he manifests attitudes or inclinations associated with a biological woman, then the word “woman” is being used metaphorically; just as a human being might be called “a lion” because he or she was brave or ferocious. It’s not strictly speaking wrong to use the word “woman” in this way but one would need to be aware that it is being used metaphorically; something that is not commonly appreciated and so something that leads to confusion.
Why make an issue out of all of this?
The quality of the collaboration of men and women in society (and particularly in childrearing) is the touchstone of civilization. But for men and women to do this well, they need to know themselves as men and as women and how they complement each other. There are several elements of transgenderism which – if they become mainstream – will make it harder for boys to grow into men and girls into women with that clear sexual identity that founds complementarity. These include the following features: relativizing the importance of sex as a component of personal identity; teaching that being a man or woman is a choice; teaching that being a man or woman is a fluid reality. Furthermore, while gender identity may well be distinct from sexual orientation, transgenderism necessarily denies the normative character of heterosexual attraction on account of each of the phenomena just enumerated.(4) It is for these reasons that Pope Francis concludes that this theory is effectively “eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
Secondly, God has chosen the relationship of man and woman as his special lovelanguage. It is the way he has chosen to reveal himself and his love to mankind (cf. Song of Songs). If this language is garbled, then this revelation is attenuated and his plan frustrated.
Third, the Church is not just concerned with mankind as a whole but with individual men and women. From the perspective of sound anthropology, a person who is a biologicalmale but considers himself to be more a woman than a man, does not see reality as it is.(5)
They have Gender Identity Disorder (GID).(6) Let’s be clear: persons with this disorder are not being dishonest or delinquent. They really do identify with the sex that is different from their biological sex. Yet, while one must sympathize with this situation, it is not something that warrants being encouraged, any more than one would encourage and confirm a girl with anorexia in her inadequate self-perception.
Alone on the hill?
The reasons above seek to explain why the Church is ‘prepared to die on the hill’ in defence of the truth about sex and gender. Is she alone on that peak, exposed as it is to the harsh winds of modernity?
She is not.
Jordan Peterson, for example, questions the radical uncoupling of gender from sex. From a purely scientific perspective, he argues that gender is inextricably bound to sex.(7) After all, there is a well verified statistically significant different between men and women (across all cultures) when the so called “big five” personality traits are considered.(8) This difference increases dramatically when other personality traits (e.g. vigilance or abstractness) are placed to the forefront.(9) Responding to the objection that these traits are culturally conditioned, Peterson points to the so called “Scandinavian Paradox,” namely that in egalitarian Nordic cultures, the trait difference between men and women is larger not smaller.(10)
Ryan Anderson, of The Heritage Foundation, points to various seeming inconsistencies in transgenderism which do not require a Catholic world view to appreciate.(11) These include:
(1) If sex and gender are so distinct and the body is (at the end of the day) not what determines whether one is a man or woman, why would there be an impetus to medically transition, i.e. to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS)
(2) If femininity is not rooted in the body but is a choice, a feeling, or a psychological affinity, why do many men who medically transition desire bodies that are stereotypically female?
(3) If gender identity is a personal choice – or even fluid (and so malleable) – why does the transgender movement tend to oppose therapies that would realign a person’s gender identity with his/her biological sex?(12)
(4) If a person’s gender is not objectively determined by the person’s biology but rests more upon a person’s subjective judgement, why are others compelled to accept this subjective determination?
Even individuals who have actively supported SRS have cautioned a greater circumspection than is currently practiced. Dr Kenneth Zucker was for many years the head of the world renowned Gender Identity Clinic in Toronto, Canada. He helped numerous adults to medically transition. However, when he opposed SRS for minors, he was ousted.(13) His objection to chemical and surgical intervention comes in light of the fact that between 80-88% of all children who are suffering from GID eventually identify with their biological sex; when they are given appropriate support and not ‘locked in’ by hormone blockers or hormone replacement therapy.(14)
Finally, there is cogent evidence in favour of the position that what we are dealing with here is a true psychological disorder. The correlation of GID with other psychological and medical problems is alarming. For example, those with GID are nineteen times more likely to attempt suicide during their life than those without it,(15) seven times more likely to be depressed,(16) three times more likely to practice substance abuse,(17) and forty-nine times more likely to be HIV positive than their peers.(18)
There can be little doubt that some of the poor mental health indicators are the result of the stress that is part of discrimination, exclusion, or fear of rejection; but the outcomes are too extreme to account for them solely in this way, especially when we compare transgender persons to other persecuted minorities.(19) That this is not a matter merely of social exclusion is perhaps also indicated by the fact that these poor health indicators are the same in so called ‘progressive’ countries where transgender persons are more socially accepted.(20)
Notably, suicide rates are little affected by medical transitioning.(21) It was the insignificant contribution of SRS to mental health that led Dr Paul McHugh to shut down the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s. He concluded that “the hope that they [transgender persons] would emerge now from their emotional difficulties to flourish psychologically had not been fulfilled.” (22)
The resistance of the Church to transgenderism is not first of all medical but anthropological. In short, the Church’s vision of the human person and that which (consciously or not) undergirds transgenderism are irreconcilable.
The problem we encounter in transgenderism is not so much the denial of the immaterial soul but the denial of a profound unity between the body and the person: it is a matter of an exaggerated dualism.(23) To put this another way: transgenderism does not accord sufficient personal significance to the body. Hence, the male or female character of the body is not seen as a core identity of the individual. In a given instance, the body maybe male, but this does not determine the identity of the person in a fundamental way, perhaps at all.
This stands in sharp contrast to that sound anthropology (accepted by the Church) in which the body and soul are seen as so intimately connected that they form a single reality – a single substance.(24) In this approach, the body as much as the soul defines the individual human person; so much so that a statement like “I have the wrong body” would be tantamount to saying, “I have the wrong I.”(25)
In short, Freaky Friday may be fun, but it is a poor anthropology. It posits the notion that the personhood of an individual is so distinct from her body that mother and daughter could swap bodies for the weekend, like two people might swap cars. The same bodyperson estrangement lies near the heart of transgenderism. In this sense, it takes its place beside other modern errors in the area of human sexuality such as pornography and hook-up culture.
Pornography separates the body from the person so that someone might gain gratification by focusing on the individual’s body without the ‘inconvenience’ of having to consider that this individual is a human person. Hook-up culture implies that two people can have a very intimate bodily exchange without effecting a personal connection. In this same vein, transgenderism exaggerates the distinction between the body and the person. It denies, ignores, or profoundly down-plays the fact that the body (with its distinctive sex) is an intrinsic and inalienable element of a human person and, thereby, determinative of his or her identity.(26)
There is something unfortunate about the phrase “transgender person.” The word “transgender” tends to capture the limelight to the detriment of “person.” We are human persons and this is the foundation of our identity and dignity rather than whether we are transgender, cisgender, a-gender, or even male or female. To that extent transgenderism makes a mountain out of a mole hill. But, once the mountain is made, the Church is duty bound to speak the truth. To the extent that transgender theory diminishes the importance of the body and the significance of sex in personal identity, there is a falsehood in play. To the degree that it sows confusion and undermines marriage and the family, there is a social fallout that cannot be ignored. A transgender person is as much in the image of God as anyone else, let that be proclaimed, but this does not make transgenderism a sound philosophy.
Dr William Newton is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University, Steubenville, USA
1 Amoris Laetitia (§56).
2 The word “gender” is related to the word “generate,” whereas the word “sex” comes from “secare” (to cut); in the sense that the human race is cut into two on the basis of the particular contribution to generation.
3 Gender Spectrum, “Understanding Gender” (https://www.genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender/).
4 Pontifical Council for the Family, Family, Marriage and “De Facto” Unions (2000), §8.
5 Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, December 21, 2012
6 In recent years some organizations (such as the American Psychological Association) have moved from speaking of “disorder” to “dysphoria.” The term “dysphoria” removes from the equation any sense of being in discord with reality. It implies only a sense of unease. For an explanation of this (seemingly political) move, see: Adrian Traloar, “Letter to Catholic Medical Quarterly” Nov 2017
7 “Jordan Peterson: Differences between men and women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSXEHsYf8uQ)
8 Yanna J. Weisberg et al, “Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ articles/PMC3149680).
9 Dario Maestripieri, “Gender Differences in Personality Are Larger than Previously Thought” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ games-primates-play/201201/gender-differences-in-personality-are-larger-previously-thought).
10 See “Hjernevask,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVaTc15plVs).
11 Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), 45ff.
12 WPATH Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming People, 16 (https://www.wpath.org/ publications/soc).
13 Jesse Singal, “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired,” The Cut 7 February 2016
14 Thomas D. Steensma et al, “Factors Associated With Desistence and Persistence of Childhood Gender Dysphoria: A Quantitative Follow-Up Study,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 52.6 (June 2013): 582-590; Cohen-Kettenis P et al “Intersex And Genderidentity Disorders. The Treatment of Adolescent Transsexuals: Changing Insights,” The Journal of Sexual Medicine 5 (2008): 1892-1897. Jesse Singal, “What’s Missing From the Conversation About Transgender Kids,” The Cut, 25 July 2016.
15 Anne P. Hass et al, “Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Disrimination Survey” Williams Institute January 2014.
16 Stephanie L Budge, “Anxiety and Depression in Transgender Individuals: The Roles of Transition Status, Loss, Social Support, and Coping,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 81.3 (February 2013).
17 American Addiction Centers, “Transgender and Addiction,”
18 World Health Organization, “AIDS/HIV: Transgender People”
19 Erin C. Wilson et al, “The impact of discrimination on the mental health of trans-female youth and the protective effect of parental support” AIDS Behaviour 20.10 (2016 Oct): 2203–2211.
20 Cf. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally, 94.
21 Rikke Kildevæld Simonsen et al, “Long-Term Follow-Up of Individuals Undergoing Sex-Reassignment Surgery: Somatic Morbidity and Cause of Death,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 4.1 (March 2016): 60–68.
22 Paul R. McHugh, “Surgical Sex: Why We Stopped Doing Sex Change Operations,” First Things. Nov 2004
23 The Church understands the human being to be a composite of a body and of an immaterial soul. Interestingly, there is less need to make a defence of the immateriality of the soul in the face of transgenderism than with out-and-out materialists since transgenderism operates on the basis that the body is other than the person which implies that the human person is not purely a material entity.
24 Council of Vienne, Decree §1 (Denz. 900).
25 John Paul II, Letter to Families §19.
26 This ‘down-playing’ of the significance of the body is aggravated in SRS because in these medical interventions violence is done to healthy organs in a healthy body.