What Cordileone Should Have Said
Last week, at a Sacra Liturgia conference in Manhattan, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone warned his audience that “gender ideology” threatens the foundation of the faith. To illustrate his point, he went on to list the “grand total” of 14 gender identities recognized by a major university, adding, “I’m sure even more will be invented as time goes on.” A parent at one Marin County’s Catholic schools objected,calling the archbishop’s statement “ill-considered, hurtful and lacking in knowledge and compassion.”
Whatever may be said about Cordileone’s impish tone, he’s right that opening a gap between people’s anatomy and their self-conception upsets the whole apple cart of Catholic anthropology. Not only does it overthrow the Catholic view of the unified person for a system of body-soul dualism, it demotes the body to junior partnership. With no automatic regard for the equipment we were issued, we risk losing sight of how God meant for the sexes to complement one another, and, by uniting physically, to create new life in a way that mirrors his own creation of the world.
So that’s how gender ideology threatens Church teachings. Fair enough — it bore repeating. But if we accept that gender dysphoria is a real condition, we really ought to consider how Church teachings threaten the faith of the people it affects, and the people whom they affect.
When people perceive their bodies and selves to be mismatched, it raises the question of how the two should be brought back into alignment. In the Catholic view, the body – assuming it’s healthy – is an objective given and can’t be regarded as the problem. Instead, treatment must focus on the mind, the self, or, if you prefer, the spirit. Indeed, the National Catholic Bioethics Center recommends “Psycho-therapy [sic] and loving acceptance” for transgendered people.
But the obvious problem here is that psychotherapy offers no miracle cures. The Church learned this the hard way, when it confided an entire generation of pedophile priests to the couch. This is not – God forbid – to suggest that gender dysphoria poses the same threat to public order as pedophilia, only that both conditions are wedged in more deeply than Catholic optimists have liked to believe.
Last year in the Wall Street Journal, former Johns Hopkins Hospital chief psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh cited one study where transgender patients who underwent sex-reassignment surgery reported no better “psycho-social adjustments” than those who didn’t. He also cited another, much more recent, study showing that the suicide mortality rate among transgendered patients who’d received surgery was still 20 times higher than among the comparable cisgendered population. One claim McHugh never makes, however, is that psychiatrists have enjoyed great success at helping adult transgendered patients to identify with their biological sex.
For people afflicted with gender dysphoria, then, the Church can do no better than urge the less invasive of two largely ineffective treatment programs. With all its teaching authority, it cannot, it seems, teach anyone how to solve or live with this particular problem. The result is that the Church comes off looking like a clueless know-it-all. Picture Brainy Smurf in full cry, and you’ll get the idea.
It could be argued that gender dysphoria, like homosexuality, affects only a tiny number of people, so the Church shouldn’t beat itself up too badly for not having pastoral solutions on demand for members of either population. But both groups have gained cultural significance out of proportion to their numbers, and I think it’s time Catholics became a little more receptive to why. Today’s identity politics proceed from the claim that society’s rules, established by consensus and tradition, benefit some groups to the disadvantage of others. Where it concerns race and class, this is a proposition that few Catholics would reject completely. Sexual minorities force us to confront the fact that God himself ill equips certain people to flourish within his own system.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t news. But I’d say we would do ourselves no harm by reflecting on it a little more often, pushing it from the back of our minds to the front. G.K. Chesterton once griped about “the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal.” Well, now that we’re in post-modernity, any concept of normal is thought to be the tribute that privilege pays to itself. If we normal folks go on pretending we’re the only ones here, we’ll be sacrificing our own credibility.
On his blog “A Friar’s Life,” a Franciscan priest named Fr. Tom suggests Catholics prepare themselves to receive transgendered people by being “people of compassion,” and “people who listen.” Well, if we have to remind ourselves to be compassionate, then we know we’re in trouble. Listening is good, but what follows?
We might better begin with the humble admission that we have only the dimmest idea of what we’re doing. That’s not a coherent plan for action, but it could represent the beginning of wisdom.