“What accounts for the Catholic Church’s recent focus on transgender people?” asks Father James Martin, S.J., in a May 17th essay at the new LGBTQ website, Outreach.faith, promoted by Martin and managed by America Magazine. He poses this question as a result of recent diocesan statements regarding the transgender phenomenon, which include the Dioceses of Arlington, VA.; Springfield, Il; Milwaukee, WI; Fairbanks, AL; Lansing, MI; Salina, KS; Little Rock, AR; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; Marquette, MI; and the Bishops of Minnesota.
Fr. Martin refuses to consider the most obvious answer to his question: the reason the Church is confronting the issue of transgenderism now is because contemporary society is fixated on the topic. More revealingly, he ignores the fact that Pope Francis himself directed American bishops to address the problem, as Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis made clear in his statement on the topic:
The bishops of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas traveled to Rome in January of 2020 to meet with the Holy Father, Pope Francis. While we were with him he affirmed that abortion is the pre-eminent moral issue of our time. But he added that another problem today is transgender theory/gender ideology, and he asked us to address it.
Thus, it is out of obedience to the Holy Father that these bishops have released their teachings on the topic.
That Fr. Martin ignores Pope Francis’s concerns regarding transgenderism and gender theory reveals how Fr. Martin instrumentalizes and selectively curates the words and thinking of the Holy Father in order to affirm whatever it is that Fr. Martin believes Pope Francis should affirm. But this should come as no surprise, since Fr. Martin is a skilled rhetorician who knows well how to use sophistry to argue his case. This latest essay is no exception.
For example, consider Fr. Martin’s discussion of the meaning of “gender theory/ideology,” which Martin rightly observes has appeared more and more frequently in church documents. Yet Fr. Martin argues that it “is a vague term that can mean many things to many people,” implying that the criticisms of “gender theory” have no value, since no one apparently knows what it means. This is blatant obfuscation. Church documents that use the term always define the term, or else the context makes clear what it means. Gender theory/ideology is any thinking or belief that undermines the sexual design of God in creating humanity as immutably male and female, with an inherent complementary sexual orientation that is ordered toward procreation.
Fr. Martin further argues that no one he knows who identifies as “transgender” actually denies that humanity is divided between male and female. He quotes a friend he calls a “transgender man,” who told him that “Most transgender people, though not all, consider ourselves male or female and rejoice in that identity. I know no one who is transgendered because they believe that gender should be eliminated or sexual differences do not exist.”
However, this is said by a person who was created by God as a female, but who believes—sincerely, I’m sure—that God somehow made a mistake in creating “him” with a female body. She believes in God’s division of humanity into male and female just so long as she has the right to determine for herself that she is a man. Further, her comment ignores those identities included LGBTQIA+ such as nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc., which can all also fall under the “transgender” label.
Martin continues his critique of “gender theory” by quoting a transgender “woman” who argues, “I had never heard of ‘gender ideology’ until the church began using it,” arguing that “the transgender people with whom I’ve spoken do not see themselves as promoting, embodying or assenting to a ‘system of ideas.’” But Martin is putting the cart before the horse and engaging in a straw man argument. No one argues that the reason a person born male believes himself to be a woman is due to the Church’s coining of the phrase “gender ideology.” And yet the reasons why a man may believe himself to be a woman is due to what the Church, in Her Wisdom, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, has described as “gender theory/ideology.” The Church is rooted in the Logos, and has, from the dawn of her creation, brought an orderly and coherent understanding to the confusions of each age, and through its God ordained authority, given those confusions a name in order to more effectively counter heretical beliefs. This is no exception.
Beyond these sorts of rhetorical games, Fr. Martin frequently argues from an appeal to emotion, for example when he tells his readers that a “transgender teen was distraught over being denied confirmation at his local parish.” But confirmation isn’t a right; it’s a sacrament, and attendant with it is a commitment to all that the Church teaches and believes. If a teenager doesn’t believe what Scripture and the Church teaches about human nature, that teenager shouldn’t be confirmed. This isn’t cruel—it’s the same reason why a teenager who doesn’t believe in God, or in the Real Presence, or any of the other dogmas of the Church can’t be confirmed.
Appeals to emotion are the stock-in-trade of Fr. James Martin. His pastoral guide to transgender people is replete with all sorts of sad and sorry statistics about how horrible the life is of the transgender person is, including how they are more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts who accept their sexuality as a given. In much of his writing, Martin relies on catastrophism in the form of the “but they might commit suicide” argument to convince his readers that the Church is cruel and must change her teachings on human sexuality.
Saner men than he would see higher rates of suicide in the transgender population as resulting from the irrational belief that the answer to confusion about one’s sexual identity is to mangle the body, permanently. If civilization truly wants to lower the rates of suicide in those who call themselves transgender, society would compassionately help them to see and accept reality. Yet on this front, Martin falls into scientism, relying more on the behavioral sciences to determine human nature than on the wisdom of the Church.
When it comes to all things LGBTQ, Fr. Martin holds the scientific establishment in a seemingly magisterial light. He apparently views the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association as authoritative regarding transgenderism. He quotes one such organization as having established that “gender-affirming care is medically necessary for transgender youth and is backed by decades of research.” The source for this statement? A 2015 survey by an organization called the National Center for Transgender Equality—hardly an unbiased think tank.
Of course, it’s no surprise that Martin completely ignores scientific findings which counter these arguments, such as the bombshell correction in the American Journal of Psychology of a highly heralded 2019 study claiming that “Sex-change operations yield long-term medical mental health benefits for transgender people.” As a result of peer-sexual reviewed studies, the journal was forced to issue a correction, stating that no evidence of benefit from sex-change surgery could be concluded from the study.
Martin shows his conviction that science—at least when it comes to the transgender person—should influence the Church’s teaching of what is sinful or not, when he poses the question “why [have] so many Catholic leaders [begun] using the language of sin and repentance so quickly for a phenomenon that, at least publicly, is still so new, so little understood and still the source of so much scientific debate?” Implicit in this question is that if we “follow the science,” the Church will discover something about the nature of human sexuality and sin which the church didn’t know before. And yet, the Church is expert in humanity, as Pope Paul VI told the United Nations in 1965. In the area of confusion about sexual identity, the Church wisely taught in the 1986 Letter on the Pastoral Care of the Homosexual Person that
the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith and is consciously motivated by the desire to do the will of God our Father. The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.
Here too the wisdom of St. Pope John Paul II offers a powerful rebuke to Fr. Martin’s reliance on the scientific findings of organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality, when he spoke in Veritatis Splendor of “theories which misuse scientific research about the human person. Arguing from the great variety of customs, behaviour [sic] patterns and institutions present in humanity, these theories end up, if not with an outright denial of universal human values, at least with a relativistic conception of morality.”
John Paul II acknowledged the value of the behavioral sciences, but clarified that though moral theology may “make use of the behavioural and natural sciences, [it] does not rely on the results of formal empirical observation or phenomenological understanding alone. Indeed, the relevance of the behavioural sciences for moral theology must always be measured against the primordial question: What is good or evil? What must be done to have eternal life?”
This provides one answer to the question Martin poses: why are Catholic leaders starting to speak about transgenderism? Precisely because souls and their eternal salvation are at stake.
Not surprisingly, all of the people Fr. Martin refers to in his essay have adopted the world’s view that transgender people actually exist within the Logos of God’s creative wisdom. This reveals yet another of Martin’s favorite rhetorical devices: reliance on “lived experience” to make his case. But he is not the first priest in the Church to appeal to lived experience to normalize perversions of human sexuality. In a criticism of Fr. Andre Guindon’s book The Sexual Creators: An Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith censured his book in part because of Fr. Guindon’s reliance on “lived experience” in an attempt to influence moral theology:
[W]hat is affirmed is the primacy of the “lived”, which becomes the true criterion for making moral judgments. The “lived” is mainly conceived in terms of qualities of subjective experience like sensuality and tenderness. The result is a morality based on a kind of blind faith in human spontaneity. Little or nothing is said of the basic dichotomy in the human heart (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 10), of the consequences of this dichotomy in the sexual realm, or of the role of grace and human perseverance in dealing with this conflict. As a result, the notion of experience is presented in a very selective way.
The words above certainly apply to Fr. Martin, as well as to every other heterodox ministry in the Church, such as New Ways Ministry and Dignity, who urge the Church to look to the lived experience of the LGBTQ person as a reason to change the Church’s teaching. Naturally, absent in any of his discussions of transgenderism is the lived experience of people who repented from their confused times when they lived as another sex, such as Walt Heyer, Erin Brewer, Laura Perry, Jeffrey McCall, Blair Logsdon, or any other of the growing number of those who have repented from their sin of transgenderism. Their lived experiences don’t fit into the narrative of Fr. Martin’s arguments.
Thus, one primary reason why Church leaders have started speaking about transgenderism is because of the advocacy of priests such as Fr. Martin who actually believe that transgenderism is real. Let us pray and hope that more bishops and other Catholics follow the heroic example of all those bishops whose statements Fr. Martin questions, and that the Church’s perennial teaching about the human person, sexuality, and the body will open eyes, touch hearts, and transform lives.
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