Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia released a letter entitled “A Catechesis on the Human Person and Gender Ideology” on August 12. The purpose of the letter, he explained, is to present “the principles of Catholic teaching to encourage the faithful and to guide them in responding to an increasingly difficult cultural situation.”
Bishop Burbidge, 64, is originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1984, and an auxiliary bishop in 2002. He served as Bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina 2006-2016, and has served as Bishop of Arlington since 2016. According to its 2020 annual report, the Diocese of Arlington is home to 444,167 registered parishioners, 70 parishes and six missions, 273 total priests, 50 diocesan seminarians and 64 men and women in formation for religious life.
Bishop Burbidge spoke to CWR about his letter on gender ideology.
CWR: Why did you want to write this letter?
Bishop Michael Burbidge: In our society today, there are many sensitive issues being discussed, and many untruths being told. The issue of gender ideology is a sensitive one, and it impacts parishes and families. I think it is important at this time to teach the truth of how God created us in love, and to equip the faithful to be able to understand and explain to others what Jesus taught. This document is a catechetical resource, and seeks to proclaim the truth with charity and clarity.
CWR: What sort of reaction has it received?
Bishop Burbidge: Overall, I’ve received many words of appreciation. Our people understand it is a document that was the product of much consultation and is well thought out; we received input from people with great expertise. Our parishioners have shared the letter with family members, friends and colleagues, including with those who do not agree.
Most of the comments I have received have been positive, but when you speak and teach the truth in such a sensitive area, some people are going to be critical. There are those who mistakenly say this document discriminates against certain people, and does not respect their human dignity. But the document is compassionate throughout, insisting that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. There can be no room for bullying or ostracizing people. We seek to help those in need; as Pope Francis says, we want to accompany them.
CWR: An extremely small percentage of the population identifies itself as “transgender.” Why do you think the topic has generated so much attention in the media and among elected officials?
Bishop Burbidge: In our day and age, and in the society in which we live, people have a difficult time accepting absolute truth. It is much more convenient to follow the polls and what is most popular, and to avoid confrontation or even respectful disagreement.
CWR: Suppose a person who believed he was “transitioning” to the opposite sex came to you for pastoral advice. What do you think you might say to him?
Bishop Burbidge: I’d begin by reaffirming the love that God has for this person, and remind him that he is a beloved child of God. Then I’d listen to his story, so I could learn more about him. Next, in a compassionate and loving way, I’d explain to the person what we believe and why it is true. It may take time, but I’d do what I could to help the person embrace what is true.
When we deny the truth, we don’t find happiness or peace.
CWR: What might you say to the parents or other family members or friends of such a person?
Bishop Burbidge: Our document does reach out directly to parents and family members. We ask that they reaffirm the love that God has for the person, and that they have for him as family members, and support him in a way to help him to understand who they are in the sight of God, and what is true and real. They need to accompany such a person, and to help him embrace what is true.
CWR: What was your process of researching and writing this letter?
Bishop Burbidge: It took a long time. When you develop a document such as this, you surround yourself with people with expertise in the topic, including good theologians, philosophers, and scholars. We put together a good team to write this document, wrote numerous drafts, in search of the best wording to achieve our ultimate goal, to teach the truth in charity. While I will not mention specific people on our team, I will say that ultimately, as the bishop and chief teacher and catechist of the Diocese of Arlington, it is my document.
I can also assure our readers that the document is one of prayerful discernment. We prayed, “Lord, when we issue this document, we want it to be Your Word that is being spoken.”
CWR: How does Sacred Scripture counter gender ideology?
Bishop Burbidge: It tells us that God created us male and female, that men and women complement one another, and that in the Sacred Union of marriage, they can cooperate in the creation of new life.
CWR: Besides the belief that people can choose their gender, there are those who believe there are dozens of genders, often based on one’s transitory sexual attractions.
Bishop Burbidge: Once you deny the truth and what is real, it will lead to extremes of all kinds. There is no limit to the error that flows from gender ideology.
CWR: What harm do you believe gender ideology is doing to society?
Bishop Burbidge: If we deny there is a God who created us in a moment of time as His beloved child, when we do not accept who we are and how God created us as male or female, we reject all that flows from that, and all that God teaches. Error cannot bring peace or happiness in one’s life.
Acceptance of gender ideology increases one’s struggles, and does not make things better. Do not affirm what is false. Respond in truth.
CWR: Do you think it would be a good idea to go back to referring to the male or the female sex, which suggests permanence, rather than using the term “gender”, which suggests fluidity or something capable of being changed?
Bishop Burbidge: The reality or the truth is what we are talking about, and is at the core of it. I think that is what we have to understand.
CWR: Have you observed any effects of gender ideology within the Diocese of Arlington?
Bishop Burbidge: Many of our parishioners have children in public school where they are indoctrinated so that they accept ideas opposite to those expressed in this document. Pastors convey to me how concerned parents are, telling them, “This is what the school board just voted to do, or our school just adopted this new curriculum.”
We tell our parents that it will not be easy. But we cannot remain silent. We must defend the truth and what is right. This document is a response to the requests of our parents.
Just a few years back, I would never have thought we would reach the point where saying that God created us male or female would be a controversial statement. But people in the workplace are now paying a price for saying it. It is difficult to understand. The ideas this document expresses are now countercultural. I recommend people read it, and if they want to study more, they can read the documents it cites, listed in the end notes.
CWR: The document notes that Pope Francis is among those critical of gender ideology.
Bishop Burbidge: Yes. He has been strong on this issue, and says exactly what we are saying in this document. It is sad that children are being taught something different. I believe this document echoes Pope Francis’ manner of teaching, and expresses the truth with love and compassion.
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