This week has been a week marked by tragic news. In our First Reading, a population belatedly realised the horror of a good man being killed – in a similar way, the UK has been mourning the death of Jo Cox MP, and referendum campaigning has been suspended. Meanwhile, in America, 49 people were murdered by a gunman at a gay bar. What both these attacks have in common is that they were committed by men who held strong opinions on certain moral values, and were ready to kill those who disagreed with them. One held a grudge against gay people. The other resented a politician who cared about refugees.
As I stand in this pulpit and speak, I am deeply conscious that Christian leaders and preachers face a difficult challenge. We must put forward certain views about how people ought to live their lives. We might even suggest that our ultimate destination, heaven or hell, depends on the moral choices we make. But at the same time, we must avoid anything that could stir up hatred or violence towards people who don’t share our values, and we must always emphasise that Christ loves and welcomes anyone willing to set aside their own ideas and embrace the Gospel. When he gave a difficult teaching, he simply said, “let those who can, accept this.”
As we continue to reflect on Pope Francis’ teaching on the family, this week I’m going to focus on just one line in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “You are all clothed in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between male and female.” This takes us into the controversial area of the differences between men and women – and whether they matter!
If we only had this verse to draw on, we’d probably conclude that the Bible says men and women are interchangeable. But other Bible verses, also attributed to St Paul, say that a woman, or at least a wife, should not have authority over a man; and Genesis says that human beings were created “male and female, in God’s image”.
Let’s try to make sense of all of this. The Bible passage we’ve heard today is about the dignity we have as baptised members of the Church. It doesn’t matter whether we come from a poor family or a rich one, it doesn’t matter about our nationality or tribal identity, it doesn’t matter if we are a man or a woman – once we are baptised, we share equal status as an adopted child of God-the-Father. Pope Francis has even said he would baptise aliens from Mars: if they understood what baptism was well enough to be able to ask for it, they qualify!
Because we share equal dignity, all lay roles in the church are open equally to men and to women. Anyone, male or female, can read at Mass, chair a parish committee, or become, say, Director of the Catholic Deaf Service. As you’ve probably noticed, we have a lot of girls serving on the altar here. In 1994, the Vatican was asked to look again at why its rules said girls couldn’t serve. The relevant bishops concluded that serving at the altar was a ministry in its own right, not a stepping stone to priesthood – and therefore it was right and proper that girls as well as boys should serve.
If there are no distinctions “in Christ” between men and women, why does the Church say that only men can be ordained as bishops, priests and deacons? That’s because the role of an ordained minister is not to stand as a member of the body, “in Christ”, but to deputise for the head “as Christ”. God walked among us in the form of a male human being, who picked twelve male apostles to continue his work; they in turn picked seven male deacons.
Whenever we are dealing with sacraments, we have a sacred duty to do exactly what Jesus asked us to do in order to receive the blessing that goes with it. So we can’t celebrate Mass with rice cakes and Ribena – we have to use wheat-bread and wine. A deacon can’t anoint a sick person – the Bible tells us that a presbyter, meaning a priest, must do that. The sacrament of marriage comes into being when a free man and a free woman, who are both baptised Christians, make life-long vows to each other. And the sacrament of ordination takes place when a bishop lays hands on a chosen man. We have no authority to innovate beyond what Jesus asked us to do. In 1994, St John Paul II said definitively that the Catholic Church simply does not have authority to ordain a woman to the priesthood.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis has encouraged us to think outside the box. There are a few things only priests can do, because of their Holy Orders: forgiving sins, celebrating the Eucharist, and conferring the sacrament of confirmation. There are lots of other things that tend to be entrusted to priests, but needn’t be. Some dioceses now have religious sisters or lay men or women as Chancellors. Pope Francis has challenged our bishops to look at the other things only priests do, either because of church rules or because it’s customary, to see whether some of these roles could be opened up to women – and also to lay men. (See paragraphs 103 and 104 of Evangelii Gaudium.)
Today’s reading speaks about the status of men and women as members of the Church. But the Church also speaks about the role of men and women in the world at large. In fact, the Church fully supports the right of women to take on any and every role in society, including the crucial and underappreciated role of being a stay-at-home mother. The Church would like to see laws about wages and social benefits which mean that a mum who chooses to work has adequate access to childcare, and a mum who chooses to stay at home can be well supported by her husband, or in his absence, by the State.
Pope Francis has also identified other issues which trouble him. There are many cultures in today’s world where wives are expected to be subservient, where women are generally excluded from decision-making; where young girls are forced to have embarrassing surgery and where financial pressures cause women to volunteer as surrogate mothers. The Church campaigns against these things!
Yes, this puts us in a strange position where a church run by exclusively male clerics officially stands up for women’s equality. As our bishops see it, there is only one good answer to the question, “Why can’t women do that?”, and it’s this: “Because Jesus didn’t ask us to do things that way.” That answer only applies to the case of the sacraments, because they are God-given, not man-made. Today’s Gospel challenges us to renounce ourselves and follow Jesus; and part of what we must renounce is our sense that we know better “what God should have done”. In the words of Our Lord: “let those who can, accept this.”
Further reflections for the print and online editions:
Last week the Pope made another small but significant gesture. There are three grades of saints’ days, and the middle grade, the sort with a Gloria but no Creed, is called a Feast. Each of the Apostles is celebrated by a Feast, except that the joint celebration of St Peter and Paul is a top-grade celebration, and a Holy Day. On 22 July, the church’s calendar honours St Mary Magdalen, the first human being to meet the risen Christ. This is a curious day – it’s a bottom grade saint’s day, yet the instructions on the page ask for a Gloria and the other trappings which normally go with a Feast. So as of last Friday, on the Pope’s personal instructions, St Mary Magdalen, the “apostle to the apostles“, has been permanently upgraded to a full Feast.
You might have heard in the news recently that the Pope has asked for a study on deaconesses. We know from the Bible that there were women called deaconesses in the early days of the Church. They were blessed for this ministry by the bishop laying hands on them, rather like a clerical ordination. We know from other historical documents a little about what they did: they took holy communion to housebound women, as our extraordinary ministers of communion do today, and they assisted at adult baptisms. Remember, in those days to be baptised, you were stripped of your clothes and the bishop dipped your whole body under water in a large pool. The deaconesses helped the women to dress and undress, and anointed them with holy oil. We don’t do it that way, these days. But what isn’t clear is whether the deaconesses routinely did any of the same tasks male deacons did during Mass. This is why the Pope has indicated that a further formal study could help clarify matters.
Finally, we cannot reflect on the idea of there being “no male and female” in Christ without pausing to consider transgender issues. Here we must be careful to distinguish two situations – physical “intersex” conditions and psychological questions of gender identity.
We human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and science now has a much greater understanding both of the way genetics works and how a developing embryo lays down the pattern of its body. Within this complex process, a myriad things have the potential to go wrong. Sometimes an embryo – or the cells in a significant part of it – makes an error in copying our sex chromosomes. Instead of being an XY male or an XX female, a child can develop as an X0 underdeveloped female, or an XXY “Klinefelter” male. It can happen that the special gene on a Y chromosome which causes the body to develop as male rather than female is faulty. And there are other disorders of sexual development which are well documented.
In these cases it’s quite understandable that a person may not feel they fit into one of society’s two “binary” roles of male and female, and our Christian response must be one of sympathy and understanding. We still assert that God’s plan was that humanity should exist as male and female, but in these cases we recognise that nature, fallen and flawed, has failed to fully realise God’s plan, as also happens with other kinds of congenital disability.
What is harder for us to assess, as Christians, are those cases where there is no ambiguity over the gender of a person’s body, yet the person insists they were born into the wrong gender, and they feel like a man in a woman’s body, or a woman in a man’s. Pope Francis, and also the bishops at the 2015 Synod (see paragraphs 8 and 58), are careful to assert that in God’s plan, there are distinct roles for men and for women, and that we are not free to reinvent ourselves; part of our humility in front of our Creator is to embrace and accept the gift of the body we have been born with. In an intersex condition, that body is clearly flawed; but in cases where there is no physical ambiguity, spiritual wholeness requires that we do not reject the sexuality of our body: it is our Creator’s gift to us.
Because Ordination is a sacrament, where the underlying “matter” is what expresses the sign, it would be inconceivable for a transsexual person to be ordained; there would have to be integrity of their physiology and personal sense of identity. Only a person unambiguously male in mind and body could be accepted for ordination, regardless of any legal change in their state-recognised gender. Similarly, part of the value of entering a congregation of monks or nuns, or apostolic brothers or sisters, is the sign of being part of a celibate community of men or women; it would be difficult to imagine a transgender person becoming a member of a community of either their physiological or their social gender. That leaves the interesting case of the call to be a hermit, without a community…
Pope Francis and the Synod Bishops place their trust in God’s design. So to any person who identified as transsexual but also wished to follow Jesus, the Catholic Church would lean towards encouraging them to embrace their physical identity.
Where matters get deeply complex is how we are to relate to people who assert their right to identify as transgender and have no spiritual inclination to embrace their physical identity. On the one hand we must meet them with a compassion which recognises their sense of alienation in society. On the other hand, we also want to preserve our own values which call for a humble acceptance of one’s body as a gift.
Particular difficulties occur when society at large, or the State, provides gendered facilities – public toilets, prisons, changing rooms and physical education in schools. The Lord’s command to “love our neighbour” demands care and understanding of vulnerable individuals, but doesn’t require us to compromise our own morals. What do we do in the case of a trans woman – a physiological male now claiming the right to live as a woman? Our compassion for their difficult journey through life clashes with our sense that women in general may feel vulnerable in toilets and changing facilities, and have a right to be protected from seeing male anatomy, even if only on a trans woman. If we propose that there be a third option, say a unisex toilet, we might be accused of excluding a trans man or woman from being with the gender they wish to affiliate with. It does seem in this case impossible to protect both the transgendered person and the vulnerable members of the cisgendered majority. It is understandable that a Christian might automatically take the side of the majority because the Bible indicates that we should embrace our binary identity.
I’m being guarded in my language here because the Church has not made more explicit pronouncements on the subject. There’s an interesting post by Anna Magdalena Patti, a Catholic trans woman. I’ll allow the courtesy of referring to “her” though I lean towards the importance of being grounded in one’s physiological identity. She makes the valid point that if there are physiological reasons which make a brain “male” or “female”, there could be brains which don’t match a person’s sexual organs… this kind of transgenderism would be another kind of intersex condition where arguments about needing to embrace one’s “unambiguous” identity would not then apply.
“In Christ there is no male or female.” As individuals, there is certainly room for trans men and trans women in the church. Their dignity comes from baptism, not from their gender identity. There needs to be sensitivity on both sides – the mainstream community starting from an assumption that a trans lifestyle is not a freely embraced “lifestyle choice”, and the trans individuals acknowledging that in some important respects, they are NOT identical to their preferred gender. This requires a Christian generosity of accepting limits which mean that vulnerable human beings also need private spaces behind “cisgender only” doors.
When Jesus taught on divorce, he based his argument on the Genesis text that a man should cleave to a woman and the two become one flesh. We have strong evidence, then, that Jesus recognised and validated a divine teaching about there being two complementary genders. He gave strict teachings about resisting lust. It is clear that there would be many circumstances where a Christian might desire a particular sexual relationship but be unable to pursue it in obedience to God’s plan – incest, adultery, homosexuality. There are certain roles in the Church – marriage, ordination, religious profession – for which unambiguous cisgender identity is essential. For the Church to deny these roles to those asserting trans identity is not to single out the trans community for exclusion, but merely to recognise that to enter these roles is a vocation not given to all. Those who have ears, let them hear.
Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.
- Biological “sex” and cultural “gender”: 56
- Women’s rights: 54 (see also 18)
- God transcends gender: 10-11
For further reading:
- St John Paul II’s letter on the Dignity of Women