Can a Man or a Woman Change Their Sex? 11 Points a Catholic Should Keep In Mind about the Transgender Issues

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Simone de Beauvoir once said: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). The idea follows (whether it was Simone’s intention or not, the quote is commonly used) then that sex is no longer understood as a given element of nature. It is not something that we receive, rather it is up for us to choose for ourselves.

A civilized, tolerant society must then accept this choice – so long as it “doesn’t hurt anyone” in a way can be immediately recognized. Any pretension to say that such-and-such a behavior is wrong according to human nature is considered retrograde, intolerant, and therefore immoral. For, as a friend recently said, “Maybe what’s natural for you is not natural for someone else.” (But reason can only answer my friend’s question with another question: Then how can the word “natural” have any meaning at all?)


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Now, so much can be said about this subject that I prefer to simply offer a series of points to keep in mind when considering or talking about the subject. As always, what I look to offer are possible angles (not necesarily answers!) that might be useful for your apostolate. It’s up to you to judge whether these points are appropriate for the person that you are speaking with.

1. “Transgenders” do not exist; people do.

When we speak about “transgenders,” we must be aware of the fact that we speaking of human beings with a tendency towards identifying themselves with the other sex and/or who have undergone a medical operation. For the sake of discussion, I will continue to use the term because I haven’t been able to find another; but keep in mind: “transgenders” do not exist; only people do. The worst thing we can ever do to anyone is reduce their identity to only one trait, a proclivity, a preference, or a behavior.


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Each person has a name, a story, dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears. God has called them by name. He has a plan for them. He is loving them right now. If we jump in like a SWAT team with a written script of ideas, we aren’t going to do any good. True personal eye-contact and an open heart are two necessary ingredients for any encounter. Then ask yourself, as you should with anyone that you meet: What is it that motivates them when they wake up in the morning? What is their favorite novel? What did they want to be when they grew up? What do they most desire? In other words, who (not what) is this person?


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2. Mistakes have been made

There is no doubt in my mind that many good people, with healthy motivations and perhaps solid theological considerations, have made mistakes in their way of treating these brothers and sisters. There is still so much that we do not understand and this scares us. What’s more, every person is a mystery, an undiscovered universe in and of themselves. Moments of misunderstanding, disrespect, derision, and outright hatred have inflicted wounds that will take time to heal (a heartfelt apology is in store if this is your case). For this reason, we must be humble, patient, and understanding of the fact that many of the theological truths of our Catholic faith that fill our lives with so much light and beauty, are for many  incomprehensible or, at best, hard to understand. 

When speaking with those who do not share our faith, be extremely patient and ask them to do same with us. We don’t have all the answers  and we should have no problem admitting it. Remind them that God wants nothing more than for them to be the best version of themselves that they can be. Encourage them to continually seek His voice, even in those places where they might not expect it. If they are open to learning more, don’t hand them the catechism quite yet; take them to a chapel or pray the parable of the Merciful Father together.

Friendship, as always, is where we must begin. Authentic friendship is the path that allows us not only to better understand truth, but to find the motivation to follow it. No one changes – nor should they– for rule’s sake alone. Get to know one another’s story. Learn to laugh together. Learn to cry together. Share your own struggles and weaknesses. If you discover the words “must” and “have to” spread throughout your discourse, I would suggest assuming a discussion much more focused on inviting, encouraging, and humble testimony. As always, charity and friendship are the most effective teachers. Invite them to your group of friends or the Church. Communion does everyone good.

With all of this in mind, we must be humble and recognize that the situation of these people is quite complex. If and when necessary, it’s always good to consult or refer to someone with experience (a good psychologist that is Catholic or at least open to the teachings) that can offer more in-depth advice.

3. The difference between acceptance and legal enforcement

With this point, we are looking at the issue from a large sociological context.

The “transgender” issue/movement transcends, for better or for worse, the individual cases. More than mere acceptance or better treatment, advocates of this movement are insisting upon codified laws which accommodate, fund, and enforce this “rightupon society as a whole, just as a woman supposedly has the “right” to abort her child. Treating someone with respect and charity is one thing, declaring it a right and reweaving the fabric of society is another. The “common good” – a seemingly extinct concept in mainstream discourse – used to be the guiding force for the laws of our society; now it seems as though the exception determines the rule all. The “bathroom issue” is just one of many examples to come.

Being against certain legislation or certain proclamation of “rights” does not imply that one is a bigot or a “hater.” TA, the legal battles being waged are bringing with them serious and painful consequences for those who wish to remain faithful to the Catholic viewpoint in the public sphere. 

Many times the arguments focus on the tip of the iceberg while ignoring or refusing to recognize the immense consequences the have yet to emerge. The question is not whether we should accept and love them. This is evident. The question is rather how we should do so and it is there that there are many disagreements.

4. What is the relationship between my body and my identity?

Human sexuality is not merely arbitrary biology that we can do with as we wish. It has a value in itself, a reason for being, an essential dignity. To put it under the scalpel is to turn this identity into an object of use. Our body is not something “exterior,” to our identity. While we are certainly more than just our body, we nonetheless are, in one sense, our body. The body – and perhaps the face above all – is somewhat like a sacrament that incarnates our identity, enabling contact and relationship, while pointing simultaneously towards a much greater and more beautiful mystery.

As the CDF puts it: “…in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality.”

By virtue of its substantial union with a spiritual soul, the human body cannot be considered as a mere complex of tissues, organs and functions, nor can it be evaluated in the same way as the body of animals; rather it is a constitutive part of the person who manifests and expresses himself through it. The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body. (10)

A first consequence can be deduced from these principles: an intervention on the human body affects not only the tissues, the organs and their functions but also involves the person himself on different levels. It involves, therefore, perhaps in an implicit but nonetheless real way, a moral significance and responsibility. Pope St. John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this to the World Medical Association when he said: “Each human person, in his absolutely unique singularity, is constituted not only by his spirit, but by his body as well. Thus, in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. To respect the dignity of man consequently amounts to safeguarding this identity of the man ‘corpore et anima unus’, as the Second Vatican Council says (Gaudium et Spes, 14, par.1). It is on the basis of this anthropological vision that one is to find the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the case of procedures which are not strictly therapeutic, as, for example, those aimed at the improvement of the human biological condition”

5. Can Our Sex be Changed?

It is not up to us to decide whether we are men or women. It is up to us to decide how we will live out our masculinity or femininity. An important distinction can be made between sexuality and genitality. The second refers to the organs, the act, and our capacity of sexual interaction. The first, while including the second, is broader and refers rather to a way of being (feminine or masculine), acting, thinking, speaking, etc… Our sexuality is something intimately intertwined with our identity and cannot be removed as if it were something external to who we are. Thus while the gentility can indeed be modified by medical procedures, our sexuality cannot. 

As one Catholic lawyer, Deacon Keith Fournier, put it:

The “removal of genitals and attachment of artificially constructed ones which are absolutely incapable of ovulation or conception, in the case of a transsexual male who tries to be a woman, or the generation of sperm, in the case of a transsexual woman trying to be a man, does not change the structure of reality… The removal constitutes mutilation and the construction of artificial organs with no reproductive function does not alter the gender or sex of the person. Medical science confirms that our identity as male or female affects even our brains. In addition, even the physical appearance must be sustained by massive doses of synthetic hormones.”

In a similar line, the American College of Pediatricians has come out saying:

No one is born with a gender. Everyone is born with a biological sex. Gender (an awareness and sense of oneself as male or female) is a sociological and psychological concept; not an objective biological one. No one is born with an awareness of themselves as male or female; this awareness develops over time and, like all developmental processes, may be derailed by a child’s subjective perceptions, relationships, and adverse experiences from infancy forward. People who identify as “feeling like the opposite sex” or “somewhere in between” do not comprise a third sex. They remain biological men or biological women.

**It needs to be pointed out that the American College of Pediatrics is a non-profit organization of pediatricians and other healthcare professionals. It is not to be confused with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

6. Is Transgender Surgery A Solution?

In an article posted in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Mchugh, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says the following about the venture into “sex-reassignment surgery”:

For the transgendered, this argument holds that one’s feeling of “gender” is a conscious, subjective sense that, being in one’s mind, cannot be questioned by others. The individual often seeks not just society’s tolerance of this “personal truth” but affirmation of it. Here rests the support for “transgender equality,” the demands for government payment for medical and surgical treatments, and for access to all sex-based public roles and privileges.

With this argument, advocates for the transgendered have persuaded several states—including California, New Jersey and Massachusetts—to pass laws barring psychiatrists, even with parental permission, from striving to restore natural gender feelings to a transgender minor. That government can intrude into parents’ rights to seek help in guiding their children indicates how powerful these advocates have become.

So, how to respond? Mrs. Mchugh responds very similiar to the ACP when they say, “A person’s belief that he or she is something they are not is, at best, a sign of confused thinking.” What’s more, surgery does not help the situation.

We at Johns Hopkins University—which in the 1960s was the first American medical center to venture into “sex-reassignment surgery”—launched a study in the 1970s comparing the outcomes of transgendered people who had the surgery with the outcomes of those who did not. Most of the surgically treated patients described themselves as “satisfied” by the results, but their subsequent psycho-social adjustments were no better than those who didn’t have the surgery. And so at Hopkins we stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery, since producing a “satisfied” but still troubled patient seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs.

It now appears that our long-ago decision was a wise one. A 2011 study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden produced the most illuminating results yet regarding the transgendered, evidence that should give advocates pause. The long-term study—up to 30 years—followed 324 people who had sex-reassignment surgery. The study revealed that beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable nontransgender population. This disturbing result has as yet no explanation but probably reflects the growing sense of isolation reported by the aging transgendered after surgery. The high suicide rate certainly challenges the surgery prescription.

There are subgroups of the transgendered, and for none does “reassignment” seem apt.

7. What do we do with the gifts we receive?

As a Catholic, I believe that our God is a God who loves difference. Differences are his gift of creation. “Sex,” for example, is from the Latin verb secare which means to divide in half or to cut. What we see today, is a difficulty or even a rejection of this difference.  To this regard, Pope Francis, in a General Audience address, said: 

“For example, I ask myself, if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it… the removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”

The question then is what do we do with that gift? I believe that the best response is recognition and cultivation. Imagine after having receiving a gift from someone you go and exchange it for something else. If you really think the gift in itself is what is important, you might call this freedom. If, however, you realize that the gift is, above all, a means of cultivating a relationship, you can call this utilitarian swap an offense. There is no greater response to a gift than to recognize it precisely as a gift, to appreciate it in all its details, and then to cultivate that gift so that it become a gift for others.

In this sense, Pope Francis’s words in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia, come to mind:

“Sex education,” he writes, “should also include respect and appreciation for differences, as a way of helping the young to overcome their self-absorption and to be open and accepting of others. Beyond the understandable difficulties which individuals may experience, the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation…

Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation… An appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and mutual enrichment.”

“The young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created,” he wrote. Thinking that we enjoy “absolute power over our own bodies,” Francis warned, leads to the delusion that “we enjoy absolute power over creation.”

8. Don’t get distracted, it’s not only what we are that’s the problem, it’s why.

Still, just because our bodies and our sexuality are gifts doesn’t mean we always see them that way! Indeed, many times God’s gifts can seem almost like curses! In this sense, be it those in favor of divorce, of gay marriage, or transgender rights, I believe they are all saying something legitimate: human existence is dramatic. So too, transgenders have a point: our received sexuality and genitality is a limit. All of us, every day, discover our limits and at times they hit us like a hammer.

Aging, in one sense, is nothing else but a progressive recognition of our abilities and our limits. Little by little, as we wake up in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror, we hear that voice that says: “That’s me?”, “This is it?” “I want to be more!”

Life is a living limit. Our entire existence is embraced and in some sense defined by two moments of extreme limit: our birth and our death. I am limited by what I have received, by my body, my mind, my sexuality, my history, my parents, my family, my loved ones, my friends, etc…

The question is whether these limits are to be considered as purely negative or, instead, as sources of identity, joy, and even service towards others (a wise man once told me: You aren’t going to serve the world through your perfections, rather through your limits. In accepting your limits, others see not only what you can do but who you are.) One is not only defined by what one desires and decides, but also by what one renounces and sacrifices.

According to our sex, male or female, we necessarily live in and perceive the world in a unique, limited way. Yet this limit allows for the dynamic of complementarity to arise in which we both become servants and are served by others. Limits then become the fabric of relationship, love, and communion.

What’s more, as Christians, the belief in Creation leads us to recognize not only the source of all being, but also the fact that there is a reason, a why, motivated by love at the heart of all existence (even when it is muddled by pain and suffering). God created me a certain way, at a certain time, in a certain circumstance, for a reason. This is not to say that He wills or sends certain suffering as punishment (by no means!), yet our faith confirms us in our belief that even in circumstances of great suffering, of disease (be it physical or psychological), this suffering will not have the last word. And only through prayer can its meaning come to light. God is truly Lord of the Story. Under his gaze, no tear nor sigh passes unnoticed, but only in Christ, in our encounter with him, can we discover this.

So, more than denying the limit, the challenge is to discover a why. Helping others to not only overcome limits but also to discover a meaning in them, is perhaps one of the greatest acts of charity.

If we are unable to discover this why, our limits lead us to rebellion or despair (or both). In this sense, I find Kierkegaard’s comments on despair to be very pertinent:  

Kierkegaard speaks of despair in this way:

This form of despair consists of not wanting to be a self, really. Actually, it consists of wanting desperately to be someone else. Such a self refuses to take responsibility. Life is but a game of chance. Hence, in the moment of despair, when no help comes, such a person wants desperately to become someone else. And yet a despairing of this kind, whose only wish is this craziest of all crazy transformations – to be someone else – is in love with the fancy that the change can be made as easily as one puts on another coat. Or to put it differently, he only knows himself by his coat. He simply doesn’t know himself. He knows what it is to have a self only in externals. There could hardly be a more absurd confusion, for a self differs precisely, no, infinitely, from those externals.

On a lighter note, this excerpt from Monty Python’s, Life of Brian (not a movie I recommend!) has, if anything, grown in eloquence over the years as it depicts this same idea as it acts out one man’s struggle against his sexual orientation (this is also a great example for point # 3). 

Our write-up on this video some time back can be found here.  It’s worth noting how quickly societies’ paradigms regarding “reality” can change.  

9. Who doesn’t want to “come out”?

As Queen Elsa of Frozen put it so well in that Disney song we know so well, who amongst us does not desire to “let it go”, to show the world we really are? Who doesn’t lose sleep at night dreaming of a world that celebrates authentic identity, that embraces your true you? This, I believe, is an authentic desire at the heart of many men and women who have declared themselves to be homosexuals, transgenders, etc.

Desires, then, are those motors of the human heart that move all of us to action: desire of love, of friendship, of fulfillment, etc.  They are our God-given grammar, through which each of us is called to write our own story.

Still, not all desires are good and healthy. The human heart is chock full of desires of every kind. It’s is like a field full of both wheat and weeds. Discerning between the two is not always easy. So much so that we oftentimes “decode” our own heart’s message incorrectly. We take weed for wheat and wheat for weed. The Christian idea of concupiscence simply recognizes the fact that some of these desires are good, while others, due to the effects of sin in our lives (both our own and the sin of others), are bad. From the beginning, Christians took to heart (literally) Christ’s command to be vigilant, accentuating the need to guard one’s heart. As such, just because someone desires for something (even since birth) that does not mean that it is necessarily healthy or should be promoted (otherwise every wish/behavior would have to be accepted!).

Thankfully, our faith offers us an excellent criterion for discerning: Christ himself. As scandalous as it might seem, for my point of view, Christ on the cross did nothing else but “come out” (and, here, I reclaim that loaded ideological phrase for its true sense, linguistically, and according to human nature). God came out and showed the world who He is: love.  

In doing so, he also revealed our own human identity and invites each and everyone one of us to “come out” in the same way.

This is one way of understanding Gaudium et Spes 22: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Christ reveals us to ourselves, He uncovers our true beauty, our true identity. And, in doing so, he shows us the path that we must follow.  For Christians, in order to “come out”, to let your true identity show, one must love. It’s not about changing the outside, rather allowing conversion to take place within. It’s not about submitting the outside world to my own will, rather putting my own will in service of others.

For more on this idea, I suggest you take a look here.

10. Opinions that change like the wind… and then turn into hurricanes.

The Italian novelist, Luigi Pirandello, once said, “My opinion is a view I hold until – well – until I find out something that changes it.” The thing about today’s versions of “normality”, “nature”, “human rights” is that they seem to mutate as swiftly as Apple’s operating systems.

This is not necessarily a bad thing (many of the changes have been positive ones). Still, we must ask, what has become our point of reference? As witty the clip from the Naked Gun shows, too often we allow our opinions to be swayed for the wrong reasons.

Religious institutions still may have a voice, but it grows weaker (or at least less influential) with every passing day. Even beyond the issues themselves (homosexual marriage, transgender rights, etc), what is concerning is what or who is becoming the source of “revelation” for today’s society.

Who gets to define normality? Who gets to define nature? If it is not something revealed (the religious perspective) and understood by reason (faith and reason must always go together!), then it is something invented by will. If this is so, let’s be frank: “nature” is nothing other than the plaything of those who have more money, power, and capacity to control public opinion. Historically speaking, this has not boded well in the past, as we will see in the next point.

11. If we kick reason out, what’s left?

In this comically disturbing video, Joseph Backholm, the director of Washington’s Family Policy Institute, recently interviewed a number of “millennial” college students regarding people’s ability to define themselves apart from the impositions of nature.

As we see, this isn’t moral relativism, it’s a completely new, fact-free moral code, one based entirely on consent and harm. Or, I should say, a very immediate, shallow understanding of “harm”. Essentially, the new morality is “you do what you want — so long as it doesn’t hurt me or someone else in a way that I immediately recognize.” The new immorality is any act of “intolerance” that purports to interfere with this radical autonomy. (Source: NationalReview.com)

Thomas D. Williams published this article on this over at CRUX.com, which brought up a few good points:

“All of this may sound like openness and tolerance, but there’s a more insidious side to it. Twenty-five years ago, Saint John Paul II argued that allowing the will dominance over reason and reality will end up leading society over a cliff.

Saint John Paul wrote that in the political organization of the state, the only alternative to reason is will. If things are not based on what is, they must be based on what we want them to be. The “we” in question here is always the strongest, whether expressed as a majority or simply as the most powerful interest group.

Having lived through both National Socialism and Marxist Communism, John Paul contended that the real difference between totalitarianism and democracy is not so much the concentration of power into a single individual or party versus a system of checks and balances, but rather the more fundamental understanding of objective truth itself.

Totalitarianism, he said, is based on “voluntarism”, or the supremacy of will over reason, whereas a rule of law places will at the service of reason.

According to John Paul, “Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people.”

In a totalitarian state, the will of the ruler becomes the sole criterion of moral good and evil. In the case of a democracy, the will of the ruler becomes the will of the majority. Thus, John Paul wrote that a state which “sets itself above all values cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power, since such a criterion, in given circumstances, could be used to judge their actions.”

It is in this light that John Paul’s oft-cited remark can be understood in its deepest sense: “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.

[Updated: Tuesday, May 17th.]

About Garrett Johnson

Garrett Johnson has written 376 post in this blog.

Born in Texas, I fell in love with evangelization when I was 18. A former NET member and a Franciscan University of Steubenville Alumnus, I am now living in Rome and studying for the priesthood.

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