Heads Spinning

About a decade ago, friends of mine attended a high school reunion at their all-boys Catholic school and met the first alumna: their transgendered classmate.   As society rapidly changes, many of us have a tough time keeping up.  Female alumnae of all-male schools are probably not a big issue for most people in modern times as it was in the days of Dr. Renee Richards.  Chaplain at an all-girls high school, I am told that some of the students there self-identify as other than female, sometimes other than human—so, preferred pronouns can be tricky.  Though I (and many of you) lack understanding for many gender identification issues in this twenty-first century, our minds can still be considerate and our hearts compassionate.

Recently, I encountered a couple who had entered the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony several decades ago.  After raising their children to adulthood, one of the spouses self-identified as the opposite sex and later transgendered.  The other spouse was initially shocked and struck with a gamut of emotions; but after painful struggles, much therapy, and endless conversation, the two worked through their friendship and commitment to one another in a union that they view for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, etc.  They believe that their marriage is holy, both personally (because they deem it so) and canonically (because the church proclaimed it to be).  This might set some religious heads spinning.

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is different from a civil union in many ways, though each is defined as marriage.  The former is sanctioned by our church and the latter by our society.  The former is between one man and one woman while the latter by those permitted through civil law.  Church law has other prohibitions that civil law does not, everything from prior marriage to lack of openness to having children or raising them in ways of faith, certain types of addictions, extreme mental illness, physical abuse, tendency toward abandonment, or incapacity for monogamy…  Yet, sometimes, even when impediments to the sacred union surface years after the wedding, the couple decides to work through the issues and maintain the sacrament. 

We’ve probably all heard stories of past centuries in which an alcoholic husband, who regularly beat his wife and engaged in adulterous affairs, remained in a sacramental union sanctioned by the church because the poor spouse had nowhere to go and subjected herself to misery (through the vow of obedience), tolerating his abuse as part of the “worse” in the promises she made.  Even more sad, church leaders often counseled suffering spouses to stay in an unholy marriage.  I suspect that even ecclesial hierarchy today will admit that the same-sex couple mentioned above is not less happy, not less healthy, or not even less holy than couples who remain in bad sacramental marriages.  The church is much better today at counseling spouses and helping some to get out of sanctioned unions that are clearly not sacred.  But church heads probably spin when those in canonical unions change their gender and want acceptance by the church that sacramentalized their marriage.  Though they change their identity in gender, they keep their identity as a child of God.

I don’t have clear answers, of course, but realize that circumstances in today’s world strongly challenge us, in the church, to talk: discuss, debate, dialogue, and especially discern how to respond with the heart and mind of God.

10 thoughts on “Heads Spinning

  1. Thank you FAther, especially, for even considering a comment on the issue from the church. I always see people as “God’s children”. I don’t know what to think and I don’t understand; so, I just pray. It isn’t the easiest
    situation to cope with. I don’t walk in their shoes and it is all very confusing to me; but, God is our heavenly Father and as we pray from day to day: “Jesus, I trust in you”, I have two gay grandsons and I just love them, I have my whole life. Like I say, I pray a lot! May Jesus bless you. We appreciate good priests like you. JMJ Thank you for you!


  2. Thank you, Father Don, for saying something that needs saying and repeating in this polarized, take-no-prisoner time we live in. As Christians, we are called to discernment and to making efforts to understand.


  3. Thank you Father Don for being so welcoming to all. This is unfortunately not the case in many parishes. We have to accept our children for who they are and love them them whole heartedly. I strongly believe that Jesus would not have turned anyone away… neither should the Catholic church.


  4. I have an adopted daughter how is gay. She is a loving caring woman but doesn’t go to church because she doesn’t feel welcome.
    I also have a niece who is gay and has been with a woman she loves for 25 years. They are a very intelligent, kind and caring couple who do so much for others. They don’t feel welcome at church either. But we are taught that God lives us all, why can’t the Church?


    1. This is one reason I joined Kansas city’s only Jesuit parish, St Francis Xavier. We would love to welcome your niece.


  5. Thank you Fr. Don. It helps sometimes to recall that the “Our Father” prayer begins with “Our Father”. We don’t get to choose who is included in the “Our”. God does. Your comments help us to have a framework to accept and embrace this. You are truly a leader.


  6. Thank you for thoughtfully and wisely addressing this difficult topic. I hope the church will not be quick to make any conclusive statements but to be compassionate and prayerful.


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