Friday, January 9, 2009

Another “Galileo Moment” from the Vatican?

Benedict XVI’s 2008 Christmas greeting message to the Roman Curia and Prelature, given on December 22, 2008, is finally available in an official English text from the Vatican website. Not having an official English translation previously made it more difficult to divine the exact meaning of the Pope’s words.

There is a controversial part of the address which was interpreted in the press as being a condemnation of transsexuality, homosexuality, or both, depending on how the translation was made into English from the previously available Italian or German versions. While I am aware of (and disagree with) the Vatican position on transsexual people from the 2003 Catholic News Service news report of a leaked Year 2000 “sub secretum” document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after reviewing the official English translation, I am not entirely sure that the Pope’s statement really constitutes a condemnation of my people. But the Pope’s talk can be interpreted as an attack on feminism, gay marriage, and “gender” that isn’t based on birth-genital-essentialism.

Here is the relevant portion:

“Since faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian creed, the Church cannot and must not limit herself to passing on to the faithful the message of salvation alone. She has a responsibility towards creation, and must also publicly assert this responsibility. In so doing, she must not only defend earth, water and air as gifts of creation belonging to all. She must also protect man from self-destruction. What is needed is something like a human ecology, correctly understood.

If the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected, this is not some antiquated metaphysics. What is involved here is faith in the Creator and a readiness to listen to the “language” of creation. To disregard this would be the self-destruction of man himself, and hence the destruction of God’s own work.

What is often expressed and understood by the term “gender” ultimately ends up being man’s attempt at self-emancipation from creation and the Creator. Man wants to be his own master, and alone – always and exclusively – to determine everything that concerns him. Yet in this way he lives in opposition to the truth, in opposition to the Creator Spirit.

Rain forests deserve indeed to be protected, but no less so does man, as a creature having an innate “message” which does not contradict our freedom, but is instead its very premise.

The great scholastic theologians described marriage, understood as the life-long bond between a man and a woman, as a sacrament of creation, which the Creator himself instituted and which Christ – without modifying the “message” of creation – then made part of the history of his covenant with humanity.

An integral part of the Church proclamation must be a witness to the Creator Spirit present in nature as a whole, and, in a special way, in the human person, created in God’s image.

From this perspective, we should go back to the Encyclical Humanae Vitae: the intention of Pope Paul VI was to defend love against sex as a consumer good, the future against the exclusive claims of the present, and human nature against its manipulation.”

Time Magazine’s brief commentary, based on earlier unofficial translations indicated:

“Without actually using the word [transsexual], Benedict took a subtle swipe at those who might undergo sex-change operations or otherwise attempt to alter their God-given gender. Defend "the nature of man against its manipulation," Benedict told the priests, bishops and cardinals gathered Monday in the ornate Clementine hall. "The Church speaks of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this order is respected." The Pope again denounced the contemporary idea that gender is a malleable definition. That path, he said, leads to a "self-emancipation of man from creation and the Creator."”

I think it may be a stretch to call this a “subtle” swipe at transsexuals, without looking at the background that leads ti this conclusion. It would require a misunderstanding of the nature of transsexuality to come to this conclusion. Of course, there is every indication of serious error in the Roman Catholic Church’s approach to transsexual people that involves just such a misunderstanding.

There is very little in the way of official and available doctrinal material published by the Church on the subject of transsexuals. The most prominent item is a “sub secretum” document sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to papal nuncios in the year 2000, and then distributed to bishops in 2002 (and then leaked to Catholic News Service in February 2003). My only source for the test is the tantalizingly brief CNS report – I have never seen the actual document.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After years of study, the Vatican's doctrinal congregation has sent church leaders a confidential document concluding that "sex-change" procedures do not change a person's gender in the eyes of the church. Consequently, the document instructs bishops never to alter the sex listed in parish baptismal records and says Catholics who have undergone "sex-change" procedures are not eligible to marry, be ordained to the priesthood or enter religious life, according to a source familiar with the text. The document was completed in 2000 and sent "sub secretum" (under secrecy) to the papal representatives in each country to provide guidance on a case-by-case basis to bishops. But when it became clear that many bishops were still unaware of its existence, in 2002 the congregation sent it to the presidents of bishops' conferences as well. "The key point is that the (transsexual) surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was male, he remains male. If she was female, she remains female," said the source.

From what I can glean from the news reports, the position announced secretly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appears to be a “birth-genital- essentialist” view, that gender identity is determined by the physiology of one’s genitalia at the time of birth. Genitalia develop along one of two duct systems wolffian and mullerian, both of which are present during fetal development. The duct system that remains undeveloped eventually withers away after birth. The result of the Church’s genital-based essentialism is the belief that there are only two possible sex assignments, each based on genital shape at birth.

This genital essentialism fails to take into account the physiological development of the entire fetus. Focus solely on genitals, though, and in better than 99.9% of all people, the other physiological developments, particularly in the brain, are consistent with genital development, and thus, for those people, the Church’s genital-based essentialism actually seems to work.

However, the Church ignores the scientific evidence of different physiological development in the makeup of transsexual brains that leads to a gender identity that is opposite that which is expected based on genital expectations. This leads to an erroneous understanding of te nature of that one-in-a-thousand who does not fit into the societal and Church expectation of gender.

The psychological factor of gender identity has a physiological basis in brain structure, according to the most recent scientific authority. This was first identified in a Dutch study made in 1994. While in most people the brain structures are in accord with the external genitalia, which is not true with transsexuals and transgender individuals.

The physiological situation with genital formation is also not clear-cut in all cases. In addition to male and female, there are intersexed individuals. Intersex is the current term that covers persons formerly identified as hermaphrodites, that is persons with genital structures that contain some of the elements commonly attributable to “male” and some elements commonly attributable to “female” sex assignments. It also includes those individuals with chromosomal variations that vary from standard XX and XY in the 46th chromosome. In addition, there are persons with XY chromosomes who have an insensitivity to androgens, whose chromosomes are technically “male” but whose bodies develop into a “female” form because of an inability of their cells to process testosterone.

The social issues relating to transgender, transsexual and intersexed individuals are not easily dismissed. We are not some sort of new phenomenon, we have been around since the dawn of human history. Scientists, no longer blinded by ancient Aristotelian pronouncements or Victorian Darwinian theory regarding “sexual selection” have begun to observe that binary gender is not the universal rule, even in the animal kingdom, often used as a rationale for observations of natural law.

It is easy for the Church hierarchy to dismiss a tiny minority of people who are different as being “disordered,” rather than recognizing the serious error the Chuch itself has made in its birth-genital-essentialist assumptions.

The Church hierarchy uses a very selective interpretation of sacred scripture to come to the conclusion that humanity is divided into male *or* female.

If we refer to the Bible and other ancient sources, it is clear that intersexed, transgender and transsexual people existed in biblical times. There are over twenty references in biblical texts to “eunuchs.” This is a catchall for a number of different sexual minorities not classified in accordance with the binary in accordance with external genitalia.

The clearest recognition of this comes in Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus is quoted describing different sorts of eunuchs. Some are born eunuchs, some are made eunuchs by human intervention, and some become eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was careful as to the last, stating that only those who can accept this should accept it.

If we look at the Pope’s 2008 Christmas greeting message to the Curia and Prelature on one level, it would seem to be first an attack on feminist philosophy that stresses equal human rights and dignity. Just in March 2008, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a ruling against “gender-neutral” references to God, such as “The Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” and reaffirmed the patriarchal formulation of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Cardinal Urbano Navarrete (a Jesuit priest recently elevated to the rank of Cardinal in a rare case of receiving the rank without being ordained a bishop, who is also one of the Vatican’s “experts” on transsexuals) penned the official commentary of the ruling. Any baptism using a gender-neutral inclusive formulation has been ruled to be invalid.

On another level, the Pope’s Christmas greeting to the Curia and Prelature is yet another of the Church’s attacks on gender-neutral marriage. The Church can only legitimately speak to sacramental marriage for members of the Church, and not to the secular civil recognition of marriage and marriage rights. For the Church to go beyond the sacramental issue and to widen the scope to insist that its official prejudice be inscribed into secular law, is an outrage, especially in nations such as the United States that recognize the free exercise of religion, and prohibit the government from imposing a religious belief on the people as a matter of law.

If the Pope’s statement Is to be construed as an attack on the transgender community, it requires an acceptance of the prerequisite genital-based “gender essentialism” which is the first fallacy in the Church’s gender identity structure. And we know from what little material there is that is available, that this is the Church position – so I must conclude that even if the language may make it seem a bit less clear, the Pope’s message may fairly be construed as yet another demeaning of the transgender community.

The scriptural reading on which we should meditate when we read the Pope’s message is Matthew 7:15-27 (Douay-Rheims translation):

15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

16 By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.

21 Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.

22 Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.

24 Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock,

25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.

26 And every one that heareth these my words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand,

27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof.

Benedict XVI is one of these false prophets – he wears the mantle of the shepherd of the flock, but by showing that he has little concern for different sheep, he reveals his ravening wolf nature. By basing his, and the Church’s, arguments on false premises that are against scientific wisdom, he is like the tree that bears evil fruit, or the man who builds his house on a foundation of shallow sand without deeply-rooted pilings.

The message as against feminism? The Catholic Church bears the evil fruit of patriarchal domination. One need only read German Theologian Uta Ranke Heinemann’s work “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” to get a grasp of the sexist misogyny that has gripped the Roman Church from the time of the Church Fathers in the fourth century.

The message as against gender-neutral marriage? Many of the documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the issue of homosexuality are based on false interpretation of sacred scripture.

The message as against transsexual and transgender people? The foundation of the Church’s “sub secretum” teaching is founded on the shallow sand of an ill-conceived understanding of natural law, based more on Aristotle and “Scholastic theologians” than on the observations of modern science. It is a teaching that, like the condemnation of Galileo, will not stand up to the rain, the flood, and the wind of rational scientific inquiry.

When God created human beings, we were created “male and female” in the image and likeness of God – this means that God is “male and female” for us to be created in God’s image. And each of us, individually, is not only male or only female, but is “male and female,” just as God is. Indeed, some may be “mostly male” and others “mostly female” and still others may have distinct parts that developed ion different directions. But we are all children of God.

Benedict’s word’s are truly based on “antiquated metaphysics” and are not rooted in science or natural law. When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as “man and woman,” Benedict means rather “man *or* woman” – and he disregards the “language of Creation” found in his own Sacred Scripture.

In the past year, a Reform Rabbi from Pleasantville, New York, reported on his discovery of a hidden Name of God found in the Tetragrammaton (the four letters that represent “the Name of God” – usually rendered in English as YHWH). The Rabbi realized that if the Tetragrammaton were to be read and pronounced *backward* it would result in the Name of God working out as Hebrew (hu/hee) for “He/She” – which correlates directly with the clue found in Genesis 1:27 – that “male and female” is the image and likeness of God.

Rabbi Mark Sameth writes in his article, after thirteen years of research, “If we read the text as a mystic might, paying extremely close attention, assuming that the text conceals more than it reveals, we may find hints regarding God’s androgynous nature, so to speak, peeking out through the surface level of the Torah.” He comes to the conclusion, correctly I think, that the God of the Israelites was not a masculine, patriarchal deity, but a he/she bi-gendered God. This is a far cry from the sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic utterances of Benedict XVI – stated in soft tones and with great apparent concern for the welfare of humanity, but with the sharp teeth and fangs showing beneath the mantle.

Against this backdrop of an all-inclusive God, the Roman Catholic Church’s ruling clinging to masculine-gendered terminology for the Trinity even more “antiquated” and illogical. Of course, recognizing a bi-gendered God might mean that the Vatican would have to revisit the idea of the eligibility of women for the priesthood, and the eligibility of transgender people for any kind of religious vocation.

The Roman Catholic Church eventually “got it” when it came to Galileo, even if it took nearly 400 years for Benedict XVI’s predecessor John Paul II, to get around to apologizing for the Inquisition’s actions under Urban VIII, and rehabilitating Galileo, previously found to have been a heretic.

Perhaps Benedict XVI could learn from this quote from Galileo “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how to go to heaven and not how to go to the heavens.”

Maybe Benedict might work on helping Roman Catholics make their own marriages work better, rather than imposing on a secular world the narrow, ill-conceived antiquated, outdated and and unscientific views of the Church on the rights of women, gays and trans people. When the Church meddles with Caesar, it is as bad as Caesar meddling with the Church.



  2. Aberrant would dovetail nicely with the hierarchy's idea that having Harry Benjamin Syndrome (HBS - one medical term for transsexuality) is "disordered."

    So I won't agree with you there, though, yes, transsexuality is rare. Just because God made us different does not make us aberrant.

    On one level, your point about what the Pope "obviously meant" is a perfectly sensible conclusion to make, but the underlying issue is the question of "what is our God-given sexuality?"

    For a cissexual person, the answer is very easy - a cissexual person has a brain and genitals that developed in the same sex direction. So birth-genital essentialism works for cissexuals, where it does not work for transsexuals.

    On the other hand, if we were to focus on the brain development as the seat of "gender identity" and as one's God-given gender, that would work for cissexual people and transsexual people alike.

    The Hierarchy's error regarding transsexuals is not very different from Pope Urban's insistence on upholding the Ptolomaic throry over the Copernican.

    Transsexual people do not "experiment" with our God-given sexuality - what the proper medical treatment does is bring our bodies into alignment with the way our brains developed. It really is not any different than treating someone's "God-given" cleft palate or spina bifida.

    Thank you for your comment - (aside from the "aberrant" bit). I don't think there is a significnt disgreement on the principle of not messing with our natural God-given sexuality - it's the scientific detail where we seem to part company - what, ultimately, is "natural" and can God create people whose nature is different from the nature ofthe majority?