A pair of developments in the fall of 2018 helped illustrate once more the need for an understanding of gender and sexual identity adequate to what we know about human sexuality. The first was the Trump administration’s proposed modification of Title IX to define “sex” as either “male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” leaving all “disputed cases” to be resolved through genetic testing. This binary classification of sexual identity would impact nearly 1.4 million Americans who do not identify with the gender indicated on their birth certificates, prompting transgender and gender-queer persons (and those who stand with them) to characterize the proposal as transphobic and anti-LGBTQ+.
The second was the decision by bishops at the 2018 Synod on Young People not to include terms like “gay” or “LGBT” in the synod’s final document when discussing theologies relevant to persons who identify somewhere along the LGBTQ+ spectrum, or simply as “queer”—even though the former term was used in the gathering’s preparatory documents. (Some notes on these terms: When used to refer to identity, the word “queer” distinguishes gender identities and sexual orientations that exist at some variance, on the one hand, with a binary understanding of cisgender embodiment [man/woman], and, on the other, a binary understanding of sexual desire and sexual practice. Both “queer” and “LGBTQ” are shorthand, but the latter explicitly names specific identities. Adding “+” to LGBTQ signals that there are forms of gender and sexual variance beyond those named in the acronym. One such example is “gender-queer,” which distinguishes any gender identity that lies at some variance with the cisgender gender binary, covering persons for whom the word “transgender” does not accurately represent their self-understanding. As others have pointed out, the simple use of the term “LGBT”—even without the “Q” or the “+”—represents great progress in terms of recognition in ecclesial documents.)
Of course, when it comes to the Catholic Church’s conversation about queer persons, there’s nothing new about a conflict over something so small as how to refer to people who clearly already have shown a preference for how they would like to be named. But it has made it more clear than ever that the current theology of sex and gender has run its course.
Just consider how this theology typically, and predictably, is debated today. On the one side, we have comments like these from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, writing against the use of the term “LGBT” in church documents:
There is no such thing as an “LGBTQ Catholic,” or a “transgender Catholic,” or a “heterosexual Catholic,” as if our sexual appetites defined who we are; as if these designations described discrete communities of differing but equal integrity within the real ecclesial community, the body of Jesus Christ.
On the other, we have the words of Fr. James Martin, S.J., writing in favor of the use of “LGBT” in church documents:
Referring to L.G.B.T. people with the name that most now use for themselves is part of the “respect” called for by the Catechism…. Refusing to call a group by the name that most in the group prefer borders on disrespect. L.G.B.T. youth, who are often harassed, bullied and “called names” are especially attentive to disrespectful language.
Two things are worth pointing out here. The first is that both of these statements reflect a recurring dynamic in the Catholic understanding of sexuality: the driving of a wedge between the “doctrinal” approach to queer persons, and the “pastoral” approach to queer persons. Chaput himself emphasizes the doctrinal point driven home by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986: homosexuality is not an identity. Rather, it is an adverse psychological condition. And on this logic—the same logic, by the way, that rightly grounds the conclusion that we should, for example, prefer the term “person living with depression” to “depressed person”—we should not refer to persons in ways that may imply that they are essentially defined by something that they are, in fact, managing.