St. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Menologion of Basil II. Circa AD 1000.
There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Much has been made of the timing of the publication by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education of their document, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education” [full text at Zenit], during LGBT Pride Month. Yet little attention has been given to the date the document was actually promulgated: the Feast of the Presentation [“the Meeting” in Orthodox parlance]. If one assumed a pedagogical intent from the Congregation for Catholic Education, the selected date celebrates a cast of seeming sexual misfits announcing the dawn of a new age for human sexuality.
Present at the Temple are Joseph, who has specifically not fathered the Child; Simeon, who announces that he is now ready for death upon seeing the infant Messiah; Anna, an 84-year old prophetess who has spent the majority of her life as a widow; and the Virgin Mary. The irony inherent in the biblical account is that Mary and Jesus are there for “their purification according to the law of Moses” (Lk 2:22), as if the birth of the Messiah had actually rendered Mary ritually unclean (Lev 12:1-4). Both Simeon and Anna prophetically upend messianic expectations, announcing to all a newborn Child-Messiah. The feast day upon which the document is promulgated is a celebration of transcended genders, explicitly because in the Incarnation human sexuality is divinized. The Roman liturgy’s responsory for the day reflects this transformation of gender: Zion, let your wedding chamber be prepared to receive Christ your King. The Virgin conceived and gave birth to a Son, yet she remained a virgin forever.
Unfortunately, the Vatican’s Congregation did not look to Luke’s Gospel and the Incarnation for its starting point, but instead to the Genesis text: “Male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). Contrary to contemporary exegesis, they enlist this creation narrative as a proof text at the service of biology, contorting the text to do something it was never intended to do: evidencing the biological and psychological dimensions of human gender.
It would be a similar disservice to attempt a botany lesson from Jesus’ statement that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds on the earth (Mk 4:31) . (It demonstrably is not.) Our Scriptures were written before the fields of science were established and cannot function as proof texts for science, botany, or psychosexual issues.
When the document does have reference to science (#24), using the genetic distinctions of XX and XY chromosomes to differentiate a binary of gender, it conveniently overlooks that our God (who loves diversity), has also created humans with XXY, XXXY, XXXXY and XYY variations. If the document’s authors propose a binary of two genders based on chromosomal differences, contemporary science suggests otherwise.
In individuals with androgen insensitivity syndrome, their genetic makeup is XY, yet because of various abnormalities of their X chromosome, they develop female genitalia and appearance, while remaining genetically male. Throughout the centuries of church history and without the benefit of genetic testing, it is inescapable that individuals with androgen insensitivity syndrome would have been sacramentally married in what, by the definition of “male” according to this document’s authors, would be same-sex marriages. Others would have been professed in religious life as nuns, effectively “male” brides of Christ.
Clearly there is more than a binary of human gender. A theology which is not expansive enough to include the spectrum of human genderedness is not an authentic and life-giving theology. The patristic principle here applies: all that is human was assumed in the Incarnation and is therefore redeemed. By joining Himself fully to the human genome, Christ has made redemption and glorification available to all humans in every gender variation.
What the authors lack is a multi-causal model of gender and human sexuality. It is always easiest to work with binary models, reduced to either male or female. But science is revealing not so much a binary, but a continuum of variation. The multi-causal model adopted by science is a biopsychosocial model, accounting for biological, psychological, and social determinants. If, as the authors suggest, their intent is dialogue, they would do well to adopt this model and articulately add their voices to suggest not solely a biopsychosocial model, but also necessarily, a biopsychosocial-spiritual model. Religion, spirituality, and ultimacy (i.e., teleology) bring important contributions to our understanding of what is authentically human.
Instead, the authors invoke “complementarity of the sexes” (#4) as their model of human sexuality. Reduced to its most crass level, it is a “plug and play” model of human sexuality which extrapolates from a perceived, binary genital complementarity (this part fits inside that part), that the corresponding psychosocial whole is a human male/female dyad of complementarity designed to fit together.
This simplistic model ignores the countless millennia of biological history from which human sexuality has evolved, the amount of sexual variation which we have inherited as part of that evolutionary history, and the multi-layered strata of cultural influence superimposed upon it. Complementarity of the sexes is a model which works backwards from a reductionistic vision of human sexuality which proposes monogamous procreation as the desired end goal and creates a narrative of complementary male/female roles to promote and foster that end. Their eagerness to champion this model of sexual complementarity fails to accompany or dialogue with the diversity of human experience—even if limited to the sexual diversity present solely in the Bible—and even more so with our paradigms of holistic humanity: the Virgin Mother who conceived without a man, and her celibate offspring, the Christ.
If the authors of this document sought a biblical inspiration for their text, they would have done well to look to Jesus’ and the early Church’s attitude toward eunuchs. The situation of eunuchs helps to aptly map out many of the biopsychosocial determinants of gender and sexuality. Castration intervenes in the biological development of gender with its hormonal consequences. The psychosocial repercussions are evident in the fixed societal role of eunuchs in Jesus’ day and the subsequent self-perception they would internalize. Yet in Mt 19:11–12, Jesus upholds marginalized eunuchs as capable of embodying the forthcoming Kingdom of God: they are those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
In the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40), Philip baptizes and welcomes into the church family the Ethiopian eunuch, highlighting the radical inclusivity of Christianity. This welcome is in marked contrast to Dt 23:2, which prohibits the castrated from entering “into the congregation of the Lord.” Clearly Christianity has something new and inclusive to say to the gender non-conforming.
The document takes issue with what it characterizes as a contemporary impulse to “cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning” (Introduction, #1). What it fails to account for is the Church’s own role in cancelling out these differences, recalling that in Christ, there is neither male nor female (Gal 3:28). As part of its own hagiographical tradition, the Church holds up as models of human wholeness and sanctity a litany of saints who lived their lives in the “opposite” gender, only to have their birth gender revealed after death. Among some of these are (adopted male names in parentheses): Saints Anastasia (Anastasios), Apolinaria (Dorotheos), Athanasia, Eugenia (Eugenios), Euphrosyne (Smaragdus), Hilaria (Hilarion), Mary (Marinos), Matrona (Babylas), Pelagia (Pelagius), Susannah (John), and Theodora (Theodoros). This model of sanctity appears to have been a notably female-to-male phenomenon. There have been only rare exceptions of male saints being dressed as women during their martyrdom, as in the case of SS. Sergius and Bacchus, and St. Antonina the Virgin and St. Alexander, who clothes Antonina is his military uniform and himself in her dress.
Disingenuously, the authors of “Male and Female He Created Them” ignore this venerable tradition which is part of our canonized past, and fail to offer these life-giving narratives to our transgender communities. Where the document claims to espouse the stance of dialogue, it falls short of dialoguing with its own tradition. Where the authors view the document’s sexual anthropology as “life-giving” (#31), its effect is likely just the opposite.
A ground-breaking study revealed last year that, whereas religion is a protective factor against suicide in most populations, for the LGBT community it is a discernable risk factor. The study, “Association of Religiosity with Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt” (2018), anticipates that “antigay messaging and internalized homophobia” from religious institutions constitute a causal difference whereby connection to a religious community is a risk factor for suicide, rather than a protective factor.
The document references “dialogue” some sixteen times. However, every footnote and reference is to the Vatican’s own publications and papal writings. It is unconscionable to be writing in the 21st century on the topic of human sexuality without referencing the medical sciences and the lived experience of LGBT people, all the more so when research demonstrates that church attitudes and beliefs about LGBT people can themselves be suicidogenic—that is, suicide-inducing for its recipients.
In the coming months there is anticipated an upcoming document from the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith on gender theory. I’m praying that they exercise discernment, consultation with the medical sciences, listening to LGBT voices, accompanying us in our faith journeys—and yes, dialogue also.
See the extensive Sexualty and Gender section in our Archives by Author.
Addendum 6/24/19: See Paul J. Schutz’s similar response at National Catholic Reporter.
Kevin Elphick holds a DMin from Graduate Theological Foundation with a concentration in ecumenism. Earlier he obtained an MA in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University and an MA in Religious Studies from Loyola University in conjunction with a joint studies program at Spertus College of Judaica. He is a Companion of New Skete, and works as a supervisor with a suicide prevention hotline serving veterans and active duty members. He was one of our first guest authors at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.