Catholic Church is Lucky it’s Just Same-Sex Marriage

Well, the Vatican crackdown on US Catholic sisters continues, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemning, as Mary Hunt points out, a book by the highly regarded nun-ethicist, Margaret A. Farley, and representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) flying to Rome to defend themselves from accusations of “radical feminism.” One of the meanings of this “radical feminism,” in case you’re wondering, is that the LCWR “never revoked a statement from 1977 that questioned the male-only priesthood,” and has failed to speak out against gay marriage, as Laurie Goodstein notes in the New York Times.

But in this world of ballooning sex/gender complexity, these positions are the least of the problems confronting the Vatican.

I began thinking about all this at the first meeting of a feminist theory class I took in a Ph.D. program at Temple University 20 years ago. Students went around the table introducing themselves. Halfway through, a young woman said,  “Hi. I’m so and so, and I’m a lesbian.” Then she paused. “Well, I used to be a lesbian,” she added, “but my partner had a sex-change operation, so now I’m not exactly sure what I am.”

And that was just the beginning. Next there was a newspaper article about women Olympic athletes being eliminated from competition because tests revealed that they were genetically male, something about which they themselves hadn’t a clue. Then there was Suzanne Kessler’s groundbreaking article in the feminist journal Signs about intersexed and ambiguously-sexed infants and the extraordinary efforts of doctors to hide these problems by correcting them in all possible haste, even if they weren’t clear which gender ought to be assigned.    

Since then, we have become increasingly knowledgeable about the complexities of sexuality and gender. One night this spring I came home late to switch on a PBS news segment about kids as young as 3 years old announcing that they were not the sex they seemed to be. Then there was “S/He,” a feature article in New York magazine, on the challenges presented to the parents of such children, including whether or not to allow them to use drugs to block the onset of puberty even before they transition to the opposite gender as teens. 

At the same time, medical research has identified a whole range of intersex conditions, among them Klinefelter Syndrome (males with two x chromosomes); 46 XX Intersex (female chromosomes, female ovaries, external male genitalia); 46 XY Intersex (male chromosomes but malformed, ambiguous or completely female external genitalia); True Gonadal Intersex (XX or XY chromosomes but both ovarian and testicular tissue present, either in one “ovotestis” or with one ovary and one testis).

An increasing number of public and commercial health insurance companies now include defined benefits for sex reassignment surgery, and the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers, have declared the denial of such benefits discriminatory. And intersex conditions are likely to increase, since some of them, at least, are related to the use of pesticides.

It seems that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is already aware of—and opposed to—transgenderism, since one reason for their launching an investigation of the Girl Scouts of America was the admission of a male-to-female transgender child to a troop in Colorado. But what about sex/gender reassignment surgery, which is chosen not only by transgender men and women, but also by adults who believe that they were surgically assigned the wrong gender in infancy?

The very existence of intersex conditions and the surgery to remedy them undercuts the ostensibly unambiguous sex/gender categories invoked by religious conservatives such as the Vatican, the US bishops, and most right-wing evangelical Christian groups. And even among religious conservatives, things are getting increasingly complicated: since 1982, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing them, sex-change operations have been not only allowed, but funded, by the Iranian government, apparently as a remedy for homosexuality. 

When the Catholic Church and its allies claim that marriage exists between “one man” and “one woman,” which kind of man or woman do they mean? The Pope and the bishops should thank the LCWR for limiting its statements to women’s ordination and gay marriage.