Just days after his installation Mass as the new bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Bishop Christopher Coyne gave an interview to Vermont Public Radio on February 2. During the interview, he was asked if there was a plan to reach out to transgender persons who no longer feel welcomed at church. His response was that he sees no reason why transgender persons would not feel welcome. He went on:
“There’s more and more evidence coming forward that a lot of this is biological. That it’s not just something that a person makes as a kind of fashionable choice or cultural choice, but that these, that transgender people are really struggling with the idea of gender identity, and that they have struggled with it for years—and that’s through no fault of their own. And so there’s no fault to be made, actually. This is who they are. … Everyone is God’s creatures. And I would invite anyone to come to the table, and I would hope that none of my priests, most especially myself, would ever say anything that would be hurtful … to transgender folk.
At times, I have to personally say, at times I have kind of been uncomfortable because I just don’t know how to say “he or she” … it’s just getting used to it, it’s not because I feel any kind of personal animosity … or that there is anything wrong, it’s just more what I’ve been raised in. So, if I ever say anything … that some consider insensitive or hurtful, I would hope they would call me on it and say, you know, you got to be more careful about your language …”
Two days ago, The Advocate, one of the foremost sources for LGBT news, ran an online article praising Bishop Coyne for his affirmation of transgender people, but chiding him for not accepting the full gamut of LGBT positions (Bishop Coyne in the same interview mentioned that same-sex relationships fell short of the paradigm the Church proposed).
Are Transgender Persons Welcome to Receive Holy Communion?
The significance of the bishop’s remarks, however, which were not noticed by The Advocate, has to do with the implication that not only were transgender people welcome at Mass, but that they were welcome to receive Holy Communion, which is reserved for practicing Catholics who are not conscious of having committed any serious sin since their last confession.
In context, the phrase “come to the table” clearly seems to indicate the reception of Holy Communion. Catholics, after all, have to approach the altar, referred to by some as “the Lord’s table” when receiving Holy Communion. The question can be asked though, is that really what he meant? In a video released just a few months ago on the topic of why the Catholic Church doesn’t offer Holy Communion to everyone, Bishop Coyne explains that if he were at Mass and knew there were non-Catholics present, he could not say “Everyone is welcome to the table, whether you are baptized or not.” He goes on to explain that the reception of Holy Communion is (among other things) a sign that those who receive, believe what the Catholic Church teaches. In this video, he uses the phrase “”welcome to the table” to refer specifically to the reception of Holy Communion.
It needs to be noted, however, that he uses that phrase in another video about altar girls over a year ago, and there, it doesn’t seem as clear he is referring to Holy Communion, but perhaps in some broader sense of feeling like a real part of the church. We have the idiomatic expression of someone wanting a “seat at the table” meaning that they want to be part of the decision making process and have a sense of ownership. Catholic Household contacted the Chancellery Office of the Diocese of Burlington, but our request for comment regarding whether transgender persons were welcome to receive Holy Communion in the diocese was not returned by the time this story was posted (an update will be posted if that changes).
The question of Holy Communion is still only one part of the bishop’s controversial comments. He explained that transgender people bear no fault. That being transgender is simply who they are—that we are all God’s creatures. The implication being that God made them transgender. With that understanding, why shouldn’t a transgender Catholic receive Holy Communion?
Why Bishop Coyne’s Comments are Controversial
The term “transgender” itself encompasses a wide range of people and opinions. At its most basic level, transgender refers to those people who do not identify with the gender (or sex) they were born with. It can include people who consider themselves gender neutral, those who have undergone gender-reassignment surgery (or sex-change operations), those taking hormone replacement (perhaps in anticipation of an operation), or those who want to be accepted as the gender with which they identify themselves without surgery.
A large part of this spectrum, however, seems to be at odds with Catholic teaching. Of particular interest is what Catholic moral theologians say about sex-change operations.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center, which has on its Board of Directors such noted members of the American hierarchy as Archbishops O’Malley, Wuerl, Chaput, Gomez, and Kurtz, has put out an FAQ on sex-change operations saying, “We are either male or female persons, and nothing can change that. A person can mutilate his or her genitals, but cannot change his or her sex. Changing one’s sex is fundamentally impossible; these procedures [sex-change operations] are fundamentally acts of mutilation.”
The National Catholic Bioethics Center FAQ is not terribly long, and is well worth a read in order to understand how the Catholic Church typically approaches this issue. It is worth noting that the NCBC makes a very strong distinction between persons with genetic abnormalities for which surgery can be viewed as corrective and those seeking to fully change their sex from one to another. The full text can be read here.
This view suggests that transgender persons who have had gender-reassignment surgery or intend to have it, are in fact doing something objectively wrong. Furthermore, many will remember that Pope Benedict XVI, only about two years ago, gave an address in which he condemned the idea of a person trying to deny or change their gender. He said,
“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.”
Pope Benedict’s comments seem to suggest that God made us male or female and that rejecting that identity is a denial of our reality and a denial of the goodness of God’s work. Bishop Coyne’s comments, seem to argue that no, God made that person to be transgender through no fault of their own. Therein lies the controversy.
Photo CC: Scott Maentz
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