The Vatican recently announced that it is “impossible to allow” transgender people to be godparents. In the warped logic of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, identifying as transgender “reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one's own sexuality.”
This ruling was handed down when Alex Salinas, a Spanish man who had been assigned female identity at birth, sought to become his nephew’s godfather. The local bishop originally agreed, but then asked for advice from the Vatican. The Vatican stated, “It is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather and is therefore unable to be admitted to the position of godfather or godmother."
Really? I wonder who in the Vatican knows Alex as well as the parents who asked him to be godfather to their precious son. They apparently saw attributes in Alex that they wanted their son to emulate, and a commitment to the faith that led them to select Alex from among all their relatives and friends for this very significant role.
The Vatican’s declaration that Alex and other transgender people are unfit to be godparents is exclusionary and hurtful. It says to the Roman Catholic Church’s transgender members, to the people who love and care for them, and to the entire church that trans folk are “less than,” and not fully welcome in our midst. It is a blanket statement that anyone who does not fit neatly into binary gender categories is morally suspect, inherently unworthy to serve as a guide to an ethical, faith-based life. In a church where a familiar Scripture reading proclaims that “ there is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), those who challenge the rest of us to experience this literally are told they are even more unwelcome than they may already be feeling.
This declaration is also a sign that the Catholic Church is conflicted on how its transgender members are to be treated. In January of this year, Pope Francis reportedly met with another transgender Spaniard, Diego Neria Lejerraga, in a session that ended with an embrace. According to Lejarraga’s report in the Spanish newspaper Hoy, the pope told him, “You are a son of God and the church loves you and accepts you as you are.” The pope and other Vatican officials are clearly singing from different songbooks here.
In addition, this is another instance of church officials using the church’s sacraments, which are meant to be signs of how grace is present in human life, as dividers rather than builders of community. Transgender people have already been told not to seek ordination or acceptance into religious communities, that their baptismal certificates will not be changed to reflect their true gender, and that marriage is based on the birth gender. Now, they are told they cannot even be sponsors of someone entering into the life of the church.
Church officials are demonstrating a tragically limited, one-dimensional view of transgender people, refusing to acknowledge the deeply spiritual nature of the journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance most trans folk experience. They fail to see how our transgender kin reveal the immense creativity of our God, whose love exceeds the bounds of human imagination and understanding. If they dared to listen, they would hear how many transgender people experience their life in their true gender as a resurrection experience.
The good news here is that Vatican officials represent an ever-dwindling minority perspective among Catholics and, indeed, among most people of faith. As represented by the family who selected Alex Salinas as their son’s godfather, most Catholics are able to see past labels to the complex and unique individual for whom any categorization is inadequate. They trust their own knowledge of and love for the people in their lives to affirm holiness in unexpected places. They realize that God (a being of all genders, no genders, beyond gender) makes Godself known as s/he wishes. God is beyond the comprehension or control of any individual, even those with elevated titles in the Vatican bureaucracy.
The emergence of significant numbers of out transgender people has created perplexing situations that church leaders have never had to address before. I readily acknowledge that. However, taking a dogmatic approach based on human fear of the unfamiliar and unknown does us all — but most especially transgender persons — profound harm. A humble acknowledgement of uncertainty and discomfort, taking time to listen and learn, and the willingness to consider how to apply the core values of our faith in this new situation would be a much more Christian and appropriate response. In other words: Bishops, cardinals, Vatican officials, follow the lead of your people. Get to know folks who are transgender. Accompany them on their journeys. Let them teach you something new about the incomprehensible God. And then, perhaps, you will understand why a family in Spain thought their son would be graced to have Alex Salinas assisting him to learn and grow in faith.