Mary Johnson’s Transsexual Problem UPDATED

Over on Patheos Atheist, a woman named Mary Johnson, who is described as “a nun with Mother Teresa’s order for 20 years” and “a trusted assistant to Mother Teresa” shares some very short and not particularly illuminating answers about her journey from faith to atheism. I have no idea if her claims about her vocation are true or not, but one of her answers struck me because it was simply rubbish:

I had a friend who was transgendered. When the Church came out with a document saying that transgendered people are actually just sort of making the whole thing up, I realized how often the Church claimed to know reality, but that they often didn’t know what they were talking about at all. It became so clear that they were trying to fit reality into their system of beliefs, instead of adjusting their beliefs to the reality of the world.

Setting aside the fatuous nonsense in the last sentence, let’s look at this mysterious “document” that caused her to lose her faith. I observed in the comboxes that no such document exists, at which point she directed me to this link, which is a rather hysterical rant by someone reporting on someone’s reporting of a rumor.

A more balanced and accurate version of the story can be found here.

It concerns a report prepared by Cardinal Urbano Navarrete Cortés to explore the place of transsexuals in the sacraments and life of the church. Its main concerns were simple canonical issues. Should a parish alter a baptismal record to reflect a new gender identity? (No, but they may make a note of it.) Can a post-op transsexual marry someone of the “opposite” (that is, same) sex? (No. Obviously.) Can a female to male transsexual be admitted to the priesthood? (No. Obviously.)

It was prepared sub secretum (“under secrecy”) not to hide something, but so it would not be confused with an official teaching document of the Church or an exercise of the magisterium. It was not intended to be pastoral but was for the use of the conferences, and released later to the bishops.

In a reply to me, Mary Johnson claimed the “document” used to be on the Vatican website but was scrubbed, presumably as a coverup of …

… I dunno, our long-held and unvarying position on the subject?

In any case, I can find no evidence it ever was on the Vatican website, or indeed if its content ever reach the public beyond the CNS story linked above. Since the Church does not teach in secret, that alone should tell you all you need to know about the doctrinal force of this bombshell “document.”

Some quick searching did not turn up the report in question (again: it was not intended for the public), but you can read an English translation of the Cardinal’s article “Transexualismus et ordo canonicus“, which was published in Periodica de re Canonica, Vol. 86 (1997), pp. 101-124, a journal of the Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana. (Thanks to for the link.) Although this article is not the report, it likely informed the Cardinal’s approach to the issue and was the reason he was selected to address it.

The article is sober and compassionate. It offers the rather sane and uncontroversial opinion that gender identity disorder is a psychological issue and that surgical and chemical alterations of the body do not actually change one’s gender. It’s informed and intelligent: the very opposite of the “just making it up” story concocted by Mary Johnson.

I assume Mary Johnson does not agree with the Catholic position on the subject, but to say the “Church” issued a “document” claiming that people suffering from GID make “the whole thing up” is simply untrue.

The Church’s position is not a secret: gender is not a social construct but a function of biology. Those who have a disconnect between their physical gender and their perceived gender suffer gravely and must be treated with mercy, compassion, and love, not mutilation. Surgery and drugs can no more change a man into a woman than they could turn a fish into a chicken. They can only create a surface illusion.

Given that Mary Johnson characterized this “document” as the turning point in her de-conversion, it does make one wonder what she’s talking about. Certainly she must have explored the issue in more depth than merely trusting third party characterizations of the Church’s position. It’s a complex position that deserves more than her flip mischaracterization.

UPDATE: Mary Johnson replies here. I guess the key line is: “The ‘actually just sort of’ should have been a clue that I knew I was oversimplifying.”

She characterized the teaching that led to her break with her faith in the most damaging way possible for the Church’s perspective, but I was to grasp that characterization in the most generous way possible. Oh atheists, never change…