When a rising third-grade girl at the School of the Incarnation in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore announced last Summer that she was a “transgender boy,” the school could have said to her that it is not so—that no boy is trapped in a girl’s body, or vice versa. The truth is that each of us is our body; human persons are embodied rational beings. The school could have explained that everyone comes to be at fertilization as male or female. Everyone shall go to the grave just the same. The inherent, indelible biological differences between male and female go far beyond external genitalia. They inhabit every one of the human body’s billions of nucleated cells. Each cell in our body has a sex—the same sex, male or female. The school could have told this troubled girl, in other words, the truth that sex is binary, innate, and immutable.
Besides, the school could have explained that no nine-year old girl could possibly know what it means to be a boy, much less to decide that she really is one.
The little girl’s parents supported her coming out as a boy. If they and she replied to the school that, although she is not really a boy, she feels like one and wants to be treated as if she is one, the school could have replied that doing so would not help her. All such “affirming” approaches are experimental; there is no sound scientific evidence that they provide any lasting benefit to the child. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that such actions are harmful. Wherever a girl is treated as a boy, or vice versa, it delays the integration of mind and body that healthy psycho-sexual development requires. If the imposture persists, that integration may never be entirely successful.
The school could have added that affirming rather than denying that she is a boy also creates a greater risk that, within a couple years or so, she would begin crossing the pharmaceutical bridge (puberty blockers, and then cross-sex hormones) to boyhood. Except that neither she nor anyone else will ever get there. Contrary to popular mythology, no one can change his or her sex. Some people have surgeries described as “sex-change” operations or, more recently, “gender-confirming” procedures. No matter what they are called, they never succeed in providing any patient with the sex organs or the reproductive capacity of a member of the opposite sex. Doing that is simply impossible. No girl who “transitions” ever actually becomes male. She succeeds only in mutilating her female body, and in irreversibly damaging her health.
If the little girl and her parents insisted on weighing the risks and deciding for themselves, the school could have explained that it is not just about this little girl. Far from it. Institutionally implementing a “transgender” affirming regimen would harm all the other students, along with this confused nine-year old. Wherever school officials adopt an affirming policy, every student’s understanding of himself or herself as an embodied rational being—as male or female in body and mind—is undermined. If even just one child is trapped in the wrong body, anyone could be. If one little girl is really a boy, then being “cisgender” or “transgender” is for everyone a contingent matter of fact about how one’s mind and body align—or don’t. If any little girl is really a boy, then everyone’s subjective perception of oneself as male or female becomes the decisive criterion of each one’s sex.
Perhaps the girl and her parents would settle for a permissive, rather than a compelled, affirmation policy; that is, for allowing teachers and students who could not conscientiously treat her as a boy to refrain from doing so, while the rest of the school population went along with the delusion. If the parents suggested this option, Incarnation could then have pointed out how doing that would harm everyone, too.
Any school that permits such an opt-out teaches that one’s sex is not the indelible natural fact that it is. The unmistakable teaching would be that sex is not like gravity, the shape of the earth, the paths of the planets, or any other natural given. Incarnation no doubt teaches students that, if you release a rock from on high, it falls to the ground, and you better pray that no one is standing underneath it. Students who insist that rocks dropped from the roof will instead float up and away would be soberly informed that the belief they hold is false. Incarnation no doubt teaches that the earth is spherical and that it revolves around the sun. Flat-earthers are not permitted to opt out; they flunk earth science. Those who deny the truth of heliocentrism flunk astronomy. Were Incarnation to make the little girl’s sex a matter of opinion or individual conviction, it would sharply distinguish the reality of one’s sex from scientific facts. It would make the stubborn objective reality of being male or female a matter of subjective belief.
The Truth About Sexuality Is Integral to the Catholic Faith
None of the possible responses so far described implicates specifically Catholic faith or Church teaching. None depends for its cogency on anything particularly Catholic about elementary schooling. All of the foregoing responses amount to what any conscientious educator attentive to scientific truth, and who cared about the genuine well-being of the children, could and should do.
When one brings Catholicism into the picture, the bases and importance of giving these commonsense, secular (if you will) responses multiply. The Church teaches firmly that sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. The effects of denying or even smudging this truth are catastrophic for holding the faith. The truth about our bodiliness is essential for understanding and affirming the dignity of each human person. It also underlies more supernatural truths. One could hardly understand the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and Original Sin save upon a clear-headed affirmation of body-self identity. (So, too, the whole concept of the Incarnation, a matter about which the school in this case might have been more protective.) Sex ethics is also in the dock. For marriage is the principle of all sexual morality, in that all non-marital acts are morally wrong. No one who believes that one’s sex is determined by one’s self-understanding and not one’s body could possibly understand marriage as the two-in-one-flesh reproductive type communion of persons that it is.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.” In 2019, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education criticized (in language taken from Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia) the substrate of thinking behind affirming therapies, when it declared that such “gender ideology” effectively “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
The faithful’s understanding of the Church and of Jesus’s relationship to it is also corrupted by disassociating the self from the body. The complex of images of the Church as the “spouse” of the “bridegroom” Jesus is rendered inexplicable by making sex a matter of mind over matter. The Church’s perennial practice and firm teaching that the priesthood is reserved to men depends upon rejecting mind-body dualism, too. That teaching depends to some extent upon bridegroom imagery. It depends more upon the free choice of Jesus who, after all, did not choose for his apostles a dozen people who just happened to be cisgender natal males. He chose twelve men.
The lastingness of each person’s reality (“identity”) as male or female is so integral to the faith’s architecture, that to deny it—even to equivocate about it—is to undermine Catholic faith itself. No Catholic institution could risk that effect. And surely not to affirm that a little girl is really a little boy.
The School of the Incarnation could therefore have explained to the little girl and to her parents that its protocols for the 2020-21 school year would be like the operational norms adopted by some other Catholic schools. Policies put in place by Bishop Thomas Paprocki in Springfield, Illinois, for example, stipulate that all Catholic institutions will “honor” a person’s sex, not their expressed gender “identity.” In the Diocese of Springfield, “all Catholic agencies, including parishes, schools, institutions, departments, or other entities, shall respect the biological sex with which a person is born and shall apply all policies and procedures in relation to that person according to that person’s biological sex at birth.” More specifically, all persons “will be addressed and referred to with pronouns in accord with their biological sex”; “correspondence, documents, and records will reflect the subject person’s biological sex”; “all persons will use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their biological sex” while on school premises.
All of these responses that Incarnation could have given should have been given. Nonetheless, the School of the Incarnation appears not to have said any of these things. At least, what they did surely implies that it did not.
Incarnation’s Misguided Accommodation
Here is the situation at the School of the Incarnation. The nine-year old girl attends school, presenting herself as a boy. She uses a masculine name and expects to be addressed by gender-neutral pronouns. She does not use the girls’ restroom; instead, she goes to a bathroom in the nurse’s office. The majority of the kids in her class in fact refer to her as a boy and use her new, male name. Faculty members have been informed of her preferences. A majority of them, too, have decided to treat the child as a boy.
One reason may be that the little girl’s father is the school’s Vice-Principal. Or was, until November 7, when he announced his resignation in a Facebook post. He added: “I know y’all are excited. I am too. I’m also proud and excited that I finally get to say publicly that my courageous youngest child is a transgender boy.” He updates his daughter’s status on Facebook. Many of his former colleagues applaud; they refer to his child as “him.”
This whole misguided accommodation cannot be attributed to the influence of a colleague or to special sympathy for his troubled child. In fact, the School Handbook stipulates that the “School of the Incarnation does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability or handicap, gender identity or expression”. [Emphasis added.] This language predates the current experiment; it was in the 2019–20 Handbook, too. The Archdiocese of Baltimore also approved the accommodation. It is now Archdiocesan practice to include the italicized part of the non-discrimination policy at Incarnation in all Archdiocesan schools. Even the Archbishop has signed off. Judy Roberts reported in The National Catholic Register that, in a letter to the grandparents of three students in the school who complained about the situation, Archbishop William Lori said that the faculty had indeed been informed of the child’s new name and a request from her parents that gender-neutral pronouns be used for her.
Throughout the current school year, parents who objected to the new order were assured by the school, and by the Archdiocese, that Incarnation supported Catholic teachings. If you are wondering how, note that, in his letter to George and Theresa Fritz (the grandparents), Archbishop Lori stated that no teacher or student was required to use the little girl’s male name or preferred male pronouns. Those who refused to do so would not, the Archbishop wrote, be disciplined. This modest concession to conscience is a Pharisaical gesture, one which cannot conceal the hollowness at the core of the School of the Incarnation’s Catholic identity.