Sheila Mengert, J.D.
An Alternate View on Catholic Moral Theology and Transsexualism
Father William P. Saunders in a Herald 10/20/05 article presents a theological argument condemning transsexual surgery. This argument is loosely constructed and the conclusions do not follow from his premises. I believe that an alternate view needs to be expressed since many people look to Catholic moral teaching for authoritative guidance.
The article by Father Saunders begins mildly enough by quoting from Vatican II.'s
"Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" which states the principle that body and soul are a unity. It also states that the body is both innately human and possessed of human dignity and cannot therefore be despised. This principle has as a corollary that the body cannot be viewed as a mere instrument. In other words it cannot be said that we have a body in the sense that we have a piece of property, rather, we ARE body, animated by an immortal soul. This gives the body an innate dignity which cannot be lightly dismissed nor may it be condemned as a sinful appendage to a purified soul. The body itself is holy.
If Father Saunders confined his observations to the above he would be correct from a theological perspective but his article does not do so. Instead, he attempts to argue that transsexual surgery is simply genital mutilation. He quotes the Catholic Catechism to the effect that amputations, sterilizations, and mutilations performed on innocent persons violates the moral law. Even this law has an exception for cases of "strictly therapeutic medical reasons."
Father Saunders errors here are twofold:
First, he forgets the context of the prohibition by the Catholic Catechism which here addresses forced sterilizations such as a totalitarian government might mandate or mutilations such as clitorectomy undertaken in some African nations for strictly cultural reasons. These cases to not apply to the condition of transsexualism. Second, he simply concludes that transsexual surgery does not come under the "strictly therapeutic medical reason" exception but is instead a "radical and gross mutilation of the body." This conclusion is reached in spite of evidence of suicide risk for transsexual persons who do not receive medical treatment.
Father Saunders then goes on to state that perfect duplication and functioning of the new anatomical structures by which he means reproductive capacity is impossible.
He also states that hormonal procedures run certain risks such as cancer. (He leaves out stroke and bloodclots which actually pose a higher risk). These possibilities,of course, would raise the moral issue of proportionality of means. Since transsexual intervention affects issues of lifelong importance and survival issues this test would seem to be met.
Next come a series of unsupported statements such as: "No biological cause of transsexualism has been identified." To this I would answer that certain hypothalmic structures have been identified which raise the strong possibility that transsexualism is in fact structurally determined. But in any case, any condition with the early onset and life-time persistance of transsexual feelings must be considered permanent in nature and based on something deeply personal that if not innate are at least highly resistant to modification by psychotherapy.
Father Saunders also states:
"A man who undergoes sexual reassignment will never be a woman, or vice versa; rather, a man will be a man (or a woman will be a woman), except with a mutilated body and profound psychological disordering."
This a purely gratuitous and conclusory statement based upon only the lack of procreative means of the new genitalia. It makes no mention of the affective component of sex which now may be available for the first time post-surgically due to the profound feelings that define the transsexual condition. It also makes no mention of the terrible psychological alienation of the untreated transsexual who presumably has no genital relations of a coital nature prior to surgery.
Father Saunders then proceeds with a paragraph that must be quoted in full:
"To destroy organs purposefully that are healthy and functioning, and to try to create imitation organs which will never have the genuineness and functioning of authentic organs is gross and lacks charity. Such surgery which puposefully destroys the bodily integrity of the person must be condemned."
To say that I was astonished at this outbreak if not appalled by its callous presumption is the least that I may say. It is no ameliorative that Father Saunders then goes on to counsel that compassion be shown to persons suffering from Gender Dysphoria Syndome. The damage has been done. His suggestion that other spiritual, social, and intellectual pursuits may help transsexuals attain self-worth and distract them from their preoccupation with their sexual identity is trivial and shows a complete misunderstanding of the phenomenon he professes to address with his article. Am I being uncharitable by saying his suggestions are the equivalent of counseling that one fiddle while Rome burns!
His final brief annecdote which can only serve to blame transsexuals for the devastating impact of "this act" on loved ones and the community at large is the acme of misplaced guilt and the only really contemptible section of Father Saunder's article.
That it makes no mention of the life-long agony of transgender persons themselves continues the long tradition of blaming the victim for the discomfort caused by ignorance and prejudice in others.
That such articles continue to be published is a trivute to the incredible lack of imagination and empathy shown to transsexual persons by the non-gender conflicted public. This response by the average person is a tribute to ignorance. When this lack of empathy and insight is done deliberately and under the guise of providing theological guidance though it becomes intolerable and must be condemned to a use a word that Father Saunders might enjoy. His trivial article hardly rises to the level
of dignity where it might justify this lengthy response were it not for the deep damage it might otherwise do to people who are seeking answers to one of the most baffling
conditions known to medicine. There is much in the transsexual condition what implicates the deepest issues of human identity and of human dignity. Though this, my response, to Father Saunders position cannot answer these moral questions for the individual (nor should any article presume to do so) it may serve to suggest two guiding points for moral inquiry in regard to the transsexual condition:
First, that transsexual persons be clear as to their own depth, nature, and motivation for any surgery that they may pursue, bearing in mind the mystery of their own bodies and the complexity of the social environment in which they will spend their lives post-surgically. This principle often goes by the name of the moral principle of the totality.
Second, that transsexual persons understand that regardless of the measures they pursue or refrain from pursuing that they have a dignity before God and that this dignity endures in the face of all opposition and of prejudice. This principle often goes by the name of proportionality of means. A corollary of this is that transsexual persons need not prove their sincerity of feeling and conviction by obtaining a surgery for which they are not prepared and whose results may be problematic. Transsexual surgury and hormonal therapy must be an informed and free choice based on freedom from any outside compulsion (other than that which is innate to the transsexual condition itself).
May these two principles act as a beginning for the moral evaluation of transsexual surgery. If Father Saunder's article had been similarly cautious in dealing with an issue of such complexity it would have been both more charitable and accurate and not have required a response.