About a decade ago, friends of mine attended a high school reunion at their all-boys Catholic school and met the first alumna: their transgendered classmate. As society rapidly changes, many of us have a tough time keeping up. Female alumnae of all-male schools are probably not a big issue for most people in modern times as it was in the days of Dr. Renee Richards. Chaplain at an all-girls high school, I am told that some of the students there self-identify as other than female, sometimes other than human—so, preferred pronouns can be tricky. Though I (and many of you) lack understanding for many gender identification issues in this twenty-first century, our minds can still be considerate and our hearts compassionate.
Recently, I encountered a couple who had entered the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony several decades ago. After raising their children to adulthood, one of the spouses self-identified as the opposite sex and later transgendered. The other spouse was initially shocked and struck with a gamut of emotions; but after painful struggles, much therapy, and endless conversation, the two worked through their friendship and commitment to one another in a union that they view for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, etc. They believe that their marriage is holy, both personally (because they deem it so) and canonically (because the church proclaimed it to be). This might set some religious heads spinning.
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is different from a civil union in many ways, though each is defined as marriage. The former is sanctioned by our church and the latter by our society. The former is between one man and one woman while the latter by those permitted through civil law. Church law has other prohibitions that civil law does not, everything from prior marriage to lack of openness to having children or raising them in ways of faith, certain types of addictions, extreme mental illness, physical abuse, tendency toward abandonment, or incapacity for monogamy… Yet, sometimes, even when impediments to the sacred union surface years after the wedding, the couple decides to work through the issues and maintain the sacrament.
We’ve probably all heard stories of past centuries in which an alcoholic husband, who regularly beat his wife and engaged in adulterous affairs, remained in a sacramental union sanctioned by the church because the poor spouse had nowhere to go and subjected herself to misery (through the vow of obedience), tolerating his abuse as part of the “worse” in the promises she made. Even more sad, church leaders often counseled suffering spouses to stay in an unholy marriage. I suspect that even ecclesial hierarchy today will admit that the same-sex couple mentioned above is not less happy, not less healthy, or not even less holy than couples who remain in bad sacramental marriages. The church is much better today at counseling spouses and helping some to get out of sanctioned unions that are clearly not sacred. But church heads probably spin when those in canonical unions change their gender and want acceptance by the church that sacramentalized their marriage. Though they change their identity in gender, they keep their identity as a child of God.
I don’t have clear answers, of course, but realize that circumstances in today’s world strongly challenge us, in the church, to talk: discuss, debate, dialogue, and especially discern how to respond with the heart and mind of God.