Catholic school policy and transgendered students

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by Edward Furton,

from Legatus Magazine,

When a parent informs a Catholic school that a child will soon present as a member of the opposite sex, how should the administration respond?

Given the confused moral world in which we live, this question is no longer an academic one. Increasingly, Catholic schools will have to settle on policies concerning children who, in appearance and dress, come to school having “changed their sex.” We must first realize that the child is not at fault. He or she may be in a single-parent household where a member of the same sex is absent; the child thus lacks an appropriate role model. Or the parent(s) may actively encourage identification with the opposite sex in order to satisfy some inner need.

The claim that sexual identity is imposed on us by society — and therefore is malleable and subject to choice — is one of the great delusions of our age. Until recently, an expressed desire to be a member of the opposite sex was recognized as an aberration of normal psychological health. The claim that one’s psychological idea of sexual self does not match one’s physical body is termed “gender dysphoria.”

The Catholic Church offers no judgment on particular medical theories, but rather affirms as central to its theological tradition that the human being, as a unity of body and soul, is destined by God to be the sex plainly visible at birth. Baptismal certificates are determined by physiology and therefore cannot be later revised. Any Catholic policy concerning children who present as a member of the opposite sex at school must clearly affirm this teaching.

Although “cross-dressing” is itself problematic, the Church views with special alarm the decision to surgically alter a healthy male or female body so that one “becomes” a member of the opposite sex. These actions are mutilations and intrinsically immoral. Moreover, they do not change the sex of the person, which remains as it was before the mutilation. Parents should be especially vigilant against allowing others to convince them that they should inflict these surgeries on their children.

Having raised these concerns, consider a factor that compels caution. Some children suffer from genuine genital ambiguities or deformities at birth. These may make the external appearance of sex unclear. Internal organ structure may also be missing or inappropriately developed. Genetic evidence can guide our judgment, but sometimes not even this may be possible, for example, among those who suffer from androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Consider the following possibility. A child born with ambiguous genitalia is surgically altered at birth as a means of correcting the deformity. The surgeon, ignoring the genetic evidence, advises the parents that it would be easier to alter the genitalia so as to give the child a female rather than male appearance. This approach is more likely, he tells them, to produce good surgical results. The parents decide to follow the advice without giving due consideration to the genetic evidence.

One can imagine that, as this supposedly female child grows older and experiences his masculine identity, he would eventually recognize that the physical alterations made to his body were inappropriate. He might tell his parents that he now wants to return to his proper sexual identity and mode of dress. Here Church teaching would encourage the decision of the child. The original operation — although intended to be reparative — was in fact a mutilation; it did not conform to the child’s genetic identity.

Thus the presentation of a child at Catholic school as a member of the opposite sex may in rare cases be the result of a good decision. The correction of a previous error should not be discouraged, but welcomed. Given the confidentiality that is rightly involved in so intimate a matter, Catholic schools are not in a position to distinguish between proper corrective surgery and wrongful cross-dressing or surgical mutilation.

As a general rule, the school must affirm that sexual identity is determined by physical nature. Each of us is a body-soul union, and the body displays our sexuality. This identity cannot be changed by personal whim or desire. The Church’s teaching against mutilation follows the God-given law of nature.

From a practical perspective, the child who presents as the opposite sex at school faces potential ostracism at the hands of friends and classmates. The administration should take decisive steps to limit this harm. At the same time, the whole episode presents the school with an opportunity to publicly explain, by way of letter to the students’ parents, the teachings of the Catholic Church on embodiment, sexual identity, and respect for our created nature.

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