Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A coalition of Catholic bishops and other conservative religious leaders have signed a statement that says transgender identity is based on a "false idea" and that government entities have a "compelling interest ... in maintaining policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology." 

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The open letter, which has been criticized by LGBT advocacy groups, recalls a similar coalition among conservative religious leaders that unsuccessfully fought against the legalization of same-sex marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized nationwide in 2015.

The Dec. 15 letter says the issue of gender identity reflects a “more fundamental precept of our shared existence, namely, that human beings are male or female and that the socio-cultural reality of gender cannot be separated from one’s sex as male or female.”

The statement in particular opposes the use of hormonal therapy on children, which it says could render them infertile as adults. 

“Gender ideology harms individuals and societies by sowing confusion and self-doubt,” it says. “The state itself has a compelling interest, therefore, in maintaining policies that uphold the scientific fact of human biology and supporting the social institutions and norms that surround it.”

LGBT advocacy groups disputed the letter.

“The statement perpetuates the double falsehood that gender is a choice and that children are being encouraged to think of gender as a choice,” said a written response by Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for affirmation of LGBT people by the Catholic Church and society.

Mr. DeBernardo said the letter assumes “gender is determined only by genitalia, a view which modern science and people’s experience have shown to be insufficient. Gender is also determined by other biological factors, often not immediately visible, such as hormones, genetics, brain composition, and internal self-understanding.”

The religious leaders’ letter carries the signatures of four Catholic bishops who head committees relating to family and government policy on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

They include two from Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera, who respectively chair committees relating to family and inter-religious cooperation. It also is signed by a former conference president, Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, now chair of its religious-liberty committee, and Lincoln, Neb., Bishop James Conley, of a subcommittee on marriage.

Other signers include Pittsburgh Archbishop Melchisedek of the Orthodox Church in America and the top ecumenical officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and the leader a Washington-area Muslim organization.

Among various conservative Protestant signers are leaders in the Anglican Church in North America, the North American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and the Presbyterian Church in America.

Not signing the letter are anyone from these denominations’ liberal counterparts — the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which have taken stances in favor of LGBT rights.

The letter calls for “compassion, mercy and honesty” while holding firm to traditional beliefs on gender.

“A person’s discomfort with his or her sex, or the desire to be identified as the other sex, is a complicated reality that needs to be addressed with sensitivity and truth,” the letter says.

It adds: “The movement today to enforce the false idea — that a man can be or become a woman or vice versa — is deeply troubling. It compels people to either go against reason — that is, to agree with something that is not true — or face ridicule, marginalization, and other forms of retaliation.”

The Rev. Janet Edwards, a Pittsburgh minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who was active in the successful efforts to overturn that denomination’s bans on ordaining and marrying gays and lesbians, took issue with the letter.

“I accept the signers’ sincerity but I find it lacking in respect for the lived experience of these courageous people whose lives are at risk when they claim their sense of what exactly God made them to be,” she added via email. “These church leaders think they have the power to define these people, insisting they must be either male or female, when they do not have that power.”

Mr. DeBernardo added: “To force someone to live inauthentically is neither healthy nor holy.”

Archbishop Melchisedek endorsed the letter and said there’s a strong, historic consensus on the issue within Orthodoxy and his Archdiocese of Western Pennsylvania.

“I think most people would say this is not a path we would encourage people to walk on,” he said.

Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik said he hadn’t seen the letter before it came out, but he agreed with its call for a compassionate, pastoral response while also upholding the belief, which Pope Francis has voiced, that sexual difference is created by God.

“It’s very important that because we take this position around God as creator, it’s equally important we don’t find ourselves in a camp that dismisses people who are struggling with their sexual identity,” he said. “I can only imagine what that must be like. Because of who I am as a pastor, it means I need to work with those with this particular struggle.”

And while surgical and hormonal procedures are now used for what’s called gender reassignment, just “because we can do something medically, it doesn’t mean we should do it,” he said.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

First Published December 21, 2017, 2:05pm