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For the gender-fluid, pope’s enlightenment has soul-crushing limits

Pope FrancisFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

I spent long enough in the Catholic Church to know progress there is the stuff of ages, rather than years.

So it feels profoundly naive to be disappointed by the Vatican’s retrograde position on gender identity. The church’s refusal to recognize the worth of trans people, made official via a document released Monday, hardly comes out of the blue.

Yet, here I am: feeling let down, and not for the first time, by a pope who had given us at least some reason to imagine he’d bring real progress.

We are reminded, yet again, that though Francis has taken bold stances on climate change and economic inequality, the enlightenment he brings to the church has real, and soul-crushing, limits.


In its directive, the Vatican called the notion of gender fluidity (a condition supported by science) a sort of flight of fancy: “nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants.”

Accepting the notion that gender can be different from the sex assigned at birth threatens marriage between a man and a woman, the only kind that is valid, the document asserted.

The tone was deaf to nuance — and to humanity. The pope’s writers barely hint that the lives and hearts of real people are at stake here.

The timing of the announcement is also pretty lousy. It comes not just during Pride Month, but also as the rights of trans Americans are under attack. The Trump administration has banned them from serving in the military and is trying to strip away legal protections left and right.

“It felt cruel,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, who heads Dignity USA, which advocates for the rights of LGBT Catholics. “It really plays into the whole culture war supported by the current administration.”


Many progressive Catholics will be little affected by the Vatican position, because they will ignore it. A large majority of them support transgender rights. They know well that survival in the church means separating the parishes they love from the retrograde notions of the hierarchy.

“It doesn’t take away from my dignity, and the love God has for me,” said Michael Sennett, a transgender man who has felt fully supported by his family, his Catholic university, and the church at Boston College where he now works (and for which he wants to be clear he does not speak): “My trans identity was celebrated as part of me, not shunned.”

But Sennett, 23, knows the Vatican position will drive less fortunate transgender kids further into the closet, validating the intolerance and hostility directed at them.

“I know what it’s like to be struggling with your gender,” he said, “and wondering, ‘Will God love me? Am I going to go to hell?’ ”

The church’s latest word can only heighten the risk of persecution, especially in parts of the world where such cruelties are rife.

“To hear from the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world that you just don’t fit into God’s plan . . .,” Duddy-Burke said, “is a lot of burden to put on someone.”

The church’s rejection smarts all the more because Pope Francis has, at times, said loving things about gay and trans Catholics. He has said he has no right to judge someone for being gay. And that gays and others who had been offended or exploited by the church “must be respected and accompanied pastorally,” and deserve an apology.


Last year, he told a gay survivor of clergy abuse that his sexual orientation comes from God: “God made you like this and he loves you,” he reportedly said.

But this same pontiff has also said things that would delight the most reactionary of his predecessors:

He has questioned the fitness of gays and lesbians to be priests and nuns, spoken of homosexuality as “fashionable,” and compared arguments that gender is fluid to existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and genetic manipulation, which do not “recognize the order of creation,” in which God placed man and woman at the summit.

This is whiplash-inducing stuff for those who had dared to hope.

“There have been these times when you think something is going to change, and then the door slams,” Duddy-Burke said.

But she and other gay and trans Catholics will keep knocking.

They’ll stay with the church, even though its leaders don’t deserve them.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.