(By John Wijngaards*)
It drew attention to some careless formulations in ‘Appendix Three’ that may have given the impression I endorse the Vatican’s binary, cisgender agenda. Far from my mind I assure you! In fact, the Wijngaards Institute, which I founded, is in the process of publishing a new international study we conducted on the Church’s inadequate response to and teaching about LGBT+ Catholics.
In my view, a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation should not be an obstacle to diaconal, priestly or episcopal ordination. A person is a person and every baptised person shares in Christ’s prophetic, royal and priestly mission and is therefore, in principle, enabled to receive the sacrament of ordination.
An exciting development in this field of research is being conducted by Dr Ally Kateusz, a senior research associate at the Wijngaards Institute.
She is currently working on a project about the way Jesus was remembered as intersex in the early Christian era – i.e. he was presented as gender fluid in art.
She delivered a fascinating lecture on this topic earlier in the year as a guest of Women’s Ordination Worldwide (video link here – starts at minute 16: Intersex Jesus). Her exploration of enigmatic representations of Jesus show that the early Christians were not fixated on gender binary conformity and I personally am inspired to emulate this attitude!
In an article for the Westar Institute, Ally provides literary evidence that the first-century ideal of a male- female Jesus encouraged second-century Jesus followers to abandon cultural gender roles:
“Is it possible that the Jesus followers believed Jesus was intersex? That is, that the child Jesus was born with both male and female genitals? If Jesus were intersex, this might explain the omission of any physical description in the gospels—perhaps the writers were concerned that an intersexual messiah would be less auspicious in Roman culture than in Jewish culture, where Genesis 1:27 could suggest that the child was born in the divine image, male and female. The image of Jesus as intersex provides an additional layer of understanding to Paul’s description of Jesus in Galatians 3:28, that: ‘There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus‘”.
Transgender priests in the Middle Ages
It is also interesting to note that, in previous centuries, some transgender persons were ordained as priests. Emerging European societies, from a thousand years ago, recognised the phenomenon of ‘transgender’ people.
Scholar Miri Rubin has shown that the challenge of that time was whether to treat them as ‘men’ or ‘women’, since the system could only think in binary gender concepts. Accordingly, society allowed for them to could choose which sex they could ‘commit to’ but they were then legally bound to remain faithful to that choice.
For Church authorities the question of ordaining transgender people arose. It is possible that, on the same principle, ordination was granted by some local bishops to a person who had ‘chosen’ to identify as male. However, others may have demanded a more objective norm. The monk Huguccio, an Italian professor at Bologna and later bishop of Ferrara, wrote an influential commentary on church law called Summa Decretorum in 1188. He responds to the question of ordination in the following words:
“If he has a beard and always wants to engage in manly activities and not in those of women, and if he always seeks the company of men and not of women, it is a sign that the masculine sex predominates in him and then he can be a witness where a woman is not allowed, namely with regard to a last will and testament, and he also can be ordained a priest.
“If he however lacks a beard and always wants to be with women and be involved in feminine works, the judgment is that the feminine sex predominates in him and then he should not be admitted to giving any witness wherever women are not admitted, namely at a last will and testament, neither can he/she then be ordained because a woman cannot receive holy orders.” (Summa Decretorum, Causa 27, quaestio 1, chapter 23, ad v.)
The Vatican’s view of strict binary gender identities and roles today means that a transgender person could not be ordained unless they were assigned the male gender at birth and present themselves in what they deem to be a ‘traditionally male’ way. It is this strict exclusion of women and non-binary people that we must continue to challenge.
There is growing evidence that both gender and sexual orientation are on a spectrum. It is also likely there are distinctive gifts and talents associated with each of the many wonderful varieties of being human within such a spectrum. If so, the Church, by banning a huge section of that spectrum from the ordained ministries, deprives the community of believers of an incalculable wealth of charisms.
In writing Appendix Three of my book, I was seeking to explain gender roles as seen through the lens of Vatican teaching. And, as a priest who studied theology in Rome in the 1960s alongside many of today’s Bishops and Cardinals, I understand how their thinking about the charisms of what can be classed as traditionally female traits is an important perspective.
If we accept the evidence that ‘feminine traits’ include compassion and nurturing tendencies and we accept the fact that the role of the priest is primarily one of teaching, healing, and providing loving support, how can we continue to allow the Vatican to deny admission to the priesthood to women and persons with a gender identity not recognised as a ‘baptised male’.
It is something I repeatedly point out in my book: every baptised person can represent Christ. Every baptised person, whatever gender identity, can contribute in a unique way to the needs of the community.
*John Wijngaards is the founder of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.