Symposium explores gender identity, ‘question of our era’

| December 19, 2017 | 1 Comment

Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., speaks at the evening session of “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation” Dec. 11 at the University of St. Thomas. The event was sponsored by the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute and the Siena Symposium. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s the question Jesus put to his disciples, and it’s the question people should put to the Lord when it comes to questions of sexuality and gender identity, said Father Paul Check Dec. 11.

A priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Father Check was the final speaker in the daylong symposium “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation.”

“The Church offers a consistent and coherent view of sexuality,” said Father Check, former executive director of Courage International, a Church apostolate that ministers to people with same-sex attractions, and their family and friends. “Everyone is made for truth. … The first rule of pastoral care and of the medical profession is we don’t want to do any harm. Thus, we have to know the good that is within us, and for which we are made.”

Father Check said that for Catholics, there are no “elevator speeches” for helping people understand sex and gender from the Church’s perspective.

“For the Church, these questions are always first personal — individual men and women, individual children of God who deserve our attention in that way,” he said. “The Church is mother, and therefore, these questions are personal for her because they involve God’s children. As a result, there’s a greater challenge for you, for us, because of the need for kind[ness], patience, prayer, charity and personal witness.”

Held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, the symposium explored issues of male and female complementarity, the theology of the sexes, gender identity and transgenderism. The event’s presenters included a medical doctor, political philosopher and social scientist. The symposium was sponsored by the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute and the Siena Symposium.

Opening the symposium, emcee and St. Thomas associate professor of business Jeanne Buckeye told more than 400 attendees to think of themselves as a community standing before the sacred mystery of what it means to be a man or a woman, and sharing a desire to listen, learn, understand and care for one another.

The symposium’s speakers contributed to an overall message of affirmation that men and women have real biological and social differences that complement one another in their relationships, especially as husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers; and that there are personal, theological and social implications when male and female complementarity is discounted, or when attempts are made to separate  the notion of gender from a person’s biological sex. Also addressed were pastoral approaches to people who experience gender dysphoria, which speakers said should reflect people’s inherent dignity; be rooted in love, trust, relationship and accompaniment; and convey truth with respect for the other.

Sexes equal but distinct

The centerpiece of the day was a presentation by symposium organizer Deborah Savage, an instructor at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, who observed that the meaning of what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman is “the question of our era.”  Despite St. John Paul II’s foundational writings on the human person and sexuality, she said, no Catholic leader has yet presented an adequately comprehensive theological account of male and female complementarity.

Scripture and science show that men and women are fundamentally equal but also distinct, and because of original sin their complementarity has become distorted, she said, and the sexes struggle to understand how they should relate to one another. In their complementary roles, she said, men and women give themselves to each other and share in the mission of not only making families, but also shaping history.

“Womanness is not just how I am made; it’s who I am,” she said. “I go to heaven as a girl, not this androgynous thing.”

In another presentation, Dr. Michelle Cretella, president of the American College of Pediatricians, illustrated how male and female differences, evident even in the womb,  permeate human biology and cannot be simply reduced to genital or hormonal differences.

Another presenter, W. Bradford Wilcox, shared sociological research on the ways men and women parent differently. Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Wilcox is the co-author of “Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives” (Columbia University Press, 2013).

Personal experience

The symposium’s first speaker was Walt Heyer, a California-native in his mid-70s who shared his experience of living with gender dysphoria, which began with a childhood desire to be a girl. In his 40s, he upended his marriage and career to pursue sex reassignment surgery, and he began living as Laura Jensen. He achieved what he described as both personal and professional success while living as Laura, and he began pursuing a degree in psychology so that he could help other people transition.

Walt Heyer speaks during the “Many, Woman and the Order of Creation” symposium at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Dec. 11. Heyer transitioned to female and underwent sex reassignment surgery in the 1980s, but later transitioned back to a man. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

His studies, however, caused him to question the psychological basis behind his own transition, and he started to see a new therapist. She diagnosed him with dissociative identity disorder originating in his childhood.

When he was 4, Heyer’s grandmother, a seamstress, sewed him a purple chiffon dress and allowed him to wear it at her house. Two years later, his parents discovered it and forbade it. His father began spanking him with a wooden plank as punishment, and he was also sexually abused by an uncle. Heyer realized that the cross-dressing and abuse had made him not want to be the young boy he was.

After having what he described as a profound experience of Christ that led to a spiritual conversion, Heyer returned to living as a man. That drives his outreach to transgender men and women to talk about “sex change regret,” which is also the title of his website and one of his books. He is married and said he no longer experiences gender dysphoria, and wants to help other people who struggle with their gender to find peace with it.

Building on Heyer’s personal testimony, speaker Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., commented on how quickly transgender ideology has swept across the culture. His presentation aimed to put  what he calls “the transgender moment” into a philosophical and social perspective.

“Not long ago, most Americans … hadn’t really thought much about issues of gender identity,” he said. “Now, any failure to accept or support a transgender identity amounts to bigotry.”

He said that transgender activists no longer purport that a person can have a biological sex that differs from his or her perceived gender, but that a person’s perceived gender determines his or her sex, despite biology. Therefore, with that reasoning, a person’s genitalia and chromosomes have no bearing on whether that person is a man or a woman.

Activists have been successful with this approach, he said, because they root their arguments in who someone “is,” rather than how someone “identifies.” Studies have estimated that the U.S. transgender population is somewhere between 0.2 and 0.6 percent.

Anderson is troubled by the approach doctors are taking with children with gender dysphoria, and that the American Pediatric Association recommends that doctors help such a child live as the opposite sex by administering puberty blockers, and later prescribe cross-sex hormones and prepare for a largely irreversible sex reassignment surgery when he or she is 18. By stopping the natural flow of hormones prior to puberty — an influx of estrogen for girls and testosterone for boys — doctors might actually be stymieing a biological process that would help young people  more deeply identify as their biological sex, he said.

“The best studies … show that somewhere between 80 to 95 percent naturally grow out of it,” he said of children with gender dysphoria. Transitioning treatments also have not been shown to reduce the high rates of suicide among people who identify as transgender, he said.

“There is a community of our neighbors who are suffering, and they’re not receiving the support they need and deserve. There’s a role here for the Christian community to be truth tellers and to be supporting people who are struggling with their own bodies,” he said.

Anderson, Father Check, Cretella and Heyer also participated in the symposium’s evening session, which drew about 550 people.

Jessica Trygstad, Susan Klemond and Bridget Ryder contributed to this story.

Archbishop: ‘We’re seekers of the truth’The controversial focus of “Man, Woman and the Order of Creation” drew attention from protesters. Outside the auditorium, about 10 people chanted and held signs including a cross painted the pink, blue and white of the transgender pride flag. Meanwhile, several St. Thomas academic departments and campus groups sponsored an alternative and concurrent event, Trans Solidarity Day.

Five of Minnesota’s Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens, attended the symposium’s daytime session. Archbishop Hebda also attended the Trans Solidarity Day’s evening event, “Gender, Sexuality and the Reality of Creation: Academic Perspectives.” Father Larry Blake, St. Thomas’ director of campus ministry, gave the event’s invocation. Panelists included St. Thomas faculty in biology, English, psychology, sociology and theology.

Panelists accused opponents of transgender ideology of cherry-picking studies that support their positions and of not listening to the experiences of transgender people, and of using the science of sex differences to perpetuate gender inequality. One panelist also encouraged people to engage in debate on the topic respectfully and not to make assumptions about their ideological opponents.

During the panel discussion, Archbishop Hebda, who was seated in the audience, was called upon to answer questions clarifying the symposium’s content. One audience member also asked the priests present what “you believe the Catholic Church teaches or should teach on LGBTQ-plus, and does anyone think the Catholic Church will ever change?”

When no one else responded, Archbishop Hebda stood up and indicated that it is unfortunate that anyone would have the sense that the Church is not “pro-trans,” because the Church has to be “pro-everyone.”

“You stereotype the Church when you say we’re against anybody,” he said. “The idea is how do we bring people to the truth. We’re seekers of the truth. That was one of the reasons for having a conference. … We have 2,000 years of teaching from Christ as to what it is that we think is our destiny.”

He said everyone is welcome in the Church, and as people “walk toward the truth,” it isn’t helpful to begin with the premise that Church teaching is wrong.

He said he agreed with the panelists that people need to be attuned to human experience.

“That’s one of the ways in which God reveals himself, too,” Archbishop Hebda said. “The Church wants to be able to adapt to those kinds of experiences, but all the time bringing that same central message of Christ. So, is that message going to change? No, but in terms of how it is that people are going to hear that, that’s going to change. But we have to be always present in a way that’s loving, that’s understanding.”

Pointing to Pope Francis’ teachings on “encounter” and “accompaniment,” Archbishop Hebda said, “the first step isn’t judging; the first step is walking with somebody, trying to understand what is their perspective.” An “authentically Catholic” approach, he said, is one in which a person “walks” with another, trying to draw closer to the ideal of Christ.

Ahead of the two events, St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan sent a Dec. 8 email to the university community, saying that its leaders “uphold the opportunity for all of these events to take place and expect them to be conducted in a positive and respectful manner. We also unequivocally affirm that everyone in our community, including our transgender faculty, students and staff, are important, vibrant and full members of the St. Thomas community.”

— The Catholic Spirit

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