Humanity, Gender, and Language

The NCReg urged study and sharing of Bishop Burbidge’s pastoral letter, which yesterday struck me for some shaky science. Today, I’d like to look at a two-paragraph section on language.

Those asserting a transgender identity and/or seeking to “transition” often adopt new names and pronouns that reflect their desired identity and insist that others must use the chosen names and pronouns. Such use might seem innocuous and even appear to be an innocent way of signaling love and acceptance of a person.

I think I would treat it more as a courtesy, a way of signaling respect.

In reality, however, it presents a profound crisis: We can never say something contrary to what we know to be true. To use names and pronouns that contradict the person’s God-given identity is to speak falsely.

Let me offer an innocent example. I have nephews. Sometimes I often refer to them as “uncle.” Strictly speaking, this is a falsehood. I am a sibling or uncle of their parents; they are not brothers of my dad or mother. It is my awkward way of expressing our family connection with men and boys who live one or more states away. Why do I do it? No idea, really. Maybe it sets me apart from the uncles they know better who are more of a regular part of their lives. It is a term of affection, but we all know the truth of our relationship.

A less innocent example: suppose a Catholic woman has divorced and remarried without procuring a declaration of nullity. Her new legal name is Sarah White. Would Bishop Burbidge continue to call her Mrs Brown and urge us to do likewise? She has a new and true legal name. But she has violated church teaching to get it.

Suppose further her new husband has coined a nickname for her, Sally. She likes it, and asks her friends to call her by her nickname instead of the old name that reminds her, perhaps, of an abusive husband and parents. She is free of all that, and she affirms Brandon White as the man who helped her heal and find peace in her life.

If Sally were my friend, I know that I would make the change as requested. Even lacking an abusive past or any attempt to follow church law. Why? Not because I approve of divorce. I dislike nicknames, and steer most others away from giving me one–so not for that reason either. It is a matter of courtesy. If there are deeper and concealed truths in Sally’s life, perhaps they are none of my business unless and until she confides in me.

The faithful should avoid using “gender-affirming” terms or pronouns that convey approval of or reinforce the person’s rejection of the truth. It is not harsh or judgmental to decline to use such language.

Sadly, I think it is harsh. It seems that people who tread into the uncomfortable waters of sex, gender, and self-identification make some of us nervous. We don’t know how to act, what to think, or how to relate. New names, pronouns, and roles can be difficult to navigate. The Catechism (#2478) obliges us to think the best of another person, full disclosure lacking.

If my gay, intersex, or trans friends tell me they are getting a too-generous share of discrimination, I’m inclined to believe them. In an effort to understand a close friend, I might ask them to share. I wonder if Bishop Burbidge has any LGBTQ friends and if he asked them to share before penning his letter.

In the broader culture, Catholics may experience significant pressure to adopt culturally-approved terminology. However, in no circumstances should anyone be compelled to use language contrary to the truth. The right to speak the truth inheres in the human person and cannot be taken away by any human institution. Attempts by the state, corporations, or employers to compel such language, particularly by threats of legal action or job loss, are unjust.

Well, no. One reason that governments and employers have stepped in is because some people react to being nervous by acting like jerks. Any of us who attended a school remember it. I remember being called “gay” (and insulting synonyms) a few times in high school. Bullies likely noticed I was nervous around girls and was not an athlete either. Sexually active football players likely didn’t know what to make of me or kids like me. They were nervous. They did what bullies do. They bullied.

In school, you reported a bully and that was usually wrong. The administration at my Catholic high school gave lip service to courtesy but bullies ran rampant on faculty and in the student body. There was no recourse to much behavior any civilized person would categorize as rude, insulting, or abusive.

In the adult world sometimes, there are consequences to being a bully.

We must love in the truth, and truth must be accurately conveyed by our words. At the same time, clarity must always be at the service of charity, as part of a broader desire to move people towards the fulness of the truth.

What is true? When I refer to a nephew by “Uncle,” it is true in a sense that we have a blood bond. I’ve reversed the true name to call attention to that relationship as a sign of love and affection.

Sometimes there is an important context to something that is objectively untrue. I was invited to a family dinner once. As we seated ourselves for the holiday meal, I noticed very nice nametags for everyone. My friends’ daughter listed me as “Uncle Serious,” and I suspended my dislike of nicknames. I knew it was a poke at my approach to church ministry. Maybe it was a hint that I should be romantically interested in her aunt, seated across the table from me. When I was in my thirties, I was no longer too nervous around the opposite sex. If I’d still been in high school, maybe I would have slipped the identifying piece of folded, decorated cardboard into my pocket, or scratched out “uncle” or “serious” or both. But what would that accomplish? Especially if my “niece” were watching me?

To be sure, sometimes the LGBTQ person is the jerk. I’m not sure the situation is much different. Christians don’t give ourselves permission to respond insult for insult. We bear wrongs done to ourselves patiently, but some of us might wage a campaign when someone else is unjustly persecuted. If we don’t know a person who self-identifies outside of married male or female or ordained priest or celibate religious, maybe it’s time to broaden our circle of acquaintances and friends.

The Catechism, same paragraph #2478 obliges me to think the best of Bishop Burbidge. I suspect he is a shepherd who wants to give good guidance to the Catholics of northern Virginia. He and others are treading waters that seem treacherous, full of legal peril, and heading into new territory where traditional Christian morality appears to be rejected. If I felt his sense of responsibility, I would want to do something. I think I’d be more careful, knowing what I know about science. As a person who experienced bullies in my adolescent life, I might be cautious in criticizing people who themselves have been bullied. I certainly would get my Scripture quotes right. I think I’d take a little more care and meet more people.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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