Intersex: A No Man’s Land, Theologically Speaking

Joy Sanchez

In a world where God “created male and female” where do intersex Catholics belong?

In the 1920s a philosophy–not a medical discovery–made the arbitrary distinction between “gender sexual identity” and “biological sexual identity.” It was claimed that a person might develop a sexual identify different from the one in which they were born with because of environmental or cultural factors. The work of John Money at Johns Hopkins, now frequently discredited, followed within this philosophical and sociological framework.

The Intersex person is defined differently: the biological facts, present at birth, do not fit the discrete biology of a normal male or female. Because of many medical advances in the past 20 years, there have been many discoveries concerning biological differences in males and females beyond the presence or absence of a penis or vagina. Because of this, it is difficult for doctors, or anyone, to assert with certainty that this person is definitely a male or female.

The following medical conditions, in varying combinations, may be present in what is termed an Intersex person: 5-alpha reductase deficiency; androgen insensitivity syndrome, aphallia, clitoromegaly; congenital adrenal hyperplasia; gonadal dysgenesis; mosaicism regarding sex chromosomes; ovo-testes; progestin-induced virilization; Swyer syndrome; Turner syndrome; and Non-Klinefelter XXY.  

There has been an interesting discussion on the manner in which the Intersex condition is understood within Catholic theology and canon law. This has occurred on “Catholic Answers,” the largest lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization within the United States, operating with the permission of the Diocese of San Diego and listed in the current edition of The Official Catholic Directory. A reader with an Intersex condition wrote in and opened a discussion on one of the forums, “What is the Church’s position on the Intersexed and Transsexed?”

Another reader stated:

I’ve tried for over 3 years now to get a straight answer from the Church as what sex now I’m supposed to be. Medically I’ve been diagnosed with “severe androgenisation of a non-pregnant woman” that has partially naturally resolved but the Church’s view may be entirely different. My letters and emails are usually acknowledged, but none have been answered. Neither has my question been tackled by “Ask An Apologist” here on the forum.

I want to act in accordance with Isaiah 56:3-5, but when I get different answers (or no answer at all) to the question about what is pleasing to God, then I must rely on my own conscience–and being a sinner, I’m terribly fallible.

Another reader notes: “A Vatican text defines transsexualism as a psychic disorder of those whose genetic make-up and physical characteristics are ambiguously of one sex but who feel they belong to the opposite sex.” Note that this does not define Intersex.

Here is what a reader identifying himself/herself as a canon lawyer with a JCD wrote:

The rules: 1. The Church defines its own terms to mean what it says in a very technical sense. Thus one can’t assume that it is using terms in the same way that one would otherwise, and we often misinterpret what the church means when we apply our understandings to its very technical language. 2. The Church legislates only for those things that they are sure of, presuming that it will be speaking to a worldwide audience. 3. There are many issues on which the Church remains silent. Silence in Church law means that there is not a certainty that one can make a general rule. Therefore, one does not legislate until one has moral certainty on an issue. On those things which the church remains officially silent, one then must resort to one’s own conscience, laws governing similar situations, and the advice of a spiritual director/confessor to determine the morality of such an issue. 4. All laws must reflect the Church’s purpose, the salvation of souls.
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