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Intersex: A No Man's Land, Theologically Speaking

Joy Sanchez

William Van Ornum - published on 06/12/14

Look at the definition through that lens: "A psychic disorder of those whose genetic makeup and physical characteristics are unambiguously of one sex but who feel that they belong to the opposite sex." If this translation is correct, and knowing that Father Navarrete is an excellent canonist, this definition was no accident. I believe that it was carefully drafted to exclude those whose gender is medically ambiguous. This specific definition of transexuality was intended to cover only those with no biological/medical issue with their gender determination. Thus, if you fit this limited definition, a person who is medically of one gender but for some "psychic" reason wants to change (e.g., I’m female but I want to be male b/c men have more opportunities), the Church holds this to be a mental disorder that can be addressed through other means.

Now think about this using the rules above. They have defined "transexual" in a very limited way, based on a very clear distinction of having an "unambiguous sexual determination." But, I believe that it WAS INTENTIONAL that this definition did not include those people whose gender identity issues are biological. Why? Because as you have pointed out, the issues are so complex with so many variations that it is legally/pastorally impossible to make one statement encompassing all of these permutations. Thus, instead of attempting it, the Church is remaining INTENTIONALLY silent. And even more heartening, this silence comes AFTER they concluded their study on the issue – thus it would seem that they rejected Dr. McHugh’s argument that all issues of transsexualism are mental in origin. Thus, the theologians decided that the best and most pastoral way to proceed was to not address the broader issue, but to only deal in a very limited way that aspect of transsexualism that they believed they could address.

Perhaps the response above is one that Thomas Aquinas would approve of? Is the Church is not currently addressing the issue of Intersex right now–not out of avoidance, but rather of prudence and watchful waiting as more scientific details emerge. What seems totally consistent with the faith, to me, is that learning about the Intersex condition is important–this promotes both intellectual and emotional empathy. Of course, the most Christian response of all is to understand and accept those grappling with this enigmatic and vexing cross, one that only very few of us have had to carry.

William Van Ornum i
s professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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