While Catholic bishops in the U.S. debate over gender neutral bathrooms, one church-run charity in India is looking to new ways to embrace the transgender community.
Caritas India, a branch of Catholic social welfare organization Caritas Internationalis, announced the launch of a program earlier this month designed to fight discriminatory attitudes toward transgender people.
“Caritas is open to work with transgender people. I am even open to recruiting them,” Rev. Frederick D’Souza, executive director of Caritas India, said in a statement reported by Vatican Radio.
The group’s initiative aims to combat bias by conducting outreach to transgender communities as part of its development programs, but it reveals the church’s own internal bias in the process.
D’Souza said he hoped the initiative would mark the “beginning of a new school of thought,” in which Catholic leaders offer greater “attention and support” to those dealing with “sexual confusion in their body.”
In the same breath, D’Souza clarified that the outreach would only go so far. By “transgender,” he said, he was referring to a group he classified as “biological transgenders,” which to him denoted those who identify with a different sex but have not undergone surgery.
“We don’t want to confuse the two,” D’Souza said. “We have an opinion on those who undergo sex change, we are not in favor of that. We believe that the natural gender one is born with is what he/she is supposed to cherish and contribute to creation.”
We are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.” Pope Francis
The statement reflects the Catholic Church’s complicated relationship with the trans community. In a document on family issues released in April — titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love” — Pope Francis warned that “an ideology of gender” is threatening to ruin the family structure.
“Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift,” he wrote. “At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.”
The pontiff also recently decried what he called the “ideological colonization” supposedly happening in elementary schools, in which children learn that they can choose their gender.
Francis later clarified his position, saying, “It is one thing for a person to have this tendency, this option and even to have a sex change, but it is another thing to teach this in schools in order to change mentalities.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a summary of church doctrine, makes no reference to issues of transgender identity. There is one section on “body integrity,” which states that “except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”
In 2000, the Vatican sent confidential letters about its stance on gender confirmation surgery to the world’s Catholic bishops, declaring that such procedures do not alter a person’s sex in the eyes of the church.
“The key point is that the surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was male, he remains male. If she was female, she remains female,” the document stated, according to Catholic News Service.
With this statement, the church revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be transgender.
There are roughly 500,000 transgender people in India according to the country’s census, and activists estimate there may be many more who aren’t open about their gender identity.
Despite the presence of hijras, or trans women, in ancient Hindu and Jain texts, negative attitudes toward the trans community have been entrenched in Indian society. Access to jobs, housing, health care and higher education is often a struggle for trans individuals, and a section the Indian Penal Code bars “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
In part to combat this discrimination, India’s Supreme Court officially recognized a “third gender” in a 2014 ruling, which served as an umbrella for the country’s longstanding hijra population and other trans-identified people.
This summer, Indian lawmakers proposed legislation aimed to further guarantee trans right in education, employment, healthcare and more. But activists rejected the measure which would have required trans individuals to attain identification cards in order to secure these rights.
As Robert Shine, associate editor for LGBT Catholic group New Ways Ministry, wrote in response to Caritas India’s announcement, “trans communities in India remain quite marginalized.”
Shine said the charity’s initiative falls short of full inclusion, but marks an important step that other faith-based organizations may follow to combat anti-trans bias.
“This effort by Caritas India is hampered...by not fully understanding gender identity and expression issues at a sufficient level,” Shine wrote. “But the new program plants a seed from which loving accompaniment that is increasingly competent and informed by modern science can grow.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Vatican issued an official stance on gender confirmation surgery to bishops in 2003. The text was likely completed in 2000, and Catholic News Service reported on it in 2003.