Father James Martin has taken his message of prayer and inclusivity everywhere, from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to the halls of the Vatican. In May, he wrote to Pope Francis with a few questions.
“I just wanted to give him a time to briefly talk to LGBTQ Catholics,” Martin said.
Francis has extended apologies to the abused and a welcome to the historically rejected. According to the Vatican News, he recently met with transgender people near Rome, Italy.
So Martin’s questions aren’t so random.
“I asked him, ‘What would you most like them to know about the church?'” Martin said. “He said, ‘Read Acts of the Apostles,’ which was really interesting because there’s a church that’s kind of mixing it up. Then also, ‘What would you say to an LGBTQ Catholic who felt rejected by the church?’ And he said very interestingly to remember that it’s not the church that rejects you, the church loves you, but it might be individual people in the church.”
It isn’t the first time Francis has corresponded directly with Martin on LGBTQ relations or the first time he has spoken up about their place within the Catholic church.
In 2016, Francis agreed the church should apologize to not only gay people but other marginalized groups, like the poor. He’s also called for parents to accept their LGBTQ children.
Francis’ gestures are one thing; changing church doctrine, which teaches that the act of homosexuality is sinful, is another.
“What would have happened really, in a sense, is for theologians working together, along with church officials, to come to some newer understanding of how they can accommodate for older church teaching on these issues, to show that the church evolves rather than dramatically changing,” said Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “Because the church is not going to say, ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ It’s very rare.”
“If he were to do that, which I don’t think Pope Francis will, but if he were to do that, he would not want to do it without support from the Curia and the College of Cardinals,” said Cristina Traina, professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University. “He would not want to do it without tracing a pathway theologically.”
Instead, Francis has gone another direction: one met with both criticism and praise, uplifting LGBTQ Catholics while simultaneously reiterating church doctrine.
NEWSY’S AMBER STRONG: Is he sort of riding the line between saying that this is doctrine and doctrines not going to change? But, we also still need to love and affirm people as well.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: I think that’s a good question, and I think he is kind of trying to straddle that line. But I think one thing to remember is that what seems very bland and tepid in the United States — overseas is a big deal. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Oh, big deal. Of course, you should welcome your kids.’ If you’re in Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America or India, that’s a big deal. So, we have to remember that he’s speaking to the whole church.”
According to Pew Research, 76% of U.S. Catholics say society should be accepting of homosexuality. That’s below the rate of Catholic support in countries like Spain and the Netherlands but far higher than places like Lebanon and Nigeria.
Some theologians argue that Francis’ support could have a trickle-down impact on individual Catholics and parishes.
“These things can do a lot to encourage Catholics to embrace LGBTQ people with love and compassion and mercy and not to see them as the Antichrist, the anathema, the enemy of salvation,” Traina said.
In 2021, a group of Catholic leaders, including a cardinal and archbishop, signed a statement calling for widespread support of at-risk LGBTQ youth. According to an NCR analysis of recent listening sessions among U.S. Catholics, there was a growing call for LGBTQ inclusion and more opportunities for women.
“To me, there’s no such thing as an empty gesture because, yes, many times people want to see more clear-cut evidence of change and of their acceptance within the church, but sometimes it’s in small steps,” Dillon said.
In 2021, Martin, a Vatican appointee under Francis, launched Outreach: a website that provides resources to LGBTQ Catholics and leaders. It’s an effort Pope Francis has encouraged.
“He hasn’t changed any church teaching,” Martin said. “I’m not advocating for any church teaching, but he’s advocated a more pastoral response, listening to them, welcoming them, treating them with respect.
Pope Francis has met with a fourth group of transgender people who found shelter at a Rome church, the Vatican newspaper reported Thursday.
L’Osservatore Romano said the encounter took place Wednesday on the sidelines of Francis’ weekly general audience. The newspaper quoted Sister Genevieve Jeanningros and the Rev. Andrea Conocchia as saying the pope’s welcome brought their guests hope.
The Blessed Immaculate Virgin community in the Torvaianica neighborhood on Rome’s outskirts opened its doors to transgender people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis previously met with some of them on April 27, June 22 and Aug. 3, the newspaper said.
“No one should encounter injustice or be thrown away, everyone has dignity of being a child of God,” the paper quoted Sister Jeanningros as saying.
Francis has earned praise from some members of the LBGTQ community for his outreach. When asked in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, he replied, “Who am I to judge?” He has met individually and in groups with transgender people over the course of his pontificate.
But he has strongly opposed “gender theory” and has not changed church teaching that holds that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” In 2021, he allowed publication of a Vatican document asserting that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions since “God cannot bless sin.”
Recently, Francis wrote a letter praising the initiative of a Jesuit-run ministry for LGBTQ Catholics, called Outreach. The online resource is run by the Rev. James Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about the need for the church to better welcome and minister to LGBTQ Catholics.
Francis praised a recent Outreach event at New York’s Jesuit Fordham University, and encouraged organizers “to keep working in the culture of encounter, which shortens the distances and enriches us with differences, in the same manner of Jesus, who made himself close to everyone.”
The first Jesuit pope of the Roman Catholic Church has spoken of his own ministry to gay and transgender people, insisting they are children of God, loved by God and deserving of accompaniment by the church.
Medical professionals and Catholic leaders gathered in Denver last week for a conference on health care ethics that promoted anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion extremism and echoed the Republican Party’s attacks against transgender youth.
The annual conference, called Converging Roads, was hosted by the Denver Archdiocese, regional Catholic hospitals SCL Health and Centura Health, and the St. John Paul II Foundation, a national Catholic apostolate whose mission is to “proclaim the Good News about life and family through education and formation,” according to its website.
The yearly conference is aimed at guiding Catholic health care professionals through the “ethical challenges” presented by the convergence of their medical profession and church’s teachings on issues like abortion, end-of-life care, and sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We help professionals to understand the issues, and we give them tools to think through the multiplying ethical challenges in a careful and systematic way,” said Arland K. Nichols, President of the St. John Paul II Foundation, in an interview with Denver Catholic. “Families are relying on them to not only know their core practices, but to be able to advise them on the best and most morally sound way forward.”
The Catholic Church and its stance on health care issues have a major impact on the United States healthcare system. According to a 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one in six hospital beds in the U.S. are in Catholic facilities, representing a 22 percent increase from 2001.
These hospitals operate under “Ethical and Religious Directives” that are put forth by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and place restrictions on reproductive health care including contraception, sterilization, many fertility treatments, and abortion. The directives also restrict end-of-life care and gender-affirming care for transgender patients.
Despite the pervasiveness of Catholic health care providers, studies show that most patients are unaware of how their medical options are limited by the church’s teachings when they visit such facilities for care.
Last week’s conference illustrates just how deeply connected the church’s social teachings on everything from LGBTQ issues to abortion are to the medical care patients can expect when they visit Catholic providers.
Among the speakers at the April 10 conference was Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a highly active anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ advocate.
Aquila was particularly focused on gender identity, saying at one point in his speech, “I can identify as 6’ 4” but I still have trouble putting luggage in the overhead bins of airplanes,” eliciting chuckles from the crowd.
“It’s important to note that the conversation around these conflicts is informed by a secular mentality that sees freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants rather than the Catholic understanding of freedom as the ability to do good,” Aquila continued. “When we don’t choose the good as defined by God, we become slaves of the devil and we never realize true happiness.”
Aquila also suggested that marriage without procreation can be used to justify bestiality.
“Once you remove children from the equation you can justify anything, so you get the polyamorous, you get polygamy, you can have your pet dog as your spouse, and it’s insane,” Aquila said.
Aquila has long been outspoken in his disdain for the LGBTQ community, and even once suggested that “active homosexuality in the priesthood” is a contributing factor for widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic preists.
In December, an investigation from the Colorado Attorney General’s office concluded that 52 Colorado priests abused at least 212 children between 1950 and 2000. The church paid out $7.3 million in settlements to survivors as a result.
Between digs at LGBTQ individuals, Aquila offered guidance for the health care professionals in his midst for operating in what he referred to as a “post-Christian” era.
“As cultural support for religious liberty erodes, Catholic providers will be scrutinized for not conforming to the secular code of belief, likely under the damning label of discrimination,” Aquila said.
“We will only succeed in maintaining a position of influence in our culture by becoming more Catholic,” Aquila later said. “One of the downfalls of Christendom has been that we have become lukewarm in our beliefs.”
Aquila urged Catholic health care providers to hold true to the church’s teachings on reproductive health and LGBTQ issues despite pushback from other doctors or the hospitals where they work.
“Having that kind of belief and attitude and speaking up even though some of the doctors or some of the hospital staff may not appreciate it is essential and giving witness to it,” Aquila said.
Keeping with the Republican Party’s talking points on transgender individuals, Aquila criticized the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. “It will force girls and women to compete against boys and men for limited opportunities in school sports and to share locker rooms and shower spaces with biological males who claim to identify as women,” Aquila said.
Although frequently parroted by conservatives, there’s no basis for the argument that children are less safe when transgender individuals have equal access to bathrooms and locker rooms.
Also in attendance at Converging Roads as a keynote speaker was Dr. Paul Hruz, a professor and pediatric endocrinologist at Washington University in St. Louis who frequently serves as an anti-trans mouthpiece for conservative and Christian publications.
Hruz has provided testimony for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in favor of banning transgender youth from using the bathroom that is consistent with their gender identity.
“Dr. Hruz is NOT a member of our [Differences of Sex Development] team, NOR is he an expert in transgender health as he has never taken care of a transgender person,” Washington University officials told the transgender rights blog Planet Transgender, adding that Hruz “is not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, nor mental health care provider of any kind, who could speak knowledgeably of transgender health.”
At the root of Hruz’s anti-trans rhetoric is the implication that divergent gender identities should be fixed, ideally through “counseling,” parents “setting boundaries,” and a “reparative” approach.
Just like Aquila, Hruz didn’t neglect to bring up the bathroom/locker room issue.
“We are told that we need to engage in affirming [transgender youth] in their transgender identity and that to do otherwise is going to be harmful, meaning that we can use different names, pronouns, give them access to sex-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms,” said Hruz. “We are being told that we shouldn’t question this at all.”
Gender affirmation is the medical standard for treating youth and adults who are experiencing gender dysphoria and/or gender divergence, says Dr. Elizabeth Kvach, Medical Director of the LGBTQ Center of Excellence at Denver Health and Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado. Kvach told the Colorado Times Recorder that the “vast majority of literature” supports “overall improved mental health outcomes in transgender and nonbinary youth who are appropriately allowed to transition.”
Kvach said that includes allowing transgender and nonbinary youth to choose what name they wish to be called, how to dress, and use the pronouns they want to use. “All of those things have been supported in the literature with improving mental health outcomes, reducing rates of depression, anxiety, and reducing rates of suicidality both in youth and adults,” Kvach said, pointing to a large-scale national study that reported a staggering 41% attempted suicide rate among transgender adults.
“Treatment with puberty blockers and hormone therapy for youth who are appropriately diagnosed with gender dysphoria have also been shown to improve mental health outcomes,” Kvach continued.
Hruz’s opposition to the affirmative approach hinges on child desistence rates, or the rate at which those who experience gender dysphoria eventually cease to identify as transgender.
He claimed during his speech that normal child desistance rates are around 85%, a statistic that serves as his basis for why minors should not be given puberty blockers or hormone therapy.
“That [statistic] is not based on current evidence or data,” Kvach said, citing studies in the Netherlands and a multi-state study in the U.S. “Right now, there aren’t any large U.S. studies, but the desistence rates are certainly not that high.”
Kvach cited an article from the International Review of Psychiatry that debunks the high desistence myth.
Kvach explained that medical providers who diagnose and treat youth with gender dysphoria are careful in providing appropriate treatment that serves their overall health and wellbeing.
“It’s our job as clinicians to really dig down in collaboration with mental health providers who have expertise in working with gender-diverse youth to make sure that we have accurate diagnoses of gender dysphoria, and that’s part of the reason for recommendations of using puberty blockers in children who have entered the early stages of puberty,” Kvach said. “…Youth who are started on blockers are generally on them for a few years, and then we’re working very closely with mental health providers to ensure that this is consistent, persistent, and insistent behavior that is part of who they are, and that they are appropriate candidates for moving forward with hormone therapy.”
Another significant way to support children who are experiencing gender dysphoria is to, well, support them, according to Kvach, who says that family support can help shield against the harmful mental health outcomes associated with negative messaging from society and bullying.
Hruz, on the other hand, suggested that parents should be “setting boundaries” around gender expression that might prevent kids from getting the affirmation they may need.
The anti-trans attitudes promoted by the Catholic leaders, health providers, and hospitals at the conference are far out of step with the mainstream medical community.
“Everyone should be able to access healthcare easily, including those who are transgender,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Deputy Director of National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement to the Colorado Times Recorder. “All leading medical institutions have studied transition-related healthcare and found that it’s essential primary care. This includes the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians. Furthermore, people of faith increasingly recognize the humanity of their transgender neighbors, including trans people who are faithful themselves. It’s about treating others as you would like to be treated.”
The church’s attacks against LGBTQ people are, however, consistent with Republican lawmakers, who are pushing bans on gender-affirming care in 15 states.
The conversation began in typical fashion, with a question many grandparents ask: “When you grow up,” Kori Pacyniak’s grandmother wondered, “what would you like to be?”
At that point, the chat took an atypical turn.
“I want to be a priest,” said Kori, then an 8-year-old girl from a devout Polish Catholic family.
Grandmother: “Only boys can be priests.”
Kori: “OK, I want to grow up to be a boy.”
Now 37, Kori Pacyniak no longer wants to be male — or female. Pacyniak now identifies as nonbinary, someone who is not strictly feminine or masculine. (And someone who has abandoned gender-specific pronouns like “he” or “she” in favor of the more inclusive, if sometimes confusing, “they.”)
While Pacyniak left behind standard gender roles, the youthful fascination with the priesthood never faded. On Feb. 1, Pacyniak was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.
The Rev. Kori Pacyniak is now pastor of San Diego’s Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, a Serra Mesa church that preaches “A New Way to be Catholic.” For this parish, Pacyniak also represents a new way, as they are believed to be the first transgender, nonbinary priest.
Founded in 2005 by Jane Via and Rod Stephens, Mary Magdalene celebrates the Mass with a liturgy that, aside from some tweaks in the wording, would be familiar to most Roman Catholics. The church is not recognized by the San Diego diocese, however, and the Vatican has excommunicated several of the women ordained in what has become a global movement.
Mary Magdalene now has about 120 registered parishioners; 60 to 70 regularly attend 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at the church’s temporary home, Gethsemane Lutheran Church. Most in the congregation were raised as Catholics, yet were disillusioned by the church’s refusal to ordain women. Even among these believers, though, there was some initial hesitation about a nonbinary cleric.
“For some congregants,” said Esther LaPorta, president of Mary Magdalene’s board, “I think at first it might have been something to get used to.”
Among those who have had to adjust: Via, the 73-year-old pastor emeritus.
“I’m struggling to refer to Kori as ‘they,’” Via said. “When there is a single person and we know that is just one person, well, I’ve never used the word ‘they’ for a single person. I know Kori gets frustrated with me at times.”
Usually, though, the priest responds to this confusion with a charitable laugh.
“This is hard?” Pacyniak said. “Learning to spell my last name as a child was hard. Welcome to my world!”
A restless search
Kori Pacyniak grew up in Edison Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. The tightly-knit Polish community shared a common language, customs and beliefs. Friends, neighbors and family, Kori’s comrades in the Polish Scout troop and Polish folkdancing troupe — all were Catholic.
Like many children, Kori daydreamed about careers. Some days, the goal was to become a Navy SEAL. On other days, a professional soccer goalie. Or a Catholic nun. Always, though, there was the hope that the impossible dream Kori had shared with a grandmother would, somehow, become possible.
“As they went through college and started studying theology, this really became a topic of conversation,” said Basia Pacyniak, 67, Kori’s mother. “It was very much what Kori wanted to do.”
Majoring in religious studies and Portuguese — “no employable skills,” Kori cracked — the undergraduate came out as bisexual. Pacyniak was still searching, though, still examining gender identity and career paths. Although president of Smith’s Newman Association, an off-campus Catholic organization, Pacyniak was frustrated by the church’s positions on women and sexuality.
“Other people wanted to become president,” Pacyniak said. “I wanted to overthrow the Vatican.”
This restlessness continued post-graduation. After an administrative job in Los Angeles, Pacyniak enrolled in Harvard Divinity School’s master’s degree program. The new grad student came out as transgender and started to identify as male. This venture into masculinity was brief and unsatisfactory.
“I realized that box was just as restrictive as female,” Pacyniak said. “Neither male nor female identification works for me.”
For a time, Pacyniak considered converting to a church that, while similar in some ways to Catholicism, ordains women and welcomes LGBTQ clergy. Again, though, something didn’t seem quite right.
“I thought that might be my church home,” Pacyniak said of the Episcopal Church. “But am I too Catholic to be Episcopalian?”
Yet Catholicism posed barriers to Pacyniak. For one thing, Rome only recognizes two genders, male and female. And…
“Right now,” said Kevin Eckery a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, “ordination is only open to natural born males.”
Pacyniak completed studies at Harvard, and later enrolled at Boston University’s School of Theology. There, Pacyniak studied how to minister to LGBTQ military service members in the years following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But in 2016, a friend forwarded a job listing. Mary Magdalene needed a pastor. Candidates didn’t have to be ordained, if he, she or they were willing to work toward ordination.
In January 2017, Pacyniak began serving as Mary Magdalene’s pastor.
The Rev. Caedmon Grace is a minister at the Metropolitan Church of San Diego, a church that grew out of the LGBTQ community. Even here, there are ongoing discussions about the language of worship.
Consider John 3:16. A familiar New Testament verse, it’s often translated as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”
“Our practice in the MCC is to use inclusive language,” said Grace. “So that has become ‘For God so loved the world that God sent the begotten one.’ We’re not identifying God as male or female.”
This may not be the translation heard in most Christian churches, yet the emerging field of “queer theology” questions many of the assumptions of traditional religious prayer and practice.
“We have to get out of the hetero-nomative lens we use for understanding everything,” said Pacyniak, who is completing a doctorate in University of California Riverside’s queer and trans theology program. “We have to make trans and queer folks see themselves as part of the liturgy.”
Even at Mary Magdalene, a church that prides itself on its inclusive nature, this requires some work. When Pacyniak arrived, the liturgy included a line, “We believe that all women and men are created in God’s image.”
“This is great,” Pacyniak told Via after Mass. “But for people who don’t identify as women or men, that doesn’t work.”
The line was rewritten: “We believe that all people of all genders are created in God’s image.”
Creating a “spiritual support community” for trans and nonbinary people is a key goal of Mary Magdalene’s newly ordained priest. So is reaching out to the congregation’s men and women.
“Let’s make the tent as big and as open as we can,” Pacyniak said. “It’s an ongoing opportunity. Don’t get too comfortable; have conversations with people on the margins.”
All in good time
Through this past January, Via assisted Pacyniak on the altar during Mass. The new pastor studied, learning theology, liturgy and administrative duties, before being ordained as deacon in June 2019 and then, on Feb. 1, as a priest. More than 100 attended the ordination, so the ceremony was moved from Mary Magdalene’s small space to the soaring Gothic sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
The pews held Pacyniak’s parents, Basia and Bernard; brother, sister-in-law, two nephews and several cousins; friends from high school, Smith, Harvard and Boston U.; plus dozens of congregants from Mary Magdalene.
“Kori is very open and kind,” said Carol Kramer, who has attended Mary Magdalene for a decade. “I think they’ll be a really good pastor.”
Many religious traditions teach that we’re all created as complex, multi-faceted, beloved children of God. Pacyniak is a pastor and a student of queer theology, yes, but so much more: a baseball fan — with shifting allegiances, from Cubs to Red Sox to Padres — a regular Comic-Con attendee and, this priest insists, a Catholic. This brand of Catholicism may not be recognized by the Vatican, but that doesn’t bother Pacyniak’s parents, who remain practicing Roman Catholics.
“We are very proud of Kori,” said Basia Pacyniak. “The movement and the community is very welcoming, very open, and we are very supportive of that community. I feel that it is not in conflict with the Catholicism that we practice.”
The Pacyniaks foresee a day when their church will include women priests. Give it time, counseled Bernard Pacyniak, 66.
Lots of time.
“I imagine,” he said, “in 100 years this will all be part of one organization.”
The recent document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education talks of an “educational crisis”, and alleges that discussions in relation to gender have “helped to destabilise the family as an institution”. As the parent of a trans child, I find this hugely disappointing.
I have two teenage daughters. Their dad is Catholic, and they’ve been raised in the Catholic faith. When our youngest came out as transgender, we struggled. This was five years ago, and there was limited coverage of trans people in the media. We struggled in our own minds – how can our child know so young? What if she’s wrong? What does this mean? We struggled with our families – unsure of how to tell them, or indeed how they would react. We struggled with our church – would we still be welcome? Should we find a different one? A different school?
I met with the senior leadership team of our Catholic primary school to discuss support. I also sat with our parish sister, and talked over many cups of coffee. Her response has stayed with me. “We are talking about a child. There will be people who don’t understand. The world is changing, and the church can be slow to catch up. But your child should be treated with love, compassion and kindness. Who are we to turn our backs on her?”
Staff at the primary school explained to fellow pupils, in an age-appropriate way, why our child would be using a different name and pronouns after the school holiday. The only change at this stage is a social one – there is no medical intervention. I contacted some of the parents. Messages of support came flooding back.
The year after her social transition, we flew to Ireland for a wedding. This would be the first time that many aunts, uncles and cousins (as well as my 86-year-old mother-in-law) had met our daughter as her true authentic self. Again, as parents we were nervous. These are the people we care about most in the world; how would they respond to our child? The love from family was overwhelming. There will always be those who do not understand, but I saw the relief my daughter felt at being accepted and not ridiculed. Every day I see her thrive and grow in confidence. I am proud of her.
My child’s transition has not led to the “destabilisation of the family institution”. If anything, family bonds are stronger. Her relationship with her grandparents is a joy to behold. She and her sister argue (most siblings do), but there is a closeness that was missing previously. I’ve thought long and hard about why that is. Honestly? She is no longer pretending to be someone she is not. She can relax and be herself.
The Vatican says you can’t choose your gender. Trans and non-binary people don’t “choose” their gender. They know who they are, and they wish to live authentically and happily. What I will say is that families, friends, communities and congregations can choose how to respond. In our case, they have responded with love, compassion and respect, even when they don’t understand.
As I said at the start, I have two teenage daughters. Both now attend our local Catholic secondary school. Both are thriving and happy. Pope Francis envisions an inclusive church – our experience as a family is a reminder that God welcomes all, even and especially those whom society rejects. Our community is made up of people living their faith with compassion through their actions. That, to me, is true Christianity.