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Vatican and USCCB leave transgender policy texts unpublished

While U.S. bishops have made headlines for releasing policies addressing gender identity and pastoral ministry, guidelines on the subject have been drafted but not published by both the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican’s doctrinal office, leaving diocesan bishops to address the issue at the local level.

St. Peter’s basilica, Vatican City. Alamy Stock Image


A document issued in July by Bishop John Doerfler of Marquette, Michigan, garnered international media attention this month, after it was tweeted Dec. 7 by noted LGBT-rights activist Fr. James Martin, SJ. 

“It is not a sin to be transgender,” Martin wrote in a tweet linking to the document, which was picked up and reported on by numerous media outlets. 

The Marquette diocese said its policy aimed to help priests develop pastoral relationships with people who identify as gay or transgender, but some theologians said the policy amounted to cruelty, and LGBT advocates claimed the policy contravenes the theology of Pope Francis.

While Doerfler faces criticism, neither the USCCB nor the Vatican has commented on the Marquette policy. But both institutions have confidentially drafted policies and guidelines on pastoral ministry and gender identity. Those documents, for reasons not entirely clear, have not been published.

The Pillar has obtained an unpublished 2018 draft document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which addresses sacramental and pastoral ministry to people who identify as transgender. 

And senior Church officials close to the U.S. bishops’ conference have told The Pillar that the USCCB has had a document prepared for several years on the subject, but that it has not been released, or even put to a vote for the U.S. bishops, because of a request from the Vatican.


A task force of USCCB staffers and bishops worked in 2016 to develop a text, former USCCB staffers told The Pillar, with most staff drawn from the Office of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, and the Office of Doctrine. 

“A lot of bishops were asking for guidance,” one former USCCB official told The Pillar, “so it’s not like this was a staff-driven thing. There were bishops who were asking.”

“The committee for the working group was pretty big,” another former staffer recalled. “And so by the time the work was done, a lot of people in the conference had seen the document and weighed in on it.”

The draft USCCB document was “typical bishops’ conference, but it was very pastoral, and also doctrinally sound,” a staffer recalled. “I thought it was very good and balanced pastoral guidance,” a former staffer told The Pillar.

“The last step [before bishops would vote on the draft] was just to have Rome review it, and it was sent to Rome [in 2017], and the CDF said ‘No, hold off, because we’re going to have our own document.’ And then that was it. And then there was not much will to push back on that.”

“We were told the CDF didn’t want us getting ahead of them,” another former conference official told The Pillar.

But while USCCB officials had one impression, a former Vatican official close to the Congregation told The Pillar that he believed officials at the CDF had at one point been waiting for the US bishops’ conference to “go first” with guidance, before the CDF would proceed with its own text.

Some USCCB sources recalled that in 2018, the conference draft document was significantly revised, mostly by the conference’s committee on doctrine, and again presented to the Holy See, with reportedly the same result. 

Former USCCB staffers told The Pillar that when they were informed the CDF planned to release a document, they believed it was a stall tactic to prevent the USCCB document’s release. 

“We all thought that was just to spike it,” one former official recalled.

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But by 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was indeed developing a document on sacramental and practical issues related to ministry and transgenderism.

An unpublished draft of the CDF’s proposed vademecum was circulated among some senior Vatican officials in late 2018.

The draft CDF text, obtained by The Pillar, offered that “the sex of a person is a complex reality, the identity of which is composed of physical, psychological and social elements.”

“Some [people], starting from an erroneous vision of the person, want to separate and even contrast the different elements that make up the sex of a person. They create a dichotomy between the bodily and the psycho-sexual aspects of the person,” the CDF wrote.

The CDF draft document offered guidance on sacramental ministry to people who identify as transgender.

On marriage, the CDF draft text explained that “it is difficult for pastors to admit someone to marriage when, in the judgment of prudent and wise people, the transsexualism of the subject is sufficiently apparent from external actions. Given that transsexualism can have differing levels of intensity, it is necessary to attentively evaluate each situation, such as to not unjustly deny the natural right to marry.”

“A person who undergoes a surgical procedure for sexual reassignment cannot validly contract marriage; this is true in both cases of the attempt to reassign from female to male and from male to female, because such a surgical procedure does not change the sexual identity of the person,” the text added.

Catholic theology establishes that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. And canon law requires that a person be capable of engaging in sexual intercourse in order to contract marriage, which would seem to be ordinarily impossible even if a person who had undergone a “sex change” operation wished later to marry someone of the opposite the sex.

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On sacred orders: A person “who has the physical traits of a male who felt himself, psychologically, to be a woman” would not be suited to become a priest, and a woman who identified as a male “is incapable of validly receiving Holy Orders,” the document explained.

The CDF urged bishops to discern, “on a case by case basis” whether a person who identified as transgender could become a baptismal or confirmation sponsor, an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, or a catechist.

“Beyond full adherence to the teaching of the Church and a good reputation, carrying out these roles requires maturity, equilibrium and appropriate formation, as well as the exclusion of any form of scandal for the faithful,” the draft text explained.  

On baptism, the CDF’s draft text explained that “an adult who has undergone psychological or hormonal treatment or a surgical procedure for attempted sexual reassignment, may receive baptism, after proper preparation.”

The draft text did not place additional restrictions on the possibility of baptism.

Similarly, the draft text addressed the Eucharist by explaining that “adults who have undergone a surgical procedure for attempted sexual reassignment can be admitted to the Eucharist, under the same conditions as all other faithful if there is no danger of scandal.”

A footnote in the text referenced sections in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, an encyclical of Pope St. John Paul II. The referenced sections, 36, 37, and 38, explain the necessity of ecclesial communion and sacramental confession for Catholics intending to receive the Eucharist.

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The draft CDF document has not been published. It is not clear whether it was formally considered for approval by Pope Francis. Bishops told The Pillar that the CDF draft was not circulated among the U.S. bishops’ conference while under it was  under consideration.

After the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education released “Male and Female He Created Them,” a document addressing “gender ideology” and Catholic education in June 2019, news outlets began reporting that the CDF would release a more comprehensive text on the subject, which would include direct canonical guidance to diocesan bishops.  

But the CDF draft document has not been released. The Vatican press office has not responded to questions from The Pillar regarding the 2018 draft.

One Church official close to the bishops’ conference told The Pillar he is disappointed that the CDF has not published a document, and has at the same time “prevented the USCCB from doing anything.”

“It’s really too bad,” a former USCCB staffer said, “because bishops have now been asking for years for guidance, and they’re on their own.”

And while several Church officials told The Pillar they believe the bishops’ conference will not publish a text on transgender issues unless the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does so, others said they believe the USCCB document might move forward regardless of whether the Vatican eventually publishes its own text.

A spokesperson for the USCCB declined to comment on questions from The Pillar on the USCCB’s draft text.

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