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Preaching truth on sex and gender in a hostile culture

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco

Sex and gender are among the most contentious topics of discussion within the Catholic Church today.

For Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, a human connection is key to having the difficult conversations that often come with presenting Church teaching on the subject.

Cordileone sees Pope Francis as a model of how to encounter people with love, while not shying away from the truth about hard subjects.

Charles Camosy spoke with Cordileone this week about the challenges and opportunities found in presenting Church teaching on sex and gender to a skeptical world.

The Church, it seems to me, has a fundamental challenge when it comes to its teaching on sex and gender: helping people who identity as transgender (and their supporters) understand that our outreach doesn't come from a place of bigotry or culture war antagonism - but rather a place of genuine, humble, other-centered concern for their well-being and flourishing.

You recently had a wonderful article in Public Discourse which attempts to make this case. Can you give us your central argument in that piece?

If you asked me the core argument that we need to make, I would say it is this: we do not earn our dignity; it is a gift from God.

Our equality is grounded in the reality that we are all equally and deeply loved by our creator. This is why I began the article with the story of Pope Francis visiting a shelter for people with gender dysphoria.

And as our country’s own Declaration of Independence affirms, that dignity, with its corresponding natural rights, is inalienable: it does not depend on one’s health, intelligence, strength, physical beauty, or any other personal quality. Rather, we – every one of us – are endowed with it by our Creator.

Without a loving God, then, there is no fundamental equality. Without understanding this inherent equal human dignity with which a loving God endows us, the door is wide open for the powerful to oppress the vulnerable. The sacredness and therefore the equality of each human being comes from God.

The second part that I would want to underscore is that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are profoundly protective, not punitive. Just look at the destruction that comes when we do not accept our sexuality as a gift from God to be used for God’s purposes. We can look all around us and see the suffering that comes when people do not discipline sexual desire and put it at the service of love: broken homes, broken lives, fatherless boys and girls, abortion, not to mention rape, abuse, molestation, sex trafficking. The body count of the sexual revolution is large and growing, indeed, growing exponentially.

This disciplining of desire that Christ calls for can be difficult. God knows that. But the suffering that ensues when sexual desire is held up as an end in itself to be pursued without regard for the consequences, practically deified, is hard to ignore at this point.

I imagine that your position as Archbishop of San Francisco makes this kind of argument uniquely difficult. Do you have any advice for speaking about these matters in contexts that are somewhere between deeply skeptical and totally hostile?

I would appeal to Pope Francis’ call for a culture of encounter. This is something I discovered a long time ago: it is far easier to connect amidst profound disagreements in face-to-face encounters than in any kind of a remote fashion, such as news media and social media.

It is a lot harder to demonize the other when you come into personal contact with the other. Bigoted, prejudiced and stereotyped ideas of others can exist as long as you do not personally know anyone in the group toward whom you harbor those impressions. But when you get to know someone personally, you discover that they have feelings, too, that we all have a need to be loved and give love in return.

Yes, we need to speak clearly, but we also need to show our hearts so that those who disagree with us can see that we are coming from a place of love, rather than see us simply according to what we oppose. It can be hard to show love for someone denouncing you as a bigot, but isn’t that what Christ asks of us? Do good to those who do you wrong.

That said, I think we need to realize that no matter how kindly Catholics say what we believe or explain its source in the deep love of God, some people in our contemporary culture will remain determined to find our views offensive.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to speak as lovingly and persuasively as we can. Our own identity as Catholics requires us, as St. Paul tells us, to speak truth in love (Eph 4:15). We cannot attempt to purchase a fake approval from our society by caving into a culture that rejects Christ and His teachings, for He is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6).

We must commit ever more deeply to both truth and love. Pope Francis leads by example: speak the truth firmly and continue to love your neighbors and to serve them. This is our cross for our time.

Back in 2020, our Holy Father Pope Francis was asked where he sees "evil" today and responded by calling out gender theory. What does the Holy Father mean by this term? Is it the same thing you have in mind when you invoke gender theory?

Very much yes, this is the same idea. There is a consistency (often unrecognized) between Pope Francis’ teaching on care for our common home and on gender theory. In each case, the physical dimension is a gift from God, not a mere object to be made and remade according to our desires.

It’s all there in Genesis: God made us male and female because it is not good for man to be alone. The sexes are oriented toward each other and toward the great task of making new life together, in a relationship at once equal and complementary.

This is the image of God, the Most Holy Trinity, a communion of divine persons: the loving complementarity of man and woman, a communion of persons that generates new life.

And then God gave them dominion over the earth, to care for it and cultivate it, not to ravish and destroy it for their own selfish purposes. The strange rejection of the givenness of the created order, whether of our bodies or our common home, is a deep rejection of our relationship with each other and with God.

Why don't you think more Catholics take Pope Francis' criticism of gender theory seriously?

We live in a strange, shape-shifting time. Every few years it seems there is some new morally revolutionary idea that everyone must either accept or be shamed and stigmatized as a bigot.

When holding common sense views such as “children need a mom and a dad” or “we are born male and female” causes you to become an object of open contempt and hatred in your personal circles, much less makes you fear for your employment, people naturally start to shy away. It is strange that it takes courage to say these things, but it does.

Then there is this reality: the myths and narratives and supposed data that support gender ideology are extensively retailed in the popular culture – news media, social media, Hollywood, schools, entertainment, the academy, etc. The stories and the research that rebut this media narrative don’t reach nearly as many people.

I do think the emergence of young adults who regret their surgical and hormonal procedures is beginning to have an impact; even the New York Times is at least asking new questions when it comes to chemically or surgically mutilating children and teens, amidst the current sudden surge in children with gender dysphoria.

It often helps to see models already in place for us to imitate, especially when it comes to delicate and combustible matters like this. Where do you see Catholics ministering to trans-identifying people in same spirit that the Church ministers to the sick, women with difficult pregnancies, the poor, and others on the margins?

Let’s start at the top: Pope Francis. The media expressed surprise when he visited that shelter for transgender-identifying homeless people at a Rome church, while he speaks so frequently and fearlessly about the dangers of gender ideology. This, though, should not surprise us, for this is what Christ calls us to do. Speak the truth and serve the needy.

And this again takes us back to Pope Francis’ call for a culture of encounter: we need to sit with the angry, the suffering, the lonely, the marginalized, with those who are different from us, and sincerely listen to each other’s stories. We need to empathize with the suffering even if we cannot all agree on the solution. Face-to-face conversation is the most powerful means for changing the way those who hate us see us. That means getting off social media and getting into conversation with each other.

We Catholics also need to invest even more in serving the suffering. That is why the proposed HHS regulations that might shut down Catholic ministries are so disturbing. We want to help care for people, including those who identify as transgendered, whether they agree with us or not, and to do so without surrendering our own point of view, a point of view supported by reason, science and common sense, as well as faith. Will we Catholics be allowed to be part of the solution? We have 2,000 years of experience in doing so. We have, to put it mildly, a lot to offer.

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