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Transgenderism, transsexualism,
gender dysphoria, & gender identity

Status of, causes of, & cures for, transexuality
according to
the Roman Catholic Church

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As noted elsewhere in this section a transgender individual is a person who experiences sustained Gender Identity Disorder (a.k.a. GID, Gender Dysphoria), Their genetic gender is different from their perceived gender. Some describe themselves as a woman trapped in a man's body, or vice versa. Others view themselves as having a male brain in a female body, or vice versa.

There are two obvious ways to resolve this conflict:

  1. Change the person's thinking so that the accept their genetic gender: Our scientific knowledge of the workings of the human brain are not developed to the point where this is possible; it may never be. A full range of therapies have been tried in an attempt to cure GID.

    There has allegedly been not a single cure during many decades of attempts. What there has been is a massive suicide rate, claimed by some to be about 50%. Attempting to change the thinking of transgender persons does not appear to be a safe or attractive path.
  2. Change the person's physical appearance to match their perceived gender. In this way, a woman who felt trapped in a man's body can be altered to appear to be female through hormone therapy and perhaps gender reassignment surgery. Similarly, a man who felt trapped in a woman's body could pass as a man. Their perceived gender and their physical appearance become harmonized. The vast majority who try this path are pleased with the changes.

This second approach is forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, because of their system of morality, ironically called the "Culture of Life."

2001: Response by Fr. William P. Saunders:

A reader of the Catholic Herald from Roseville, CA asked Father Saunders -- a columnist from the magazine:

"I know a man who had a 'sex change' operation and is now a 'woman.' What moral teaching does the Church give on this subject?" 1,2

Father Saunders quoted a Vatican II document titled: "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." It stated that:

"Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day."

When applied to transsexuality, the document implies that a person with GID must accept their body as it is. Surgically modifying one's body would be a serious sin.

He also quotes Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19:

"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?"

The implication is that one's body is not one's own to be changed at will.

Finally, he quotes the Catholic Catechism, item 2297:

"Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reason, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law."

The process of sexual reassignment involves major changes to the persons body. For a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual, this involves removal of the penis, testicles, and scrotum. It involves hormone treatment and perhaps surgery to enlarge the breasts, removing part of the Adam's apple, and/or changing the shape of her face. For a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual it involves the surgical removal of the breasts, uterus, ovaries, and hormone treatment,  Fr. Sanders refers to this as:

"... a radical and grotesque mutilation of the body....To destroy organs purposefully that are healthy and functioning, and to try to create imitation organs which will never have the genuineness and functioning of authentic organs is gross and lacks charity. Such surgery which purposefully destroys the bodily integrity of the person must be condemned."

For matters like marriage and ordination, the church considers only the genetic gender of the individual. Thus a MTF transsexual could not marry a man, even if they were able to obtain a marriage license, because the church would regard this as a same-sex marriage of two males. A MTF transexual might not be able to marry a woman even though the church considered them as an opposite-sex couple. The church has refused to marry some couples in the past who cannot conceive children. Similarly a FTM transsexual would not be eligible for consideration for ordination, no matter what his appearance, personality, talents or knowledge are.

Fr. Saunders notes that transsexualism appears to stem from psychological development, and thus should be treated by psychotherapy. He may not be aware that this has been tried countless thousands of times, apparently without a single successful outcome.

During late 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech that our gender was a gift from the creator. He denounced those who would try to change it. He said: "It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God." 3

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2000-2003: Official, although initially secret, ruling by the Vatican:

After extensive study, the Vatican issued a "sub secretum" (secret) document in the year 2000 to papal representatives in each country. Unfortunately, it became obvious that many bishops did not learn the contents of the document, so copies were sent to the presidents of bishops' conferences as well. Finally, in 2003 it was discussed in the Catholic News Service. 4

The document allegedly states that:

  • Bishops must never alter the gender listed in baptismal records to match the individual's new gender identity. However, a margin note is acceptable.

  • Persons undergoing sex reassignment surgery are not eligible to marry, to be ordained to the priesthood or enter religious life.

An unknown source stated:

"The key point is that the (transsexual) surgical operation is so superficial and external that it does not change the personality. If the person was [born] male, he remains male. If she was [born] female, she remains female."

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. bishops' conference, sent a brief letter to U.S. bishops in 2002-OCT informing them of the Vatican document and emphasizing the instruction to not alter baptismal records. He wrote:

"The altered condition of a member of the faithful under civil law does not change one's canonical condition, which is male or female as determined at the moment of birth."

Bishop Gregory may not have been aware of the existence of intersexual babies who are born with ambiguous genitalia and whose birth gender cannot be determined "at the moment of birth."

According to the Catholic News Service, the document seems to regard transsexuals as being mentally ill, unstable, and mentally incompetent. It states:

  • "... that the [gender reassignment surgery or GRS] procedure could be morally acceptable in certain extreme cases if a medical probability exists that it will 'cure' the patient's internal turmoil."

  • Religious superiors have: "administrative authority to expel a member of the community who has undergone the procedure."

  • "A recommendation of psychiatric treatment and spiritual counseling for transsexual priests. It suggests they can continue to exercise
    their ministry privately if it does not cause scandal."

  • "... those who undergo sex-change operations are unsuitable candidates for priesthood and religious life because of
    mental instability."

  • "... people who have undergone a sex-change operation cannot enter into a valid marriage, either because they would be
    marrying someone of the same sex in the eyes of the church or because their mental state casts doubt on their ability to make and uphold
    their marriage vows."

  • "An affirmation of the validity of marriages in which one partner later undergoes the procedure, unless a church tribunal determines
    that a transsexual disposition predated the wedding ceremony."

The first statement would seem to relax previous prohibitions against GRS, since the emotional distress faced by transgender persons is normally "extreme" and essentially all persons going through GRS are pleased with the result. However, the Catholic News Service notes that:

"... a source familiar with the document said recent medical evidence suggested that in a majority of cases the procedure increases the likelihood of depression and psychic disturbance."

We have been unable to locate any surveys that negate earlier surveys and support the source's beliefs. 4

horizontal rule

Is there any wiggle room that would allow a Catholic to undergo GRS?

If one accepts the teaching of the church that gender reassignment surgery (GRS) and hormone treatments distort the God-designed and God-created human body to the extent that it is a very serious sin, one might ask if there are extenuating circumstances which would make the procedures acceptable to the church.

There is a widespread belief called the "50% Rule:" that 50% of all transsexuals die before the age of 30, usually by suicide. This was apparently true decades ago when GRS was generally unavailable. It is presumably much lower today since GRS has become more widely available, and are close to 100% successful in their goal of minimizing GID.

In most ethical systems, an act that is sinful by itself can sometimes be justified if it results in a greater good. For example, during pregnancy situations can arise where an abortion is needed to prevent the death of the woman. If no abortion is performed, both the fetus and the woman will die. Faced with the alternatives of one death or two, most ethical systems would consider the abortion very regrettable, but morally justified.

In the case of transsexuals, one could argue that to make GRS unavailable would significantly increase the number of suicides within that population. Assuming that the incidence of transsexuals is 1 in every 5,000, they total perhaps 60,000 in the U.S. For every 100 GRS procedures performed, the lives of perhaps 25 transsexuals could be saved from suicide. Could those 25 lives saved outweigh what the Catholic Church would consider the sin of 100 GRS procedures?

The answer is no. A prime directive of Catholic moral teaching is that one cannot morally commit an evil act even if the end result would be a major benefit. In the previously cited case of a pregnancy gone bad, no abortion is morally possible. The physician can only provide comfort care and pray for a miracle. Both the woman and fetus must die. In the case of transsexuals, no GRS procedure is permissible by the church, even if one life might be saved for every four procedures performed.

Fortunately, the Church offers a way to resolve this dilemma: confession. A transsexual might elect to undergo GRS, and later confess their sin to a priest with genuine sorrow during the sacrament of penance. They could promise to not undergo any further reassignment surgery, and receive absolution.

Unfortunately, this path might not allow continuation of hormone treatments, which we assume the Church also considers a sin. That is  because one of the principles of confession is the person's intent to not repeat the sin in the future.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Straight Answers: The Morality of 'Sex Change' Operations," The Catholic Herald, 2005-OCT-19, at:
  2. "Straight Answers: Surgery That Destroys Bodily Integrity," The Catholic Herald, 2001-JAN-10, at:
  3. Jori Lewis, "Transgender and Christian: Finding identity," Religion Dispatches magazine, 2009-SEP-03, at:
  4. John Norton, "Vatican says 'sex-change' operation does not change person's gender," Catholic News Service, 2003-JAN-14, reprinted at:

Copyright © 2007 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-APR-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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