What The Pope Really Thinks About Transgender People
Pope Francis was on his way back from Azerbaijan yesterday and had just taken a question from a journalist on the papal plane. These interview opportunities are prized by the media because they offer the chance of talking to the Pope with his guard down, perhaps tired after a gruelling series of meetings. There's always the chance of an unguarded remark that will make a good front page headline. (The trips are correspondingly expensive: according to Crux, journalists pay business class fares to subsidise the papal entourage.)
Francis, as usual, had many interesting things to say. He genuinely warmed to Patriarch Ilia, the head of the fractious Georgian Orthodox Church (it stayed away from the Pan Orthodox Council because it gave too much away to other Churches like the Roman Catholic). Americans should "choose in conscience" in the forthcoming presidential elections, but the Church should help to build a "political culture", a foundation for political thought.
The transgender question, though, was particularly interesting. The Pope had spoken in Georgia about the danger of "gender theory". Josh McElwee from America's National Catholic Reporter asked him: "What would you say to someone who has struggled with their sexuality for years and feels that there is truly a problem of biology, that his aspect doesn't correspond to what he or she feels is their sexual identity. You, as a pastor and minister, how would you accompany these people?"
In his reply – a bit rambling, a bit unfocused, as he tends to be – the Pope identified a crucial distinction and offered a model response.
The distinction was between the sort of gender theory that says biology simply doesn't matter, and that we can choose whether to be male or female, or neither, or both, and the real, painful, practical situations faced by people who have endured immense psychological pain before concluding that they cannot live in the way they are expected to live.
Against the first, the Pope has firmly set his face. Gender is given, he believes, and messing around with something so fundamental in the name of human autonomy is simply wrong. Indoctrinating boys to believe they can grow up to be girls if they want, or vice versa, is "wickedness".
But for those who actually find themselves in the situation where they have transitioned from one gender to another, he has nothing but compassion. "It's one thing that a person has this tendency, this condition and even changes their sex, but it's another thing to teach this in line in schools in order to change the mentality. This is what I call ideological colonisation," he said.
And he illustrated this with a story. A Spaniard had written to him last year about how he had transitioned from female to male. He'd been accompanied on this journey by a bishop ("good bishop", said Francis) and had changed his gender legally and married a woman. The man had asked to come and meet Francis with his wife, and Francis had received them.
So, the Pope said: "Life is life and things must be taken as they come. Sin is sin. And tendencies or hormonal imbalances have many problems and we must be careful not to say that everything is the same, let's go party."
But while rejecting the absolute relativism that says biology doesn't matter, he said: "In every case I accept it, I accompany it, I study it, I discern it and I integrate it. This is what Jesus would do today!"
But "Please don't say: 'The Pope sanctifies transgenders.'"
His point, as so often with this Pope, is too subtle to be grasped either by the rabid apostles of secularist autonomy or by the equally intense Christian culture warriors. One sees any limitation on human choice as a wicked attempt to control our potential for self-actualisation; the other sees a transgender person as the incarnation of depravity.
Both are wrong, says Francis. And it's this insistence that God loves all and that Jesus rejects no one that is so challenging to Christians. In the US in particular, the transgender issue has become a symbol of a much wider cultural conflict. Fair enough; Francis wouldn't disagree. But he also reminds us that when we're talking about real human beings, we have park that and treat them like Jesus would.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods