Gender diversity has always been part of the church

Insistence on rigid gender binaries contradicts the church’s own rich history.
Our Faith

This past April, the Pew Research Center shared that 54 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. The data affirmed that 2024 was ripe for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Catholic Church, but the timing—the report released just one week after the Vatican’s Dignitas Infinita document denouncing gender-affirming health care, “gender theory,” and any identity challenged strict male/female binary, showcased how the church’s confusing and often contradictory guidance forebodes a gender reckoning.

The church’s gender foundations are cracking—its scaffolding of doctrinal semantics and conflicting guidance from Pope Francis and the Vatican buckling under pressure for LGBTQ+ inclusion, women’s ordination, and abortion rights. At its core is church leadership’s fear of “ideological colonization,” or the spread of western gender values to a traditional church. But if the church pushes for modernization, a progressive view of gender must be part of it.

For many Catholics, Dignitas Infinita was disappointing but not unexpected. In 2015, Pope Francis reinforced his stance that “gender theory” was as dangerous as nuclear war and genetic mutation in Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi’s book Pope Francis: This Economy Kills (Liturgical Press). Four years later, Pope Francis introduced the idea of “ideological colonization” in his 35,000-word reflection Christus Vivit, after the 2019 Synod on Young People. In it, Francis argued that economic aid provided by richer countries or international agencies was tied to the acceptance of “Western views of sexuality, marriage, life, or social justice.”

But in many instances, this is markedly untrue and rejects the history of patriarchal and sexist colonizers. Western colonizers have historically forced patriarchal and queerphobic gender ideologies onto Indigenous communities around the world. The Catholic Church has been instrumental in these changes, so to argue that the church is somehow separate or fighting “ideological colonization” flatly contradicts church history.


Even more, Dignitas Infinita closely mirrors attempts in European and American countries to deny trans, nonbinary, and queer people’s access to gender affirming health care, restrooms, and important identification documents, including driver’s licenses and birth certificates. Many Americans could argue that Dignitas Infinita falls in line with modern American conservative values; there are currently more than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills on the American docket today.

Ideological colonization and gender theory both came up in Dignitas Infinita, released on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the document, Vatican leadership argue that “in recent decades, attempts have been made to introduce new rights that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable.” The Vatican is talking about the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, whose rights if granted, they argue, would disrupt an human gender binary. It’s the same transphobic and untrue argument used by Betty Friedan in 1969 and J.K. Rowling today that solidifying LGBTQ+ rights usurp the rights of women.

Unsurprisingly, LGBTQ+ Catholics and their friends and family have been on the receiving end of mixed messaging for decades. Like Christus Vivit and the final report for the Synod on Synodiality, Dignitas Infinita did not include the acronym “LGBTQ,” nor the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “transgender.” This mirrors how Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron also did not use the word “transgender” in his 5,000-word pastoral letter released on March 28, 2024, denouncing “gender identity” among “individuals experiencing gender confusion.”

Refusing to acknowledge LGBTQ+ people by the names that we have chosen further invisabilizes LGBTQ+ Catholics and our fight for the expansion of rights to protect LGBTQ+ individuals and our basic needs to survive. This all ties back to the purported danger of “gender theory,” a “western” construction that seeks to tell young people that being LGBTQ+ is acceptable, even a good thing. By telling young people that they can receive gender-affirming care, Dignitas Infinita argues, invites young people to challenge God themselves.


Engaging in gender theory, the document states, denies the greatest difference between humans—sexual difference. It is this deep seeded fear—largely a traditional and pre-Vatican II one—that acknowledging gender diversity will challenge the very authority of God on Earth. One pivotal passage in the document reads that “desiring a personal self-determination [a code the Vatican uses for gender expression in line with one’s identity], as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God.”

This itself is a flawed argument—still used against gay, bi, and lesbian Catholics. We are asked to put God above all parts of ourselves, and as queer people we’re taught as children in the church, this included our sexuality. To express our identities, we were told, was a self-centered act that distracted from God, that put the individual over God. If we loved God enough, we could give up any part of ourselves, including gender identity and sexual orientation. We thus molded ourselves into the model of a devout Catholic that the church presented, largely a straight, cis individual performing hyper-femininity or masculinity to reinforce the binary.

But gender diversity has been part of the Catholic Church since the very beginning, as saints and key Catholic figures lived as what we would today call nonbinary or trans to mirror a God who supersedes all human constructs. The genderqueer identity of these saints is largely what distinguished them as divine and was highlighted in art as evidence of their closeness to God. It is through gender diversity that God has been present on Earth, as all humans are made in the image of God. My friend Maxwell Kuzma explained this in his eloquent response to the document’s release.

Thus, Dignitas Infinita itself denies the truth of Divine Mercy Sunday. The best example comes from Theresa Thompson, a friend of mine, in her homily, “Touch Me and See or, Jesus said trans rights,” delivered at a Mass the week after Dignitas Infinita’s release. Thompson prays that the leaders of the Catholic Church “and we who are church may have the wisdom to engage with transgender people as their full selves—their humanity, their pain, and their resurrection. Here with us, in body, in flesh.” I argued similarly in my April 8th Sunday reflection.


Reinforcing strict gender binaries also supports different roles for men and women in the church, another area of contention for many American Catholics.

Just this past November, Francis explained that “one of the great sins we have had is ‘masculinizing’ the church.” Highlighted by the lack of women in the Theological Commission and female theologians rising to leadership positions in the church, Francis urged members at the next International Council of Cardinals meeting to explore the Marin (as opposed to the Petrine) principle of the church. While initially providing air to the Womenpriests Movement, this de-masculinizing reinforces traditional social and religious roles for men and women.

The same Pew study shared that 64 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the church should allow women to become priests, mirroring the growth of the Roman Catholic Womanpriests Movement in the last three decades. While women’s ordination was discussed at the Synod on Synodiality that concluded this past October, the closing report reinforced that women’s ordination should be limited to permanent deacons or “new ministries” that have yet to be defined. The Women’s Ordination Conference responded that a responsive church which “fails to be transformed by the fundamental exclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people fails to model the gospel itself.”

Dignitas Infinita’s emphasis on strict gender roles conflicts with recent Vatican guidance. The same month that Francis issued this call to “de-masculinize” the church, the Vatican released guidance that trans people can be baptized, serve as godparents, and function as witnesses in Catholic weddings. Yet, the document signed by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, used an outdated term, “transsexuals,” and warned that this only applied if it did not scandalize the parish. That same month, Pope Francis also ate pasta with trans sex workers at the Vatican.


In the end, the release of Dignitas Infinita cemented the Vatican and Francis’s strict and hypocritical position on the gender binary while also confusing LGBTQ+ Catholics, many of whom saw last November’s guidance as the first tangible step towards calling us by the names we chose for ourselves. Even beyond LGBTQ+ individuals and women priests, Diginitas Infinita sets a dangerous precedence for straight, cis Americans today. What happens for people with hormonal differences develops attributes of “both” genders? What differentiates a mastectomy from top surgery, when both are lifesaving procedures?

The church’s crumbling foundations all tie back to this hypocrisy. The church cannot fight against the physical and emotional abuse of women and marginalized genders with one breath and deny gender-affirming health care with the second. To accept the division of these two issues surrounding gender would be to deny how every issue related to gender—abortion, women’s ordination, LGBTQ+ rights—is interconnected in the eyes of the church. 


Image: Unsplash/Jordan McDonald


About the author

Emma Cieslik

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a queer Catholic scholar focused on material culture and LGBTQ+ identity within the church. She founded and directs Queer and Catholic, A CLGS Oral History Project based out of the Pacific School of Religion.

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