Is the recent Vatican instruction on baptism and transgender persons an about-face?

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It felt like there was a seismic shift in Church teaching concerning transgenderism in recent weeks. And that’s because so many headlines got the story wrong.

The New York Times, for example, reported: “Pope Francis, who has made reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics a hallmark of his papacy, has made clear that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings, furthering his vision of a more inclusive church.”

So what actually happened?

Responding to pastoral questions

In a doctrinal note issued from the Vatican, Pope Francis and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández offered a nuanced response to several pastoral questions. The document, signed on Oct. 31 and posted on the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (DDF) website on Nov. 8, addresses the participation of “transsexual and homo-affective persons” in baptisms and weddings. For our purposes here, I’ll just address the question of whether or not a transgender person, even one who has undergone medical intervention, can be baptized.

Before we get to that, recall that Pope Francis has consistently and unequivocally denounced transgender ideology throughout his pontificate. Speaking in Hungary in April, the Holy Father warned Hungarian civil authorities from falling prey to the “ideological colonization” of gender theory. A month before, he said the same thing to the journalist Elisabetta Piqué of La Nación: “Gender ideology, today, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations.”

In 2016, Pope Francis told the bishops of Poland, “Today children — children! — are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this [is] terrible!” His encyclical letters — including Amoris Laetitae and Laudato Si’ — warn against gender ideology.

The pope has not reversed Catholic teaching. We receive our bodies as male or female. This is settled perennial Catholic teaching, grounded in Scripture and sound philosophy. Under no circumstances can the note from the DDF be read as approval of transgender ideology or the idea of gender identity.

So what exactly does the note say?

How to interpret the note

Regarding baptism, the document provides nuanced guidance, emphasizing pastoral prudence. It urges that each situation be carefully considered to safeguard the sacrament, prevent scandal and address any doubts about the moral or subjective disposition of the person involved.

The document instructs that a transgender person be admitted to baptism under the same conditions as the rest of the faithful. What are those?

In order to be baptized, the Church teaches in the Code of Canon Law: “For an adult to be baptized, the person must have manifested the intention to receive baptism, have been instructed sufficiently about the truths of the faith and Christian obligations, and have been tested in the Christian life through the catechumenate” (Canon 865). Accepting Jesus Christ and seeking baptism means renouncing error, rejecting Satan and embracing Catholic teaching, including teaching on human sexuality.

The note reaffirms the Church’s teaching that baptism, when received without repentance for serious sins, imparts a “sacramental character” that is indelible but does not in that instance confer sanctifying grace.

It would remain, on my reading of the note, inadvisable to admit a post-operative transgender person to the sacrament who has not clearly embraced Church teaching. In such a case, scandal and confusion would inevitably ensue. Additionally, as the document clarifies, no sanctifying grace would be conferred.

In essence, the Vatican’s recent guidance does not signify a substantive change in Church teaching but rather emphasizes the need for pastoral prudence, careful discernment and an unwavering commitment to perennial Catholic teaching. In a word, it underscores the Church’s duty to accompany her sons and daughters on the path to conversion while upholding the sanctity of the sacraments and avoiding scandal among the faithful.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."