U.S. bishops’ canonical committee to offer ‘clear analysis’ of transgenderism and consecrated life

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (OSV News) — A number of the nation’s Catholic bishops have asked for guidance from their episcopal conference following the public disclosure of transgenderism by a Lexington diocesan hermit.

“This issue is now on our agenda,” Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, told OSV News. “Other bishops may be looking at this, and they’ve asked about this. And so we will try to give a clear analysis that will give the doctrinal and canonical guidelines that hopefully will be helpful to any bishop.”

Bishop Paprocki spoke to OSV News June 14 after the final public session of the USCCB’s 2024 Spring Plenary Assembly in Louisville.

The hermit’s disclosure

Less than 100 miles from where the U.S. bishops convened, 39-year-old Brother Christian Matson, hermit for the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, came out as transgender on Pentecost Sunday (May 19, 2024), having been received as such when professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to Bishop John E. Stowe a year prior.

Bishop Stowe, who declined OSV News’ request for comment, told Religion News Service in a May 19 article that he regarded Matson as “a sincere person seeking a way to serve the church.”

The bishop also told the outlet that “hermits are a rarely used form of religious life … but they can be either male or female. Because there’s no pursuit of priesthood or engagement in sacramental ministry, and because the hermit is a relatively quiet and secluded type of vocation, I didn’t see any harm in letting him live this vocation.”

Canonical and doctrinal concerns

But Bishop Paprocki indicated to OSV News that following a “preliminary discussion” by the canonical affairs and governance committee, “the initial consensus … was that it’s not really possible for a (transgender) person to be admitted to the role of a hermit or consecrated life if they are not repentant of what they’ve done.”

Bishop Paprocki told OSV News that the issue “was not presented to us with a question of addressing any one particular bishop.”

Church teaching on gender ideology

“Consecrated life is vowing yourself to God, and the church’s teaching on transgender ideology is very clear,” Bishop Paprocki told OSV News. “Pope Francis has been very clear about that. And the Bible is also very clear. God made us male and female. And so someone who is claiming to be a transgender person is basically denying a biblical and a doctrinal teaching of the church, and so I would say it would be very difficult for a person like that to authentically enter consecrated life unless that person’s repented.”

However, he added, “at least as far as being a hermit is concerned, if that person has repented and somehow tries to take steps to reverse the decision they made, well, maybe there’s a possibility for a person in that situation. But that’s not the scenario that’s been presented to us.”

As a result, the case “also raises other questions in terms of Catholic teaching about mutilation of the body, which is also part of the church’s moral objection to transgender surgeries, unless it’s in those very rare cases of ambiguous sexuality that a baby may be born with. But that’s very rare.”

Bishop Paprocki also noted an apparent incongruence between Matson’s public disclosure and the hermit vocation, which — although tracing its roots to the third century — was only formally recognized by the universal church’s canon law in 1983.

Nature of eremitical life

“You also have a question of why is a hermit going public with making statements, when you can see the very nature of eremitical life is to withdraw and to dedicate yourself to a life of private prayer with God,” he said. “And so it seems that someone who is claiming to be a hermit and then is giving public interviews — it really raises some serious questions about the seriousness of that person’s commitment to this way of life.”

At a June 13 press briefing during the bishops’ spring assembly, the USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, in response to a question from a member of the media, also noted concerns about the impact of the disclosure on the integrity of the eremitic vocation under canon law.

USCCB and Vatican guidance

Asked by OSV News if the USCCB committee will consult with the Vatican regarding the issue, Bishop Paprocki said, “I think we can handle it here.

“Pope Francis has made some very clear statements,” he said, pointing as well to the declaration “Dignitas Infinita” released in April by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“‘Dignitas Infinita‘ has some very clear sections on gender ideology. So I think we have guidance already from the Holy See,” said Bishop Paprocki. “So … I would say this is within our competence. If in the course of our study we have any questions that seem not clear, I suppose we could bring those (to the dicastery). But for now, I think there’s some very clear guidance from the Holy See on this.”

Gina Christian

Gina Christian is a National Reporter for OSV News.