A Catholic diocese in Michigan has instructed its pastors to deny baptism, confirmation and other sacraments to transgender and nonbinary people unless they have “repented” — possibly the first diocese in the United States to issue such a sweeping policy about those who identify with a gender other than their sex assigned at birth.
The guidance issued by the Diocese of Marquette also stipulates that transgender people may not receive Communion, which Catholics believe is the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ. In most circumstances, they cannot receive the anointing of the sick, which is meant to provide physical or spiritual healing to those who are seriously ill. The guidance was issued in July but only recently sparked a debate after a prominent priest and advocate for LGBTQ Catholics shared it on Twitter.
“The experience of incongruence in one’s sexual identity is not sinful if it does not arise from the person’s free will, nor would it stand in the way of Christian Initiation,” reads the document. “However, deliberate, freely chosen and manifest behaviors to redefine one’s sex do constitute such an obstacle.”
A spokesperson for the diocese said no one was immediately available for an interview.
Because the Catholic Church primarily baptizes infants, the Diocese of Marquette’s policy is likely to primarily impact non-Catholic adults seeking baptism in the Catholic Church, transgender teenagers preparing for confirmation and children of Catholic migrants who were not baptized as infants because their parents were frequently moving, among other possible reasons.
The backlash may portend a growing clash between the church, which teaches that people should accept their sex assigned at birth, and a younger generation more likely to identify as something other than cisgender and less likely to believe that being transgender is morally wrong. One in 6 adults in Generation Z identifies as LGBTQ, according to survey data released by Gallup in February.
While other dioceses have released guidance on transgender people, several experts said they believe Marquette is the first to deny access to baptism and confirmation. That decision comes in an absence of significant guidance from the Vatican or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which have said little about transgender individuals and the sacraments. The closest piece of direction comes in the form of a 2019 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education that says people should be treated as the sex they were assigned at birth.
Some theologians and those who support LGBTQ Catholics said the new rule may contradict canon law, the church’s set of internal regulations — and speculated that few other dioceses are likely to follow suit.
Jennifer Haselberger, a former chancellor for canonical affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, said she was particularly puzzled by Marquette’s rule about baptism.
“There’s nobody who approaches baptism from a state of perfection,” she said. “The presumption is the opposite. You come to baptism as a sinner, and original sin is forgiven you.”
The diocese’s policy may also counter a part of canon law that says any person who has not yet been baptized is eligible for that sacrament, Haselberger said. A transgender person denied baptism for that reason could appeal to the Vatican, but Haselberger said it is unlikely that someone would risk the publicity and emotional challenge of that process.
In some ways, the diocese’s policy on transgender individuals mirrors how the church talks about same-sex couples, said Patrick Hornbeck, author of “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The church teaches that being attracted to people of the same sex is not sinful but that acting on that attraction is. Similarly, Hornbeck said, the Diocese of Marquette seems to be suggesting that a person who thinks of their gender identity as a problem to overcome would not be barred from the sacraments.
Hornbeck, who is also a theology professor at Fordham University, noted the policy comes at a time when many Catholic leaders have taken to drawing lines beyond which they believe it’s not possible for a person to be in good standing within the church. Recent debate among the U.S. bishops over whether President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights can receive Communion exemplifies that trend, he said.
“The Diocese of Marquette seems to be adding fuel to that particular fire by saying that beliefs about gender and gender transition also fall into that category,” Hornbeck said.
Advocates for the LGBTQ community warned that the policy could backfire.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said it could lead to “decimation of the Catholic community,” creating a division with faithful who will reject it and other bishops who will welcome LGBTQ people as full members of the church. Few other dioceses are likely to follow suit because the guidance would lack a theological basis and almost certainly upset many Catholics, added DeBernardo, whose organization aims to minister to LGBTQ Catholics.
At a time of increasing societal awareness of diverse gender identities, DeBernardo said he assumes that many bishops are fielding questions from priests about whether to administer sacraments to transgender or nonbinary people.
“I think that when the marriage equality debates in the U.S. ended in 2015, for the most part, with the Supreme Court decision, that the new issue for the U.S. bishops became gender identity, more than anything else,” he said. “And I think with the new generation — that there’s new understanding of gender and more visibility for people who don’t identify with the gender binary — that this is going to come up.”