Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
The pain and suffering of people, and their friends and families, who experience forms of depression and dysphoria can become a burden so overwhelming that life itself seems unlivable. With or without physical symptoms, the stress and anxiety can lead to despair or even violence, usually toward oneself, through some form of mutilation, self-medication or even suicidal attempts. The annals are many and heartbreaking.

For decades we have been aware of persons, often pre-pubescent, who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other self-harming conditions, like cutting and burning. In recent years, there is the plight of those who do not feel at home in their biologically assigned bodies and may be induced to alter them pharmacologically or surgically or to present themselves, in affect or attire, in accord with what they deem their real identity. This becomes a major cause of concern and upheaval in familial, educational, employment, recreational and other social circles. Since causes, manifestations and treatment of such very personal identity issues remain complex and controversial, it is not easy or simple to communicate with certainty or adequate sensitivity, not only with those experiencing them, but also with those who love them. What guidance or support might one offer? It’s daunting, but is it better to say or do nothing?

I titled my article, “Questions of Identity,” since it seems a fair enough way to begin to address what, in general terms, some people speak of who seek our acceptance and understanding of their experience. How to hear and try to understand what they wish to express as their sense of and feelings about their sexuality, gender or other state of body or mind that cannot be described in conventional terms, and with their concomitant pronouns. Many concerned persons hesitate to speak openly, or even privately, of this very difficult situation, but from my viewpoint as a pastor of souls, it causes too much suffering and confusion simply to ignore, let alone dismiss as the plight of a few or a sad sign of the times.

My heart goes out to those who know such pain and suffering either because of questions of identity on various levels of their lives, both internally and in terms of how they are perceived or treated by others, as well as friends and family who love them, trying to understand, suffering with them, often in silence. How we cope with personal experiences, what we do and say, where we go for support, understanding, and solace or healing, much depends upon background, experience and views about the proper scope of care, morality and wellness. I believe our faith and resources as a church offer substantial hope and guidance.

As Catholics, we always start with the most fundamental truth about the human person. Every human being, from the moment of conception, however they are conceived, is willed and desired by a loving God. Whatever the genetic code (DNA) and chromosomal mix assigned, that life is precious, valued and sacred because it is made in the image and likeness of God. Not only conceived as an individual, but destined for relationship, every person is part of something larger than themselves. We also hold the vocation of every person is an eternity with God.

Not everyone accepts all these tenets, though many who do not identify as Christians, even some agnostics and atheists, affirm the dignity, equality and freedom of every human subject, as the founders of our Nation expressed in their writings and built into our legal institutions. These foundations, rooted in reason and faith — “self-evident,” they wrote — impel us in conscience to treat every person with respect and sensitivity, regardless of how or what part of their identity may have been assigned at birth, acquired in time through experience, adaptation or sociocultural factors, chosen or not, including trauma or other circumstance influencing their personal history.

Because so much seems to have arisen only in recent years about persons with various forms of sexual and gender identity issues, not congruent with common or traditional patterns, it is often assumed this is new. I would submit that such matters are as old as humanity itself. They are not new. What is new is our sudden, growing awareness. I would also offer that it is much better to be aware of what other human beings experience, however difficult to understand, than to ignore, deny or attempt to suppress or shame them for what they suffer.

If you are still with me, please understand that I am speaking as a pastor — a spiritual father — not as a physician, psychotherapist or, for that matter, an expert in the best use of language to describe the range of experiences of those questioning their identities, which they feel were inappropriately or wrongly assigned to them. It might be of some help now to recall a few more fundamentals of our faith.

First, we do not judge, condemn or affirm any person just because of how they feel or the way they perceive their identity. We see each person as a child of God, a companion on the road to heaven, a co-seeker of what is good, true and beautiful. What we have in common is far deeper and more consequential than feelings — fleshly or emotional — that differentiate us.
Secondly, we invite conversation, walking together, an openness to listen, heart to heart. Labels are not required for the journey of accompaniment. Who one is from conception, biologically and genetically, how one experiences gender and sexuality on the path toward maturity and beyond, and how one presents at any point are three different aspects, not unrelated, but varying in terms of the freedom to choose or alter. This raises many moral issues, which I want to address as well, but suffice it to say here that it cannot be automatically deduced from a person’s current self-identification how they may actually behave or intend to act in the future.

Every human being, regardless of what they may describe as their sexual orientation or gender identity, is called to holiness, a life of virtue, sainthood, even as we all struggle with temptations to sinful actions. Within holy matrimony itself, it is possible to be tempted to actions that are more expressions of lust than conjugal love. Continence and discipline, respecting boundaries, are part of any loving relationship. Adolescence is an especially difficult time, when rapid hormonal changes can make self-discipline and independent decisions very difficult. The best approach for a parent or friend is always prayer and patience. So also, with any person who is struggling with emotions and feelings, which may be strong and unwelcome — either to the person themself or to friends or family. Personal presence and a listening ear are the first Christian gestures toward a friend experiencing questions of identity. Invoking the Lord’s help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are more likely to open paths to peace and serenity than judgments and conclusions about such mysteries that maybe only God can fully understand.