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Vatican says ‘sex-change intervention’ risks threatening human dignity

By Anthony Faiola and Stefano Pitrelli Washington Post

VATICAN CITY - A highly anticipated Vatican document released Monday offered something of an olive branch to church conservatives, after a series of liberal declarations by Pope Francis. The new treatise denounced attempts to obscure the “sexual difference between man and woman” and stated that “any sex-change intervention” is a risk to human dignity.

But the Vatican stood by the more inclusive measures Francis has promoted, and the rollout of the new document offered a rare window into the frustrations his inner circle is feeling toward his traditionalist critics.

Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez - Francis’s new right-hand man and a fellow Argentine who heads the powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith - omitted any mention of document’s “sex change intervention” passage from his opening remarks and then appeared to take aim at the pope’s critics in an unusually candid news conference.

Fernandez used the moment to deliver a staunch defense of Francis’s open-door stance, especially the December decision he penned with the pope’s backing to allow blessings of same-sex couples. That policy was widely criticized by traditionalists, including senior clerics in Africa and Eastern Europe. But Catholics, Fernandez said, should not be picking and choosing which parts of Francis’s teachings to follow. The 61-year-old cardinal specifically called out an unnamed Catholic group that he said had backed an unspecified government’s harsh new legal measures against homosexuality.

Asked directly for the Catholic Church’s position on anti-gay laws, he retorted: “Of course we are in favor of decriminalization.”

At one point, Fernandez also sought to counter the traditionalist view that a sitting pope should not contradict his predecessors. He noted that in 15th Century, Pope Nicholas V had explicitly offered permission to the king of Portugal to enslave pagans - a position contradicted 80 years later by Pope Paul III.

“It seems like Pope Francis cannot say or think different from what was said before,” Fernandez said, referring to the view of the pontiff’s adversaries.

The 23-page document released Monday, titled “Dignitas infinita,” Latin for infinite dignity, amounted to a sweeping pronouncement on the human condition marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations. It warned of the ills of poverty, the plight of migrants and modern challenges to the concept of dignity, including cyberbullying.

But its briefer sections on gender theory and gender-affirming care were perhaps its most closely scrutinized.

In recent months, Francis, in conjunction with Fernandez, has affirmed that transgender people can be baptized and serve as godparents and approved the blessings of same-sex and other unmarried couples. Francis also told a young transgender Italian last year that “the Lord loves us as we are,” and he has warmly received transgender people in papal audiences.

Those gestures and others have stoked a powerful conservative backlash, prompting criticism of Francis in often remarkably harsh terms. Leading clerics in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia have rejected the guidance on blessings for same-sex couples, despite the explicit Vatican caveats that such benedictions do not and should not bear any similarity to the sacrament of marriage.

The new document released Monday, approved by the pope March 25, does not undo those measures or fundamentally change Francis’s more inclusive stance. It asserts, for instance, that the Catholic Church “wishes, first of all, to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided.”

But it does add context. It appears to separate the need to provide outreach to transgender people from the act of obtaining gender-affirming surgery. It cites Francis as saying that “creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.”

The document concludes that means “any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.” The church, however, saw nothing wrong with “people born with genital abnormalities” seeking medical treatment.

Asked about the apparent contradiction between pastoral reception of transgender people, and the condemnation of the gender affirming procedures, Fernandez did not provide a clear answer. He seemed to suggest that the document strove to call out a “trend” of not viewing sex at birth as a gift from God. He suggested, however, that there would be no change in LGBTQ+ outreach. “The principle of reception of everyone is evident from the words of Pope Francis,” he said.

The document is critical of “gender theory,” or the notion that gender identities exist along a spectrum and can involve individual choice. In the past, Francis has sharply denounced the idea, even comparing it to nuclear weapons in 2015.

The Vatican document Monday doubled down on that opposition, saying gender theory “intends to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference.”

The document also exalts heterosexuality: “In the male-female couple, this difference achieves the most marvelous of reciprocities. It thus becomes the source of that miracle that never ceases to surprise us: the arrival of new human beings in the world.”

Some church conservatives hailed the document, focusing on the passages on gender rather than the critical rollout.

“As far as I’m concerned, after 11 years of [Francis’s] papacy, this is the first document that I would quote from and make use of, as I do with Benedict VI and John Paul II,” said Roberto de Mattei, president of the conservative Catholic Lepanto Foundation. “Yes, he’s said these things before, but … not as strong.”

Catholic clerics ministering to the trans community, however, expressed private dismay at the statement on “sex-change intervention.” Some activists argued the Fernandez’s office was seeking to “appease” the pope’s conservative critics.

“The traditionalists were unhappy with the [gay] blessings, so the church appeases them in this way,” said Innocenzo Pontillo, a gay Catholic activist in Florence who is in a same-sex union. “The church is still stuttering on these topics. … That’s the idiosyncrasy in Francis’s church: His pastoral approach leads to reception, but then you read stuff like this and just feel ashamed.”

Other observers said its cautiously worded phrasing might blunt the impact, and that the section on gender theory raised more alarm.

“The way in which gender theory is addressed is self-referential and quite hasty, and does not convey the complexity of the theory,” said Andrea Grillo, professor of sacramental theology at the Anselmianum, a pontifical university in Rome.

The Vatican further reiterated Francis’s opposition to surrogate pregnancies, contending the practice violates the dignity of women and turns a child into a “mere object.” The document warned against the increasing legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, arguing that “even in its sorrowful state, human life carries a dignity that must always be upheld, that can never be lost.” Echoing long-held church teaching, the document condemned abortion as a “deliberate and direct killing.”

Fernandez mentioned that after seeing an earlier draft, the pope requested greater focus on the human dignity lost because of poverty, as well as sections on the dignity of migrants, violence against women and other themes. Noting a surge in global conflict, the Vatican repeated Francis’s belief that a third world war is already being fought “piecemeal.” The Vatican appeared to once again slam wealthy countries for policies against migrants. “No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings; yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human.”

Its sharpest focus was on a subject Francis has frequently railed against: poverty. World leaders have heralded numbers that have shown reductions in global poverty, but the Vatican argued that this does not take into account rising inequality and the hoarding of wealth by a few. The document once again called out consumer culture and corporations - described as the “empire of money” - that downsize employees in a quest for higher profits.

“The claim that the modern world has reduced poverty is made by measuring poverty with criteria from the past that do not correspond to present-day realities,” the document stated. “As a result, poverty can take a variety of forms, such as an obsession with reducing labor costs with no concern for its grave consequences.”