The Catholic church is dangerously mistaken about intersex people

I.

TLDR: The notion that every person can be clearly categorised as either male or female on the basis of biology appears to be increasingly popular in Catholic circles, but the biology and medical science of the matter disagrees

At least if Father Tad Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Education Center is correct about current theology, the Catholic church takes some very strong positions related to sex:

1. That every single person is either intrinsically male or female, without exception.

2. That each person’s intrinsic sexual identity is manifest in the body of that person person without exception.

Father Tad Pacholcyzk goes so far as to say:

“Human beings, along with most other members of the animal kingdom, are marked by an ineradicable sexual “dimorphism,” or “two-forms,” namely, male and female. When problems arise in the development of one of these forms, this does not make for a new “third form,” or worse, for an infinite spectrum of different sexual forms. Instead, intersex situations represent cases in which a person is either male or female, but has confounding physiological factors that make them appear or feel as if they were of the opposite sex, or maybe even both sexes. In other words, the underlying sex remains, even though the psychology or gender they experience may be discordant. Put another way, intersex individuals may be “drawn away” from their intrinsic male or female sexual constitution by various anatomical differences in their bodies, and by opposing interior physiological drives and forces.”

In other words, whatever the complexities may be, every single human being has one gender or the other, even if we don’t yet know what it is. Resting key theological presuppositions upon large empirical generalisations is a dangerous game, but it would seem some are keen to play.

Father Tad Pacholcyzk is not going out on a limb here. The Vatican statement: “Male and female he created them. For a path of dialogue on the issue of gender in education” claims:

“The process of identifying sexual identity is made more difficult by the fictitious construct known as “gender neuter” or “third gender”, which has the effect of obscuring the fact that a person’s sex is a structural determinant of male or female identity. Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of “intersex”…”

At least partly these very strong positions seem to be defensive in character. Catholic thinkers feel (perhaps correctly) that the existence of intersex people is a threat to their deeply essentialist metaphysics of gender and the result is palpable anxiety. A majority of material I’ve been able to find on these important questions from Catholic sources runs together the ideas about the nature and status of trans people with ideas about the nature and status of intersex people, even though these issues are conceptually distinct. Bluntly, the failure to recognise such a basic yet important distinctions, in an issue which effects lives so profoundly, is shameful.

It seems to me that the existence and variety of intersex people make the presuppositions underlying the church’s position untenable.

II.

Contra the Catholic church, the notion that everyone can be unambiguously classified as either male or female on the basis of their physiology or genetics is wrong, even if you accept that physiology is what defines gender. The range of variation in human genetics and primary and sexual characteristics defeats any attempt at a clear division of everyone into either male or female. Every single criteria that one could point to in trying to draw a sharp line has some counter-example. Biology doesn’t provide the kind of exceptionless laws that theological binaries require.

For example, one of the most popular approaches among those who seek to create a clear binary between maleness and femaleness, is to claim that people are differentiated by their chromosomes- men have XY chromosomes, whereas women have XX chromosomes. However in at least one case, a woman with majority XY chromosomes in her cells (predominant XY mosacism) got pregnant and gave birth. See the write-up here. Surely a catholic theologian would not wish to describe this situation as a man getting pregnant, yet if one wants to define sex in terms of chromosomes, one will be forced to do just that. Thus the catholic cannot define sex in terms of chromosomes.

But reproductive role won’t work as a dividing line either. Many intersex people (and for that matter, many people who are not intersex) are infertile. So we cannot use reproductive capacities to draw the demarcation.

Internal or external genitalia won’t do- pretty much all possible combinations of genitalia or lack thereof are possible and exist somewhere, so no firm distinction can be made using these features.The same is true of secondary sexual characteristics.

The problem then is that in some cases it is possible to know every single physiological and genetic fact about a person, and still not be able to unambiguously classify them as either male or female. Now you might say “but this is unfair- these are extremely rare conditions”. That’s true, but the nature of the Catholic church’s position seems to be that biology can be used to classify absolutely every single person as male or female. Such a strong claim fails in the face of even one exception.

Tad Pacholczyk provides us with no criteria for making the demarcation. He simply expresses the view that human sexual dimorphism is “ineradicable” and that it might be hard to detect intrinsic gender, but it is always there. Since he himself seems to acknowledge that chromosomes will not always mark the demarcation, cleanly, one wonders at the nature of this “inerradicable” dimorphism and how it might be detected. Despite this vagueness he asserts: “While a newborn’s “intrinsic maleness” or “intrinsic femaleness” may be difficult to assess in certain more complicated intersex cases, the point remains that there is an “intrinsic” or “underlying” sexual constitution that we must do our best to recognize, respect, and act in accord with.” We are asked to accept that there must always be a unique correct answer about which binary category every single person belongs to, despite a total lack of clear criteria, let alone an attempt at the difficult task of justifying those criteria.

It appears that there is no clear way to define a boundary between male and female which neatly resolves all cases. Having had an amateur interest in biology for years, I’m not surprised. Life constantly finds ways to make a mockery of attempts to pin it down into pristine and separable categories which capture all possible permutations.

In many ways its odd that Catholicism seems intent on making this the hill it will fight on. By way of contrast Judaism, Islam and many other branches of Christianity are far more pragmatic about the possibility that some people may not be clearly male or female. Judaism, perhaps unsurprisingly, has elaborate rules and classificatory schema for handling people with both male and female sexual characteristics, as does Islam. Neither religion assumes that all cases of ambiguity can be resolved definitively as either male or female. There are also prior Catholic and Christian traditions of acknowledging the existence of intersex people.

III.

While for a philosopher like myself these conceptual holes in the Catholic church’s approach to sex might be interesting, for committed Catholics who happen to be intersex, and who fall in these gaps, the situation can be devastating. The Catholic church has a moral obligation to grapple with the science around this issue, and not simply claim, abstractly and without evidence, that everyone can unambiguously be classified as “biologically male” or “biologically female”.

And of course, the Catholic church’s position, as a powerful organisation, has consequences far beyond the church. As the organisation Intersex Human Rights Australia puts it in a discussion of the problems from an intersex point of view with the document: Male and female he created them. For a path of dialogue on the issue of gender in education

“All around the world, intersex people face gross human rights violations, including medically unnecessary “normalizing” interventions, and the concealment of such practices on individuals from themselves and from society. Consequences include insensitivity, sterilization, chronic pain, osteoporosis and depression.”

The position of the Catholic church has been used to justify these human rights violations, including unnecessary and harmful surgeries. The Catholic church has, at least in the recent past, usually been sensitive to the importance of not trying to turn scientific questions into theological ones. I hope this spirit of respect for science might lead to a reevaluation here, because it is unacceptable that the existence and rights of intersex people be denied to prove an abstruse theological point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s