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Catholic church ‘is carrying the torch on dignity of the body in our culture right now in a way that no one else is’

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Abigail Favale, author of "The Genesis of Gender" and a professor at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, speaks at The Catholic University of America in Washington March 21, 2023. (OSV News photo/Rui Barros, The Catholic University of America)

Amid society’s push for medical intervention to resolve gender “discordance,” there is a strong need for “charitable, substantive conversations” on gender because it is “affecting real people,” a professor from the University of Notre Dame told a Washington audience March 21.

“I have a real heart for people who really struggle with what it means to be a man, to be a woman,” said Abigail Favale, a professor of the practice at Notre Dame‘s McGrath Institute for Church Life, and an award-winning book and short story author. Favale is the author of “The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory,” published in 2022 by Ignatius Press. She drew on her work in an address given at The Catholic University of America that was the inaugural event of a speaker series launched by Peter Kilpatrick, Catholic University’s president.

Favale approaches questions about gender “from a deeply Catholic perspective but one that does not lose sight of the humanity and very real suffering of people who experience gender discordance,” she said.

“In a Catholic understanding, we can distinguish between sex and gender, but not separate them. Sex is to female as gender is to woman,” Favale said. “Gender is a category that refers to the whole person, the unity of body and soul that includes sex. It’s not strictly reducible just to biology.”

She thinks the Catholic Church “is carrying the torch on the dignity of the body in our culture right now in a way that no one else is.”

Favale said drawing on the Catholic Church’s rich teaching on the sacramentality of the human body, and recognizing the body “as a gift” from God, provides a deeper understanding on the issue to bring to the conversation.

She acknowledged it can be “hard to thread the needle” between showing compassion for those wrestling with gender and staying true to what the church teaches, but “she guards the truth,” said Favale.

She said balancing this is akin to inviting someone to your home, where you offer hospitality and earnestly listen to what is on their mind, “but this doesn’t mean you compromise the identity of your home” or ask them to “sign a statement they believe everything (you) believe.”

In this regard, Favale said she often thinks of St. Thomas Aquinas. “He was so inspired by several non-Christian philosophers,” like Aristotle, she said. Aquinas “was informed by pagan, Jewish and Muslim philosophers,” she added, but the saint’s theology was “deeply Christian.”

Favale delivered opening remarks before an audience of 350 people, and then answered questions posed by Kilpatrick and audience members present in the hall or participating via livestream.

Favale stressed the need for “accompaniment” with those struggling with gender issues.

“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all accompaniment,” she said. “Accompaniment is really just seeking to understand the person and really listen to their experience and what they’re going through.”

One of her next projects will focus on pastoral approaches to gender issues, she said.

Favale said she grew up “with the mantra to love your body, learning to love your body even though it is not ideal.” She noted that view now seems so “countercultural,” when organizations such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health promote asking young people what they want to be changed in their bodies, such as if “they want more of or less” of something, like bigger or smaller breasts.

Most people would say that during puberty, “no one feels at home in their body,” but “here we have adults asking, ‘What do you want to change?'” she said.

Gender-transitioning surgery “means choosing to become a patient for life,” Favale said. “There’s almost magical thinking about it.”

Favale pointed to the research she has done on what “really happens” and what “the outcomes for young people” are.

“I’ve talked to people for whom transition is traumatizing,” she said. Favale knows one young man “who takes a full 30 minutes to empty his bladder” since his surgery. She has heard about a woman in Canada who applied for “medical assistance in dying” because of the effects of the vaginal surgery she underwent.

What does it mean “if you have to put yourself under the knife to become your true self?” Favale asked.

One narrative around transitioning, Favale said, is that “my body doesn’t reveal who I am and that causes me stress.”

“(That) the body reveals the person — there is some truth to that desire,” she added. Where error comes in, she explained, is not believing the body is “already revealing (the person) and that the body is a gift.”

“I don’t mean the idealized body (but) the body that has limits, that gets sick, loses a limb … Limits of the body reveal to us our finitude and need for God,” she said. Favale added, “Even in the imperfections of the body, God’s grace works in that. … Pope Francis says to accept the body as a gift but also accept (its) limits.”

“I like being female but sometimes it’s a drag,” Favale admitted, but “there is this wisdom and truth to the body that matters. If we adopt the viewpoint (that) the body doesn’t (have) intrinsic meaning, then it’s almost like a project — like we’re avatars and need to express what we are — and that’s missing the sacramentality of the body.”