[Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part article.]

The cocktail of controversy that includes gender theory and transgendered people is fast becoming the new culture-frontier challenge. The Church’s position has been, to put it mildly, ‘developing’.

The transgender issue is in reality two discrete phenomena, requiring very different responses, yet the two have been too often, tragically, folded into one.

On the one hand, it involves the growing awareness of a suffering group that often has been marginalized and brutalized. On the other, it is an academic theory that has grown out of feminism and gay rights that challenges the notion that gender is rooted in biological sex.

A person’s gender, in this thinking, is an arbitrary social construct, the result of social conditioning that can (and should be) thrown off in the quest for self-realization. Expressed in political action, it demands not just ‘rights’ for transgender people — their own bathrooms, and so on — but the abolition from public documents and passports of the very notions of masculinity and femininity.

The task for the Church is to work out how, on the one hand, to critique the theory as false and to resist this new public ideology, while on the other mercifully to embrace those suffering from gender dysphoria as vulnerable people in need of pastoral care and the Church’s protection.

So far, at least until Pope Francis received a Spanish transgendered man in the Vatican last year, and spoke at length about it recently, the Church has been doing the first much better than the second.

Alarmed at the latest radical assault on core truths – weaponized by legal battles in schools and public places – Catholics have been far better at identifying and resisting the perceived threat of gender theory than welcoming transgendered people in need of integration.

Popes and bishops, too, have been far better at the first than at the second.

Benedict XVI put it best in 2012 when he critiqued the way “people dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.”

He went on to deplore this as “the manipulation of nature,” noting the contradiction between this view and the contemporary western respect and concern for the created world. His 2007 social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, said there could be no true ecology without respect for the complementarity of male and female.

Francis took up that idea of “human ecology” last year in his social encyclical Laudato Si’, noting how the technocratic mentality that seeks to manipulate the world and its resources begins with consumerism and ends by rejecting life as gift, even the gender of our bodies.

Popes have rightly identified gender theory as a new form of gnosticism, rejecting the givenness of the created world, a symptom of the technocratic mentality.

Where bishops have spoken – as did recently Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury in England – they, too, have emphasized the threat of “gender ideology”, which they are urging schools to resist. (A Catholic school in England that had prevented a male student self-identifying as female to use a female bathroom recently backed down and apologized following the threat of legal action.)

But such statements have mostly ignored the reality and plight of transgender people. Of the 17 paragraphs in Davies’s letter to schools “on the truth of the human person,” only the first acknowledges what he calls “individuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, experience difficulty identifying with their biological sex, be that of male or female.”

But after calling for “respect, compassion and understanding” for such people (he never describes them as “transgender” or suffering from gender dysphoria) the remainder of the letter is a cogent summary of papal arguments against gender ideology.

It is as if transgender people themselves are absent.

As with the Church’s response to gay people, whose experiences have so often been ignored in the process of resisting homosexuality, this lopsided response can make the Church seem more interested in defending doctrine than in responding to concrete human suffering.

In rejecting a theory or movement, Catholics can seem to reject the person – or at least to be unconcerned by them. God’s mercy, as a result, is subsumed by the focus on law and truth, creating a lopsided picture of Christianity which in Pope Francis’s view has been the principal obstacle to the Church’s evangelization.

Ironically, this Catholic response mirrors the way gender-theory activists attempt to harness transgender people to their cause. In both cases, the people at the center of the issue – the victims, if you like – have been largely passed over.

When I invited two transgender Catholics to speak at a briefing recently for Catholic Voices in London, the most important thing I learned was that you have to start by listening to their experience.

Both had ‘transitioned’: one from male to female, the other female to male. Their stories were fascinating and moving, not least because in both testimonies there was a deep faith involved, as well as immense, tragic suffering.

But I also learned three things.

The first is that genuine gender dysphoria is a very rare (0.005 to 0.014 percent of males and 0.002 to 0.003 percent of females) but highly distressing condition triggered by a chromosomal variance that appears difficult to reconcile with the text of Genesis that God made human beings both male and female.

Yet equally, the very distress (‘dysphoria’) caused by having the body of one sex but the mind of the other would suggest, paradoxically, that the Genesis account is true. At the heart of both the stories was an attempt to resolve the issue of gender dysphoria; in neither case could it be resolved by claiming that gender was fluid or irrelevant.

The second is that transgender people suffer greatly as children, not least at puberty. They endure profound self-rejection, as well as stigma and violence from their families. (In Brazil, I learned, 270 trans women working as prostitutes were murdered last year alone).

And when they undergo hormonal treatment and even surgery in order to function in a society that revolves around binary gender, they experience shame, disgust, humiliation, as well as terrible pain and isolation that often leads to depression and suicide. (A 30-year Swedish study of the effects of sex-reassignment surgery showed death by suicide was 19 times higher than in the general population.)

The third is that while trans Catholics have experienced understanding and compassion from individuals – both our witnesses spoke movingly of pastoral care from priests, and the importance of the Eucharist in sustaining them — institutionally they often experience incomprehension and even hostility.

Which brings me to two cases of transgender people in parishes, both in Spain.

In August last year,  a 25-year-old transexual parishioner called Alex Salinas in Cádiz was invited by his sister to be a godfather at the baptism of his baby nephew. The priest consulted his bishop, who initially said that being a transsexual was not an obstacle to being a godfather.

But after consulting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome, Bishop Rafael Zornoza of Cádiz and Ceuta reversed that decision. In its letter, the CDF said that a transsexual “does not possess the requisite faculties of leading a life according to the faith and the duties of being a godfather” and that “transsexual behavior itself reveals in a public way an attitude opposed to the moral demands of resolving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of the sex itself.”

Until Salinas dealt with his gender dysphoria by accepting his biological sex, in other words, he could not be a godfather.

The young man, deeply rejected, left the parish.

According to the trans Catholics I spoke to, the problem with the CDF’s letter was that it confused gender dysphoria with a homosexual lifestyle, seeing it as a behavior – a way of acting sexually – rather than a psychiatric or medical condition.

It also presupposed that gender is determined by what the body says, the genitalia, rather than the heart, mind and soul, and never considered the possibility at least that the two could be misaligned for reasons beyond anyone’s control.

The reasoning suggested at least that the officials at the congregation had never met a transgendered person.

That is why it is so significant that Pope Francis has done so, and attempted to restore that lopsided response in his remarkable response to another Spanish transexual man, Diego Neria.

[The story continues in the second part of this article, to be published soon on the Crux site.]