BOLIVIA – A recent law allowing people to change their gender and ensuring that transgender people receive the same treatment as everyone else when they present their IDs has been criticized by Bolivia’s bishops, who say it hasn’t been sufficiently debated and may lead to greater suffering.

“Far from judging or condemning, the Catholic Church expresses her respect for, and solidarity with, people and families suffering conflicts of sexual identity of one of their members,” the bishops said, adding that the Church “rejects all forms of discrimination and violence based on sexual identity.”

However, they went on, “the adoption and application of this law does not solve the underlying problems.”

Media reports of the statement have depicted the Church as being opposed to any measure to help transgender people, but their statement suggests a very different reading.

The bishops favor civil legislation that addresses the real needs of transgender people; hence their critique of this law, which they say “wasn’t publicly debated, and didn’t receive the necessary consensus or sufficient popular attention.”

The bishops are seeking what is best for people suffering from gender dysphoria, just as they do for so many other sectors of the population, such as victims of people-trafficking. In seeking to support pastorally any group of people in need, the Church draws on time-honored sources: the Bible, her own tradition of reflection on the human person, and more than two thousand years of concern for humanity.

The Church deplores and combats all unjust discrimination, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out. The Church seeks – as do gay rights activists — to overturn the criminalization of homosexuality present in several countries.

For his part, Pope Francis has emphatically repudiated any discrimination against transgender people, whether in Church or society. A person who has decided to change his or her physical appearance — whether transgender or transsexual — deserves the same respect as any other human being.

That’s not a modern idea for the Church. Pope Urban VIII (along with King Philip IV) apparently gave strong support to Catalina de Erauso – known as “Sister Alférez” — four centuries ago.

At the age of 16, Catalina ran away from her Dominican convent in northern Spain, donning men’s clothes and taking a series of male names. She looked like a man, and even attempted a seventeenth-century version of transgender surgery — “drying her breasts” with a secret ointment.

She ended up a soldier in the Indies, fighting bravely against Araucanian Indians in southern Chile, and being promoted to lieutenant. (Her extraordinary autobiography inspired a play by Pérez de Montalbán, a disciple of the playwright Lope de Vega.)

After revealing while in Huamanga, Peru, that she was in fact a woman, she received the protection of the local bishop, and back in Europe had an audience with Pope Urban VIII, who apparently gave her permission to wear men’s clothes.

It is reasonable to seek changes in the law to make life easier for people, but legal reform cannot alone resolve the issues people face in their daily lives.

Legal identity cannot be easily dissociated from physical reality, and appearance — as Sister Alférez showed — doesn’t determine sexual identity. Each cell decides if we are XX or XY (male or female).

Sex cannot be considered as a mere façade, and it cannot be simply an object of personal choice. The goal has to be a body congruent with a person’s gender identity.

Yet Article 3 of Bolivia’s new law states that gender is no more than the “social construction of roles, behaviors, customs, ideas, clothing, practices or cultural characteristics for men and women.”

But can gender really be said to depend exclusively on what culture and society have allocated to each sex? The law distinguishes gender from “gender identity,” which is “the individual experience of gender as the person feels it, lives it and exercises it in society.”

In turn both are distinguished from sex, which the law describes as merely a “biological condition.”

The intention of the law, at least in the minds of legislators, is to assist a minority in achieving the legal recognition of their intrinsic dignity and to make their lives easier.

But to what extent will this disaggregation of the different aspects of a person’s inner being complicate the lives of many others, who will feel in future moved to question unnecessarily their identity? A genuine debate would have allowed legislators to consider the possible unwanted side-effects of this legislation on, say, adolescents who often experience hesitation about their identity.

The bishops, in their statement, warn that the law formalizes gender ideology, which “ignores the principle that sex determination is constitutive of the person” and “removes the natural complementarity of the sexes, reducing it to a cultural factor.”

They are right. A broader, deeper debate would have exposed the intellectual flaws behind the law.

A calm consideration of arguments from all sides designed to clarify the issues involved would not just have resulted in better legislation, but might actually have helped those suffering from gender dysphoria.

Eichmann is coordinator of Catholic Voices Bolivia.