Two Iowa dioceses issue pastoral guidance on gender, sexual identity

Archbishop Thomas R. Zinkula, the bishop of Davenport, Iowa, named July 26, 2023, to head the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, is seen in a combination photo with Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa. The Davenport and Sioux City dioceses recently released documents that provide pastoral guidance regarding gender and sexual identity. (OSV News photos/courtesy The Catholic Messenger/Sioux City Diocese)

(OSV News) — Two of Iowa’s four Catholic dioceses have recently released documents on pastoral guidance regarding gender and sexual identity.

The Diocese of Davenport published its “Guidelines for Pastoral Accompaniment of Sexual and Gender Minorities,” effective Oct. 4.

Also this month, Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City issued “Catholic Teaching and Directives on the Human Person and Sexual Identity” for that diocese.

Back in January, the Diocese of Des Moines published its “Gender Identity Guide and Policies,” while the Archdiocese of Dubuque — which does not at present have a formal policy on the issue — recently offered two sessions on “Transgender Issues Training” for faith formation leaders. The archdiocese’s director of communications, Deacon John Robbins, told OSV News that “discussions and planning on the topic were put on hold” amid a leadership transition, with Archbishop Thomas R. Zinkula, currently bishop of Davenport, having been appointed by Pope Francis to the archdiocese less than three months ago.

The Davenport and Sioux City guidelines both seek to balance a pastoral approach that at once affirms human dignity, church teaching and compassionate accompaniment of those who — as Bishop Nickless notes in the Sioux City document — “question or experience distress over their own identity.”

The Davenport Diocese stressed the importance of “a fundamental respect for the dignity of every human person, body and soul, created in the image and likeness of God.”

“As Catholics, we are called to respect the dignity of every person and to welcome each one as Jesus welcomes all,” said Bishop Nickless in his guidelines for the Sioux City Diocese. “God seeks to draw all people to Himself through Jesus, and the Church as the Bride of Christ shares in this mission. To those who are struggling to find answers or acceptance, be assured that you are welcome in the Catholic Church.”

Noting that its document “does not provide all the answers, but rather a framework from which to approach these questions,” the Davenport Diocese said, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution … to these kinds of delicate pastoral situations,” since failure to realize “each person, family, and set of circumstances is unique and personal” and risks “doing greater harm not only to the people we seek to serve in these situations but also to the Church as a whole.”

The Davenport guidelines urge a “a case-by-case approach with a basic willingness to make reasonable and appropriate accommodations when possible.”

That pastoral approach entails “loving people first … listening for deeper understanding (and) … involving others in the discernment process, especially the individuals and families involved as well as other professionals and collaborators,” the Davenport document stated.

The diocese admitted that such an approach does not mean those with sexual orientation or gender struggles “always see themselves or their situations with perfect objectivity,” yet “we should start by accepting their experiences as authentic.”

Medical, psychological and social sciences, “paired with a deep respect for the wholeness of our Catholic intellectual, moral, and social tradition,” can draw on “collective wisdom” to “build consensus about how best to faithfully and pastorally approach these delicate situations,” said the Davenport Diocese, which also urged “close collaboration with the diocesan bishop” and other diocesan leaders.

Bishop Nickless emphasized that “to love is to will the good of another person,” which is “expressed by the accompaniment that we offer on our journey toward holiness.”

However, he said, “love also involves disagreeing at times or speaking the truth in charity, even if a message seems unwelcome, so that a greater truth or good may be achieved.

“When someone is living in a way that is not in accord with human flourishing or performing acts that are harmful, the loving response is to state the truth about the situation with love and accompany that person toward greater truth,” said Bishop Nickless. “Authentic accompaniment requires remaining firm in the truth of the human person.”

He provided more than 30 directives for all Catholic institutions in the diocese, with specific instructions relating to Catholic schools, health care institutions and the administration of the sacraments.

Broadly, Catholic institutions must not tolerate “the unjust discrimination of any son or daughter of God based on feelings of identity distress or confusion, sexual attraction, or a diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria,'” said Bishop Nickless.

At the same time, those persisting in a lifestyle that contradicts church teaching regarding faith and morals “are not to serve in official Catholic roles, including employment, boards and committees, and liturgical ministries,” said the bishop.

Such lifestyles include “sexual relationships that are outside of Catholic marriage, as well as those who reject their given sexual identity as male and female and assert a subjective identity, such as ‘transgender,’ ‘non-binary,’ or ‘gender fluid,’ that is incongruent with the person’s biological sex,” he said.

Those in such situations also “may not be Baptized, Confirmed or received into full communion in the Church,” unless they have repented and live in accord with church teaching, said Bishop Nickless.

“Repentance does not necessarily require reversing the physical changes to the body that the person has undergone,” he noted.

While discussions of same-sex attraction should respect the dignity of each human person, same-sex civil unions cannot be endorsed, as church teaching defines marriage as between one man and one woman, said Bishop Nickless.

Children cared for by a same-sex couple may be baptized in “appropriate circumstances … provided there is a well-founded hope that the children will be raised and educated in the Catholic faith.” Such children, “if properly prepared and disposed,” may also receive the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist, the bishop said.

Pronouns should refer to the person’s biological sex, as the use of a “preferred pronoun,” though “perhaps intended as an act of charity, instead promotes the dissociation of biological sex and identity, and thereby confuses or denies personal integrity,” said Bishop Nickless.

Sacramental records, diplomas and other documents issued in the diocese, participation in sex-specific extracurricular activities at Catholic institutions and the use of restrooms and lockers at Catholic facilities in the diocese should all correspond to one’s biological sex, he said.

Bishop Nickless also stipulated that no student who has “rejected his or her given sexual identity” — either by denying it or by undertaking or completing a process of gender transition — can be admitted to a Catholic school in the diocese, unless the students and parents pledge to discontinue that process and “work toward accepting Catholic teaching on sexual identity.”

Catholic institutions in the diocese may not endorse or provide funds or meeting spaces for efforts for groups that support gender transitions or same-sex marriages and civil unions.

Catholic health care services are not to perform or help develop surgical or chemical procedures “that aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex,” said Bishop Nickless.

Instead, “they must employ all appropriate resources to mitigate the suffering of those who struggle with gender incongruence” through “morally appropriate means” that work to “show full respect for the dignity of the human person,” he said.

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