nwpaCatholic staff

Msgr. Edward Lohse, vicar general, addresses school, parish and
agency leaders about a pastoral response to transgender issues.

          A church employee says his son began transitioning to a female, and he and his wife are prepared to condone their son’s decision rather than lose their relationship.

          A transgender student tells the principal that he wants to use the faculty bathroom rather than a student bathroom.

          A person in the process of joining the Catholic Church says his RCIA sponsor identifies privately as transgender.

          These three scenarios are realistic situations in today’s culture, and ones which call the Catholic Church to increased sensitivity.

          When the church confronts such gender issues, it first must ask, “How do we respond pastorally?” said Msgr. Edward Lohse, vicar general of the Diocese of Erie.      

          “There is an increasing number of people who are either experiencing gender identity questions themselves or who have family member or friends experiencing these. How do we provide a pastoral response or pastoral support in those situations?” Msgr. Lohse said.

          As chair of the newly formed diocesan task force on gender issues, Msgr. Lohse joined Bishop Lawrence Persico and others in presenting a study day, titled “Pastoral Response to Gender Identity Questions.”

          More than 200 people in leadership positions in parishes, schools and agencies of the Diocese of Erie attended the event at St. Mark Catholic Center, Erie, on Oct. 2, and at St. Tobias Parish, Brockway, on Oct. 3.

          The opening speaker was Dr. Justine Schober, an Erie pediatric urologist, who provided the most recent scientific research on the topic of gender identity. She discussed her own medical research in the field and explained necessary vocabulary, from transgenderism to gender dysphoria.

          A panel discussion on theology and a pastoral response to gender-related issues featured Kate Whiteford, director of chastity education for the diocese; Joe Haas, director of Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services; and Father Brian Vossler, pastor of St. George Parish, Erie.

          Haas pointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement last year that reaffirmed that we are created male and female, but also noted that we must acknowledge the transgender experience and “respond to people with compassion, mercy and honesty.”

          “We need to encourage the people in our communities to also respond with patience and love,” Haas added.

          In his remarks to participants, Bishop Persico urged openness.

          “We’re just trying to shed some light on this to help pastors and parish leadership make informed decisions in accompanying people who are transgender in finding their role in the church,” Bishop Persico said.

          Msgr. Lohse believes that Pope Francis’ model of accompaniment is a rich pastoral concept that will assist church leaders in responding to gender identity questions.

          “The idea of accompaniment is this: we’re on our way to the kingdom. If you want to come with us, and we invite you to come with us, please walk with us. We’ll meet you wherever you are and help you to walk with us,” Msgr. Lohse said.

          Msgr. Lohse and the gender identity task force provided guidelines for schools, agencies and parishes to form their own teams that will address gender issues on a case-by-case basis. Teams will be equipped to consider the theological, pastoral and human aspects of individual situations.

          Jesse Spanogle, administrator of youth ministry at St. Jude the Apostle Parish, Erie, attended the Erie study day. He appreciated discussing the issues that young people are dealing with today.

          “How do we welcome without affirming some of these choices that are contrary to what we believe,” Spanogle said. “So I came looking for answers, for some guidance. There’s not much online. We have people with opinions, but I came for church teaching.”

          Bishop Persico said there are no simple answers when it comes to gender questions.

          “What is important and what came out clearly in the presentations is that we have to deal with the person in front of us,” Bishop Persico said. “We are not going to quote dogma, theology and canon law. We need to begin by listening to them.”