By Kevin Bocquet
Pope Francis’s decision to send money to a group of about 20 transgender women, struggling to cope financially because of the coronavirus pandemic, is likely to reawaken controversy within the Roman Catholic Church over his attitude towards gender issues.
The women, aged between 30 and 50, had been receiving food and basic supplies from a priest, the Rev Andrea Conocchia, in the small town of Torvaianica, just outside Rome. Many of them were sex workers, and had been struggling to earn money for rent and other essentials since Italy went into lockdown in early March.
When he was no longer able to support the women, Father Conocchia suggested they write to the Pope to seek help. Pope Francis directed his papal almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who administers his charitable work, to send funds to the women.
This is not the first time Pope Francis has displayed compassion towards the trans community. In January 2015, he was contacted by a Spanish man, Diego Neria Lejarraga, who had grown up as a girl, and who had waited until his mother died before having reassignment surgery at the age of 40. Neria was subsequently insulted and spurned by a minority of people in his parish.
Pope Francis invited Neria to the Vatican. At their meeting, he hugged him and told him he was “a son of the church”. And yet for some Catholics, the Pope’s compassion towards the trans community appears to be at odds with his stated views on gender reassignment.
Only the previous month, in late 2014, he had told an interviewer he deplored the “ideological colonisation” of gender theory, which he said failed to recognise the order of creation.
In his biography of Pope Francis, Wounded Shepherd, the author Austen Ivereigh lists other occasions on which Pope Francis has been equally outspoken.
In 2016, on a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, he said the imposition of gender ideology via international agencies, was part of a “global war against marriage”. In 2017, he criticised advances in biotechnology, which he said would lead to a “utopia of the neutral” in which sexual difference was erased.
His comments were criticised by Catholic LGBTQ groups, who described them as ignorant, and increasing the vulnerability of trans people to discrimination.
In a 2016 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, the Pope was asked how he reconciled his rejection of gender ideology with pastoring a person struggling with their sexuality. “One thing is for a person to have this tendency, and even for that person to change sex. Another thing is to teach in school in this way, in order to change people’s way of thinking,” he said.
The compassion shown by Pope Francis towards the women of Torvaianica is likely to be applauded by trans activists, who nevertheless deplore his views on gender ideology. But for traditional, family-value Catholics, it’s the other way round.
The Rev Canon Dr Rachel Mann, vicar of St Nicholas Burnage, Manchester, said: “Such a response from Pope Francis is typical of his concern for marginal and vulnerable people. In many ways, the fact that the help has been offered to a group of trans women is incidental. It displays, I think, less a formed opinion on trans people, and more a pastoral concern for the most vulnerable in Italian society. I suspect some other popes may have displayed this level of charity, while others may have been worried about how the story would be spun in the media. Pope Francis’s actions strike me as an example of his pastoral courage in challenging times.”