Catholic Church in Quebec to address the question of allowing transgender individuals to be godparents, an issue that is expected to come up more frequently with Canada's changing social norms. CNS photo/Lisa Johnston

Quebec Catholic Church mulls questions about transgender godparents

  • October 6, 2017
QUEBEC CITY – Andrea was baffled when her friend asked her to be the godmother of her newborn baby. She would have said "Yes" right away, but things are not that simple for her. She has been a woman for only a little more than a year.

Andrea prefers to keep her last name secret out of respect for her friend's privacy. Born a man, the woman from Quebec City officially began her sexual transition in 2013. In addition to a hormone treatment, the Quebec public records office accepted her sex change in April 2016.

She kept her Catholic faith along the way. When she was younger, she received all of the Christian initiation sacraments.

"Many transgender people reject faith. There is an unwritten rule between the church and us to exclude each other," Andrea said. "But I cannot do that. To truly be me, I cannot walk with one arm ripped off, the arm being my faith."

But the request of her friend left her wondering: Could she be allowed to become a Catholic godmother?

This once-theoretical question is now on the doorstep of the church in Quebec, where the number of baptisms is declining. In the early 1970s nearly nine out of 10 newborns were baptized. There was a slow decline until 2000, when the drop became steeper. Today, less than 40 percent of newborns are baptized. There has been a slight increase in adult baptism, however.

A case similar to Andrea's arose in Spain in 2015. Bishop Rafael Zornoza Boy of the Cadiz and Ceuta then sought the advice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The answer was clear: "impossible" because a transgender person does not conform to the Catholic faith, the congregation said.

"If we look at how (Canadian) society is evolving, the question could come up more often," said Chantal Labreche, assistant professor of canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.

She said that even though Andrea legally is a woman, Canadian law could not compel the church to accept her claim on grounds of discrimination because being a godmother is not a right. Moreover, Andrea could not become a godfather either, as she gave up her right to identify herself as a man. In any case, it would be "far from the spirit of canon law," Labreche said.

Father Francesco Giordano, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Montreal, believes the church's criteria for becoming a godparent already are well defined.

"In this particular case, one can easily go through the checklist: being baptized, having lived the sacraments of initiation and being 16 years old. But we can trip on the last item on the list: Does she live her faith in a way that is consistent with the church?" he said.

"For a transgender person, this is a problem because there is an inconsistency between biology and self-identification. That being said, if a transgender (person) is able to live her faith and continues to assume her biological sexual identity, this person can meet the criteria to become a godparent," he explained.

Last winter, in Montreal's St. Peter the Apostle Parish, in the heart of the city's gay neighborhood, pastoral minister Yves Cote accompanied a transgender person who was asked to be a godfather. However, the baptism never happened and the question remained unresolved.

"I believe the issue will emerge in the upcoming years," Cote said. "We'll get asked this question. What will we do then?"

For Cote, the church should consider accommodating gender change when there is an official legal sex change. "On the other hand, I know that the church is very..." He stops and takes a few moments to find the proper words. "It's a big boat that's hard to turn around," he said.

Andrea believes that the question deserves to be looked at carefully by the church. In the meantime, she continues to explore her faith as she prays.

"I ask God to show me the way. What arguments can I bring to show them that I am not an abomination?" she asked.

She invited the church to question her and see if she actually lives accordingly with the Catholic faith. "I'll answer and we'll see if I'm a good person. But because I am a transgender, there is no possible discussion," she said.

"My gender identity lies inside me. I cannot omit it from myself, "she said in response to the idea of "enduring" her biological sex.

Father Giordano said it will be the duty of chanceries everywhere to show sensitivity and understanding for such requests.

"What I tell transgender people is this: 'Come and talk to us. If you have any questions, we will be happy to answer them. It's not easy, it's a novelty (for us).' But the answer of the church is quite clear regarding godparents: They must be ready to assume a Catholic life, and what constitutes Catholic life is well established."

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