Today’s news that the Vatican has approved the baptism of transsexuals bears all the earmarks of the current papacy. The statement from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith does not directly contradict prior authoritative statements of Church doctrine or discipline. But it gives every indication that pastors who ignore the rules will have nothing to fear from Rome.

The statement, issued in October by Cardinal Victor Fernandez, also gives the Catholic world another indication of what we can expect from the Vatican’s doctrinal office, now that the Pope’s favorite theologian is in charge. Cardinal Fernandez has been busy during his first weeks in his new office. Careful Vatican observers saw the Argentine cardinal’s all over the recent papal document, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, calling for a “paradigm shift” in Catholic theological studies. The new doctrinal czar has a clear mandate from the Pope to shake up the theological world — to “make a mess,” in the parlance of this papacy — and he is already hard at work.

The document that he released in October, answering questions from a Brazilian bishop (and isn’t it nice when the Vatican responds to dubia?), is careful to say that transsexuals should be baptized “if well prepared and willing.” The statement goes on to caution that “when the sacrament is received without repentance for serious sins, the subject does not receive sanctifying grace.” So as it stands the Vatican document can be read to say that someone who has undergone gender-reassignment surgery, and then repented of that choice, can be baptized. Which of course is in accord with traditional Catholic teaching; any repentant sinner may be baptized.

However, the statement does not say what serious sins should be repented before baptism is allowed; it does not confirm that voluntary self-mutilation is a serious sin. So the document can also be read as saying that a man who is now living as a woman, or a woman living as a man, can be baptized— as long as there is no likelihood of scandal. If that interpretation is allowed, then a pastor can proceed with the baptism of a proud transsexual as long as he can be assured of the community’s acceptance; the Church would not resist the trend to normalize the abnormal.

The Dicastery applies the same logic to transsexuals acting as godparents: they can, as long as they are properly disposed. Here again the statement finesses the canonical requirement (#872) that a godparent must be “one who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” — which is to help the newly baptized “to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it.” Someone who has undergone and then repented gender-reassignment surgery might make an excellent godparent. But someone who is happy with an ersatz gender identity — and for all we know might encourage his godchild to take the same step — would not. The new Vatican document does not distinguish between those two possibilities, except with the anodyne caution that the prospective godparent should be properly disposed.

On the question of whether transsexuals can be official witnesses to a marriage, the Dicastery’s guidance is straightforward: They can. The function of a witness is to witness the exchange of vows. Current Church law makes no demands about the moral character of the witnesses. The new document does not represent a change.

In answer to questions about homosexual couples who “appear as parents of a child” to be baptized, the Vatican statement does seem to break new ground. Skipping quickly over the likelihood that the baby was obtained by illicit and immoral means “such as the womb for rent,” the statement simply cites the canonical requirement (#868) that “there must be a well-founded hope that he will be educated in the Catholic religion.” Is there a well-founded hope that an active homosexual couple, having purchased a baby, will instruct that child faithfully in Catholic morality? The Dicastery dodges that question, too— leaving it to the discretion of the pastor.

And the pastor’s discretion is given free rein yet again on the question of whether homosexuals can be godparents. Here the dicastery does make a distinction. If the prospective godparent lives with a partner of the same sex, but “leads a life in conformity with the faith,” then he is eligible. Of course. But if he is living in a “stable and declared relationship… well known by the community,” then there is a problem. [Emphasis added.] Here we wait for the Dicastery to say that in such a case the individual could not serve as godparent because it would cause scandal. But that is not what the Vatican document says. Instead the Dicastery says that “due pastoral prudence requires that each situation be handled thoughtfully,” and leaves it at that. One more time, the pastor who chooses a lax approach — in this case, one who sees no problem in allowing active homosexuals to be godparents — has the green light from the Vatican.

By Phil Lawler on Catholic Culture