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On gender issues, bishop says, ‘We have to be courageous, but always be pastoral’

A brave and pastoral new catechesis on the human person and gender ideology recently was released by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia. The Editorial Board of Our Sunday Visitor applauded the document and encouraged all Catholics to read it. In a new interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, Bishop Burbidge outlines the motivation behind the document, how he hopes it will be used, and what more the Church should do to speak out on this complex issue. He also speaks directly to parents and to young people who are wrestling with gender dysphoria.

Our Sunday Visitor: Why did you want to issue this document?

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge: In our day and age, of course, we are dealing with many issues that impact our morals and the way we live our faith in the workplace and community and society, and certainly this issue of the human person and gender ideology is very much at the forefront of that. And, unfortunately, I think so many untruths are being spoken, so we thought there was a need to provide what we refer to as a catechetical document — a teaching document to help parents and young people to understand the beauty of what the Church teaches and why we are teaching it, and to give them the language that they need to explain to others, whether it be colleagues, other family members or in the workplace. It’s a document that is based on theology and philosophy — very pastoral — and, as you can imagine, it was a great team effort that went through many drafts with the goal of teaching the truth and providing clarity in charity. We want to put our faithful in a position to help them, to bring their voice to this issue, to speak what is true. We want this, in a sense, to be a living document — not just something that people read one time and put aside. I’ve asked our parishes, I’ve asked our schools to please work through this document and please look at the resources that are quoted throughout, and invite speakers to come in and continue to learn how we as Catholics speak on this issue.

Our Sunday Visitor: What are you hearing in the diocese or in the broader culture about the challenges? What are parents facing? What are young people facing?

Bishop Burbidge: Overall, there’s a word of appreciation — I believe that God created us in his image as male female, but when I get questioned and hear these other theories and these other errors and untruths, I don’t know the right words and how to do it. So thanks for giving us this opportunity.

We’re hearing that parents are very, very concerned, especially parents whose children do not attend our Catholic schools, many of whom are dealing with schools and counties that are indoctrinating in a sense and forcing upon their children untruths. And so we are encouraging our families to say, “We can’t be silenced here. We have to be the ones who influence, who inspire, who bring the truth to the table.” So, you know, it’s challenging for parents when they know that, in their own communities, in their own schools, their children are hearing things that are just not true.

Our Sunday Visitor: What do you say to the folks who are pushing back against issuing a document on this sensitive topic?

Bishop Burbidge: There are some critical comments and all being said. We expected that, to be honest, we knew that would come. In the Gospel, Jesus said some difficult teachings, and people walked away. Sometimes people say it’s easier to walk away, not to take up the teaching, not to get involved, just walk away. We said, we can’t do that, not if we’re followers of Christ. So we expected that there would be critical things said, but a little disappointed in some of the criticism referring to the fact that it’s denying that all persons are children of God. We say that throughout the document. We say that very clearly: that every single person is created in the image and likeness of God, is God’s beloved child, God’s beloved son or daughter, and should be treated with respect and never should there be discrimination or bullying or ostracizing or anything like that. That’s not the Catholic Christian way. Sometimes the attacks are unfair in that line of thinking. That’s never said in that document.

Our Sunday Visitor: How do you hope this document is best used?

Bishop Burbidge: I hope that it is used, No. 1, to teach the truth. No. 2, I hope it is also used as a point of dialogue, because in society today, people are taking different positions. It’s amazing to me that we have reached the point in society where to say that “God created us man or woman” is countercultural. It’s hard to believe we’ve reached that point. But what is also countercultural — and this is a good thing — is that we’re saying this in love, and you don’t see that all the time. Instead, people take firm positions and do not convey, especially to those who disagree with them, the respect and the love and compassion that we do in this document. So, I hope that the document helps to create what we would refer to as true dialogue of people listening to one another. But ultimately, to teach the truth in love.

Our Sunday Visitor: What more do you think that Church leadership, whether it be priests or teachers, or catechists or bishops, can do to lead the way back to the truth on this issue?

Bishop Burbidge: There has to be a renewed sense of confidence in God’s promise — that when you speak the truth, obviously there will be, perhaps, a price to be paid. You might be labeled, you might be treated differently in the workplace or condemned. But if you’re speaking the truth, God will give you the strength and the courage to be steadfast. And that’s what we have to be. We can’t be silenced. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in our society — that people who have strongly held beliefs, based on truth and reason, should be silent — should not be able to speak what they truly believe, and we can’t let that happen. As followers of Christ, we have to bring our faith into the public arena, and I think as leaders in the Church, we have to be courageous, but always be pastoral. Look at Pope Francis. Everything in this document, Pope Francis has reaffirmed. He’s clearly stated that to tell children anything other than they’ve been created male and female would do them great harm. I also think we’re imitating the way he teaches, which is good. God loves all persons. The Church loves all people. We’re here to accompany you, to walk with you. So I think that balance is so important, and we have a great example in the Holy Father, and that’s what we try to imitate in this document.

Our Sunday Visitor: For people who might not sit down and read this document, what would you say to parents of children who are questioning their gender?

Bishop Burbidge: First of all, reaffirm the love that God has for your son and daughter, and reaffirm the love that you have for your son or daughter. Tell them “no matter what the issue is that you may be facing, my love for you is forever. I love you. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to take that love away.” Just reaffirm that. That is so essential. And then tell them that “it is because I love you that I want to lead you to help you to embrace what is true.” And that may take time. That may be a long process. It may be lots of patient listening. But we should never think that the only way you can express your love for your son or daughter is to accept or tell them something’s right that isn’t right. That isn’t what we do when we love someone. We teach the truth patiently, we do it kindly, and we do it prayerfully, and trusting the process and trusting our child to God. That child is always God’s.

Our Sunday Visitor: And what about to young people struggling with gender dysphoria? What would you say to them?

Bishop Burbidge: God loves you. It is God who created you in his image and likeness. You are his beloved child. Please never forget that, and if you remember that, then there is no suffering, there is no cross, there is no burden that will be too heavy if you remember God’s great love for you. God loves you so much that he gives you, in Jesus, the truth, and he wants you to embrace what is true, what is good and what is holy. It’s not rejecting that that will bring you peace and happiness and joy, which we’re all seeking. It’s embracing the truth that he revealed perfectly to us in his Son and in his Gospel and in his holy ways.

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you think that the bishops as a conference will be talking more about this issue in any way?

Bishop Burbidge: I think each bishop as the chief shepherd or chief teacher or catechist in his diocese really has the responsibility of gathering with his team and presenting the teaching in the way he deems most appropriate. So it’s not something that we necessarily have to wait to do as a body of bishops. In this diocese, this document is the result of a team effort of great theologians and philosophers and people of great pastoral skill who guided me as the chief teacher and shepherd and catechist to present this document to the faithful.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editorial director for periodicals at OSV. Follow her on Twitter @gretchenosv.

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