Several Catholic bishops’ call for clarity and compassion on sexual identity issues such as transgenderism drew the ire of a dissenting Catholic group which is part of a well-funded LGBT activism network.

New Ways Ministry’s executive director Francis DeBernardo encouraged his group’s supporters Dec. 18 to write the four bishops who signed the recent letter. Claiming gender transition helps people “become closer to God,” he said the letter is “denying transgender experience” and “promotes a false scenario about how gender topics are being taught to children.”

The Dec. 15 letter “Created Male and Female” was published on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic signers included Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, chair of the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chair of the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty; and Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, who chairs the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Other signers included religious leaders from Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, and Muslim backgrounds.

The religious leaders stressed that male and female are God-given differences that must be publicly acknowledged, and that those who are confused about their own identity deserve authentic support.

Their letter voiced the belief that “God created each person male or female; therefore, sexual difference is not an accident or a flaw — it is a gift from God that helps draw us closer to each other and to God. What God has created is good.” They cited the Book of Genesis on the creation of humankind: “male and female he created them.”

DeBernardo, however, contended the letter was based on a scientifically false idea of gender. He rejected the idea that gender is a choice, portraying it as something discovered through one’s biological and sociocultural development.

“To force someone to live inauthentically is neither healthy nor holy,” said DeBernardo. “Reading this statement makes one wonder if any of these leaders have ever listened to the journey of transgender people. If they had, they would find that transgender people often experience their transition as not only a psychologically beneficial step, but one that also involves important spiritual dimensions. Transitioning helps people become closer to God. That is something religious people should support.”

The religious leaders’ letter said the movement to enforce the idea that a man can become a woman or a woman can become a man is “deeply troubling.”

They voiced concern that children are affected by current trends in sexual identity and are harmed when told they can change their sex or are given hormones that can affect their development or render them infertile.

Desires to be identified as the opposite sex are “a complicated reality that needs to be addressed with sensitivity and truth” and with a response of “compassion, mercy and honesty,” the letter said.

The letter is in line with writings from Pope Francis, who has addressed sexual identity issues several times. In his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, he said young people “need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created.” And in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si', he linked the acceptance of the human body as God’s gift to accepting the entire world as a gift from God. “[T]hinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation,” he warned.

New Ways Ministry has faced correction from leading U.S. bishops in the past, including a March 2011 statement from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. A February 2010 statement from Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, then-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the group’s claim to be Catholic “only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination.”

In 1999 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI, said New Ways Ministry’s founders took an approach to homosexuality that had “ambiguities and errors” which cause confusion among Catholics and harm the community of the Church.

New Ways Ministry’s current backers include the Arcus Foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker. The foundation also backs the Equally Blessed Coalition, of which the group is a part. A 2014 grant for this coalition aimed “to support pro-LGBT faith advocates to influence and counter the narrative of the Catholic Church and its ultra-conservative affiliates” in connection with the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family and World Youth Day.

In 2016 New Ways Ministry gave its Bridge Building Award to Father James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America Magazine. The priest’s lecture at the award ceremony was the basis for his book Building a Bridge, on Catholic-LGBT relations.

Catholic pastoral approaches to sexual identity and transgender issues in line with Church teaching are underway, though rarely on an organized basis.

In February 2017 a spokesperson for the U.S. Bishops' Conference Office of Public Affairs told CNA most pastoral care has largely taken place “at a local and personal level.”

“As attention to and awareness of this experience has grown, we are seeing more efforts regionally and nationally to respond in a way faithful to the Catholic understanding of the human person and God’s care for everyone,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that dioceses with their own chapter of Courage, which aims to accompany Catholics with same-sex attraction, are in a good position to respond to people with questions about their sexual identity.