Trans People, the Church, and the Castrati

Transgender issues are a major topic, both in popular culture and in the realm of public policy. Once treated as the modern equivalent of sideshow freaks, transgender people are coming into the mainstream and demanding the right to take their place in the public square. For conservative religious bodies like the Catholic church, who have yet to reconcile themselves with the existence of cis-gender lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and asexuals, this “transgender moment” must be particularly baffling. To my knowledge, there have been no “official” statements from Rome about how “orthodox” Catholics should make sense of transgender people (The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t mention transgenderism, at least not the edition I have), but this passage from a December 2012 speech by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seems to be as authoritative as anything else on the matter:

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

(full speech here:

Here Benedict links the desire for transgender people to change their sex to the breakdown of the “traditional family,” blurred gender roles, the denial of God, and all of the usual ills conservatives attribute to the rise of LGBT rights. To Benedict, being male or female takes on an almost transcendental meaning, so that any attempts to alter gender roles, much less our external genitalia, is mocking God’s intentions to place each of us in a specific body for a specific reason. Humans are either male or female, men and women, end of story.

So what then, are we to make of the castrati?

For reader unfamiliar with this term, the castrati were male singers who had been castrated in childhood for musical purposes. The New Testament’s prohibition of women speaking in churches was interpreted by the Catholic mean that women couldn’t sing in church either, meaning that the soprano and alto parts in Gregorian chant and polyphony needed to be sung by young boys. Since boys have a nasty habit of growing up, which in turn changes the tenor of their voices, castration ensured that the voice of a pre-adolescent boy be preserved into adulthood:

Although the castrati were the stars of the secular opera world during the Baroque and Classical period, changing musical tastes (as well as the gradual inclusion of women on the dramatic and musical stage) meant that they had fallen out of favor by the 18th century. In Revolutionary France, for example, the castrati were considered a symbol of ancien regime excess and degeneracy. This meant that by the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic church was the only source of demand for the services of the castrati.

The castrati appear to have had a peculiar “in-between” status, in that they were not women, but weren’t considered “full men” either. Canon law forbade them from getting married (though many did anyway), thus preventing them from enjoying normal family life. They were mocked because of their peculiar appearances (e.g., long limbs, feminine features, hairless bodies), and subject to accusations that they led men into homosexuality with their sexual ambiguity. I suspect that most castrati were only able to find true community with each other, since the outside world found them to be so bizarre.

With all of this historical information as a backdrop, my question is, why is it okay to alter your genitals to sing in the Sistine Chapel choir, but not okay to alter your genitals because you’re transgender? Were the castrati mocking God when they took advantage of their artificially high voices to sing Allegri’s Miserere Mei during Easter? What about the thousands of people who profited from the castrati, ranging from the back-alley surgeons who performed the operations right up to the popes who employed them, most of whom probably considered themselves to be good, even orthodox Catholics? And let’s not forget that many boys who were castrated didn’t survive the operation, dying from blood loss, infections, or accidental poisoning from the crude anesthesia (usually opium) they received. Many other castrati were unable to make it as singers, and ended up in a state of penury and isolation. All of this just to get around the prohibition of women speaking/singing in church.

This thread from the “Catholic Answers Forum” shows “orthodox” Catholics trying to struggle with the castrati problem:

The consensus the posters reach is that the secular culture was to blame for creating a demand for the castrati, but as I mentioned earlier, by the late 18th century most Europeans had already bored of them, while the church was still eagerly looking for fresh applicants for its various musical outlets. As with many of the Catholic church’s more dubious actions, the phenomenon of the castrati lasted for hundreds of years, so it’s not like it can be blamed on a few bad apples. The castrati were still going strong in the Papal States when it was absorbed into the Republic of Italy. In fact, the only thing that finally ended the castrati was the Republic of Italy outlawing the practice of castration for musical purposes. Although Leo XIII began phasing out the castrati from the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1878, I suspect it was probably more because he realized that the new laws meant that it would be harder to obtain replacements, not because he thought that castrating children to sing in church was inherently wrong.

I think the castrati issue needs to be brought up more as a reminder that in the not so distant past, the Catholic church didn’t have a problem with certain people modifying their body in ways that it would consider to be “against nature.” At least modern transgender people are deciding of their own volition as to whether they want to change their gender, rather than being forced into it by their parents, poverty, or the church, as was the case with the castrati. The church was able to control the castrati, whereas modern transgender people are taking matters into their own hands, which is why I think that trans issues can’t be so easily assimilated into Catholic thought.