For many intersex people—particularly those who identify as queer—the “I” in LGBTQIA stands for “invisible.” Intersex encompasses a wide spectrum of people and identities beyond the physical presentation of sexual anatomy.
For many Catholic scholars, intersexuality represents a theological “no man’s land.” On one hand, Catholic bioethicists and prelates alike acknowledge the preponderance of scientific evidence supporting both the reality and complexity of lived experiences outside the genetic XX/XY chromosomal binary. On the other hand, incorporating these realities into Church teaching on gender and sexuality risks further eroding the strict doctrine of “male and female, he created them.” This elision of intersex Catholics from a “Christian vision of anthropology” to interminable invisibility ignores the Catholic Church’s own inclusive history.
Contemporary Catholic thinkers can learn a great deal from their Medieval predecessors, who did not regard intersex bodies as physical deformities that “confused” an innate gender identity. Because cisgender males held special legal power and privilege in the patriarchal world of Medieval Europe, scholars proved adept overserves of physical sex and gender characteristics. During the twelfth century, medical writings, legal tracts, natural philosophies, and moral teachings operated under the assumption that intersex people constituted a distinct sex outside a strict male-female binary. Historians have recovered how twelfth-century scientific writers embraced a human reproductive theory based on the widely copied ninth-century manuscript De spermate. This text argued that the human uterus had specific chambers for developing male, female, or intersex bodies.
Twelfth-century scholars separated medical theories of human development from philosophies of gender. This paradigm began to change at the end of the thirteenth century. Heavily influenced by recently rediscovered texts by Aristotle, Catholic Scholastics conceptualized physical sex within a divinely ordered binary.
Revisiting Medieval histories of gender offers an intellectual path out of the “no man’s land” toward a Church where intersex ≠ invisible.