How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology.

So: just how does a woman become a Catholic priest in a major religious order? Sally Gross did just that: her story, with the explanation of just how it was possible, reveals some gaping holes in Catholic theology on women’s ordination and on sexuality, and problems in how governments deal with gender. It is also a moving personal story, of personal journeys, geographic, spiritual and biological, which are about as far-reaching as it is possible to go in one life-time.

The complex story is told at some length at the Natal Witness, which I have attempted to summarize below, quoting verbatim some extracts to illuminate key points. (Even in summary, it is lengthy – but stick with it. It graphically illustrates some critical deficiencies in Vatican thinking on sexuality and on ministry, which I touch on in conclusion).


The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.

Intersexed at birth, raised as a boy.

Gross is one of a small but significant, greatly misunderstood, minority of people who are loosely grouped together as “intersex”.

Biologically, hormone tests show she is clearly female, but at birth her external genitals appeared to be ambiguous, but essentially male. S/he was raised as a boy, complete with the ritual circumcision demanded by the Jewish faith of the family. However, s/he always knew that there was something “wrong”.

“Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness,” says Sally Gross. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different.”

He grew up as a Jewish boy in South Africa, but as a young man, became drawn to the Catholic Church, in part because he believed it to be more actively speaking up and acting against the evils of apartheid than his own Jewish religious leaders. He was baptised a Catholic in 1976. The following year he left the country, when his political activism against apartheid was becoming personally dangerous, going first to Botswana, then to Israel (where his parents then were).

Life as a Catholic Priest

Meanwhile, he had been in contact with the Dominicans, and in 1981 entered the Dominican novitiate – still, to all appearance, and in his own mind, a man. After ordination in 1987 Gross taught moral theology and ethics at Blackfriars, Oxford, as well as giving philosophy tutorials at various other Oxford university colleges, and was later assigned to the Cambridge priory and became sub-prior. With the end of apartheid, there came an invitation from the South African Dominicans to return to South Africa, with a teaching post at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara. When apartheid was no longer personal issue, Gross began to look more closely at matters representing more personal internal conflict – including her life-long tensions around gender identity. After professional counselling, she underwent testosterone testing, which showed her for the first time that hormonally, she was essentially female.

This led to major challenges and difficulties with the Catholic church, with the South African authorities, and with her own biology.

Instead of support and understanding from the Church, she found herself on the receiving end of a bizarre abuse of power, which culminated in her eventual laicization bizarrely on the basis of a release from her vows of celibacy – which had never been an issue. (Gross notes that in addition to being intersex, her sexual orientation is not homo-, hetero-, or bisexual – she is asexual).

Gross has no sexual orientation. “This came as a surprise, as I expected things to happen when I got to my teens, but they didn’t,” says Gross, who eventually accepted she was one of nature’s celibates.

“I am one of nature’s celibates. It was not my petition, it was contrary to what I’d said.”

For reasons that are not at all clear, further restrictions were placed on her even as a lay Catholic, which effectively made it impossible to remain in full communion with the church.

Even with lay status further prohibitions were placed on Gross, though without any canonical justification. “They effectively made it impossible for me to remain in communion.” It was suggested that she could not participate in church groups or parish organisations, except by applying, on an occasion by occasion basis, for permission from the bishop, who would in turn need to consult Gross’s former major superior. “It seemed to me that it made a mockery of the very notion of fellowship if you couldn’t join in the life of the parish. The implication was you couldn’t even have coffee after mass in the church hall.”

“By this stage I no longer had the resilience to tough it out. The possible come-back from my former major religious superior would have been more than I could have coped with emotionally, and I took the advice of a local priest and others to withdraw from communion.”

And so, she became a Quaker.

Passport troubles

Meanwhile, she had been having difficulty with her South African passport, when she planned to return to South Africa once again, even with the celebrated constitution that there may not be any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender. Although by now living as a woman, her passport still showed a male gender. She wanted to have this small detail changed – but encountered numerous problems, including the absence of a birth certificate (she had never been issued one at birth), and simple bureaucratic bungling.

Ultimately Home Affairs decided, in view of the medical evidence, that it was beyond their authority to issue Gross with any identifying documentation under any gender description at all. “Which suggested, by implication, that I could not get confirmation that I had been born. I had ceased in law to exist as a person.”

 Gross’s file was then referred to the Department of Health for adjudication. “In the meantime I could not set foot in the country of my birth.”

It was suggested informally that the matter could be resolved if she submitted to genital “disambiguation” surgery. “I considered this an immoral suggestion – to undergo dangerous and unnecessary surgery as a condition for having a legal identity. I made it clear I would take legal action if this was put to me formally.”

And so, the problems with South African officialdom merged with those of biology: the one could only be sorted by ignoring her natural biology, and artificially forcing herself into a physical model which is not her natural self.

The intersex challenge to governments and church

By now, Gross has come through all these journeys. She now recognises her biology as intersex, and living back in South Africa as a woman, and as a quaker – and with a passport which gives her gender as “female”.

The problems that Gross encountered all arise from our misplaced assumptions that humans all fit neatly into a binary division of female and male – a division which simply doesn’t accord with the facts. Our sexuality and gender are determined by a complex intermingling of many distinct factors, including external and internal genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, (mental) gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation – which may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.

Gross is a living challenge to this dualistic view of gender because she is not transsexual, she is intersexed. There is no neat definition of this state, one attempt defines it as “atypical congenital physical sexual differentiation.” But intersex is really an umbrella term, which covers an enormous range of physical sexual permutations. Those people born very obviously intersexed are thought to be one in 2000 – a fairly conservative ballpark figure for the United States, according to Gross, who cites a study in the U.S. indicating the incidence of intersexuality, overall, may be nearly 2% of all live births.

Popular assumptions are that these markers coincide (which they are not), and represent binary divisions – which they do not. On every one of them, there are intermediate positions between the extremes at the poles. Take them all together, and I wonder if there is really such a thing as someone who is totally and unambiguously male (or female) on every single dimension. Some government and other administrative bodies are beginning to allow for the ambiguities by providing for classification as either intersex (Australia) or other gender (India and Pakistan), but most have a long way yet to go.

For the Catholic church, the position is even worse. The assumption of clear masculine and feminine roles and identities underpins all of its understanding and teaching on sexuality, and drives its obsession with opposing gay marriage and adoption. There is a desperate need for theology to grapple with the implications of the simple fact that biology, gender and sexuality are simply not binary, after all.

It also calls into question the entire assumption that the priesthood must be reserved for men. As long as Selwyn Gross believed himself to be male, presented as male, had “male” documents and something resembling a penis – he was welcome in the priesthood. Fr Selwyn Gross was even good enough as a priest to teach moral theology and ethics in seminaries, to tutor at Oxford,  and to be appointed sub-prior in Cambridge. But once Sally Gross began to live in closer accordance with the fullness of her biology, with no attempt at genital manipulation surgery – she was excluded from the priesthood, and even from full and natural communion as a lay person.

The question for the Church then becomes: Even if we accept the dubious claim that the restriction of the priesthood to males only God given and so beyond its power to change , which definition of maleness will apply  – external genitalia, internal biology, hormonal levels, or chromosomes? These different criteria will not necessarily give the same answers. Which one will apply?

Recommeded Books:

Cornwall, Susannah: Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology

McNaught, Brian: “Sex Camp”

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey: Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach

Thatcher, Adrian: God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction


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6 comments for “How a Woman Became a Dominican Priest, and Teacher of Moral Theology.

  1. Mareczku
    September 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    How horrible for her to be treated like this.  But sadly to many Catholics people like this do not exist and cannot be acknowledged. When will the day come when all people will be respected for who they are?

    • September 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      Sad indeed, Mareczku. The respect you ask for can only come when we move beyond trying to classify people, using those arbitrary classifications to decide what they can or cannot do.

      “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. ”

  2. Colkoch
    September 24, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    This is an incredible story. I have to admit I was stunned that some hierarchical idiot determined she wasn’t binary enough to qualify as laity.  Wow.

    It might help things if theologians spent more time in conversation with quantum physicists. This is a predominately binary universe in it’s material form, but it is grounded in probability and can express itself in an infinite number of ways.  There’s a reason for that and without this infinite potential there would be no evolution.  Ohhh, I forgot, in Catholicism there is no evolution.  Everything  has been revealed even though Jesus specifically said everything hadn’t been revealed.

    • September 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      Incredible, yes. This one personal story crystallizes for me, the way in which the Vatican ideologues insist on ignoring biological evidence that sexuality and gender are simply not the simple binary duality they suppose. I have just posted an extended discussion on the complexity of biological gender, and the evidence that “male” and “female” are just not the simple concepts we think they are.

      This raises profound challenges to traditional theology on sexuality – which I want to be giving a lot more space to.

  3. August 14, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    The fact that sexual aberrations exist hardly falsifies the binary nature of human sexuality considered in itself. The Catholic Church has never claimed that human nature is perfect or that the human body can never be corrupted; in fact, it claims the exact opposite.

    The existence of intersexed people poses no challenge to Catholic doctrine. On the question of the male priesthood, there are two questions: who is juridically eligible and who may technically validly receive ordination. I would think that the presence of the Y chromosome would be enough to make it possible to validly receive ordination, but to be legally eligible, the candidate would have to be a fully sexually integrated person, with no confusion or ambiguity with regards to gender, including male external genitalia and proper gender identification.

    Of course, intersexed people need to be treated with compassion and respect, and it seems to me that this person was treated unethically following his/her laicization. All people, especially people who make us uncomfortable, ought to be welcomed into our churches.

    • August 15, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Unethically after laicization? Others would argue that the laicization itself was unethical – though canonically correct and required.

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