In recent years the Vatican (including popes, congregations and dicasteries) have expressed concern over “gender theory” and “gender ideology.” The latest document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic yet. As America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, reports, the document comes from a Vatican Congregation and was not signed by Pope Francis, so it is not intended as the “final answer” on the topic.
Gender theory is a notoriously slippery term. Broadly, it refers to the study of gender and sexuality and how those two realities are determined naturally (that is, biologically) and/or socially (that is, culturally). Usually it includes the study of the experiences of gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and all those who identify as “queer,” another often-ambiguous term that can mean (but does not always mean) a decision to identify oneself outside of categories like male or female, or gay or straight.
The congregation’s new document is an explicit call for dialogue, which all should welcome.
For some critics, gender theory also represents an “ideology” that seeks to impose itself on others, “encouraging” or “forcing” some people, especially youth, to question and restate their own sexuality and gender. In some church circles, especially in the developing world, it is often linked to a form of “ideological colonialism” that seeks to impose Western ideas of sexuality and gender on developing nations. Pope Francis has several times adverted to this belief.
The congregation’s new document should be praised for its call for “listening” and “dialogue.” The subtitle is important: “Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” It is an explicit call for dialogue, which all should welcome. It speaks of a “path,” which indicates that the church has not yet reached the destination. It focuses on the “question” of gender theory in education, which leaves some degree of openness, and is thus addressed mainly to educators and “formators,” including those responsible for the training of priests and members of religious orders.
Another positive aspect of this document is its clear call to “respect every person in their particularity and difference” and its opposition to “bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination.” It also praises “the ability to welcome all legitimate expressions of human personhood with respect.”
The document’s conclusion speaks of the path of dialogue, which includes “listening, reasoning and proposing.” As such, it leaves open room for further developments and also avoids some of the harsh language of other Vatican pronouncements on sexuality and, especially, on homosexuality.
This traditional view, however, is contradicted by what most biologists and psychologists now understand about both sexuality and gender.
Let me, then, engage in the respectful dialogue called for, as someone who ministers to L.G.B.T. people.
What does the congregation propose? Essentially, and unsurprisingly, its document restates the traditional Catholic view of sexuality: Men and women are created (as heterosexuals) with fixed sexual and gender roles. This traditional view, however, is contradicted by what most biologists and psychologists now understand about both sexuality and gender. These contemporary advances in understanding human sexuality and gender have been set aside by the congregation in favor of a binary understanding of sexuality. Even the term “sexual orientation” is put into quotes in the document, as if to call that very notion into question.
The crux of the congregation’s argument is in this understanding of gender: “This separation [of sex from gender] is at the root of the distinctions proposed by different ‘sexual orientations’ which are no longer defined by the sexual difference between male and female, and can then assume other forms determined solely by the individual, who is seen as radically autonomous.”
One objection to that proposition is that it ignores the real-life experience of L.G.B.T. people. In fact, the document’s primary partners for conversation seem to be philosophers, theologians and older church documents and papal statements—not biologists or scientists, not psychiatrists or psychologists, and not L.G.B.T. people and their families. If more people had been included in the dialogue, the congregation would probably find room for the now commonly held understanding that sexuality is not chosen by a person but is rather part of the way that they are created.
If more people had been included in the dialogue, the congregation would probably find room for the now commonly held understanding that sexuality is not chosen by a person but is rather part of the way that they are created.
In fact, for a document that relies so heavily (albeit implicity) on natural law, it ignores what we increasingly understand about the natural world, where we see men and women attracted to the same sex, men and women feeling a variety of sexual feelings throughout their lifetimes, and men and women finding themselves more on a spectrum than on any fixed place when it comes to sexuality and, occasionally, even gender.
The congregation also suggests that discussions about gender identity involve an intentional choice of gender by an individual. But people who are transgender report that they do not choose their identity but discover it through their experiences as human beings in a social world.
Again, the document largely neglects to engage in discussions about new scientific understandings and discoveries about gender. It relies mainly on the belief that gender is determined solely by one’s visible genitalia, which contemporary science has shown is an incorrect (and sometimes even harmful) way to categorize people. Gender is also biologically determined by genetics, hormones and brain chemistry—things that are not visible at birth. The congregation’s document relies heavily on categories of “male” and “female” that were shaped centuries ago, and not always with the most accurate scientific methods.
The document relies mainly on the belief that gender is determined solely by one’s visible genitalia, which contemporary science has shown is an incorrect (and sometimes even harmful) way to categorize people.
The document is also undergirded by the notion of “complementarity,” which means that based on their gender (male and female), men and women have separate roles. In a sentence sure to raise eyebrows the congregation writes, “Women have a unique understanding of reality. They possess a capacity to endure adversity…” Not men? Such ideas reinforce stereotyping and prevent both men and women from rising above precisely those cultural constructs that the Vatican often rightly decries.
The most unfortunate aspect of this document is the way the congregation understands transgender people. (Oddly, in a document about gender and sexuality, the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality” are absent.) Consider this passage: “This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’, and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy. Similar theories aim to annihilate the concept of ‘nature’ (that is, everything we have been given as a pre-existing foundation of our being and action in the world), while at the same time implicitly reaffirming its existence.”
In this formulation, transgender people are being “provocative” and are either consciously or unconsciously trying to “annihilate the concept of ‘nature.’” Friends and family members who have accompanied a transgender person through their attempts at suicide, their despair over fitting into the larger society, or their acceptance that God loves them will find that sentence baffling and even offensive.
Perhaps the most thoughtful response to this approach comes from a Catholic deacon, Ray Dever, who has a transgender child and wrote about his family’s experience in U.S. Catholic. As he writes, “Anyone with any significant first-hand experience with transgender individuals would be baffled by the suggestion that trans people are somehow the result of an ideology. It is a historical fact that long before there were gender studies programs in any university or the phrase gender ideology was ever spoken, transgender people were present, recognized, and even valued in some cultures around the world.”
The most likely short-term result of “Male and Female He Created Them” will be to provide ammunition for Catholics who would deny the reality of the transgender experience, who would label transgender people as simple ideologues, and who would deny their real-life experiences. It will most likely contribute to a greater feeling of isolation, a greater feeling of shame and a greater marginalization of those who are already marginalized in their own church: transgender people.
Let us return to the more positive aspect of this document, which could be the long-term result: the call for listening and dialogue. The congregation seems sincere in its invitation. The church, like the rest of society, is still learning about the complexities of human sexuality and gender. The next step, then, could be for the church to listen to responses from those that this document most directly affects: L.G.B.T. people themselves.
Let the dialogue begin.
Read David Cloutier's response to the document on gender theory from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.