The stark choices the Vatican’s gender theory document is raising
The Vatican Congregation on Education’s document on “gender theory” and current cultural conversations about L.G.B.T.Q issues are like ships passing in the night. Lacking a sense of how to speak into the existing conversation, the congregation’s “Male and Female He Created Them” outlines a case that is bound to generate further polarizing conflict.
Commenting in The New York Times, James Martin, S.J., states that “L.G.B.T. people are usually not responding to a theory or ideology but their own inner feelings and their own desires.” Father Martin, who expands on this point in his own essay in America, is completely right about this. But the same could be said for any feelings and desires people have—say, about the treatment of immigrants. While people are not necessarily responding explicitly to a philosophical theory of rights or an ideological construction of sovereignty, their feelings and desires often implicitly support a particular theory and are challenged by other theories. Sorting through one’s feelings and desires, and particularly the choices that follow from them, ultimately require norming by a notion of justice. “Theory” names how we think through and bring consistency to such normative understandings.
The church is concerned with long-term formation, the stories and ideas used to teach children—an enterprise that necessarily involves some normative theoretical conception of sex and gender.
We should be clear that lectures about anthropological theories are not tools for the field hospital. While the document does gesture toward “listening” and states forthrightly the need to avoid discrimination and respect the dignity of all, it does not lead with the overall priority of care in the face of suffering, which should be the first concern in the field hospital. Nevertheless, there is more to the church than the field hospital. The church is also concerned with long-term formation, the stories and ideas used to teach children—an enterprise that necessarily involves some normative theoretical conception of sex and gender. (Pope Francis himself speaks about these issues in one idiom when he is accompanying particular persons but quite another when he is exercising his teaching office.)
Traditional Catholic teaching on God’s created order of complementaries and the currently popular “gender unicorn” infographic both promote narratives about what is true and good; there is no “neutral” teaching. For example, those of us who listened endlessly to the record album “Free to Be… You and Me” in our early childhoods will never have to be taught again that it is O.K. for boys to have dolls and cry, and that it is definitely great that girls are able to do anything they want in the world!
The congregation’s document would not disagree about those lessons. But the question it takes up is what to teach about gender identities in today’s context. The document will elicit confusion because its categories challenge the current mainstream framework for L.G.B.T.Q. issues. However, clarifying two such sources of confusion—about the relationship of nature and choice, and of respect and affirmation—sheds light on mainstream notions that are themselves insufficiently developed. My goal is simply to clarify what the crucial elements of the discussion must be, if the ships are not simply to pass in the night or (worse) start firing erratically on one another.
The postmodern problem with ‘born that way’
The first confusion: The document makes its case against “gender theory” by contrasting (a) a natural order rooted in the biology of the body and (b) “theories” that, in the words of Francis, “promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female,” in which “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” The document traces a history of thought that begins in an appropriate distinction between biological sex and (often oppressive) sociological gender constructions but eventually separates the two, leading to “the possibility of the individual determining his or her own sexual tendencies” based on “the subjective mindset of each person.” The document’s reading of this history presents a stark option: Either respect the God-given intrinsic connection between gender and biological sex or reject that order in favor of subjectively chosen self-definition.
This contrastive argument seems to cut against the most publicly potent claim of L.G.B.T.Q. advocates, the “born that way” argument. The idea that sexual orientations are “given” or “found,” rather than “chosen,” is now widely accepted. Strong claims of transgender identity (“I’m really a girl”) look similar: They seem to be appealing to something “natural,” something “given.” From the “born that way” perspective, the Vatican document seems a nonstarter because of its claim that gender theories involves choice. In an article in the L.G.B.T. magazine The Advocate responding to the document, Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry makes exactly this point, maintaining that people do not “choose” but “discover” their gender “through lived experiences,” a process by which a person “discovers the wonderful way that God has created them.”
There is a stark option: Either respect the God-given intrinsic connection between gender and biological sex or reject that order in favor of subjectively chosen self-definition.
Yet there is a different, longstanding strand of L.G.B.T.Q. thought—call it the “postmodern” argument— that resists claims to biological givenness and sees genders and sexualities as creative expressions of the self. With the rise of transgender and other queer identities, “born that way” arguments run straight into this postmodern problem. For example, the claim that a biologically male person is responding to feelings and desires that he is “really a female” presumes (a) some normative definition of “female” (how would one know one was “really a female” if there were no stable concept of “female-ness” by which one could make sense of the claim?) and (b) some notion of what counts as the evidence to which one can point for the claim of a “real” self (a notion not needed by postmodern theorists, who dispute the existence of any “given” or “true” self to which one could have access, whether at 7 years of age or 37).
Put another way, the further we get from a relatively discrete trait (e.g., sexual attraction), the more difficult it becomes to sustain “born that way” arguments without falling into contradictions. If male and female are social constructs, then it makes no sense to claim that a person is “really” female. The congregation’s document notes this, saying that “in a self-contradictory way,” transgender concepts “actually presuppose the very sexual difference that they propose to negate or supersede.”
If male and female are social constructs, then it makes no sense to claim that a person is “really” female.
Moreover, the existing scientific evidence for “born that way” claims is weak. A self-identified transgender neuroscientist says in an interview that the evidence for biological determination “isn’t great” and suggests that this should not matter because people should not have to “prove that we’re really a certain gender in order to be treated like a person.”
Indeed, the claim that somehow brains are “gendered” flies in the face of what we now know about neuroplasticity. As one 2018 article in a neuroscience journal puts it, “transgender individuals experience change in lifestyle, context of beliefs and concepts and, as a result, their culture and behaviors. Given the close relationship and interaction between culture, behavior and brain, the individual’s brain adapts itself to the new condition (culture) and concepts and starts to alter its function and structure.” The more gender identities proliferate, the less plausible it is to claim a firm biological basis for them. Thus, the congregation seems right to argue that the rise of transgenderism leads (at least logically) away from “born that way” arguments to the consistent position long taken by the postmodern argument: that sexuality as a whole, rather than a fixed biological “given,” is a self-expressive idiom with which one should be creative.
The problem with equating respect and affirmation
The second confusion arises from the congregation’s insistence on “the need to educate children and young people to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.).” Many will read the rest of the document and conclude that the congregation does not respect the dignity of some, especially since the whole document aims to form educational institutions to sanction a particular expression of sexuality and sexual difference as absolutely normative.
Of course, the congregation is maintaining a long-utilized distinction between respecting a person and affirming their actions. But here again, the congregation is speaking into a cultural moment where this distinction has disappeared. It seems clear the majority of Americans equate respecting the dignity of gay and lesbian persons with affirming, even applauding their relationships—the association with “pride” is not accidental. Many of the same Americans may be inclined to extend the same notion of affirmation to those who choose gender transitions.
The congregation is maintaining a long-utilized distinction between respecting a person and affirming their actions.
And to the polyamorous, to teen porn stars and to any other kind of (non-coerced) expression of sexuality? While I honestly used to think such arguments were arch-conservative scare-mongering about an unlikely dystopic future, the links above are to extensive 2019 reports by the very-mainstream NPR and The Atlantic. Just as the “born that way” argument gets very shaky as it broadens beyond a specific trait like sexual attraction, so too the equation of respect for dignity with affirmation of choices becomes strained as the choices seeking affirmation become ever larger. Just as in the first difficulty, the theoretically consistent positions are the stark options the congregation points out: Either affirm everything relativistically or recognize that respecting the dignity of persons can co-exist with regarding their choices as wrong and contrary to individual and social flourishing. The real issue for all sides then becomes how human flourishing is defined—an ethical, not purely scientific, question.
Thus, even those who disagree with its arguments should realize that the congregation has sought to clarify the core questions at stake. The congregation basically says: Let’s all put our cards clearly on the table. The deep issues simply will not be resolved by appeals to personal experiences— which, after all, can be made by both sides.
To resolve questions of nature versus choice, much more rigorous and dispassionate study is needed to understand what claims about gender dysphoria really indicate, what treatments are actually effective, and how effectiveness is defined. As not a few writers, secular and religious, have noted, the current drive for immediate and complete affirmation of self-asserted identity, even of children, is ideological advocacy by adults that may have extreme consequences on children. Moreover, as I pointed out previously in Commonweal, the usual approach of psychology to treating suffering resulting from alienation from one’s body is to aim at reconciling the person to the goodness of one’s existing body. The burden of proof for a drastic and different treatment regime in this case would seem high.
To resolve questions of when respecting dignity differs from affirming choices, everyone ought to acknowledge that human sexuality, being an extremely important and vital thing for both individuals and society, needs a normative ethic with a stringency befitting that importance. The congregation, and all popes including Francis, have remained quite clear about this. Affirming desires is never sufficient; one needs an account of the ends toward which the person and their sexuality aim.
Such questions are not the ones to debate in the field hospital, and neither should they become facile ammunition in cultural wars (which simply send more wounded to the field hospital). Care is urgently needed for all people who are suffering. But these theoretical questions are unavoidable insofar as we (a) must determine what actions actually constitute proper “care” and (b) must think carefully about how to keep people from staggering into the field hospital in the first place.
Read Father Jim Martin's response to the gender theory document from the Vatican’s Congregation on Education.