Vatican’s ‘Dumbed Down Version of an Old Argument’ on Gender Can’t Stop Changes in Catholicism

Just in time for Pride, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education released its statement, dated February 2, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” Timing is everything. The document, which adds nothing new to the decades-old conversation on gender, has gotten far more ink than is customary for reports emanating from such obscure corners of Rome.

My best guess is that this restatement of the Roman Catholic Church’s rejection of a half century of development on human anthropology is simply a trial balloon. The real thing is allegedly forthcoming from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a weightier venue that will try one more time to present a bulwark against evolving understandings of gender, sex, and how good people live their lives.

University of Chicago legal scholar Mary Anne Case lays out the contours of the Vatican’s long and increasingly damaging campaign in a well-researched, complex, and convincing article, “Trans Formations in the Vatican’s War on ‘Gender Ideology’”.

She explores “…the Vatican’s decades-long, worldwide, multifront war on what it has come to call ‘gender ideology’ from its very recent incarnation in Donald Trump’s United States back through its origins in the last century, highlighting the central role that concerns about transgender rights have always played for the two popes who have most directly shaped the contours of this war, Benedict XVI and Francis.”

Professor Case concludes:

“The history… reveals a complicated interchange between the constellation of liberatory movements castigated by the Vatican as ‘gender ideology’ and the constellation of reactionary movements the Vatican and other religious conservatives developed to counter them. Motivated by legal developments in Germany and at the United Nations and by the theoretical work of feminists in Germany and in the United States to conjure up an opposition more coherent and formidable than any he actually faced, Ratzinger was the first to declare war on ‘gender.’ Francis provided powerful tactics and strategies for this war, with his rhetoric of anticolonialism and his combination of warm receptivity to individuals with continuing opposition to their rights. Most recently, opposition to gender ideology has united conservative Catholics with persons of other faiths around the world with whom they agree on little other than the need to fight ‘gender ideology.’”

Simply put, the little piece from the Congregation for Catholic Education is a deeply dumbed down version of an old argument. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and later Pope Francis insist, against mounting evidence, that the gender binary, male and female, is given in nature and blessed by God. God, a male after all, created them Male and Female. The Genesis account inconveniently leaves out the detail about the blue and pink blankets and onesies. Biblical scholars are simply ignored. These two popes are still persuaded that a baby born with a penis is a male and a baby born with a vagina is a female despite overwhelming proof of the complexities of human life that in justice no longer admit of such simplicities. Benedict constructed the arguments; Francis delivers them with a smile. Social and biological data to the wind.

The Vatican would leave decisions about intersex people to medical professionals to make. The intersex community has registered strong protest: “We are profoundly troubled by the reproduction of pathologizing language to refer to our bodies, and the reaffirmation of medical authority over them… The idea that forced and coercive medical interventions are necessary to build a healthy identity has never been supported by scientific evidence.” Intersex-led and allied networks “call for dialogue that recognizes our existence, that affirms our right to determine what happens to our bodies, our right to know the truth about our medical treatments, and that ends stigmatization and human rights violations.” The Vatican document does none of the above.

What it does do is signal a new and potentially more dangerous stage in a longstanding cultural debate. The Vatican’s position against same-sex love needs no rehearsing. But in a pernicious way, all of that seems to fade a bit in this document which focuses pointedly on transgender and intersex people. The argument is rooted in the same general opposition to anything but bright pink and dark blue taken together to form a couple. This time there is a nascent awareness that the categories no longer apply across the board.

There is a certain desperation in the tone and content of the Catholic Education piece. It suggests an admission that efforts to stop same-sex love have failed miserably, starting with the majority-gay male clergy. What’s a few lesbian, gay, and bi people after all, the institutional church seems to be saying; at least they know the players without a score card. The real game changer is that claims that sex/gender are fixed, defined, and limited pale before the reality of changing, fluid, varied sex/gender as the human norm. Eeeeeks—what to do about male-only priests, mom and dad-only families, and laws that result from Catholic influence on private matters? That swishing sound is a Roman Catholic house of cards falling in on itself. Left standing are all queer Catholics and allies who will struggle as hard for trans and intersex rights as we have for LGB ones.

The three suggestions the Education folks use in the document to frame their repetition of the long-touted message—Listen, Reason, Propose—are the very dynamics they violate. There is no evidence of listening to the voices of trans and intersex people, much less to their families and educators. There is less evidence of reasoning that would include citing studies, weighing arguments, sketching out the history. The only proposal is for educational programs that begin with Genesis as if it were literally true with a movie to prove it.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Sister Mary Berchmans, VHM, of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, DC, made her message clear when faced with publishing news of the nuptials of lesbian alumnae in the school’s alum magazine. She wrote, “As I have prayed over this contradiction, I keep returning to this choice: we can focus on Church teaching on gay marriage or we can focus on Church teaching on the Gospel commandment of love. We know from history—including very recent history—that the Church, in its humanity, makes mistakes. Yet, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it learns and grows. And so, we choose the Gospel commandment of love.” Thus spake an octogenarian nun who has been religiously professed for sixty-seven years. Overwhelmingly positive reaction to her, despite a few nay-sayers, shows that the face of Catholicism is changing rapidly. Local diocesan officials expressed disappointment at not being consulted, but they acquiesced.

Likewise, leaders of the Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Indiana, recently rejected that Archdiocese’s demand that they fire a longtime teacher who is civilly married to a person of the same sex. The Archdiocese responded by declaring that Brebeuf is no longer considered by them to be a Catholic school. Good luck with that as few people will mistake the clearly Catholic brand for a Jewish yeshiva, a Lutheran academy, or a public school. Once again, the face of Catholicism is changing, and once again in favor of inclusion and justice.

This is what the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education is powerless to stop. I doubt the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will have much more luck. Happy Pride in Catholic changes.