Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Sii,” has made headlines around the world, and it will surely be the topic of frequent discussion in weeks and months ahead. I’ve already commented on how some of the principles that Pope Francis puts forth in this encyclical could just as easily be applied to LGBT issues, and would greatly enhance the Catholic Church’s approach to issues of sexual orientation, lesbian and gay relationships, and gender identity. But it is another section of the encyclical which is gathering the attention of LGBT advocates.
Paragraph 155 of the document is being perceived as part of Pope Francis’ continued attack on “gender theory.” As Pope Francis uses it, gender theory seems best defined as a concept used to refer to any and all progressive ideas about gender. (I am not trying to be facetious by this definition; the problem is that neither Pope Francis nor any Catholic prelate who has used this term has ever explained what it means or to what it might refer. )
The section in question reads:
“Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will,” It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’ “
On America’s blog, Elizabeth Pyne, a Fordham University Ph.D. candidate in theology, analyzes this section in terms of its context within the encyclical, and its relationship to the pope’s other recent comments on gender complementarity. Pyne does not see this section of the encyclical as a strong condemnation, and instead, she characterizes it something expected, but perhaps unusual for what is not said:
“A general, natural law-based statement in favor of gender essentialism is unsurprising. Nevertheless, interpretation must attend to specific silences, or in this instance, relative quiet on sexuality against the resounding demand for economic and ecological justice, cultivated at both personal and political levels.”
In effect, she seems to be saying that this section is not as important as the pope’s other recommendations in the encyclical. Pyne concludes, too, with a hope that Pope Francis would expand his vision on gender:
“. . . [L]et’s take the pope’s keen insistence on the interconnections not only within ecosystems, but also among scientific, economic, political and cultural approaches to their functioning. Then there is Francis’ beautifully mystical spirituality of nature. He reminds us that humans, like all creatures, are of dust, “our very bodies made up of [earth’s] elements” (LS 2; Gen 2:17). These are precisely the bodies in which “each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure” (No. 239) and in which a human person “enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (No. 240). Yet this complex interpretive dynamic falls by the wayside around certain aspects of embodied life; what might result from a more consistent interdisciplinary treatment of gender and sexuality as elements of the manifold diversity of creaturely life? ” (emphasis, mine).
Other headlines and stories did not see this papal digression on sexuality and gender as neutrally as Pyne did. Buzzfeed’s story on paragraph 155 is headlined: “Pope Appears To Condemn Gender Reassignment.” Passport Magazine entitled their story: “‘The People’s Pope’ Disses the Transgender Community.”
My own take on this section is best characterized by a sub-heading used on a Washington Post article excerpting 10 important quotations from the encyclical. For the sub-section featuring paragraph 155, they used the headline: “Gender differences matter.” I think that Pope Francis here is referring not to transitioning from one gender to another, but that he is expressing his objection to the blurring of genders or eliminating the idea of gender.
Pointing this out does not mean I agree with him, but that I am trying to figure out exactly what he is saying.
Still, if the pope is making indirect references to transgender people in these remarks about “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity,” then I think he should educate himself about the nature of the transgender experience. Transgender people do, in fact, value their femininity and masculinity, often so much so that they take courageous steps to live fully as the gender that they know they are. Transgender people know that gender is much more than a physical reality of their bodies, but is, more often, an interior sense of self. For many transgender people, it is only when they learn to respect what they have learned is their true gender identity that they are able to fully have “an encounter with someone who is different.”
When I re-read paragraph 115, I realize that I think the key difference as to how to interpret this section is whether the reader thinks there is a strong connection between these three sentences:
“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.”
I suppose that I do not see a strong connection between the last sentence on masculinity/femininity and the first two sentences about power over our bodies. Actually, when I read the first two sentences, my interpretation is that the pope is referring to birth control and abortion.
I suppose, too, that my interpretation is influenced by my thought that masculinity and femininity are more psychological or internal dimensions than they are physical or external dimensions. Yesterday’s Bondings 2.0 blog post on J. Peter Nixon’s views of transgender issues explains this idea more deeply.
Regardless of what his reference point is, the fact that this pope included this reference to gender in an encyclical on the environment reflects poorly on his knowledge and awareness of this important topic concerning human self-understanding and relationships.
Moreover, as I’ve said before, Pope Francis needs to start writing more clearly and directly, and less elliptically, so that people can be more confident about knowing where he actually stands.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry