To Whom Was the Pope Referring in Encylical's Remarks About Body & Gender?

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:

Pope Francis

“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


Related article: “Is the Pope’s Environmental Encyclical Anti-transgender?”


10 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    I see these 3 sentences as quite benign.

    But they also open the door to an acknowledgement and acceptance of a variety of sexualities, and the last sentence can be read as quite a sharp critique of those who try to cancel out a variety of sexual differences.

    The footnote to the original quote is helpful

    There are all the seeds here of a helpful development in the understanding of sexuality, and in the role of women, and I expect future Popes way well quote these texts in a very helpful way, and one which would be seen as quite radical in Catholicism today.

    God Bless

  2. terryweldon
    terryweldon says:

    Reblogged this on Queering the Church and commented:
    I think the key point here is “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”.

    Surely that implies acceptance of our bodies as they are ,, recognizing that “body” includes both our physical and mental make-up? It follows that we should not be forced into arbitrary patterns of behaviour in our relationships or gender expression based on conforming to the standard heterosexual and gender binary stereotypes.
    Further, as Peter Nixon notes in the comments you quoted yesterday, “acceptance of our bodies” does not imply acceptance of medically treatable pathological conditions. If the “body” someone has been given presents a dysjunction between its physical and mental manifestation, and that dysjunction is medically diagnosed as problematic, then acceptance of the body does not exclude medical interventions to rectify the problem.

  3. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Thanks, Francis, for this insight into the pope’s reference to gender. The encyclical gave me a sense of the pope’s clear vision of an all encompassing ecology–everything functions together. I think there is a great value in having that said. What it leaves out, as usual in the Catholic culture, is the glory of human freedom. There is always the scold that humans are wrecking the divine plan by their freedom. No question, the scold is necessary for the way we are destroying ecological subsystems. But in what way is transgender alignment of body and soul disrupting ecological systems? How is it an irresponsible use of human freedom? Does the pope say? Have you seen an answer to that question anywhere else?

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    Very astute observations by Terry Weldon (above). My own root question is: how much of a massive opus such as this is actually written by the Pope himself — and how much of it is written by (the equivalent of) his “law clerks” in the Vatican? We know that the individual U.S. Supreme Court justices commission their law clerks to draft sample opinions — after telling the clerks where the particular justice who employs them wants to stand on a particular case, and where he or she wants the published opinion to go. Pope Francis keeps a punishing schedule — he barely has time to sleep — and the suggestion that he personally wrote every word of a nearly-200-page manuscript pushes the boundaries of credibility, at least for this reader. Of course he accepts full personal responsibility for everything “said” in the final product. But how much of his writing was done by the staff of professional theologians with whom he consults? Presumably his own staff is NOT Benedict’s staff! But even so, there are legitimate questions about “how we got here” — especially on contentious issues involving sexuality and gender identity. Other observations…from our editors and our readers?

  5. Jim McCrea
    Jim McCrea says:

    With respect to Francis and gender theory, I think that there is way too much wishful-thinking by some of the writers here.

    He says what he says. Whether he wrote every jot and tittle in this encyclical or not, he put his name to it.

    Facts are facts and until I see otherwise I will continue to think that he is simply and blindly wrong on this subject and alternate sexualities in general.

  6. Fabio Thomazella
    Fabio Thomazella says:

    Pope Francis writes elliptically, because he does not want to use a very condemnatory tone.
    But let´s face it, nobody was expecting him to legitimize gender transition…
    While my emotional side wanted Pope Francis to be much more revolutionary, my rational side says that He has done what He could….

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      You’re probably correct, Fabio. I would state it as: “He has done what he could dare to risk without provoking a schism between the conservative and the progressive forces within the Church.” The thing always to remember is that individual Catholics have a sovereign right of independent conscience, especially when that conscience is informed by deep reflection and an underlying commitment to social justice. Pope Benedict clearly DID NOT SPEAK on behalf of all practicing Catholics in the world. Alas, neither does the generally loved and admired Pope Francis, who is otherwise extremely progressive on issues of social and ecological justice. It may take another 50 or 100 years for the official Church to “get there” on issues of gender justice. But those of us who already appreciate the depth and importance of the issue need to “stay the course” — as the popular saying goes.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Si, which was warmly received though raised questions for LGBT advocates based on ambiguous language about gender identity. Failure to clarify in this encyclical and in other remarks what he means by […]

  2. […] before.   His strongest negative remarks about gender identity came in his encyclical on creation, Laudato Si, and his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.   While this latest remark was not his first […]

  3. […] and style of his initial letter, and quoted comments from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si  about gender and used Scripture to defend the idea that he should warn people of […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *