Putting Pope Francis’ “Ideology of Gender” Comments in Context

Cristina Traina

Cristina Traina

Today’s post is by guest blogger Cristina Traina, Professor of Religious Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.  Professor Traina is also a member of New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.


At World Youth Day in Krakow last month, Pope Francis again condemned “the ideology of gender.” The outcry from LGBTQ advocates that resulted was both predictable and understandable.  Francis once again upheld gender essentialism against the more complex experiences of LGBTQ people.  Once again he seemed paternalistically to prefer a “simple faith” over sophisticated theological reflection on gender.  And once again he seemed simply to repeat the maxims of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

And yet it would be too bad to overlook an important difference in Francis’s position, a difference we need to understand if we hope to have thoughtful discussions on LGBTQ issues with people of his persuasion. Specifically, we can listen more closely to Francis’s claim that rich countries are unjustly shoving the idea of gender choice down the throats of poor ones. We hear Francis as if he were talking primarily about gender, but for him the real problems are northern cultural imperialism and the still-potent effects of colonialism.

The story behind the slogan “the ideology of gender”—a slogan that almost always appears in the context of coercion of poor countries—concerns a loan for the construction of schools for the poor. Its approval, Francis notes, was contingent on a minister of education accepting and using a textbook that the funders prescribed in which “gender theory was taught.”  In Francis’ words:

Pope Francis

“This is ideological colonization. They introduce an idea to the people that has nothing to do with the people. With groups of people yes, but not with the people. And they colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure….certain loans in exchange for certain conditions….Why do I say ‘ideological colonization’? Because they take, they actually take the need of a people to seize an opportunity to enter and grow strong — through the children.”

It’s clear from the context that the situation was coercive:  if you want to borrow our money to serve children in desperate need of education, you will use the book that we approve, whether or not it makes sense to your students in their historical and cultural setting or addresses their most pressing educational deficits.

From Francis’s perspective, northern countries who still benefit from colonialism should not be placing endless conditions on almost all forms of grant-in-aid, and even interest-bearing loans, that they make to the global south, as if southern countries should “earn” northern support.  Rather, as a matter of justice northern nations should be freely sharing wealth, academic expertise, and other advantages they wrongly gained from colonialism with their neighbors whom they wrongly impoverished by it.  That some conditions the north places on aid seem intended to undermine what he perceives as southern nations’ last outposts of strength, their family networks, is the last straw.

I’m not arguing that Francis does not have a traditional Argentinian cultural view of gender as binary.  He does.  I’m not arguing that he’s demonstrated a subtle understanding of LGBTQ experiences of gender.  He hasn’t.  And I’m not arguing that all Latin American family traditions are always empowering.  They aren’t.  But what Francis is saying, we need to hear:  if almost nothing the global north has forced on the global south has benefited it, if almost everything the global north does is poisoned by self-interest, and if almost everything it has imposed has destroyed southern cultural systems, why should he trust the global north on gender?

We can work, write, and pray for Francis’s conversion on this issue.  But in the meantime, here is an opportunity for creative response to his legitimate frustration with the global north.  We can recognize that bad delivery systems compromise good content.  For example, despite coercive, ultimately unsuccessful northern methods of “conversion” that Bartolomé de Las Casas condemned nearly 500 years ago when the dominant approach evangelization method of European explorers was, in his words, to “annoy, persecute, afflict, and arouse” Native Americans. Some northerners managed to follow his advice of employing “the power of gentleness, service, kindness, and the words of the gospel to encourage them to put on the gentle yoke of Christ.”  He argued for this, and more, for Native American peoples European courts.  He didn’t always win.  But thanks in part to his critique of coercion, Christianity stuck.

Likewise, we northerners believe that the Spirit of freedom and truth is truly stirring among LGBTQ people today.  Yet, our governments and multinational institutions are justly accused of repeating the sin of coercion.  What if, despite our marginalization, we recognized our comparative privilege and power? What if we used that power to lobby not just for loans, but for reparations, for the global south?  What if, in addition to continuing our important efforts at gentle, kind, compassionate service to LGBTQ people worldwide, we used that power to convince our perhaps well-meaning but coercive governments to be less heavy-handed?  That might preach.  Like Bartolomé de Las Casas, we will lose some cases.  But our message too will eventually stick.

–Cristina Traina

Related posts

Bondings 2.0: “Pope’s Lament About Children and Gender Identity Reveals Serious Blind Spot

Bondings 2.0: Pope Francis’ Remarks on Gender in Schools Deemed Ambiguous, Out of Touch

19 replies
  1. Walter G Sandell Jr
    Walter G Sandell Jr says:

    The ‘Church’ continues to place similar conditions on such things as Girl Scout agreements and programs which benefit the poor. Should not we insist that sexism be eliminated from educational systems? Or that ‘cutting’ be banned in health care programs?

  2. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    Professor Traina has a point about raising LGBTQ justice and equality concerns in developing countries…and it’s a highly pertinent one: show that these concerns embrace a broader agenda, even those issues not directly related to LGBTQ matters, and you show a face which is compassionate, caring, and, hopefully, more appealing to opponents. It’s achievement not by coercion, but by winning over hearts and minds. A longer process, to be sure. But its outcome will be more durable..

  3. Clyde Christofferson
    Clyde Christofferson says:


    You make a very helpful comment about the perspective of Pope Francis, and his concern about cultural imperialism.

    There is a further silver lining in what he says, which is consistent with his famous “who am I to judge?” comment. The flip side of “cultural imperialism” is a recognition that the journey toward God of those in a particular culture has an integrity that is to be respected.

    At first, this sounds negative. The culture in less developed areas — particularly in Africa — is very antagonistic toward LGBT justice and equality. But understood within the context of “who am I to judge?” it is an implicit recognition of a very simple but profound idea. Different cultures are in different places, on their respective journeys toward justice and equality.

    What this means is that we should not look to Rome for a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s the problem with the existing teachings of the Church. What’s important is respect for the integrity of the journey, as varied as these journeys are over space and time.

    It is hard work to labor locally for justice. But what Francis is saying is that local clerics cannot rely upon existing one-size-fits-all teachings from Rome. They must practice discernment, through “accompaniment” and “encounter”, so that local practice is brought into compliance with “love of God and neighbor”.

    This is the point of “who am I to judge?” The predicate for that point, as stated by Francis, was “if they seek the Lord and have good will”. This predicate is a statement of conscience, a conscience seeking love of God and neighbor.

    Is this not what Jesus preached? Is not the reign of God about being on a path that is seeking love of God and neighbor? This is why the reign of God is the fulfillment of the law (Mark 1:15).

    So we should not be discouraged. Yes, working locally seems more difficult than an edict from Rome. But in the end, what is more lasting? A local situation where LGBT justice and equality is understood as flowing from love of God and neighbor, or a local situation where surface manifestations of LGBT justice and equality are resisted because they rest on authority from Rome?

    It must be conceded, of course, that some measure of relief would be provided by a suitable edict from Rome. But reading the tea leaves suggests that is not going to happen.

    Francis is opting not to use the power and authority of the law, but to fulfill it by seeking the reign of God. More importantly, he is calling us — as Jesus is calling us — to evangelize. It is not simply about seeking LGBT justice and equality. It is about engaging and transforming people so that love of God and neighbor take precedence over the law.

    This is a quite radical approach to reform of the Church.


    • Tom Bower
      Tom Bower says:

      If Vatican II had let sleeping dogs continue their slumbers, we would use Latin as the universal language of the Mass and women would still be wearing hats to Mass. Christ didn’t spend three hours on His cross to avoid hard decisions.

  4. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    For the United States to push for LGBT rights is not cultural imperialism. It is calling current leaders of cultures to liberate and care for all of their people equally in this instance to have them change current taboos that were brought in by Catholic and other Christian traditions. As presented wishing and hoping that Francis or some distant successor (500 years in the future?) will see the light someday is simply providing an excuse for continuing bigotry and ignorance based hate that in many instances did not exist before colonization. Was it cultural imperialism that the United States forced the Confederate states to give up slavery? The United States is pushing other countries to liberate and treat equally their own people just as we support holding free elections in these countries. Justice delayed is justice denied a wiser mind than mine said.

  5. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Yes, yes, yes. Francis’ statements must be understood within the context of such analysis. The imbalanced north-south relationship of power and influence is a reality that so many in the north do not recognise or appreciate. This article adds to the complex discussion of perspectives that must characterise Lgbtq dialogue concerning the Church. A fine post, and a necessary piece for thoughtful consideration. We need to challenge our North American and European perspectives that can frame a debate in ways that might not be totally fair to those with whom we disagree who come from a south global perspective. We are all better for taking on such global.consideration of perspectives. This article promotes understanding and dialogue; true bridge building.

  6. Larry
    Larry says:

    So why not just say what you mean, Pope Francis. If you disapprove of strings attached to aid by richer countries to poor ones, SAY SO. Once you muddle it up with “gender theory” then you are sending a different message. I suspect that the crafty Jesuit really does want to discredit transgender folks but is using the imperialism mantra [to which poorer countries are very sensitive to] to do his dirty work.

    • Clyde Christofferson
      Clyde Christofferson says:

      Larry, I think there is a simpler explanation. As St. Augustine appreciated, “God’s book of nature” preempts contrary interpretations of scripture and tradition. The nature of “God’s book of nature” is that its pages continue to be turned as time passes and human understanding increases. LGBT is a reality which is becoming clearer over time.

      But it does take time. For example, it took about seventy years for Newton’s conceptualization of physics to be absorbed by the culture of his time. The question is, what is the dignity of those who are slow to come to an understanding of the LGBT reality?

      I would read what Francis is doing as simply adopting a style of dialogue that respects the dignity of those who have not yet come to that understanding. While justice cannot be sacrificed, it is not necessary to be heavy handed in calling for an understanding of the LGBT reality, and the contrast between that understanding and the relatively primitive idealization that gender is binary.

      His basic recognition is embodied in his famous phrase, “who am I to judge?” The principle underlying this phrase is the same principle that applies to everyone, regardless of gender or gender identity: seeking God and being of good will. That principle is so solid that it cannot be “muddled”. LGBT folks are just people like anybody else. But Francis has consistently refused to mandate from the top, encouraging “accompaniment” and “encounter” as part of a discernment process that is part of his Jesuit background.

      We Catholics sometimes expect the Pope to issue forth with clear doctrine, but Francis is more concerned — as was Jesus — with the reign of God, with the joy of being more responsive to the Spirit within. It is not an accident (or Jesuitical craftiness) that he is saying nothing about doctrine. He is preaching what Jesus was preaching. The idea is to get people to figure these things out on their own. Jesus spoke in parables that were disorienting to those who listened to them. The Good Samaritan story is an example of that approach, because for the Jews of the time “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron.

      I suspect that the transition to understanding will be relatively quick. The institutional Church can ill afford the kind of embarrassment it suffered with the Galileo affair, which is where its primitive idealizations of gender are headed.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] around so-called gender ideology, including here on Bondings 2.0.  You can read some here, here, and here. )  Independent of Amoris Laetitia, individuals in the Church hierarchy have issued […]

  2. […] Through on-the-ground organizing and international advocacy, Christian groups have sought to frame homosexuality as a Western import. The language of “ideological colonization” is increasingly popular for Catholic bishops, and even Pope Francis, who suggest LGBT equality is a forcible Western imposition. (For further analysis of this concept, read Dr. Cristina Traina’s commentary here.) […]

  3. […] Dr. Cristina Traina, “Putting Pope Francis’ ‘Ideology of Gender’ Comments in Context” […]

  4. […] “Putting Pope Francis’ ‘Ideology of Gender’ Comments in Context” by Cristina Traina […]

  5. […] Bondings 2.0: “Putting Pope Francis’ “Ideology of Gender” Comments in Context” […]

  6. […] Francis expressed concern about schools teaching children they could choose their gender, the result of alleged ideological colonization, the pope suggested. You can read his initial remarks here, and a first round of reactions to them here.  New Ways Ministry’s response can be read here. For an insightful alternative view on the pope’s remarks, click here. […]

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