The Many–And Wrong–Definitions of ‘Gender Ideology’

Earlier this month, the bishops of Panama met with Pope Francis, and the conversation turned to the Vatican buzzword of “gender ideology.”   It is difficult to define exactly what is meant by that term which only church leaders seem to use.  It has never been clearly defined.  In a Crux news story about the meeting, Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín  initially defined gender ideology as:

“. . . [A]ttempts by Western governments and NGOs to impose a permissive sexual morality on poor countries as a condition of development assistance.”

Just two paragraphs later, she changed the definition to:

“. . . [T]he idea that sexual orientation and identity are self-determined rather than given in nature, and it’s seen as a cornerstone of a secular Western vision.”

Cardinal José Luis Lacunza

Cardinal José Luis Lacunza, bishop of David, Panama who publicly discussed “gender ideology” with the press after he met with the pope, seemed to put forward yet a different definition that deals with sex education in schools.  According to Crux:

“Lacunza too brought up the issue of gender theory, saying that in Panama, teaching a liberal, Western form of sexual education in schools is considered a human right, but ‘from our perspective of faith, this has nothing to do with human rights.

” ‘The human rights homosexual people must have are in respect to their dignity, their choices, and that they are not discriminated against,’ Lacunza said. ‘But to go from there to pushing so that society should accept those choices as something good, desirable, digestible, and that it is taught to little children, we are not willing to go there.’ “

One of the main problems of keeping the term “gender ideology” so undefined is that it allows users of the term to let it fit it to whatever idea they want to criticize.  So, while sometimes it is used to describe new ideas of gender roles, it is also used to denigrate gender transition and transgender people, as well as to oppose legal rights for lesbian and gay people.

No educational curriculum that I have read about forces people to make choices about their gender or their sexual orientation.  No one really chooses such things.  Rather, people discover these identities within themselves, just as they, in the normal process of adult development, discover other parts of their psychological and emotional make-up.

So, while the cardinal talks about accepting “choices as something good, desirable, digestible,” in fact he is not talking about the real lives of LGBT people, but about a myth and stereotype about them.

Archbishop José Ulloa Mendieta

Another prelate who met with the pope, Archbishop José Ulloa Mendieta of Panama City, defined gender theory in yet another way, and characterized it as “diabolical.”   The National Catholic Reporter quoted him:

“Ulloa said that gender theory, which argues that male and female characteristics are largely malleable social constructs, is ‘diabolical’ in that ‘it wants to break a bit with the reality of the family.’ “

Again, this is simply incorrect.  For example, transgender people do not say that their gender identity is malleable or socially constructed, but rather that their stable, interior identity does not match their physical body.

Diabolical? Nothing can be further than the truth.  Growth in self-knowledge is not diabolical, but, indeed, it is divinely inspired as people develop an awareness and acceptance of the way God has blessed them to experience the world and to love other people.

Using the term “gender ideology” is a rhetorical strategy.  First of all, using the term makes it sound like it is an alternative to something natural and de facto.  But, for LGBT people, isn’t the promotion of  heterosexual and cisgender norms a form of ideology?

Secondly, it is a strategy to make a set of ideas sound sinister.  Whoever thinks anything that is an “ideology” is good?  Furthermore, the term makes it sound like there is a master plan lurking behind the “ideology,”  when, in fact, what is behind most of our discussions about gender and sexuality are people who are struggling to live honest and authentic lives.

Pope Francis himself has used the term “gender ideology” as a reference to supposed programs about gender with which he disagrees.  Unfortunately, he, and many other church officials, are often misinformed about the reality of new ways of living out one’s gender.  Church leaders need so much education on gender and sexuality so that they will not use such meaningless and incorrect terms to describe the most intimate facets of people’s lives.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, June 25,  2017

7 replies
  1. Francis
    Francis says:

    I look forward to the day when those who oppose lgbt rights in the church will be proven to be on the wrong side of history.
    May New Ways Ministry keep up the good work of bringing equality for all in the church!

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Does anyone else see the absolute contradiction the Panamanian cardinal expresses” – ” ‘The human rights homosexual people must have are in respect to their dignity, their choices, and that they are not discriminated against,’ Lacunza said. ‘But to go from there to pushing so that society should accept those choices as something good, desirable, digestible, and that it is taught to little children, we are not willing to go there.’ ” . You can’t respect the dignity of someone and deny them as good, desirable, digestible (whatever that means), and teach children that variety is part of the expanse of human nature. Most of the hierarchy left society when they were barely adolescent and have obviously never had a fresh thought since. As is said – Jesus wept..

  3. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    Where do these bishops come up with all these ideas about gender identity and sexual orientation? Do they just make them up out of whole cloth, or just listen to philosophers who come up with theories of reality as they imagine it to be? Or do they maybe just accept the arguments made up by people who don’t like people whose sexuality and gender identities are different?

  4. Ned Flaherty
    Ned Flaherty says:

    Gender ideology is a term used only by theocrats who are trying to write their religious superstitions into the civil laws governing everybody else. The term does not even exist in scientific circles or in health care fields.

    Ironically, those who rail and rant and rave against “gender ideology” don’t even realize that their favorite superstition — “one-man, one-woman marriage” — is itself a gender ideology, and one among many.

    Any ideology is either equally good for all geese and all ganders, or else good for none, but it can’t apply to one person, and then not apply to the next.

  5. Don Siegal
    Don Siegal says:

    I believe the principals in this dispute are confusing the definitions of ideology and of rhetoric. To be sure both wards are considered synonyms; however, the dictionary definitions are very different. Ideology is a system of social beliefs or a meaningful belief system—both are tightly woven together in a single positive context. They are imputing to ideology the pejorative sense of rhetoric—pretentious words or empty talk.


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