In the Catholic Church, What’s Next When it Comes to “Gender Theory”?

John Allen, editor of “Crux”

When Pope Francis criticizes “gender theory” or “gender ideology,” what does he mean? Where are such issues going in the Catholic Church? What will be needed to find a reconciling way forward?

John Allen, editor of Crux, raised these questions after a mid-March conference in Rome which included a paper on gender theory that, in Allen’s words,” was a deft presentation of the state of affairs in Europe, and the Church’s current thinking about it.”

Canon law professor Vincenzo Turchi prepared the paper, which was then read at “The Right to Education and to Teaching” conference hosted by Santa Croce University, an Opus Dei school in Rome. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, a close aid of former Pope Benedict XVI and Prefect of the Papal Household, chaired the panel during which the paper was presented. Allen offered this analysis:

“In general, when Vatican personnel over the years decry the rise of ‘gender theory,’ they’re not really referring to a specific theory associated with a given thinker. Instead, they mean a broad intellectual and cultural push, which they see as posing three interrelated risks:

  • Eroding the idea that sexual identity and orientation are given in nature, proposing that orientation, and, by extension, sexual behavior, isn’t bound by objective moral norms but rather the result of contingent historical and cultural choices.
  • Encouraging the state to promote such a vision of gender in schools, thereby threatening the right of parents to be the primary educators of their children.
  • Under the guise of avoiding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, stigmatizing traditional religious and moral views and ending up becoming itself a form of discrimination. . .

“Gender theory, Turchi said, is based on ‘well-known philosophical and anthropological concepts,’ beginning with ‘the primacy of culture over nature.’ According to this view, he said, natural data are seen as ‘marginal,’ so sexual differences are ‘inessential and changeable,’ to be shaped on the basis of ‘individual self-determination.'”

Turchi also said that efforts to curb discrimination and bullying against LGBT youth go beyond these goals to promote marriage and adoption rights for same-gender couples. In education, gender theory is “being spread without speaking about it openly” and “anyone who objects is labeled as racist or discriminatory.”

But in response to these dire warnings, Allen’s own commentary was moderated and recognized the need for dialogue:

“As a footnote to the March 12 discussion, it seemed clear that resolving the tensions posed by gender theory involves a complicated intersection of law and policy, and probably will require having everyone with a stake in the discussion sit down and try to figure things out.

“In that regard, it was striking that the lineup for the conference not only was composed almost entirely of male clerics, but it didn’t seem to include anyone who might be sympathetic to some of the ideas behind gender theory. Probably this wasn’t the venue, but one suspects that eventually, that conversation will have to take place.”

Allen joins the growing number of Catholics who recognize that what is needed on questions about gender identity and LGBT equality more generally is not further harsh condemnations or apocalyptic warnings, but deep listening and authentic dialogue. That Allen, who is editor of a moderate-to-conservative news outlet, is comfortable making such a call, is a sign that such a recognition may not be limited to LGBT advocates alone. For the good of the Church as well as LGBT people, it is time for leaders to start dialoguing with a variety of voices on gender issues so that they can be educated about newer understandings of gender identity.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 22, 2018

5 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    It’s clearly a good sign (or omen) that an influential Catholic intellectual, who leans toward the conservative idiom of traditional theological discourse, acknowledges that an open discussion of gender issues and gender identity is both necessary and appropriate, and perhaps even urgent. The real problem is: will the right-wing Cardinals who have a stranglehold on the Church’s conversational agenda ever allow it to happen? If they won’t, they are effectively guaranteeing that younger Catholics — particularly those under 30 — will give up on the formal Catholic Church in utter frustration, and will become Episcopalians or Anglicans or flat-out agnostics. Will Cardinal Burke and his “Capa Magna” cohorts finally be happy, once they have rid the Catholic Church of this heretical “Third Column” of social progressives and liberals? Time will tell. But the whole situation strikes me as sordid, and deeply discouraging.

  2. Sarasi
    Sarasi says:

    Here’s the thing. What they call this scary “gender theory” is simply the science we teach students around the world at the best universities. Future doctors, social workers, educators learn in undergrad psych (development, cognition, neuroscience, etc.) that sex differences are highly specific, often small, and that it is not really known how these differences actually play out in real life. (By contrast, the endurance of social conditioning is well-documented.) Everyone is taught that sex is a given and gender is constructed, including my kid, who doesn’t think the idea is the end of the world. In fact, she doesn’t think about it at all because it seems perfectly logical to her. Of course, pretty much everyone accepts the physical differences in size, strength, and aggression, but no personality theory identifies large gender differences. Men and women are more alike than different, but patriarchy, which encourages men to define themselves as “definitely not a woman,” cannot bear the notion that male and female are either alike or fluid. The cheeky thing is how the Vatican refuses to see these developments as just part of the modern science curriculum and distort and oversimplify ideas they don’t like, e.g., “Jack woke up one day and decided he wanted to be Jill and his teacher encouraged him to wear a dress.”

    Yes, I think everyone will be interested to see where this discussion is going.

  3. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    This “nature/culture” confusion seems pointless. Aren’t chromosomes, genes, and chemistry in the “nature” category? And doesn’t nature produce unique individuals within species? Why the anxiety about recognizing them as individuals? Aren’t “moral norms” in the “culture” category? Aren’t they formed by human discernment about what helps individuals and communities thrive? Why the anxiety about subjectivity? The bishops don’t need to be so afraid of individual freedom. The institution could survive and thrive with more of it.

  4. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM
    Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    It seems to me that, when power is threatened, it is easier for those in power to talk about than talk to those they fear. This is not a discussion for clarity or knowledge. The goal is institutional compliance. What concerns me about the exodus of Catholics is not the diminishing numbers. The RCC has great wealth and financial resources that can be used for the betterment of Creation or, as history has demonstrated, great destruction. I fear that, without Catholics in the institution demanding accountability, many innocents will be harmed.

  5. Deacon Ray Dever
    Deacon Ray Dever says:

    I continue to hope and pray that the Church will recognize the need and make the effort to become educated in the science and the lived reality of transgender individuals. Without that basic understanding of the facts, even the best moral theology will be prone to erroneous and harmful conclusions.


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