Bondings 2.0 has been hopping with news of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s (CCE) new guidelines for addressing gender in Catholic schools and colleges. Yesterday Deacon Ray Dever powerfully articulated the central worry: “that this document will be used as a reason for Catholic schools and parishes to unjustly discriminate against transgender students, and in the process do some real harm to them and their families.”
I agree and think it’s worse than that. The guidelines will do real harm not just to trans and intersex students and families, or even LGBQ students and families, but all students and families. The document gets so much wrong about sex and gender—including how straight and cisgender people live in the world. And the CCE claims to ground their vision in the most basic doctrines of Christian theology. All Catholics, not just LGBTQI families, should protest the document’s implementation.
Here are just a few of the deeper problems. To begin with, the document sets up a false adversary. It opens with the claim that “gender theory…envisages a society without sexual differences,” a position no truly influential theory of sex and gender endorses. Using Vatican authority to whip up public anxiety in this way is inflammatory and irresponsible. Are there one-off people or groups who want to erase sex difference? Probably. But social media reveals marginal groups of every persuasion, and it would be odd for a global education policy document to spend so much energy on a fringe idea.
Second, as the New Ways Ministry response and Deacon Dever have already pointed out, the document is not a dialogue. As any veteran of mediation or even of a long-term relationship knows, a dialogue partner’s first duty is to listen well and give a fair, sympathetic account of the other’s position before stating one’s own case. The paragraphs labeled “Listening”—only seven out of 57—are already shot through with critiques, exaggerations, and just plain misstatements on unnamed “schools of thought.” The idea that the only alternatives to the “institutional model of the family” are “non-binding” unions of “absolutely free self-determination” based only on “subjective preferences” rooted in fleeting affection will be hurtful to anyone who’s struggled for legal recognition for a permanent relationship.
In addition, the CCE’s views of sex are incoherent. On the one hand, flying in the face of contemporary biology, it defines sex difference as solely a chromosomal binary: XY for male, XX for female. XXY and XYY configurations aside, sex also seems to be a matter of genes.
On the other hand, the document demands that physicians take sole responsibility for deciding on therapeutic interventions for children born with indeterminate sex (known as intersex people)—interventions that may assign a sex that contradicts their chromosomes, making sex simply a matter of bodily appearance. (By the way, it’s increasingly recommended that babies born with indeterminate sex not receive sex-assigning surgical or hormonal interventions at all during their childhood.) The authors of this document have failed to do even minimal homework on terminology: “intersex” is the proper, non-technical term for persons born with indeterminate sex, but the document erroneously defines “intersex” as an effort “to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference.”
The document is inconsistent on gender, as well. On the one hand, by echoing Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, it declares that a person’s God-given sex identity determines their biology, psychology, and spirituality in either a feminine or a masculine direction, each with its own innate, definable “genius.” On the other hand, it insists “temperament, family history, culture, experience, education, the influence of friends, family members, and respected persons, as well as other formative situations” shape our gendered identities, too. In fact, the document champions research that “tries to achieve a deeper understanding of the ways in which sexual difference between men and women is lived out in a variety of cultures.”
According to this second point of view, gender differences—which “gender theorists” agree exist in every culture, a point the document also misses—are not innate at all, as Pope John Paul II taught. And sexual differences vary by culture. For instance, research suggests that competitiveness is not an innate male trait: men in patrilineal societies are more competitive than women, but women in matrilineal societies are more competitive than men. The document also steamrolls over third gender by calling it a “fictitious construct,” instead of an established identity—from hijras in India to two-spirit persons in some US Native American cultures to dozens of established traditions in between.
Even more troubling than the mislabeling, bad faith, and inconsistency is the document’s theology. It quotes and endorses John Paul II’s awkwardly framed idea that we are men and women first and dignified humans second, rather than the other way around. According to the CCE instruction:
“The Holy Scripture reveals the wisdom of the Creator’s design, which ‘has assigned as a task to man his body, his masculinity and femininity; and that in masculinity and femininity he, in a way, assigned to him as a task his humanity, the dignity of the person.’” [sic]
In other words, given male or female identity comes before dignified human identity, which is a life project. In confirmation, the document quotes Persona Humana (sometimes referred to as The Vatican Declaration on Sexual Ethics), which said the same thing in 1975: our sex precedes our conception as male or female:
“In fact, it is from [their] sex that the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society.”
In essence the document asks schools to teach our children that their masculinity or femininity is more basic to their identity and vocation in the world than their shared humanity, an astonishing claim before we even raise issues of orientation or gender identity.
Unfortunately, we are not talking about a theoretical future in which children may be taught harmful and essentially heretical doctrines about gender. Many confirmation programs and Catholic high schools already teach materials based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This document is a wake-up call for all parents not just to resist implementation of the new guidelines, but also to ask questions about what is already occurring in their children’s schools. Both their lives and our basic Christian beliefs are at stake.
–Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, June 14, 2019