Franciscan Theologian: Church Must Abandon “Boogeyman of ‘Gender Ideology'”

Fr. Dan Horan

The phrase “gender ideology” has been developed over the course of the last three pontificates to demonize and exclude LGBTQ persons. In a column for the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Daniel P. Horan, OFM, the Duns Scotus Chair of Spirituality at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, analyzes the use of this phrase, and notes, “The time is long overdue to reject specious arguments like those that undergird the right-wing political and ecclesial agendas promoting the boogeyman of ‘gender ideology.’”

All humanistic and scientific developments of church teaching have historically been met with resistance, Horan maintains. The church was slow to acknowledge the right to religious liberty and to condemn chattel slavery because such developments constituted perceived threats to longstanding, traditional theology. Horan reminds us that the changes in these teachings, now indisputable, were in their own time called “heretical,” “threatening,” “unfounded,” and “against the natural law.”

These developments, though initially seen as threatening, were necessary to protect the full humanity of every person, he argues. A similar dynamic now plays out in the church regarding issues of LGBTQ inclusion. Opponents of LGBTQ rights movements now claim these movements are motivated by a philosophy denoted by the derogatory title of “gender ideology.”

The phrase “gender ideology,” Horan writes, is “deployed in Catholic circles to cause grave harm to people already made vulnerable in an unjust society.”

The most recent and public use of the phrase occurred last June, when the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued a document “decrying the rise of ‘gender ideology'” and cautioning Catholic educational institutions against succumbing to what it characterized as “nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants.”

Horan observes that this negative approach to LGBTQ equality developed over the course of the last three pontificates. He writes that it began with:

“. . .  Pope John Paul II’s catechetical pronouncements about ‘gender complementarity’ in what his devotees call ‘the theology of the body,’ and it continued through Pope Benedict XVI’s identification of what he termed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ and in Pope Francis’ own ad hoc statements signaling his personal displeasure with what he calls ‘gender ideology,’ comparing this amorphous concept with ‘nuclear war’ and ‘Nazism.

Most recently, Horan points out, the U.S. bishops have used the term in relation to its recent employment non-discrimination decision. Horan states:

“This trend is notable in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, which extends workplace protections to LGBTQ people under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, because the U.S. bishops’ conference statement on the ruling alludes to themes frequently associated with so-called ‘gender ideology.’”

Philosophically, those who resist LGBTQ rights place the use of “gender ideology” in opposition to Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology, which Horan describes as “inexcusably outdated.” This traditional view is perceived to be infallible, while “gender ideology” is cast as “a new fad.” Ironically, Thomas Aquinas himself was condemned in 1277 for being “too dangerous” after his innovation in rediscovering and utilizing Aristotle, a pagan philosopher.

Those who condemn “gender ideology,” Horan writes, “would do well to listen to leading scholars on the subjects of sex and gender, like Judith Butler of University of California, Berkeley, instead of attacking her and other experts.” Many scholars of science and sociology have been engaging with these complex issues for decades, he points out, and their robust work cannot be merely dismissed out of hand as “gender ideology” without a true attempt at dialogue.

The church has a history of resisting philosophical developments, but in many areas, it eventually come around to accepting developments which uphold the dignity of the human person. The time has come for the Church to abandon “the boogeyman of ‘gender ideology’” and follow Horan’s advice to “learn more from natural and social sciences about the wondrous diversity of God’s creation.”

Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, July 15, 2020

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