America recently published a conversation between two theologians who were looking back, three years later, at the Vatican’s then-Congregation for Catholic Education’s (CCE) 2019 instruction “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.”
While the America dialogue centers on CCE’s document, the article covers a range of concerns about gender identity and the Catholic Church from two scholars with opposing viewpoints.
In the first part, Abigail Favale, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, offers a positive spin on the Male and Female He Created Them. She is focused on the importance of preserving a “Catholic anthropology” that includes only male and female sexes. For Favale, gender is God-given and encompasses all of one’s personhood – a “biological-psychological-spiritual unity.” From this perspective, she acknowledges both biological and social deviations from traditional male/female norms: intersex children, which she refers to as children born with “Disorders of Sexual Development” (DSD), and boys who would prefer knitting to sports. In either case, the child in question would still have a God-given, intrinsic sex no matter how that looks, biologically or socially.
Favale does not see these examples as contesting the gender binary, but instead she sees them as God-given differences that can exist and be protected within the gender binary. She cautions, “The church must avoid the temptation to, in a panic, reassert pink versus blue scripts about gender,” arguing for a more expansive view of male and female identities that are still bound by one’s body.
In response, Elizabeth Sweeny Block, an associate professor of moral ethics at St. Louis University, agrees with Favale on the importance of difference and diversity in terms of sex and gender expression. She identifies one of the CCE text’s major failures, namely the “erroneous conclusion that the goal of ‘gender theory’ is a society without sexual differences and that a false sense of freedom is to blame.” Sweeny Block agues, “Transgender and nonbinary persons and proponents of gender theory are not trying to negate difference. Rather, they are revealing to us that difference is messier than any binary can reflect.”
Furthermore, Sweeny Block examines the CCE’s warnings that “gender ideology” is the result of individualism and freedom taken too far. Male and Female He Created Them identifies as the cause of gender nonconformity “a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses and the will of the individual.” To refute this argument, Sweeny Block looks at the testimony of countless trans voices. She writes:
“Transgender individuals describe feeling relief and affirmation as well as a sense that they are no longer fighting but rather following God’s will. This is not the careless, reckless autonomy described in “Male and Female He Created Them,” nor are these decisions about gender identity made lightly. These are decisions of conscience”
Indeed, Sweeny Block illustrates how the CCE’s flippant assumptions about the motivations and experiences of gender non-conforming people betray church leaders’ lack of listening to the lived experiences of people marginalized in the church.
Both Favale and Sweeny Block believe that listening to lived experience has a role in the church’s conversations about gender identity. Favale, however, cautions that the church hold firm to the framework of a conservative Catholic anthropological worldview. She recommends that the church teach and preach this view of gender, grounded in Scripture and tradition, in order to form and inform Catholics. “When it comes to ideas, the church must patiently yet boldly speak the truth,” Favale writes. “When it comes to people, the church must be attentive to the person, to the desires, wounds and experiences that are being expressed.”
On the other hand, Sweeny Block recommends the church start with the stories of real people, incorporate contemporary science into this conversation, and then from there examine its ideas about gender. She writes:
“St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that knowledge begins with experience. The ends or purposes of creation may be generally known, but practical experiences—in conversation with Scripture and tradition—reveal still more information about the human and what constitutes human flourishing. We need an anthropology, but we also need to question Catholic anthropological claims about human nature and discern whether they continue to hold true.”
This difference in these theologians’ approaches becomes apparent in Favale’s pastoral suggestion that a priest give a homily about sexual difference based on the Genesis creation account, closing his message with “an invitation to those who question their gender or identify as transgender: I’m glad you are here. Please come say hello; I would love to hear more about your perspective and experience.”
Sweeny Block responds to this suggestion:
“Dr. Favale suggests more encounters between priests and transgender or gender-questioning parishioners—a very important step—but ideas matter to how people see themselves and how welcome they feel. It is hard to imagine feeling genuinely invited into dialogue on the heels of a homily that presents a framework that discounts a person’s lived reality.”
Favale’s imagined priest with his message of welcome goes farther toward inclusion of LGBTQ+ people than most Catholic clergy. Yet, Sweeny Block correctly points out that no matter how well intentioned the invitation is, transgender and nonbinary persons will not feel genuinely heard and included if dialogue is to take place only on the church’s terms.
In 2019, Bondings 2.0 posted a series of reflections from theologians, canonists, educators, and others on Male and Female He Created Them. Some of the pieces are listed below, and for full coverage of the document, click here.
“The Vatican’s New Document on Gender: Is There Hope?” by Deacon Ray Dever
“Vatican’s Gender Document Harms ALL, Not Just LGBTQI Folks” by Professor Cristina Traina
“High Court 1975 Decision Points to Alternative Vatican Path on Gender Identity Issues” by Dr. Jennifer Haselberger
—Ariell Watson Simon, December 27, 2022