Two Catholic Theologians Debate Whether “Gender Theory” Is a Threat or Opportunity

Abigail Favale

This post is Part 2 of our coverage of a theological conversation in America about 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. See Part 1 for more of the conversation last year.

America recently invited two Catholic theologians back to continue a conversation about gender identity, which they began in the same publication late last year.

Abigail Favale, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, and Elizabeth Sweeny Block, an associate professor of moral ethics at St. Louis University, picked up their conversation by discussing of Pope Francis’ pastoral meetings with transgender people. Favale points out that Francis’ record on transgender rights also includes many public indictments of “gender theory” as a form of “ideological colonization.” She observes that “more than any other pope or Vatican office, Francis has offered direct and forceful challenges to the framework of gender theory.”

Favale identifies Francis’ approach on transgender issues as two-fold: a “ministry of teaching” through which he writes and speaks about Catholic anthropology and critiques “gender theory”; and a ministry of pastoral accompaniment, through which he has modeled “meeting the individual wherever he or she might be, and walking the way of Christ—the way of the cross—with patience and gradualism.”

While acknowledging that Catholics should not wield Francis’ criticism of gender theory to silence trans voices or ignore his call to accompany trans people with love and dignity, Favale argues, that Catholics should avoid  “commending Francis for these summits while disregarding entirely what he’s actually preached on the subject.”

Elizabeth Sweeny Block

Elizabeth Sweeny Block

Sweeny Block responds by casting doubt on the assumption that “all transgender people are transgender because they were influenced by ‘the concept of subjective gender identity and a medicalized approach to gender.’” This assumption minimizes the experiences of transgender people, trivializing their self-understanding and treating them as the rare exception to an alleged gender binary.

Sweeny Block argues for elevating the experience of trans and non-binary people beyond the margins:

“Experience refers to the shared realities of millions of people who, in this case, know God’s plan for their flourishing. Recent studies suggest there are more than 1.6 million transgender people in the United States alone[Truth] is also in the lived realities of bodies created by God. I am not willing to close off the possibility that God’s self-revelation is disclosed in transgender and nonbinary bodies.”

For Sweeny Block, “gender theory” is not a threat, but a potentially helpful tool. She questions, “Can gender theory, in conversation with church teaching, illuminate human experience? Can these three sources work together and learn from each other? I think so.”

Sweeny Block’s approach embraces revelation as a dynamic process. She states:

“I am less sure than Dr. Favale that we know perfectly God’s plan for human gender and sexuality. We are learning and discovering, and our understanding is always a work in progress, informed by new information we encounter.”

Now in its third year of reception, Male and Female He Created Them continues to spark disagreement among Catholics. For these theologians and others in the church, the document has proved to be not the last word, but the beginning of a larger conversation.

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

What Are Catholic LGBTQ Educators Supposed to Do With the Vatican’s Gender Document?” by Dr. Alfred Pang

Ariell Watson Simon (she/her), March 3, 2023

2 replies
  1. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    As a parent of an adult transgender kid, and as someone who has listened to the lived experience of dozen of transgender people over the past several years, I would like to say: I’ve yet to meet a single transgender person who has the slightest clue about gender theory. They are simply doing their best to live their lives, as best they can. Full stop.


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