There have been a couple of recent statements from Pope Francis about gender ideology. He calls it a form of “ideological colonization,” a “demonic” plan to destroy the family, and has even likened it to nuclear weapons. At the same time, he welcomed a trans man to the Vatican, and he privately praised the work of a nun who cares for trans women, saying that “‘In Jesus’ time, the lepers were rejected like that. They [the trans women] are the lepers of these times.”
(It may not sound like a flattering comparison, but within the Christian tradition the figure of the leper is the figure of a person who is marginalized, someone who is outcast of the community and treated with disdain, especially by religious leaders. Christ’s reversal of the treatment of lepers (who were formally excluded in the Old Covenant) is one of the paradigmatic images for the New Covenant. The leper ceases to be a symbol of divine punishment, a diseased person who must be quarantined for the sake of the whole community, and becomes instead a person to be loved, welcomed, accepted.)
The question has been how to reconcile, on the one hand, the Pope’s very harsh sayings about gender ideology with his apparent care for trans people. I’ve had my own opinion on how he reconciles those things, but I didn’t want to speculate or put words in the Pope’s mouth. Now I don’t have to, because he’s spoken about it himself.
To understand the divide between pastoral care of trans people, on the one hand, and the condemnation of gender ideology, on the other, it’s important to understand what gender ideology is and why the Church objects to it. One difficulty is that the term “gender ideology” is one that is almost never used outside of relatively conservative Catholic circles. It’s precise meaning is not obvious, and it tends to get applied in a slap-dash way to any number of competing contemporary theories about gender and sexuality.
The closest that I’ve been able to find to a clear definition of what is meant by gender ideology is the definition of gender theory given by Pope Benedict XVI in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, shortly before he stepped down as pope:
The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will.
The first is the decoupling of sexuality from procreation. When gender replaces sex, or when sex is conceived of as an essentially socially constructed phenomenon (usually on the basis that a very small minority of people do not have an easily distinguishable biological sex), the effect is that the reproductive purpose of human sexuality is sidelined, retreating often to the point of near invisibility. It’s not that uncommon, in contemporary sexual discourses, to find that pregnancy appears only in so far as it’s a danger to be avoided. The practical consequences of this are neither imaginary nor doubtful: we now have a culture in which not only do large numbers of men consider it perfectly legitimate to use women for sex and then abandon them to deal with the consequences, but women are routinely told that being used in this way is “liberating” and that if we don’t buy it we’re repressed or “sex-negative.” Reducing pregnancy to an accidental side-effect of human sexuality actually decentres the female body even more than the old phallocentric moralities – a feat which I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t seen it.
The second is the denial of the divine prerogative in Creation. People “deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.” Those familiar with Benedict’s thought will understand immediately what he’s referring to: a set of concerns that extend not only to gender and reproduction, but also to the natural ecology and our relationship with technology. For Benedict, there is a continuity between the modern technocratic vision of the natural world as a set of resources to be exploited and manipulated, and the modern vision of the body as a kind of vehicle or machine which we inhabit, and which we can freely modify in accordance with our will. In Benedict’s theology both the natural world and the body are living systems, infused with divine Creativity, possessed of an innate order and beauty. We receive our bodies, and through our bodies we receive the world. Both are to be used in ways that respect their unique integrity and the originality of God’s design. The reduction of sexuality to a social construct removes God from the equation and asserts in His place a disordered notion of human autonomy. Here Benedict perceives the great tragedy of our age: that for the most part those who are able to see how technological hubris is damaging to the planet are unable to see how it is also damaging to human bodies, and those who are able to see how it is damaging to human bodies are unwilling to accept that it is also damaging the planet.
Thirdly, and finally, Benedict perceives that to divorce sexual identity from embodied reality, it is necessary to divorce the body from the spirit. “From now on [man] is merely spirit and will.” This is actually a very old belief, and one that has persisted more or less continuously throughout human history. The mind/reason/spirit/soul/intellect/will is seen to be the true person, whereas the body and its functions are seen as accidental or debased. Again, the consequences of this philosophy are not negligible. If the body is irrelevant to personhood, then abortion and infanticide (where pre-rational bodies are destroyed) become morally palatable, and suicide becomes a natural right of the human person.
In terms of their widespread effect on human cultures and human moralities, these are not marginal concerns. It’s actually not an exaggeration to say that such a philosophy, taken to its logical conclusion, would entail the destruction of the individual, society, the human race, and the planet. That’s why Pope Francis says that it is demonic: because a deeply destructive notion of human autonomy is hidden behind a moral demand for inclusivity, compassion and acceptance.
The alternative error is just as much an error. A trans person is not a walking embodiment of gender theory. When we reduce any human person, any human body (including a trans body), to a symbol of an ideology we subject it to a reductive assault on the integrity of the person.
So tomorrow, I’ll talk about the other side of the coin: why legitimate objections to gender ideology are not an excuse for shaming, marginalizing or excluding trans people.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.