Debates about gender have a potent capacity to dominate public discourse, inflaming passions and provoking furious confrontations between religious conservatives and gender activists of various kinds.
In this febrile atmosphere, many Catholics might welcome informed guidance from the Vatican as to how to engage young people meaningfully in a dialogue about gender theory. The Congregation for Catholic Education (CCE) has now published a document which purports to offer that. ‘Male and female he created them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’ sets out the terms for dialogue about gender and sex education on the basis of ‘three guiding principles’ – ‘to listen, to reason and to propose’.
This suggests that the document might offer an informed and irenic engagement with current scientific and theoretical understanding with regard to issues of gender, in close engagement with relevant academic literature. But before the word ‘dialogue’ is even mentioned, it has set out its conditions in no uncertain terms, making clear that the term ‘gender’ can legitimately be used only to refer to binary, heterosexual identities and relationships. Before long we find ourselves back in the thicket of blind dogma and prejudicial labelling which have become characteristic of the Vatican’s approach to what it calls ‘gender ideology’. Any questioning of divinely ordained and biologically and psychologically embodied ‘sexual dimorphism’ is a symptom of cultural decline and results from ‘the adoption of an anthropology opposed to faith and to right reason’. Gender theory is the product of a relativistic mindset which promotes a process of ‘denaturalisation’. It destabilises the family, cancels out sexual difference, and makes gender a matter of personal choice driven by individual will and not informed by any consideration for the structures and values of society. Gender theory promotes a ‘a utopia of the “neuter”’, and the idea of gender neutrality or a third gender is a ‘fictitious construct’. Quotations and footnotes refer only to other Vatican documents and papal writings. In other words, the insistence that listening is key to dialogue is not respected or modelled in any way in the writing of this CCE document. All this gives a hollow ring to its declared recognition of common ground shared with gender theorists based on the need to promote better understanding of sexual difference and to avoid all forms of bullying and prejudice.
Strictly speaking, the document is advisory and not authoritative, and those responsible for Catholic education are entitled to ignore it. However, there are rumours that the CDF is also planning a document on gender, and if this one is anything to go by, I dread what that might contain. The CCE text offers rich pickings to the Church’s many critics in the secular media. Theologians like myself might console ourselves with pointing to its non-authoritative status, but that rightly has little purchase when we seek public engagement.
But more important is the anguish that this risks creating for LGBTQI Catholics who strive to be true to the Church and true to themselves, or for parents seeking to offer loving support and affirmation to children struggling with issues of identity and gender – children who are at high risk of suicide and mental health problems. I think of the many Christians I know who do not conform to the Vaticanese of documents like this, who are providing loving homes to children and who are struggling as every couple does to build sustaining, faithful and loving relationships in a culture of harshly individualistic and consumerist values. These people are often in the frontline of resisting the ruthless brutality of our modern political and economic systems, supporting refugees, working with the homeless, campaigning for environmental protection. I know these people. They are my friends and colleagues, my students and neighbours. They are part of the community I and countless other modern Catholics belong to, and to which we hold ourselves accountable when our benighted church leaders issue documents like this.
If the Catholic hierarchy could let go of its fear and resistance to any suggestion of gender fluidity or diversity, it would discover that the Catholic tradition is in itself gender fluid. The language of Catholic theology and particularly of devotional and mystical texts opens into a poetic and prismatic array of gendered relationships, weaving the human and the divine into intense relationships of erotic, maternal and filial love and friendship which elude all sexual binaries. I use Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem to teach theology of gender. I can identify at least five different genders in that document, based on various appeals to nuptial ecclesiology and sexual difference.
Pope Francis has used the term ‘ideological colonization’ to condemn what he sees as western cultural domination of poorer societies, particularly through the promotion of gender theory. Yet one could just as well argue that the modern nuclear family is in itself a form of ideological colonization, exported around the world by European powers and Christian missionaries over the last five hundred years. The modern family may have done more than any other institution to sever extended kinship relationships and to contribute to the fragmentation of interdependent communities. With its insatiable demands for ever better lifestyles and opportunities fuelling economic growth, the middle class family of late modernity belongs within a culture of isolated individualism with its neo-liberal political underpinnings – a political and economic order which all recent popes have insisted is antithetical to a Catholic understanding of society.
As different cultures and groups reclaim their histories from the commanding metanarratives of western imperialism, we are discovering that gender in traditional societies is a more diverse and fluid concept than post-Enlightenment rationalism was able to accommodate. This is as true of pre-modern Catholicism as it is of other traditional communities and cultures.
Nothing I am saying here denies the beauty of the Catholic understanding of marriage as a unitive and sometimes procreative love which can be interpreted as an analogy of the love between God and humankind through the sacramental life of the Church. Nor am I saying that everything which emanates from gender theory is necessarily helpful or healthy. I am merely pointing out that there is much to be learned on both sides if gender theorists and Catholic theologians really are willing to engage in dialogue about possibilities and limitations, including questions of finitude and vulnerability, dignity and relationality.
If the document produced by the CCE is an accurate reflection of the level of understanding and engagement which the hierarchy is willing to bring to the table of dialogue, then it would be better for all of us if they simply keep quiet, for they lack the competence, the respect and the knowledge to contribute meaningfully to that dialogue.