Stuck in earlier modern thinking on gender, the Vatican fails young people

By Savi Hensman
June 19, 2019

The Vatican has attacked ‘gender theory’ in a widely-criticised document aimed at Roman Catholic schools and people working in education. Further guidance is expected in future months.

Male and female he created them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education rightly sets out to support family life, encourage love and acceptance for all and promote dialogue. However, as pointed out by eminent theologian David Albert Jones (a specialist in bioethics), there is little sign of attentive listening to those most affected.

Transgender and intersex people are a key focus. Partnered lesbians, gays and bisexuals come in for criticism too, while numerous others not in typical gender roles or family units also seem to meet with disapproval. Yet the reasoning behind what might alienate large swathes of the population is often hazy or contradictory and the knowledge gained from skilled pastoral practice is largely disregarded.

Curiously too, there is little sense of rootedness in the Bible (apart from the verse in the title, questionably interpreted) or ancient or mediaeval church tradition. Indeed the document is at odds with aspects of these. There are frequent quotes from recent popes and other sources from the not-too-distant past, whose praiseworthy attempts to move the church from appearing anti-sexual and instead honour married couples are applied in unhelpfully rigid ways. The central concept is modern and there are alarming (even if unintended) echoes of current far-right rhetoric.

More positively, this has been issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education, with no indication that it has been approved by Pope Francis, and signals that it is not the final word.

Let us look more closely at the document, then the wider context and, finally, possible ways in which dialogue might be enabled. This might include discussion among those struggling with different forms of gender-based marginalisation as well as all seeking a more loving church and society.

Gender theory and inequality

Male and female he created them starts with the dramatic claim that there is an “educational crisis”, in which curricula reflect a way of thinking which is “a widespread feature of our cultural landscape” which “has undoubtedly helped to destabilise the family as an institution, bringing with it a tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.”

This supposedly stems from gender theory, which promotes ways of relating and being intimate separated from male-female biological difference. There is however a “distinction between the ideology of gender on the one hand, and the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken”, from which it is possible to learn.

The document suggests that, at the beginning of the 1990s, gender theory’s focus was on determining one’s own “sexual tendencies without having to take account of the reciprocity and complementarity of male-female relationships, nor of the procreative end of sexuality.” This may partly reflect dismay that so many Roman Catholics ignore the ban on contraceptives, though even church teaching does not rule out marriage when a couple are too old to bear children.

The notion of ‘complementarity’, which tends to mask women’s and girls’ subordination behind a façade of equal dignity, appears to have been imported into Catholic thinking in the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps there is an element of the earlier modern urge towards tidiness and predictability, a world neatly classified and preferably controlled, though more recent scientific developments have called this into question.

At any rate, this supposed trend away from accepting intrinsic sexual difference continues into ‘transgenderism’ (a term many regard as insulting), when “gender is seen as dependent upon the subjective mindset of each person, who can choose a gender not corresponding to his or her biological sex, and therefore with the way others see that person.” Then comes “the concept of ‘queer’, which refers to dimensions of sexuality that are extremely fluid, flexible, and as it were, nomadic”, polyamory and legislation protecting minority rights, in the context of post-modern liquidity that sets feelings and wants above the truths of existence. Many people who identify as transgender or ‘queer’ would not use these terms in this way.

Some points of agreement are proposed, including opposing unjust discrimination, bullying, insults and violence and valuing women’s contribution to education. Yet the document’s general drift is far removed from the concerns of most feminists and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Indeed little heed is paid to real problems faced by heterosexual parents in disadvantaged communities.

Gender theorists hold a wide range of opinions. Some have exaggerated notions of individual self-determination detached from social and material reality. Doubtless a number are dogmatic. Yet in this and other fields, theories are often used as a framework (open to being improved on) to make sense of evidence. And there has been an outpouring of research in recent decades on how nature and nurture interact, the complex interplay of the biological, environmental and social in gender and sexuality.

Ordinarily, people have a strong sense of their sexual orientation and gender, whether LGBTI or otherwise: it is not a choice like changing one’s brand of washing powder. The work of historians, geographers and social scientists indicates that, across time and culture, there have been people attracted to the same sex and/or whose gender did not match that usually associated with sex at birth or who did not fit their society’s norms. Harsh punishments have not stamped this out, though more accepting societies make it easier for minorities to contribute to community life.

Drawing also on the lived experience which so greatly enriches knowledge and research from various disciplines, there is a growing body of evidence on what assists human flourishing. This includes tackling gender inequality and family acceptance of minority youth. Yet such expertise is ignored as the document falls into a trap it identifies – of putting ideology above the quest for “the truths of existence.” This is far removed from the scholarly rigour of much fine Catholic theology.

A complaint that "'non-discrimination’ often hides an ideology that denies the difference as well as natural reciprocity that exists between men and women” perhaps betrays a fear that certain differences are far from natural. If men are inherently better than women at certain tasks, then would not equal opportunities recruitment practices offer them an advantage? And presumably the basis for harmonious marriage should be intrinsic, not that the partners fear that otherwise they might be sacked or made homeless for being LGBTI?

When nature avoids neat categories and the misreading of Genesis

The document declares the “centrality of the body”, then swiftly contradicts itself in the case of intersex people. The experience of those not completely biologically male or female at birth contradicts the view that gender is wholly determined by society.

Some intersex babies were operated on and brought up as girls, without being told of their identity, only to experience distress as they increasingly felt like boys instead. Experts now condemn medically unnecessary surgery before an intersex person is old enough to consent.

In the words of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights , “sex-altering medical interventions… often disrupt their physical and psychological well-being, producing negative impacts with lifelong consequences, which include sterilisation, severe scarring, infections in the urinary tract, reduced or complete loss of sexual sensation, removal of natural hormones, dependency on medication, and a deep feeling of violation of their person.”

According to the Congregation for Catholic Education, “medical science should act with purely therapeutic ends, and intervene in the least invasive fashion, on the basis of objective parameters and with a view to establishing the person’s constitutive identity.” It goes on to deplore “Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of ‘intersex’ or ‘transgender’… oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’, and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy. Similar theories aim to annihilate the concept of ‘nature’.”

This appears to suggest that, to preserve ‘nature’, doctors should operate swiftly to alter a baby’s natural state, in a way that is ‘therapeutic’ but which experts warn could be therapeutically disastrous. The authors’ own apparent distress at “sexual indeterminacy” appears to be projected on to others, including God. Intersex and allied people and groups have issued a firm response, pointing out that this position ignores Scripture and church tradition as well as being deeply harmful.

As for annihilating the concept of nature, it is unclear how accepting small minorities of intersex and transgender people can do this. In India, for instance, visibly ‘third sex’ people (some Christian) have lived alongside their neighbours for centuries with little obvious impact. Meanwhile in the USA, the administration, ignoring scientific advice  and trying to remove healthcare and other rights from transgender people is pursuing environmental policies which could devastate the planet.

Genesis 1.27, the biblical verse quoted in the title, tells of a creative and generous God who makes humankind in the Divine image, male and female. This was not addressed to a symposium on sex and gender differences. Instead, in a deeply unequal world, a faith community dared to proclaim that everyone – not just the emperor, male elite or master-race – was made in God’s image. This interpretation is borne out by the Bible as a whole, read especially, for Christians, in the light of Christ’s sacrificial love and message of peace and hope.

Overcoming divisions in Christ

The document puzzlingly claims that “sexual difference between male and female is constitutive of human identity.” Of course sex is important but what of class, nation, ethnicity, disability, skills, interests and so forth? It is rightly pointed out that “The formation of one’s identity is itself based on the principle of otherness, since it is precisely the direct encounter between another ‘you’ who is not me that enables me to recognise the essence of the ‘I’ who is me.” Controversially however it is claimed that “In the family, knowledge of one’s mother and father allows the child to construct his or her own sexual identity and difference.”

Same-sex parenthood is further criticised because “only recourse to reproductive technology can allow one of the partners in a relationship of two persons of the same sex to generate offspring, using ‘in vitro’ fertilisation and a surrogate mother” and this solution involves “manipulation of human embryos, the fragmentation of parenthood, the instrumentalisation and/or commercialisation of the human body as well as the reduction of a baby to an object in the hands of science and technology.” As well as failure to appreciate the dilemmas of many heterosexuals with fertility problems, this passage suggests deep ignorance of the basic facts of life for most lesbian parents, who often use very low-tech methods!

Faithful, caring couples who can conceive and bring up children securely together are to be celebrated. But if full personhood were to be restricted to children in such households, this would be sad indeed. What of those whose fathers or mothers die young or go overseas to pay the bills, spending years apart, or children of single parents? Those whose families are fragmented by war, persecution, flood or famine, or with parents too sick to cope, abusive or who do not care?

Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells of the judgement of the nations, the ‘other’ in whom the King is encountered is the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger and prisoner (Matthew 25.31-46). Loved by a God who is the father of orphans, defender of widows, who finds families for the lonely (Psalm 68.5-6), the scorned or marginalised are brought into the centre. Those who foster or adopt, care for survivors of disaster or violence, who welcome the stranger and defend the powerless can draw closer to One who is love (1 John 4.7-12).

The document emphasises “the male-female duality of human nature” and describe man and woman as complementary versions of what it means to be human. It is not clear whether all men are meant to embody characteristics distinct from those of all women (perhaps making unmarried people of each sex more-or-less interchangeable) and if being in love is seen as too subjective to matter much.

An earlier passage on “the values of femininity” offers some information on what this difference is meant to be, outside the domain of reproduction. These include women’s “capacity for the other”, sense of the concrete as opposed to abstractions and capacity to endure adversity and keep life going in difficult circumstances. One might wonder whether this hints that women are better equipped for service and suffering than men are and stronger on detail than principles and planning.

The question then arises: what if a person’s gifts or sense of calling do not correspond with those supposed to be attached to their sex or the price of conventional femininity or masculinity is simply too high? This is not about setting ‘secular values’ above religious duty: in the Bible, time and again, people are prompted by God to step outside their roles and do what is extraordinary, such as the judge Deborah or Mary of Bethany.

Scripture provides space too for sexual minorities. For instance, Jesus acknowledges that there are “eunuchs born so from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs made so from human agency and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the Kingdom.” In the book of Acts Philip baptises an Ethiopian eunuch, as good news is shared far and wide (Acts 8.26-39). The values of God’s realm on earth can bring joy and challenge to those of any gender.

What is more, Jesus offers a notion of family life which is far broader, and in some ways more challenging, than that in the document and is not himself an example of masculine stability. Paul is more conventional at times in his vision of household relationships but at times branches off into also describing himself in feminine terms and disrupting expectations around gender and kinship.

A community is created in which “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female" (Galatians 3.28), where people of any birth or background may receive particular gifts from the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), while all are equal in worth.

Though at times falling short of the boldness of Christ’s message, the church since then has often offered alternatives to conventional masculinity and femininity. If anything, early Christians went too far in downplaying ordinary family life. Freedom to depart from gender roles can be precious: the world would have lost much if, say, Francis of Assisi has stuck to being a ‘typical’ man and the El Salvador martyrs of December 1980 conformed to ‘womanly’ norms.

Acting justly in a challenging world

Male and female he created them goes on to blame the “transformation of social and interpersonal relationships” and “decline of the culture of marriage” for a range of social ills, though these by no means go together. For example, heterosexuals in far more equitable relationships than earlier generations have often been models of attentive married love, as have same-gender couples or those in which one partner is transgender. Suggestions are then made about sex and relationships education in schools, sometimes impractical. The moral dilemma for teachers is not explored if certain parents do not want their children taught the facts of life, increasing their risk of falling pregnant unawares, picking up infections or being abused.

More broadly, the effects of socioeconomic change, especially in the workplace, and more generally structural inequalities, are largely ignored. It was not a handful of academics writing obscure articles, or performers in avant-garde nightspots, who shut down the docks, factories and mines where numerous men once worked, without providing alternative secure employment. One unintended impact of the document may be to deflect attention from genuine social problems, so that minorities bear the brunt of people’s frustration.

Family life across the world is disrupted by imbalances of power and privilege, resulting in poverty, precarity, prejudice, patriarchy and peril. Money worries put a strain on many partnerships, while those in precarious work may fear ending up broke. Small matters, such as a broken item or higher-than-expected bill, can then lead to quarrels, anxiety or depression. Numerous families face prejudice of some kind, which at worst may lead to harassment or ethnic cleansing and make it hard to provide children with a sense of their worth, as well as keeping them safe. Patriarchy can create an unnecessary gap between husband and wife, preventing true intimacy and full appreciation of the other’s humanity, and at worst give rise to domestic abuse. Other forms of peril, including war, famine or flooding (which may result from environmental destruction), further damage families. Neoliberal capitalism, and the consumerism that goes with it, worsen instability.

It is deeply unhelpful if guilt or shame are then heaped on parents of intersex children, or couples who discover that their adolescent is transgender, or a girl who is not very ‘girlish’ or a boy who is ‘effeminate’. Instead the church should enable families to love and accept one another across differences and value the young, who may have much to offer their relatives and God’s world. What is more, diverse people can be brought together to heal divisions and work for the common good.

At present, in many parts of the world, the far right is on the rise, exploiting people’s insecurities and promoting hatred, fear or contempt for minorities in the quest for power. Women who are not submissive are also sometimes targeted, though at times the extremists make out that they are tolerant of women and LGBTI people, while neighbours of other ethnicities or faiths are not as ‘advanced’. Yet there may be pressure to have more babies, if a member of a ‘race’ which is supposedly at risk of being outnumbered by ‘foreigners’ who are less ‘civilised’.

In Hungary, Italy and elsewhere, extreme-right politicians are attacking ‘gender theory’ and gender studies. In Spain, hardliners have gained the backing of some ‘conservative’ Catholics in opposing feminism, including protection from domestic violence. Other Christians too have sometimes been won over.

This is often linked with an authoritarian nationalism that crushes ethnic minorities. International networks are helping to drive this movement. In this context, the timing of this document is extremely unfortunate.

More positively, it may prompt Christians and people of goodwill working for minority and women’s rights, but with different emphases and sometimes different views, to talk more with one another. Greater unity is urgently needed, even if hard to achieve.

The Congregation for Catholic Education’s invitation to dialogue is especially important for transgender and intersex groups and individuals. However it also opens up space to explore a more constructive theology of identity, marriage and family life, which embraces some of the other people pushed away by this document, while calling all to a holiness based on welcome, not exclusion.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.