by Guest Contributor: Tina Beattie
The Vatican has offered us its latest reflections on gender.
I’ve read it and have much to say. There are a few moments of insight, and I think a vital point needs to be made that issues of gender, including transgender, must be open to informed, intelligent and mutually respectful dialogue. There is tyranny on both sides, and I get deeply concerned when transgenderism becomes a matter of censorship and exclusion in academic debate either by conservatives or by transgender activists. So I would welcome a nuanced, informed and pastorally responsive document from the Vatican which would provide a resource for theologians and educators seeking dialogue around these issues. This document claims that is its aim, and for the first time it ostensibly distinguishes between ‘gender ideology’ and ‘gender theory’:
If we wish to take an approach to the question of gender theory that is based on the path of dialogue, it is vital to bear in mind the distinction between the ideology of gender on the one hand, and the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken, on the other. … The primary outlook needed for anyone who wishes to take part in dialogue is listening. It is necessary, above all, to listen carefully to and understand cultural events of recent decades.
Nothing in this document shows any attempt to listen to and engage in dialogue with transgender persons or with scientific and theological and philosophical debates. Instead, it presents all sexual ambiguity outside an essentialised male/female complementarity as the product of individual choice, disregard for the body, and a culture of relativism. And its expressed desire for dialogue comes only after it has set out its terms in unambiguously clear terms. Paragraph 1 refers to a crisis in education:
The disorientation regarding anthropology which is a widespread feature of our cultural landscape 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.
And despite its later attempt to distinguish between ‘gender ideology’ and ‘gender theory’, it has already conflated the two in its opening section:
“The context in which the mission of education is carried out is characterized by challenges emerging from varying forms of an ideology that is given the general name ‘gender theory’, which “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.”
All that is claimed before the word “dialogue” is mentioned.
This document is a mish mash of pastoral rhetoric glossed over a doctrinal rigidity about essentialised sexual difference (it even appeals to the ancient Greeks to justify this!), in which glimmers of understanding are immediately obscured by caricaturised and vacuous claims about sexuality, gender and human relationships. There is also a failure to distinguish between intersex and transgenderism:
Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of “intersex” or “transgender”, lead to a masculinity or feminity that is ambiguous, even though (in a self-contradictory way), these concepts themselves actually presuppose the very sexual difference that they propose to negate or supersede.
Intersex is a biologically established fact, not simply an ‘idea’, and not to be confused with transgender. The biology of transgenderism is contested and not yet established, but the psychological and existential reality surely demands a more thoughtful and open dialogical approach than that offered in this document.
Dialogue means listening. There is no listening whatsoever in this document – no reference to theological or scientific studies on gender, no reference to the experiences of transgender persons, no attempt whatsoever to reach out in dialogue to persons and ideas which challenge the dogmatism on offer here. In fact, there is not a single source cited outside the self-referential circle of papal and official teaching documents. They are in dialogue with nobody but themselves.
For me, perhaps the most worrying concern is the reduction of all human difference to sexual difference. This just isn’t real. Every human is unique and different from every other, and sexual difference is not the defining mark of diversity in all our relationships and interactions. It is such an impoverished and reductive way of viewing what it means to be human, to be able to understand one’s difference from others only in terms of sexual dualism.
This document is one more nail in the coffin of the Catholic hierarchy’s ability to teach about morality with authority and credibility. Out of the moral meltdown of their own institutional failure they have produced yet another garbled attempt to impose their rigid ideologies on the rest of us in a manner in which the very idea of dialogue is debased, and vastly complex human realities are swept away as just so much individualistic, relativistic choice.
And by the way, the Hebrew in Genesis is complex and multi-facetted in the terms it uses for sex and gender in the accounts of creation. In our modern Christian usage, we could at the very least recognise that “male and female” doesn’t mean “male or female”. If in Christian terms the imago dei is trinitarian, then our identities must also be complex interweavings of difference.
Please read the document for yourself and start a dialog with a catholic school near you.