Jonathan Compo shares what he found out from reading the new Vatican release on gender theory.
The Congregation for Catholic Education document ‘Male and Female He Created Them’ Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, published June 10th, is a listicle detailing the Vatican’s concerns with what it terms “gender theory.” Male and Female is, if we believe the subtitle, a call for conversation, conversation, presumably, with proponents of gender theory. I intend to answer their call. Let’s talk!
Listening is, the document says, the most important part of dialogue. So, here are 14 things I heard in Male and Female He Created Them:
1. The first thing about the document that struck me was its tone. It does make a good faith attempt to live up to its subtitle. It is respectful. It’s not a polemic. I agree with Fr. James Martin’s article, “Listen to the LGBT:” the document should be praised for its “degree of openness” and its call for “listening.” That the Vatican—the same organization that once declared orgasm sinful and that for over a millennium condemned those with whom it disagreed to literal hell—has produced a statement calling for dialogue at all, especially dialogue with those with diverse sexual identities, is a miracle.
2. The second thing I noticed, though, and the first thing mentioned in most coverage of Male and Female is that this call for “listening” has not been well answered by its authors. The degree of openness expressed is no more than a degree. The document calls the “third gender” a “fictional construct,” suggests “transgenderism” is “just a provocative display,” and claims those it calls gender theorists’ final aim is to ensure the “right of the individual to choose one’s gender.” Male and Female calls for a conversation with people it considers fictional, and perhaps the Catholic orthodoxy knows more about listening to fictional people than I do, but it seems to me that disbelief in one’s conversation partner would be a barrier to discussion. Lumping non-binary genders in with other made up categories robs them of any ethos. If any non-binary person were to attempt to refute the authors of Male and Female on any point, how could the authors believe them, given they don’t believe in them?
3. That “transgenderism” is “just a provocative display,” is not a conclusion you would come to, were you to actually listen to actual trans people. “Public recognition of the right to choose one’s gender,” is not most trans activists’ end goal. For many binary trans-people, (that is, trans people who are either male or female, not non-binary) provocation is the opposite of their goal. Instead, their desire is to pass, to present as their true gender and be accepted as such. (For a more in-depth look at this idea, passing, see Natalie Wynn’s essay: The Aesthetic.) Most trans people, binary and non-binary, would be inclined to agree with the Vatican that gender isn’t elective.
4. Not all trans people feel this way, but that there is any disagreement between trans people on the nature of transness is not something you would assume from reading Male and Female. It presents “gender theory” as a unified bloc with a defined start date. According to Male and Female, the existence of trans and non-binary people is the result of a contemporary “anthropological disorientation,” starting in the eighties. This is short-sighted. The document falsely conflates the development of gender studies in academia with the development of gender. The social roles prescribed to people on the basis of their sex characteristics have always existed and have always been changing. These social roles are one definition of gender. Just as gender has always existed, so too have its non-binary forms. There are historical examples of societies in which more than two genders existed. But the Vatican did not, it seems, listen to any Indigenous North American two-spirits or to the Indian hijra. Even in societies without recognized third genders, there have been individuals who refused to capitulate to society’s expectations of their gender. Joan of Arc comes to mind.
5. Male and Female sees gender studies only as gender theory, and gender theory as a single ideology. (Maybe the authors forgot most other systems of thought are not organized hierarchically, descending from the literal embodied voice of God.) It does not acknowledge gender studies is a study of anything, presenting it as if it were created ex nihilo, out of confusion or malice. That there may be disagreement within the field or contradictions within gender theory is never addressed.
6. This usage—framing a conversation about gender as a confrontation between the malevolent gender theorists on one side and faith, reason and nature on the other—is far from a neutral presentation. And, though Male and Female claims to be an even-handed call to communication, it supports the current European far-right narrative about gender studies. As noted by Eliza Apperly, in her article for the Atlantic, “gender studies has become a battleground… In the last five years, it has developed from a peripheral concern to a central topic for those who purport to defend European Christian Civilization.” Defending European Christian Civilization doesn’t sound like a bad thing; the Vatican would count it among its goals—but its allies in this perceived fight are the likes of the League in Italy, Alternative fürDeutschland (AfD) in Germany, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: enemies of democracy. For the Church to come out now to validate—and more than validate, use—the language these far-righters have been using about gender is political move, a concerning one.
7. Framing a conversation around gender around a caricature of its study in universities is to put the affected population, all trans and non-binary people, in a vulnerable position. It opens them up to attacks from the far right. Though Male and Female demands its reader “respect every person in their particularity and difference” and condemn “bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination,” it, by focusing on a limited and straw-manned gender studies, promotes antagonism and jeopardizes the possibility of respect. This framing is destructive. It’s also wrong. To position gender studies as opposed to Nature, Reason and Faith requires distorting those terms’ definitions. It also requires not listening to any LGBTQ+ people.
8. Nature, n.
1 : “everything we have been given as a pre-existing foundation of our being and action in the world.”
2 : that which gender theory and “similar theories aim to annihilate.”
3 : that which is in a “growing contraposition” with “culture.”
First off, what is a contraposition? Is it like a contrapoint? Second, do this document’s authors really believe gender theory and similar theories seek to “annihilate…everything we have been given as a pre-existing foundation of our being and action in the world?” How can this be so? When the authors write “similar theories,” I assume they mean “critical theory,” and, though critical theory in its various flavors is critical of being and action’s pre-existing foundations, with how and by whom those foundations are defined, no one denies these foundations’ existence. Just because something is “socially constructed” does not mean it does not exist. If trans people were all gender abolitionists, if they all wanted, as the Vatican says they all want, was to create a society without sexual difference—why would endure the work and risk of transitioning? Why would anyone attempt to change their appearance and pronouns? Gender theory attempts to understand gender given the pre-existing foundation of trans people’s existence. To deny this foundation, to deny trans existence, is the anti-nature stance, not vice versa.
9. “Reason tells us…” begins Number 37 of Male and Female. To justify its claims, the document makes repeated appeals to Reason, capital R, and “medical science” (emphasis in original). The authors, however, are convinced these are terms that, capitalized or italicized, can be invoked spirit-like and made to confirm whichever conclusion the authors have presupposed. These arguments don’t hold up outside of the Vatican’s sphere of influence. Without an appeal to divine authority, a claim beginning with “Reason tells us” not followed by any justification isn’t valid. Though Male and Female appears to appeal to science, it has no interest in real empirical study; science becomes just a magic word.
10. This kind of argument comes up most blatantly in two sections, Number 24 and Number 26. Number 26 begins:
“Philosophical analysis also demonstrates that sexual difference (emphasis in original) between male and female is constitutive of human identity.”
Plausible thesis. Are we going to get an example? It continues:
“Greek and Roman thinkers posit essence (emphasis in original) as the aspect of being that transcends, brings together and harmonizes male-female difference within the unity of the human person (the Vatican likes italics).”
…I have questions. Which Greek and Roman thinkers? What does essence mean? Transcends? Harmonizes? How is this a Catholic argument? Next sentence:
“Within the tradition of hermeneutical and phenomenological philosophy, both sexual distinction and complementarity are interpreted in symbolic and metaphorical terms.”
What!? There is no further explanation of exactly what is meant here. The document just moves on. This kind of short-hand argument is endemic to Male and Female and it is one of the report’s most confusing features. For whom is this written? Certainly not the laity. Not parish priests either. It’s inaccessible. Nor is it specific enough in its argumentation to be parsed by philosophers. The only audience who could get anything from this section are those who are both knowledgeable enough about classical and continental philosophy and knowledgeable enough about which thinkers among those traditions are favored by the Church to intuit from this incantation the specific arguments the authors mean to allude to by invoking generalities such as “Reason,” “Greek and Roman thinkers,” and “hermeneutical and phenomenological philosophy.” Male and Female was written only for those who already understand and accept its points: that is, only those lucky gerontosaurs inside the Vatican’s walls, a Catholic elite separated both from the world and the body of the church. This is the paradox of this document’s call for listening (emphasis in original): it was written for and in an echo chamber, a room designed to cancel noise from outside.
11. Case two. The document, in Number 24, admits there exists cases of “sexual indeterminacy.” In these cases, since parents and society are unequipped to decide, it prescribes “medical science should act with purely therapeutic ends.” Medical science is a vague concept, not an agent capable of acting or making decisions. Medical science is part of society. It is not governed by “objective parameters.” The medical science brought up here is nothing more than a code word, an appeal to an absent authority; if the authors had any interest in acting in accordance with science—in accordance Pope John Paul II’s Message of the constructive relationship between theology and science—then they would have used a more honest and complete understanding of the term. That they didn’t, that they instead mutated the term to support their literal reading of Genesis in Male and Female He Created Them, is dishonest. So too is the conclusion they claim to derive from “the data of biological and medical science:” there are two genders because there are two sexes, and gender is based on sex. There are XX people and there are XY people “from the point of view of genetics,” and therefore, BOOM! binary. Medical science, however, disagrees. Chromosomal sex is not a two-lane road: there are XXY people and XXX people and other variations which result in different physical presentations. People who don’t fit into a sexual binary are called intersex, but this document treats that term as synonym for transgender. The document then, confusingly, suggests this term “in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live in situations of sexual indeterminacy.” So, “sexual indeterminacy” exists but “intersex” people do not, and the term “intersex” hurts people who are sexually indeterminate. This is doublethink from the authors, who, a page before this, said there was no such thing as sexual indeterminacy, that there are just two sexes. They, on one hand, ignore and deny the existence of and the suffering of intersex people, and, on the other, accuse intersex people of denying their own suffering.
12. The citations in Vatican documents are weird. Almost all refer back to other Vatican documents, each justifying the other in an infinite recursion: it’s encyclicals all the way down. For example, the document claims gender theorists’ goal is to “assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised,” and to envision “a society without sexual differences.” These phrases appear in quotations but are attributed not to any theorist—the authors didn’t think to listen to them—but to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Though it’s a fallacy, and an insidious one, to call someone’s line of argumentation invalid because they lack direct exposure to that which they are arguing about—logic isn’t subservient to identity—there is still something odd about celibate men dispensing advice on sexuality, referencing only other celibate men.
13. I’ve been calling Male and Female a listicle, because that’s how it appears. Each paragraph is led by a number and deals with just one subject. The Vatican output, stylistically, mimics Buzzfeed. The numerical succession combined with the recursive referencing also makes the document resemble a collection of footnotes. But, excepting the unsourced quote in the title, the endless line of references don’t refer back to anything. The whole thing comes to resemble notes without a text.
14. The unsourced quote in the title: “Male and Female He Created Them,” is weird too. Given without a source and without its context, as it is here, the quote seems to provide Biblical support to the document’s opposition. Listen: “Male and female he created them.”