In the wake of this month’s Pride celebrations, themselves a result of the soon-to-be 50 year old Stonewall Riots/Rebellion, and continuing ongoing debates about the legal and societal status of LGBTQIA (the initials grow as mainstream understandings of sexuality and gender identity shift) individuals around the world, the Vatican has decided to address the “T” with its first public work directly addressed to the topic of transgender identity.
Like many Catholic policies and proclamations surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education” immediately became a Rorschach test for those who read it. Liberals see the document as one that responds to societally evolving notion of gender and identity with a retrograde viewpoint that “perpetuates and encourages hatred, bigotry, and violence,” while conservatives view it as both an expression of tolerance and as a reasonable response to progressive ideas that have become out of touch with reality.
Beyond the politics involved, the Church’s statement, aimed at addressing how Catholic educators should approach topics of gender, more or less rejects what it sees as the premise of “gender theory” (which is itself a term used by the Church to hint at its stance, not unlike the labeling of “evolution theory”). The “male and female” quotation from Genesis in the title is a good hint at where the Church’s stance lies. According to the document, the idea that gender exists as a “historical and cultural” construct separate from “the biological difference between male and female” is a notion born from ideology, and the Church, not surprisingly, views that ideology as erroneous and dangerous, a factor in “the destabilization of the family.”
While taking this hard stance, the document nevertheless seeks to find common ground between the Church and those with more progressive views on gender and sexuality, for instance by agreeing to oppose “bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on [people’] specific characteristics,” although it probably goes without saying that there will be disagreement over that term “unjust.” Furthermore, the general tone of this approach – not as severe as former Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI’s address against the “problem” of homosexuality but also veers from Pope Francis’ “who am I to judge” stance concerning gay and lesbian Catholics – is not likely to build many bridges that did not already exist. The LGBT Catholic group New Ways Ministry has already rejected the document.
As he tries to satisfy both Christian sexual mores and ethics and the commands of love and respect for others, Pope Francis continues to walk a fine line on LGBT issues, seeking to simultaneously adhere to established Catholic doctrine and reach out to those who have experienced marginalization due to the Church’s stances. This document is another step along that tightrope. The Pope has so far not fallen off in either direction, but the rope continues to be shaky.