On 10 June 2019 the Vatican released a 30-page document entitled Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender in education.The document is intended for Catholic schools and purports to guide educators’ responses on the topics of gender theory, third sex, transgender identities, and gender fluidity.
In the UK this comes at a time of protests against the school PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum (including Relationship Education in primary and secondary schools), for allegedly ‘promoting gay and transgender lifestyles’. This is also a time when homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are surging in England and Wales.
As posted on the Shiloh Project previously, religious discourse plays its part in fanning transphobicand homophobic discrimination and violence. While the evidence suggests that LGBT persons are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, negative stereotyping and misinformation persist.
The Vatican document has been met with much anger from LGBT rights groups – not least, because it reflects a poor understanding of both gender theory and transgender identities. To provide an expert response, here is a reflection on the document from Dr. Susannah Cornwall.
Susannah is Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, where she also directs EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. In one of her current research projects she is working in partnership with the West of England National Health Service (NHS) Specialist Gender Identity Clinic on spiritual care for people transitioning gender.(You can read here an interview she contributed to the Shiloh Project’s 16 Days of Activism last year.) On 15 June 2019 Susannah was one of several contributors to Radio 4’s Beyond Belief, which focused on religion and transgender issues.
What follows is a version of Susannah’s response to the publication of Male and Female He Created Them. This response was first published on Facebook on 13 June 2019.
Please look out for a forthcoming special issue of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS) on The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives, guest-edited by Caroline Blyth.
The Vatican’s Male and Female He Created Them – A Response
“The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s new document on “gender theory” in education starts with an appeal to crisis in its very first sentence, repeating and reinforcing the notion that somethingis going on in the world and, specifically, in schools and other educational establishments, about which it is appropriate to be defensive and afraid.
From the beginning, the document is replete with language of ‘disorientation’, ‘destabilizing’, and ‘opposition’, which is understood as conveying threat. Disorientation, destabilization and opposition are, of course, familiar territory for the “gender ideologists” the document seems to have in mind. There is no specific appeal here to the paranoid-suspicious tradition associated with theorists such as Judith Butler, but it haunts the authors nonetheless. We learn later in the document that “queer” implies “dimensions of sexuality that are extremely fluid, flexible and … nomadic”: this is, let the reader understand, a bad thing.
In this short response I will suggest that gender theory does pose the kind of disruption to social and familial norms that some queer theorists would like, but not exactly the same one or for exactly the same reasons that the Vatican authors fear.
The document, at least in its English version, often fails to distinguish between sex, sexuality and gender (though it is worth acknowledging that in several other languages, the same nuances do not necessarily exist as in English, and vocabulary such as sexe must do broader work). So, in English, the document thereby finds itself hoist by its own petard: we are told, “The Christian vision of anthropology sees sexuality as a fundamental component of one’s personhood. It is one of its modes of being, of manifesting itself, communicating with others, and of feeling, expressing and living human love”. If, as in common usage, “sexuality” is basically synonymous with “sexual orientation”, here we have the Vatican seeming to maintain that such orientation is ontological, irreducible, and inextricable from the concept of the self: not, in fact, something easily relegated as disordered, or indeed separable from the psyche all told. Of course, this is probably not what the authors intended, since it becomes clear from the document (implicitly at the start, and explicitly later on) that sex and sexuality are to be considered inextricable and basically identical. In fact, for the authors, it is (biological) sex that is the irreducible thing, not orientation – and it is biological sex on which orientation and gender expression must supervene.
That is, of course, unless one is someone whose sex is “not clearly defined”. (You or I might refer to this as “intersex”, but the document seems to understand intersex, rather, as a synonym for transgender.) In that case, we are told, it is quite appropriate for medical intervention to take place. Here, biological sex is not understood as irreducible and fundamental at all, but rather as something that can and does go wrong and must therefore be altered: “In cases where a person’s sex is not clearly defined, it is medical professionals who can make a therapeutic intervention. In such situations, parents cannot make an arbitrary choice on the issue, let alone society. Instead, 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.”
In other words, everyone has a true sex as male or female – it is just not always immediately obvious what it is. “Constitutive identity” – which the document makes clear again and again means biological sex – must be established: that is, uncovered. There is no acknowledgement that, in medical paradigms for the treatment of variant sex characteristics, “establishment” of sex is, frequently, exactly that: a well-intentioned but nonetheless experimental, risky and sometimes arbitrary process of hacks, best guesses and pragmatic assignments, something far more akin to founding than finding. That the document appeals to intervention “in the least invasive fashion” is a dim light in the darkness, and suggests some awareness of critiques of the early corrective surgery paradigm which left many sex-variant adults in permanent pain, incontinent, or unable to experience any sexual sensation as a result of genital surgeries. Yet on the basis of the remainder of the document I am not confident that any such engagement has actually taken place.
Indeed, I suspect appeals to minimal invasion are actually of a piece with Roman Catholic denunciations of gender confirmation surgery for trans people lest these threaten the organic integrity of the individual, with particular regard to the possibility of procreation. Where the document does speak of “intersex” by name it is to denounce it as something that intends to undermine the reality of masculinity and femininity, and to negate or supersede sexual difference. That the document contrasts(what it calls) “intersex” with “those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy” is pure muddle-headedness and suggests a critical failure to engage with the now extensive literature (scientific, sociological and theological) in this area.
That intersex and transgender are not the same thing is hardly esoteric, obscure information. The document, then, seems wilfully to conflate intersex and trans people, and repeats the outmoded claim that where intersex arises in infants, early corrective surgery is not only legitimate but actually necessary. If the sex binary is so vulnerable that the bodies of unusually-sexed infants must be operated on in order to shore it up lest the whole edifice crumble, that tells us something important about how secure and stable the concept was (or, rather, wasn’t) in the first place.
The family as an institution is also rendered peculiarly vulnerable here. The document refers back to a 2012 address of Pope Benedict XVI in which he said that “if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him”. But if the family (subtext: somekinds of families) were as incontrovertibly and self-evidently good as all that, surely it would be something human societies went out of their way to protect and reinforce regardlessof whether it could be traced back to the orders of creation. Humans are cultured and technological creatures: we can and do construct all kinds of norms and institutions on the basis that we have come to a common agreement that they are good and desirable things – and frequently without having to appeal to orders of creation in order to justify them. If the institution of the family is going to crumble just because we acknowledge that maleness and femaleness are (at a biological level) less stable and binary than we once thought, then what kind of institution is it really? Why insist, anyway, on maintaining an institution which apparently relies on something less than the full truth to bolster it, when we could, instead, choose actively together to build something better? And why assume that we would not do that if the insights of natural law were and are so universally compelling?
The document cites the importance of listening, but immediately tempers this by delineating in advance which voices should and should not be listened to. It is appropriate, we learn, to listen to anthropological work on sex difference (and, presumably, gender difference, since, as we have established, no proper distinction is made between them) across cultures – but not to listen to “gender ideology” (for the Vatican’s own position is, of course, we are led to believe, completely ideologically immaculate). It is appropriate to learn from “the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken” – except, of course, where that would mean acknowledging the reality of variant sex in cases such as intersex, not just within humans but across animal species. It is striking that there is no engagement in the text with any actual trans or intersex individuals or communities, but perhaps unsurprising when we see that there is practically no engagement with anything(or anyone) at all other than previous Roman Catholic teachings (mostly from the current Pope and his two immediate predecessors). The term “echo chamber” is overused in current parlance, but one does wonder exactly what new intervention they believe they are offering here.
Adjectives are important. Let us believe what the document is telling us about itself. The document sets itself up as being against unjust discrimination. (Subtext: some forms of discrimination are just.) With specific reference to disability, race, religion, and “sexual tendencies”, it appeals to welcoming and respecting all legitimateexpressions of human personhood. (Subtext: some expressions of personhood are not legitimate – or, perhaps, not even human. Which disabilities, races, religions and “tendencies” – orientations? – are less than human, one wonders?) This kind of couching begins to feel somewhat “no true Scotsman”: of course equality is important, as long as it’s the right kind of equality! Of course listening matters, as long as we listen to the right arguments and don’t allow them to disrupt or undermine what we already know to be true! Of coursesubsidiarity, and the fundamental right of parents to educate and make decisions on behalf of their own children, matter – as long as the parents cede to medical authority to make sex assignments for their children in cases of atypical sex (for if they do not then they are, we learn, doing nothing more than making an arbitrary choice influenced by “society”).
In order to shore up its insistence that “gender ideology” is undermining marriage, the family, and the very orders of creation, the document makes the kinds of essentialist appeals that have become commonplace in a certain kind of theological argument (conservative evangelical as well as conservative Catholic) but are no less inadequate for that. Women – allwomen, we assume – have “a more realistic and mature reading of evolving situations” (more than what?). Women “have a unique understanding of reality”: so unique that it is common to all of them! As we have seen in other Roman Catholic documents, identity and character are made to rest in sex and sex alone, as though no other trait mattered when it came to the grand muddle of difference and affinity that go to make up human social relationships.
Many critics of the document will, of course, and not without justification, say something like, “Trans people are just like anyone else; they/we are nothing to be afraid of, and this document and its appeals to gender ideology are pure scaremongering”. But the document is correct in its assessment that trans people do pose a threat: not because gender transition in itselfis necessarily peculiarly or particularly subversive, but because the paucity of the Vatican’s responseto it – or, rather, to a straw man of “gender ideology” made to rest on it – shows up the inadequacy and thinness of its accounts of sex and gender all told.
The authors could have offered something of the richness of what it has been (and still is) possible for the theological tradition to say about how sexuality, sex and gender as aspects of human being and experience intertwine and allow us to know and communicate complex, troubling and beautiful truths about ourselves as creatures, creators and curators. Rather, the document retreats to a reactionary project of wallpapering over not only cracks but huge great missing sections of theological wall – a wall whose bricks have been quietly carried away one by one to be used in new and more edifying ways by the very queer, trans, intersex and otherwise “destabilizing” people who dare to see their lives, bodies and identities as sites of God’s grace. This is a document sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting “la la la la la” to avoid having actually to listen to and engage with those whose beliefs and insights it has decided ahead of time are too dangerous to entertain. It is an argument which, precisely via its intention to protect and nurture young people, actually risks perpetuating damage to many of them. And it is an enormous missed opportunity to pour oil on the troubled waters of the current toxic debates about trans rights in church and society.”
Signed by Giuseppe Cardinal Versaldi (Prefect) and Abp Angelo Vincenzo Zani (Secretary).
Feature image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr.