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Cardinal Versaldi: Why we produced the gender document

Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi (Getty)

Versaldi said the document is a 'practical manual' rather than a theoretical or abstract guide

Rome, 16 June 2019 — The head of the Vatican department that drafted a controversial pamphlet on gender theory has defended the document, saying attempts to impose “extreme forms” of gender ideology are reminiscent of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes. The Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, made the remark during an exclusive interview with the Catholic Herald on Saturday morning in his office at Piazza Pio XII, just off St Peter’s Square.

Cardinal Versaldi told The Catholic Herald the Church desires real dialogue on the question. “If the state imposes a pensée unique even in our schools,” he said, “this ideology that we believe has no scientific basis — and that in any case has assumptions that are meta-scientific — then it is not possible that there should be democracy.” He went on to say, “[I]f we all have to conform to a pensée unique — a single way of thinking — we subtract from those with the primary responsibility for education, ie from families when it comes to minor children, and [from] young people, when they are of age, the possibility of choice,” which is a necessary condition and prerequisite of real liberty.

“With choice, however, there must be a pluralism,” Cardinal Versaldi said. “If, on the other hand, we all have to think the same way: that is not only an ethical state [It. stato etico, a philosophical term of art indicating the notion that the state is the supreme end of human endeavor, to which all human activity tends and is to be ordered], but a dictatorial state.”

Cardinal Versaldi also explained that he intended the document, titled Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education, to be a “practical aid” rather than a “theoretical and abstract” address of the issue. “We have received from many episcopal conferences in ad limina visits — but also from teachers, especially in primary and secondary schools — a request for help in dealing with this issue,” the prefect explained, “which is pervading our institutions, especially in the Western world.”

Journalists and their editors were surprised the Congregation decided to release a document on such a controversial subject without a press conference. “Above all,” Cardinal Versaldi told The Catholic Herald, “it is a ‘methodological’ document: [designed] to tell teachers how they should comport themselves with those who support these theories.” He told The Catholic Herald, “The nature of this document, the history of its genesis, explain this choice not to hold a press conference,” though he admitted that perhaps his department underestimated the “echo” the document would have.

Cardinal Versaldi said the document could have benefited from greater attention to the voices of the people for whom questions of gender identity are a lived reality. “One criticism we’ve had from several different parts,” he said, “is that we did not listen to the people who have difficulties in this field of sexual identity. That is true: we were not, in our preparatory phase, able to hear the people directly involved.”

Nevertheless, “Although we could have been more explicit,” Cardinal Versaldi went on to say, “we really recommend respect for people in difficulty, people who may suffer discrimination because of the difference they find compared to normal life in this area.” And therefore, we could have done better, certainly[.]”

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Below is a transcript of The Catholic Herald’s conversation with the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, translated from the Italian and edited for clarity.

GV: The nature of this document, the history of its genesis, explain this choice not to hold a press conference. Because [the document] intends to be a practical aid. We have received from many episcopal conferences in ad limina visits – but also from teachers, especially in primary and secondary schools – a request for help in dealing with this issue, which is pervading our institutions – especially in the Western world – Catholic [institutions], but also our Catholic teachers in public schools.

It is not a doctrinal document, therefore, but rather a practical aid. So, it seemed to us that – perhaps underestimating then the echo it had – it was more a practical manual to give to our institutions, than a document [addressing] the subject in a theoretical and abstract way – even if, as you can see, then, there is in it a summary statement, both from the anthropological and theological points of view, of the traditional doctrine of the Church. Above all, however, it is a “methodological” document: [designed] to tell teachers how they should comport themselves with those who support these theories.

Therefore, it seemed proportionate to give it in this way, in a written manner, without arousing a debate on the subject, which in itself belongs to the [Congregation for] the Doctrine of the [Faith], rather than to our Congregation.

CH: A generation ago, students would have studied the reproductive system — beginning roughly in middle school — and would have learned the “mechanics” of human reproduction: it was biology, in short. The Congregation for Catholic Education is, with this document, responding to changed circumstances “on the ground” so to speak. What problems, questions, discussions before society are different?

GV: Now, the situation has changed considerably, because before it was limited — perhaps too much so — to biological and physical elements in so-called “sexual” education. The Church generally prefers to speak of affectivity, rather than of “sex”, in order to give a more complete idea of sexuality: because it is not only at the physical and genital level, but also the affective-psychological level, which integrates the full notion of human sexuality. This broadening, however, has obviously led to the introduction of ideological criteria too, and hence to this advancement of proposals based on different and sometimes conflicting assumptions.

The Church wants to intervene in a dialogical way in this debate, not with arguments of faith, but with arguments of reason. The very method we suggest to our operators is that of dialogue, which means three steps, to wit:

  • First, to listen to the reasons of others, who think differently — do not assume that you know immediately what others say, for being able to be open, reciprocally, to a gesture of trust, of presupposition of good faith on the part of all.
  • The second step, which is the central one, is to reason. For our part, we know that faith illuminates reason, but we cannot use arguments of faith in our schools, especially in scientific debate. Therefore, we must be able, let us say, to translate into rational terms also those, which are the intuitions of faith.
  • [Thirdly], This also means that, on the other hand, that everyone [involved in the discussion] should abandon the ideological aspect — of slogans, of ideological a priori [commitments], which take for granted that theirs is the only scientific thought. So, by reasoning together, we try to find, together with each other, the elements that are compatible with each other, because for us, the extreme forms of gender ideology are not justifiable also [even – ed.] from the rational-scientific point of view. There are also elements, however, of greater openness.

CH: However, if there is one thing on which the document is clear and unequivocal, it is that the state — civil authorities — hence public institutions as such, need to stay out of the anthropological debate: when schools — even primary schools — are transformed into battlefields for irreconcilable ideologies, the society for which those institutions are given is already in a pretty bad way?

CV: Yes, this is the problem. It is an epistemological problem [confused] with the political problem: because a state cannot impose a single way of thinking [It. pensiero unico], above all in the ethical field. Having different opinions, which the state ought to respect, favors that pluralism, which is the basis of democracy. Because — above all in our [Catholic] schools — we are not the ones who choose the students. The students are the ones who choose us. They choose us, moreover, because they espouse — they believe — the Catholic identity even in this field. If the state imposes a pensée unique even in our schools, this ideology that we believe has no scientific basis — and that in any case has assumptions that are meta-scientific — then it is not possible that there should be democracy.

Because, if we all have to conform to a pensée unique — a single way of thinking — we subtract from those with the primary responsibility for education, ie from families when it comes to minor children, and [from] young people, when they are of age, the possibility of choice. With choice, however, there must be a pluralism. If, on the other hand, we all have to think the same way: that is not only an ethical state [a philosophical term of art, indicating the notion that the state is the supreme end of human endeavor, to which all human activity tends and is to be ordered], but a dictatorial state.

CH: In hindsight, what would you have liked to do differently, or better?

GV: One criticism we’ve had from several different parts, even by the interested party, is that we did not listen to the people who have difficulties in this field of sexual identity. That is true: we were not, in our preparatory phase, able to hear the people directly involved. Indirectly, however, yes, [we were], because, having also given the preparation of this document into the hands of experts, we kept in mind the people who are directly interested. Therefore, in the document, although we could have been more explicit, we really recommend respect for people in difficulty, people who may suffer discrimination because of the difference they find compared to normal life in this area. And therefore, we could have done better, certainly, in this area.