The folks at the Congregation for Catholic Education were surprised, apparently, by the reaction to the document they released last week on gender ideology in education. Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Congregation, told the Catholic Herald: “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.”
The document was published in several languages simultaneously, and there were explanatory pieces in L’Osservatore Romano and on the Vatican News website. It amounted to a denunciation of so-called gender theory, and called on Catholic schools to resist “attempts to negate the male-female duality of human nature”. The denial of this duality, it said, “not only erases the vision of human beings as the fruit of an act of creation but creates the idea of the human person as a sort of abstraction”.
Proponents of gender ideology received the document, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education”, as a strong statement of opposition. Within the Church, advocates of a less confrontational approach expressed disappointment in the document. Still others thought the document soft-pedalled Church teaching with talk of “dialogue”, and missed a chance to stake out and defend a strong position.
Cardinal Versaldi admitted that he and his people may have misgauged the likely reaction. There is often a good bit of daylight between what things are and how they are perceived. Perceptions can be coloured by real experience and legitimate expectation, for which people addressing controversial public questions ought not only to be prepared to account, but ready to meet. Half-hearted approaches to communications questions rarely yield satisfactory results.
“The Church wants to intervene in a dialogical way in this debate,” Cardinal Versaldi told the Catholic Herald on Saturday morning, “not with arguments of faith, but with arguments of reason.”
That’s not to say that faith and reason are opposed in these or any other matters. Quite the opposite. It is to recognise that any society dedicated to preserving a public space in which a legitimate plurality of viewpoints is welcome will rightly require all participants to conduct their discussions with publicly available arguments. “For our part, we know that faith illuminates reason,” Cardinal Versaldi said. “Therefore, we must be able, let us say, to translate into rational terms also those which are the intuitions of faith.”
The purpose of the document was to give Catholic schoolteachers and administrators some guidance on how to address the matter. As Cardinal Versaldi noted, it “belongs to the [Congregation for the] Doctrine of the Faith, rather than to our Congregation” to give a systematic and robust treatment of the theoretical side of the question. The Catholic News Agency reported on Friday that just such a document is in the works.
There are two major outstanding questions. Is the kind of dialogue the Church seeks possible in the current climate? And is the Church’s approach to it adequate? The document omitted to do one very necessary thing: give people directly affected and therefore most closely interested in issues of gender identity a careful hearing. “We did not listen to the people who have difficulties in this field of sexual identity,” Cardinal Versaldi said, adding that the expressions of support for people facing gender dysphoria might have been stronger. “We could have done better,” he said.
In fairness, the experts on whom the Congregation relied did consider the lived experience of people who suffer gender dysphoria, and the document does “recommend respect for people in difficulty, people who may suffer discrimination because of the difference they find compared to normal life in this area”, as Cardinal Versaldi put it.
The truth is, when it comes to complex questions of personal identity, it is as wrong to discount lived experience as it is to make lived experience the sole and final measure of things. Neither approach is likely to win any friends. Both are likely to lead to deeper entrenchment, hence, to reinforce misunderstanding and even animosity.
Gender is in some measure a social construct, but that humans are sexed beings is a biological fact. Managing the tension between those two poles is a pressing challenge not only for the Church, but for everyone affected by countervailing pressures at work between them: the centripetal force of groupthink, which acts on both individuals and society; and the centrifugal pressure created by individualism. Unchecked, the former will cause collapse, while the latter will cause society to snap.
In places where institutions dedicated to formation have become battlegrounds in an ideological war, things may have already gone too far. Whether we are in time to retread our steps and sit down with one another also remains to be seen. The Church wanted “Male and Female He Created Them” to be words to guide engaged Catholics in just that conversation.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.