A Critique – Male and female He created them (Giuseppe, 2019)

A Critique – Male and female He created them: towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education, Congregation for Catholic Education (Giuseppe, 2019)

Author: Claire Jenkins

October, 2019. Ireland

English / Español


This Dicastery would also like to ex­press its warmest gratitude to all Christians who teach in Catholic schools or other types of school, and, in the words of Pope Francis, encourages them “to stimulate in the pupils the openness to the other as a face, as a person, as a brother and sister to know and respect, with his or her histo­ry, merits and defects, riches and limits. The challenge is to cooperate to train young people to be open and interested in the reality that surrounds them, capable of care and tenderness. [57]

This statement is the most encouraging and positive in the whole document and it is of regret that it is not adopted throughout and not situated at its beginning – it is the final proclamation of the document. However, it is in the spirit of this statement that this critical review is directed towards the various themes and issues contained within the Congregation’s dialogue.

In this paper I will begin by first introducing the sociological concept of institutional heterosexuality as a framework to aid critique. This is then followed by topics that on close reading and analysis are of importance to the Congregation. These are in order: The Family; education and schools; complementarity and gender theory; discrimination and violence; and intersex. This critique concludes with a discussion of the issues raised. My aim is to inspire and encourage the Church to reflect on its position concerning these matters in the light of scientific and sociological understandings – the critique responds to the invitation for dialogue.

The document states that it is towards a path of dialogue but fails to say who this dialogue is intended to be with.  However, David Albert Jones argues for a focus for dialogue and the clear need for listening to the life experiences of transgender people:

There is an urgent need for careful and respectful dialogue about gender identity, but this dialogue must begin with those most affected.  It must begin by listening to those with a divergent sense of gender identity and those closest to them.  It is impossible to know how someone understands himself or herself without listening to that person.  There may be some people who think one can “choose one’s gender” or who wish to “annihilate the concept of ‘nature’” or to “negate the male-female duality of human nature, from which the family is generated”.  But none of the transgender Catholics I have met have believed or wished these things.  What is most needed is not dialogue about an abstract “gender theory” but is dialogue with gender variant people to discover what they experience and believe.  (Jones, 2019:14)

Institutional heterosexuality

To analyse the Congregation’s document, I rely on the theoretical framework of institutional heterosexuality because it is the epistemological framework used by many social scientists investigating sex, gender and sexuality.  In this evaluation I identified various paragraphs in the document that resonated with this schema these show that the Church has a naturalistic understanding. As such it attempts to foreclose any possibility of interrogation.  For the Church it is ‘a fully human and integral ecology,’ [35] – an exclusive basis for understanding bodily sex and human male-female attraction. This is understandable since institutional heterosexuality is imbedded in Western culture.  The identity categories of male, female, gay and straight, are created and institutionalised by behaviour patterns associated with marriage, family, politics, religion, work, education (Ingraham, 2005) medicine, the media (Gagne et al., 1997, Carstarphen and Zavoina, 1999) and the internet (Siebler, 2012).  The Church also associates (without any evidence) that ‘increased poverty and a host of other social ills’ are due to a decline in the culture of marriage [43], however, it is recognised by the Church and many others that poverty disproportionately affects women, children and the elderly.

In everyday Western understanding institutional heterosexuality is taken for granted to be naturally occurring; it is given social meaning through routine day-to-day practices; it forms a basis for the organisation of labour and the distribution of wealth (Gramsci, 1971); and it is assumed by early social scientists (Seidman, 1994).  Within heterosexuality’s schema, socially constructed opposite erotic desire (heterosexuality) is set in contention with same sex desire (homosexuality).  Moreover, biology is used to construct the embodied dichotomy between men and women which is understood as being different, in conflict and polarised.  For instance, Judith Butler (2004) has stated that having a liveable life outside these hegemonic normative binaries is difficult and as Steven Epstein remarked; we live in: ‘a society which insists that each individual, just as he or she possesses a gender, also must necessarily occupy one or the other category of sexual orientation.’ (Epstein, 1996:155, Siebler, 2012).

Furthermore, institutional heterosexuality further sets relations of the body, especially those associated with reproduction, to have social and political primacy above all other forms of human interactions and values (Woodward, 2008, Shapiro, 2010). Following this ideology values commonly associated with the mind, heart, and soul are diminished which is arguably where the Church’s attention might be focused. However, the reality of this organising principle is constantly in contention and slowly mutating across cultures and time and is reliant upon heterosexual identity performances.  It depends on the exclusion of homosexual and non-normative gender identities but challenge precipitates identity slippage away from the hardened fixed identities of, for example, male, female, gay and straight.

The Congregation justly argues by referring to Amoris Laetitia that formators should:

… teach them [young people] sensitivity to different expressions of love, mutual concern and care, loving respect and deeply meaningful com­munication. All of these prepare them for an integral and generous gift of self that will be expressed, following a public commitment, in the gift of their bodies. Sexual union in marriage will thus appear as a sign of an all-inclusive commitment, enriched by everything that has preceded it [54].

However, in the second part of this quote heterosexual marriage is seen as the only medium for expressing the desirable attributes for young people’s formation – unfortunately reinforcing the exclusions mentioned in the previous paragraph above.

The Family

The document makes what it regards as the well-founded assertion that: The Family is “an anthropological fact, and consequently a social, cultural fact” [36]. However, social science has shown that this statement is inadequate for the study and understanding of contemporary families. The Church’s naturalistic understanding has its origin in the nineteen century and is based on traditional anthropological work and biological relatedness together with perceived kin relationships in other cultures. As Deborah Chambers  points out the aim of this work was to affirm and confirm that contemporary Western family structures were universal and that the natural human coupling of ‘monogamous marriage is the final, correct and highest stage of social evolution’ (Chambers, 2012:16) – this appears to be the view of the Congregation which might be considered as a Western construct and culturally elitist.

Social scientific work documents how an ideological shift in conceptualising the family started to develop which involved a move away from a naturalistic, reproductive and biological understanding (these were argued to be sustained by women’s subordination).  The reconceptualised family displaced the functional centrality of the heterosexual couple (see also ‘…a natural social unit which favours the maximum realisation of the reciprocity and complementar­ity between men and women.’ [36]) and the procreation of children.  Furthermore, the developing social understanding lead to terms associated with the naturalistic family such as the ‘household’ or ‘private sphere’ being replaced with terminologies such as ‘openness’ and ‘inclusion’ and use of the locution ‘families’ (Smart, 2007:27). David Morgan (1996) also demonstrated how issues associated with domestic violence and economic inequalities in the nuclear family shifted the focus of empirical research.  In the 1990s nearly half of marriages in the US, UK and other Western countries were ending (Allan, 1996).  Understanding of the family slowly evolved but they are now seen as increasingly fuzzy at their boundaries.  However, Peter Laslett commented on the tenacious social understanding of the family:

The wish to believe in the large extended kin-enfolding, multigenerational, welfare-and support-providing household, in the world we have lost, seems to be exceedingly difficult to expose to critical evaluation (Laslett, 2004:92).

Carol Smart explains why this might be; keeping myths about family life in times past seems to be invincible to empirical evidence and this may have been because we were ‘dealing with aspirations, yearnings, falsehoods and nostalgia and this is emotive territory’ (Smart, 2007:16).  Jacquie Gabb describes how families and intimacies are now understood sociologically:

families as affective spaces of intimacy within which meanings and experiences are constituted by family members in an historical socio-cultural context rather than in accordance with naturalistic understandings of reproductive and socialisation function (Gabb, 2008:64).

The Congregation’s document eludes these understandings and seems probably (it fails to reference) to refer to three theories which challenge its conceptualisation.  The theories are often described and conflated to the detraditionalisation and democratisation theses.  The first of these is derived from Anthony Giddens’  book the Transformation of Intimacy which is summed up in his thesis that a relationship existed ‘solely for whatever rewards that relationship can deliver’ and when a partnership ceased to ‘deliver’ or meet perceived needs couples simply separated by mutual consent (Giddens, 1992:6) [13]. The second is to be found in a book the Normal Chaos of Love, by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) who argued that the traditional rules of marriage had been replaced.  Intimate relationships were considered to involve an endless series of choices which required negotiations.   Traditional family matters such as love, sex, children, marriage and domestic duties were augmented by brokering over work, politics, economics, jobs and inequality and matters associated with sex/gender transgression of heterosexuality’s binary norms.  The third is found in Liquid Love, by Zygmunt Bauman (2003) who spoke of the frailty of intimate bonds and the associated sense of insecurity felt by individuals.  This affective fragility required the individual to proactively manage the parameters of their ever-shifting intimate landscape. Theoretically, risk, anxiety and uncertainty were positioned by Bauman as central to contemporary intimate relationships, see [9].  However, Deborah Chambers cites several academics who have attested to the inadequacy of these three detraditionalisation and democratisation theories.  However, the theories are inadequate for describing the small-scale empirical studies of ‘family, kinship and friendship from the late twentieth century onwards’ (Chambers, 2012:39-40).  She refers to the problems of: unawareness of the reality of everyday lives; exaggerating individual choice which is constrained by gender and class; and a dismissal of the fear of homophobia experienced in lesbian and gay families.

Nevertheless, despite critics the detraditionalisation and democratisation theories have not entirely been rejected. They have also encouraged further empirical research in the field of intimacy and families studies, in a way that was similar to the earlier feminist critical study of The Family (Smart, 2007). Nevertheless Neil Gross argues that the cultural imaginary of the ideal romantic sexual couple is powerfully retained and that marriage persists as a ‘guiding cultural ideal’ for much of the Western population drawing attention to the resilience of patriarchal beliefs and practices (Gross, 2005:297-301). The persistence of this illusion further ignores the fact that the nuclear family is neither universal nor statistically confirmed to be stable, for example, ‘In 1950, 93% of children lived in a nuclear family … By 1998, 73% lived in a nuclear family,’(Casper and Bianchi, 2002:99)

It the light of these socio-scientific developments in understanding it is somewhat misguided that the Congregation asserts:

… every educational institute should provide itself with organizational structures and didactic programmes that ensure these parental rights are fully and concretely respected. If this is the case, the Christian pedagogy on offer will be able to provide a solid response to anthropologies characterized by fragmentation and provisionality. [55]

The Congregation additionally turns its attention to parenting by families and is clearly of the view that parents within the context of The Family have a clear responsibility for the affective and sexual education of their children and:

… on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.[37]

This is a fine ideal but ignores research showing that contemporary fatherhood is concerned with bonding over leisure activities (Hofferth and Owens, 2001) and that Jamieson and Gillies et al assert that motherhood is manifest by ‘…tensions over communication, disclosures, surveillance and privacy’ (Chambers, 2012:81).  Furthermore, parenting in the West is now seen as a negotiation scrutinised by agencies of the state such as schools and social agencies all embedded in the milieu of the world-wide web.  Chambers shows that the study of the parenting practices of ethnic groups are diverse, but further research into this is impeded by Western methodologies. Recent studies of families show the importance of: migration, ethnicity, identity belonging, politics, economics and disadvantage in the host countries – these are many of the issues affecting family life which concern Pope Francis (2016,[46])

Finally, the Congregation draws a curious (sometimes confused with polygamy and mainly identified as an American construct) attention to polyamory [13] which it argues (without any references) conflicts with male-female coupling. Haritaworn et al define polyamory in this way: ‘Polyamory describes a form of relationship where it is possible, valid and worthwhile to maintain (usually long-term) intimate and sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously.’ (Haritaworn et al., 2006:515) which clearly conflicts with the Congregation’s assertion of instability and insecurity. However, Angela Willey (ibid) traces the genealogy of how the ideal monogamous male-female loving relationship others the ‘racialization of discourses of non/monogamy.’ (Haritaworn et al., 2006:524), this might account for the Congregation’s interest.  Furthermore, most studies of new family forms which are situated outside heterosexual marriage confirm that they are not less committed (Chambers, 2012).

Education and schools

The document makes an excellent statement about the teaching of sex, gender, and relationships which should be undertaken in full consultation with the young person’s family who should be actively engaged in the process[1] [40, 45]. In this way, young people should experience an environment which encourages them “to overcome their individualism and discover, in the light of faith, their specific vocation to live responsibly in a community with others.” [40]. It is suggested that as an aid to the human formation of young people an education alliance is established between ‘family, school and society’ [44]. This begs the question of what is meant by society – the world is a complex place as is illustrated by the controversy concerning the teaching about gender and LGBT issues in a Birmingham UK primary school, an online search reveals a multitude of articles concerning this ongoing controversy, for example, (BBC, 2019b). Furthermore, the document highlights a significant problem facing young people; the exposure to excessive overload of stimulating information that works against their ability to discern critically what it means to be male and female and to love authentically [42]. Unfortunately, there is no suggestion how this situation might be resolved in contemporary society, neither in real or virtual life.

Concerning education (using psychology, the arts and science) about gender theory (sex and gender) it is suggested that Catholic educators are fully informed not only with balanced academic debate and local legislation in this field but are supported in this endeavour by university research. [49, 50]. In academia, the relationship between sex and gender is far from resolved and definitive, in short, the Congregation’s aim is not possible because of the complexity of the various arguments and the paucity of relevant research in these fields.  One is inclined to ask, what is the ‘Christian vision of man and women’ [51]? Furthermore, the document in [51] is clearly opposed to what it sees as the ideology of gender which separates biological sex from social gender – I would argue that this binary is also more complex that the Church seems to understand. The document continues to argue that respectful teaching concerning young people’s understanding of sex and relationships should be ‘achieved through a way of accompanying that is discrete and confidential, capable of reaching out to those who are experiencing complex and painful situations.’ [56] this is a positive aim; however, the document fails to specify what it means by these situations – I speculate that this may possibly be transgender young people.

Complementarity and Gender theory

Mary Anne Case cites Cardinal Ratzinger in saying:

complementarity entails that ‘man and woman’ have ‘equal dignity as persons’ but that this equal dignity is premised on and manifest in essential and complementary differences, ‘physical, psychological and onto­logical (2016:2).

Indeed, the Congregation argues that human sex identity is a relationship with God which can only be realised through a relationship with the opposite sex in the [heterosexual] male-female binary [4,32,33]. The male-female differences [17,18] the Vatican has in mind as essential include most of what secular law would characterize as sex stereotypes, a term many activist proponents of complementarity embrace rather than repudiate (Kuby, 2008).  Case continues to argue that complementarity is a relatively new mid-twentieth century innovation.  Three popes: Paul VI, John-Paul II and Benedict XVI used complementarity to develop their attack on gender theory.

The Congregation extensively refers to gender theory [document title] or the ideology of gender for example in [6, 8, 10, 19, 21, 22, 34]. Referring again to Mary Anne Case:

the Vatican and those operating under its influence around the world came to view the English word ‘gender’ as anathema and to associate the word with what it terms an ‘ideology of gender’ it sees as linking feminism and gay rights in a worldwide effort to redefine, not only secular laws governing the sexes, sexuality, reproduction, and the family, but human nature itself. As a result, the Vatican, in venues ranging from the United Nations to legislative bodies and protest movements in every part of the world, has opposed not only these changes in secular law and the NGOs and activists it sees as conspiring to bring them about, but the very use of the word ‘gender’ itself, whether in scholarly work or in legal documents. (2016:2)

This extract is worth quoting at length because it sets the historical context to the church’s concern with the issue of gender theory. On one hand, Pope Francis (2016 [63]) has drawn attention to the need for a pastoral response to diverse family forms, whereas on the other hand, the Church has condemned forms of “gender theory” that trivialise the distinction of male and female. For the Church, gender theory is an ideology arguably emanating from Judith Butler (1993) who radically separates “biological” sex and “socially constructed” gender[2]. She reiterates her understandings in a subsequent text arguing that the identities of women and men are understood as socially constructed and are not biologically essentialist (Butler, 2004:8). However, Butler has become less certain about this after her retrospective study of, ‘David Reimer, whose situation is referred to as the Joan/John case’[3] (Butler, 2004:59).  I will argue that biology and gender are in fact complexly interrelated.  However, there are different feminist understandings of gender, different interpretations among transgender theorists and the Church.

The Congregation supports its arguments by drawing attention to ‘the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken’ [6] but they fail to cite any sources for this assertion – they fail to cite at many places in the document only citing the Scriptures, the doctors of the Church and other Vatican documents (Jones, 2019), there is clearly a need to remedy this omission.  The document makes the important point that:

While the ideologies of gender claim to respond, as Pope Francis has indicated, “to what are at times understandable aspirations”, they also seek “to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised” [6].

The antagonism towards gender ideology is further reinforced:

These ideas are the expression of a widespread way of thinking and acting in today’s culture that confuses “genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible” [22].

Following Pope Francis’s critique of gender ideology, it is important to mention that, in recent years a new challenge has emerged amongst young people in Western schools (sometimes in primary[4]). There would appear to be unfolding two broad clusters of young people which reflect the transgender experience and are relevant to this discussion. Unfortunately, the document fails to mention this trend which is a matter of concern for many Catholic (and other) schools and should be relevant to this discussion.

Firstly, parents and professionals working with young people have observed a drift towards gender non-binary/gender queer. I would argue that this phenomenon is largely influenced by a socio-political ideology driven through a patriarchal understanding of male dominance and by an excessive fixation with gender issues within the media and celebrity culture. Furthermore, Brubaker  contends that gender non-binary is “a political position; for others it is primarily a personal stance” (2016:116). It should not be ruled out that gender non-binary/queer identities may also be driven by the neo-liberal (market) emphasis on enlightenment individualism addressed powerfully by Pope Francis:

Only by losing the fear of being different, can we be freed of self-centredness and self-absorption. Sex education should help young people to accept their own bodies and to avoid the pretension to cancel out sexual difference because one no longer knows how to deal with it (Francis, 2016:159 [285]).

My recent voluntary work, over two years, in Leicester with about 20 teenagers (the group size fluctuated reflecting their instability and uncertainty as they struggled to make sense of their lives) reinforces the trend suggesting that the experience is current amongst young people.  I refer again to the Holy Father: “If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society” (Francis, 2015:99 [208]).  However, there is a paucity of serious academic research into why this socio-political phenomenon is occurring – Brubaker and my analysis may be open to future challenge.

Secondly, this occurrence of gender variance should not be confused with the increasing emergence of people who wish to be a member of the opposite sex, yet probably still a very small minority of the population, (some estimate between 0.9 and 1.7% of boys and girls in a general North American population (Fausto-Stirling, 2012))– these people would traditionally be labelled as transsexual or gender dysphoric.[5]   They are colloquially associated with the wrong body narrative – where their inner sense of gender identity is disassociated from the ascribed sex of the body (often referred to as the natal sex).  In some children this dissociation will emerge to be persistent as the child develops.  Whereas, for other children and older people there might be a migration between these two focal clusters of gender variance as their sense of gender/sex identity evolves or they may follow statistically normative gender patters. The well-established medical protocol from the treatment of adult people suffering from gender dysphoria is a combination of hormone therapy and surgery.[6] Cognitive behavioural and psychoanalytic therapies are unsuccessful.  The Church has long condemned sterilisation for contraceptive reasons.  However, it has always allowed surgery for genuine therapeutic reasons even when this leads to loss of fertility. It will need to reconsider these issues in its approach to gender affirming treatment and surgery or it will be complicit in perpetuating the distress of these people.

Further social scientific research is clearly needed concerning gender theory which might enable the Church to arrive at a more informed position.  In support of the Church it is worth mentioning that having a social sex and gender, and a psychological sense of self affects all of us since sex and gender are significant forms of social stratification in almost all societies (Giddens, 2006:467, Morgan, 2011).  Kath Woodward (2008) develops this further and argues that:

all societies and cultures have a series of gendered attributes and expectations and practices that are associated with women and men … but they are almost always linked to the properties of the body (2008:83).

What is clear is that educators will need an informed scholastic response to these gender issues.

My understanding of the current social-biological argument concerning the sex/gender of a body is illuminated by the feminist biologist and historian of science Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) who studied sexual embodiment and sexual erotic attraction.  Fausto-Sterling belongs to: ‘a diverse group of scholars psychologists, animal behaviourists, hormone biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers’  who share the understanding that our sexual essence is acquired before birth and unfolds as we grew and develop (Fausto-Sterling, 2000:6).

The group see themselves as interactionists, in the sense that the body and the environment react with each other to produce behaviour patterns.  They, through protracted discussion, arrive at the belief that the body has primacy in this relationship.  Following this there has been an increased recognition that the body is involved in social processes.  To consider the body-environment as a simplistic dualism is inadequate (Hill, 2006, Doyle and Roen, 2008, Woodward, 2006, Haraway, 2006, Rose, 1999, Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005).  It is important to note that this belief is neither predicated on the facile idea that sex (a biological classification), is privileged over gender (social attributes), nor gender over sex, (Woodward, 2008).  They are more complexly and contextually related within different historical scientific and cultural experiences (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Even more recently, geneticists (Polderman et al., 2018) have reviewed genetic research and argue that gender identity is influenced in part by innate factors including genes. Based on the data reviewed, they hypothesize that gender identity (one’s sense of their sex) is a multifactorial complex trait with a heritable wide-ranging genetic component. They argue that increasing the awareness of the biological diversity underlying gender identity development is relevant to social, medical, and neuroscience research and foundational for reducing health disparities and promoting human-rights protections for gender minorities. However, they continue to suggest that additional studies with many more individuals are needed to determine the heritability of gender identity more precisely.

Discrimination and violence

The Congregation adopts the very laudable aim of addressing discrimination:

From the whole field of writing on gender theory, there have how­ever emerged some positions that could provide points of agreement, with a potential to yield growth in mutual understanding. For instance, educational programmes on this area often share a laudable desire to combat all expressions of unjust discrimination, a requirement that can be shared by all sides. [15]

Unfortunately, this intension is diluted in the following paragraph with reference to: ‘specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.)’ [16]. Sexual tendencies is a vague phrase situated amongst the other demographics all of which are unnecessarily mentioned, in the context of this discussion, whereas gender identity is significantly omitted.  Furthermore, the media reporting of the Vatican document (Versaldi, 2019) and its condemnation of gender ideology is a powerful influence not only on Catholics but the wider population.  As such, the danger is a rise in hate crime against transgender people and the LGBT community generally – the public/media unfortunately do not distinguish between LGB and T (and further differences within the transgender label). Violence and discrimination against and even murder of transgender people is well documented in many countries and by the Jesuits (Rowniak and Ong-Flaherty, 2015:72). Recently in the UK the BBC (BBC, 2019a) reported that transgender hate crimes had risen by 81% during the financial year 2017-18. Many others also argue against the extreme violence and discrimination faced almost daily by transgender people. Transphobic violence is motivated by transgender people’s transgression of how sex/gender should be according to the naturalistic understandings of institutional heterosexuality. The Congregation will need to consider its complicity in this.


The Congregation [24] has not consulted intersex people, those whose chromosomal patterns are other than XX and XY, for example, XXY, XO, … furthermore, it offers too simplistic and unhelpful advice. suggesting that medics should alter the body to make it appear to be either male or female.  A cursory glance at the Intersex Society of North America’s website[7] suggests a good listening process directed at individuals and families:


To aid my analysis of the document I introduced the concept of institutional heterosexuality, which is biologically essentialist and based on the dichotomies of sex, gender, and sexuality. The Church essentially describes this bio-socio structural arrangement as natural law and in the document sees it as an essential basis of Christian theology and not open to questioning.  Marriage is a component of this structure and seen by the Church as a heterosexual relationship. Retaining the solidity of natural law seems to be more important than fostering other forms of human interactions and values.  In holding this position, the Church excludes and marginalises people of good faith who are in other committed intimate relationships, especially those of different gender identities – does the church what to continue this exclusionary heteronormative privileging by a structure which is sociologically inadequate?

The Church has a naturalistic understanding of The Family which consists of a married mother and father with children. Empirical research shows that this is unsatisfactory for the study and understanding of contemporary families.  The Family is historically of European and American origin and is unstable. Families are now seen as being increasingly fuzzy at their boundaries whose structure is less relevant than what families do.  However, the cultural imaginary of the ideal romantic sexual couple is powerfully retained and that marriage persists as a ‘guiding cultural ideal’ for much of the Western population drawing attention to the resilience of patriarchal beliefs and practices. The Church seems to hold this imagined reality, naming it The Christian Family, arguing that educational institutions should teach this in line with a milieu that fully accepts parental rights concordant with this view. However, in contemporary Western societies parental rights and responsibilities are a negotiation scrutinised by agencies of the state which are embedded in the ecology of the world-wide web. It is further argued, without evidence, that the naturalistic Family is the arrangement which is the best suited to challenge to anthropologies characterized by fragmentation and provisionality.  Most studies of new family forms situated outside heterosexual marriage confirm that they are not less committed than the traditional family. Another perspective, which is less Western, is characterised by the increasing importance of migration, ethnicity, identity belonging, politics, economics and disadvantage in the host countries.  These are issues affecting family life which concern Pope Francis. Does the church wish to continue with its teaching of the imaginary exclusionary Western family structure?

Turning now to consider the education of young people.  The utility of the document is for Catholics concerned with the formation of young people. This laudable aim is frustrated by convoluted language, uniformed scientific ideas and a homogeneous understanding of society which is not encouraging of effective pedagogical partnerships. Furthermore, the reality of information overload impinging on young people fails to be redressed.  The prime purpose of the document, to attend to gender theory, is not realised since scientific understanding of the relationship between sex and gender is not at present fully realised.  It might be argued that lack of Church comprehension extends beyond educational concern to include legislators.  Should the Church continue with its gender ideological dogmatism?

The document states that human sex is either a male or female identity in a relationship with God presumably based on a theological argument emanating from Gen 1:27. In contemporary Church teaching to be fully human relies on this male-female binary – an expression of the doctrine of complementarity. However, Mary Anne Case convincingly argues that this dogma is a recent invention developed to attack gender theory. Pope Francis tries to mitigate the effect of this through a more pastoral response to the reality of diverse families.

Contemporary forms of gender fluid identities are derived from Butler using a socio-political ideology driven by a patriarchal understanding of male dominance and an excessive fixation with gender issues within the media and celebrity culture. Biology and gender are in fact complexly interrelated.  However, the Church reasonably argues[8] that the ideology of gender variance is considered by many to be ontological basis of human understanding. Turning away from an identity-based discussion, I drew attention to the important work of Anne Fausto-Stirling who essentially argues that sex (male-female) is determined by a complex interaction between the body and its environment – more recent research suggests that there may be a poly-genetic influence.  Whatever the truth of these identity and bio-social issues turns out to be in the future, it is important that the transgender people and children (gender non-conforming and gender dysphoric) who are affected by these arguments are respected and receive appropriate pastoral care by the Church. Additionally, intersex people are primarily not associated with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender identities they are different, however, the document offers too simplistic and unhelpful advice about these people who also need a good informed pastoral response.

The discrimination and violence directed towards transgender people means that they are often discarded and shut out from everyday life – they exist on the edges or peripheries of society.  Firstly, The Church might therefore wish to allow these marginalised people to move towards its centre.  Secondly it might hold together its teaching (which might be applied to transgender people) in tension with its pastoral approach to the individual situation of a transgender person and their close family members.  This tension will create an opportunity to flexibly and dynamically explore what is going on – the lived experience in the messy realities of family life.  This is exactly where the Holy Spirit may become manifest releasing a new vigour, life and interpretation to help us know what God is calling us to do in this concrete and yet complex situation of transgenderism.

In conclusion I hope my critique based on empirical research and theoretical knowledge will not be ignored but accepted as part of the Congregation’s desire for dialogue. I have tried to illuminate gender ideology and the transgender experience in anticipation that the Church will develop its thinking in an informed way.   I am optimistic that the Church will grasp the opportunity to follow Jesus in its pastoral care – to radically develop its practice in a way that is merciful and releases tenderness and love towards all transgender people.  In this way it will compassionately privilege the personal situation of the individual in need over religious ideals and structures that oppress people[9].


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[1] During 1990 I undertook unpublished empirical research commissioned by Nottinghamshire Health Authority and this was a clear finding.  The government funded research involved all secondary schools within the city and county including Catholic schools.

[2] The Vatican contends that this ideology is strictly sociological, but Judith Butler works at the University of California, Berkeley where she is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature. Furthermore her research expertise and interests are in critical theory, gender and sexuality studies, comparative literature, 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, social and political thought, philosophy and literature. https://vcresearch.berkeley.edu/faculty/judith-butler [accessed 13082019]


[3]Butler reported the details of this case.  Essentially David was born with XY chromosomes but at the age of eight months his penis was accidentally removed during the course of surgery.  His parents were advised to raise him as a girl so he underwent further surgery to create rudimentary female genitals.  Between 9 and 11 she began to question her female gender identity and subsequently with new medical advice and intervention started living as a boy at age 14.  As Butler’s book was going to press in June 2004, she learned that David took his own life at age 35.  Butler in her postscript raised the question, posed by him and for him, ‘was life in his gender survivable?’  She said, ‘The norms governing what it is to be a worthy recognizable and sustainable human life clearly did not support his life in any continuous or solid way’ (Butler, 2004b:74)

[4] By the age of 2 to 3 years children learn to correctly identify the sex of others … but

even before then – as early as 18 months – they begin to develop an awareness of gender appropriate roles … A. Fausto-Stirling, Sex/gender: Biology in a social world. (New York:

Routledge, 2012).:58

[5] Current terminology refers to transgender people who are gender binary – beware terminology is constantly morphing into new terms.

[6] Children may be referred for careful assessment and treatment to the Gender Identity Development Service GIDS at The Tavistock Centre in London.  They are not given surgery or cross hormone treatment.  http://gids.nhs.uk/

[7] http://www.isna.org accessed 10092019.

[8] Sex and gender are significant forms of social stratification in almost all societies.

[9] Lk 6:6-11 [ https://pray-as-you-go.org/text/1088 accessed 09092019 ]

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