Understanding the Vatican’s Document on Gender Theory and Education

Painting of Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise by an angel.

I’ve been trying to keep up with the diverse array of responses to the release of “Man and Woman He Created Them,” the Vatican’s new document addressing gender theory and education. Predictably, liberal Catholic news outlets have criticized its lack of sensitivity to the trans community and conservative ones have praised its boldness in affirming traditional doctrine.

Outside of the world of Catholic media, several friends and acquaintances have expressed a sense of confusion. With their commitments to embracing both the truths taught by the Church as well as their transgender friends, they wanted to understand the document’s practical implications. Its language is highly abstract and intricate. The situations faced by people with gender dysphoria (GD) are very real and concrete. What is the document saying to those of us who live “on the ground”?

What I’d like to do here is break down some of the key insights of the text and analyze them through the lens of pop culture, pastoral psychology, and personal experience.

The Anthropological Roots of Postmodern “Theory”

It might be helpful to point out that the document does not set out to condemn people with gender dysphoria. Rather, it intends to address the presentation of gender theory in educational institutions, a phenomenon which seems to be becoming more and more commonplace. Far from “attacking” any group of people, it calls into question the deeper anthropological implications of gender theory and offers a method of engaging in dialogue with current issues having to do with gender. The two-fold mission of the document is to help educators to best serve the young people entrusted to them by (1) calling them back to the truths of personhood while (2) encouraging openness to understanding contemporary culture.

The anthropological clarification offered is of great value. Much of the contemporary confusion regarding gender stems from a lack of a “clear and convincing anthropology that gives a meaningful foundation to sexuality and affectivity” (§30). Much of contemporary culture is enshrouded in a less-than-fully-formed view of what it means to be a person. Thus the confusion regarding gender applies to all “postmodern people,” not just those who experience GD.

Gender theory, along with most other postmodern forms of “theory,” is based on a markedly dualistic anthropology. The body is conceived to be separate from the will, and, accordingly, gender identity is not necessarily determined by biological sex. In this view, the will is afforded the agency to determine the person’s identity. The body, then, is “reduced to the status of inert matter” as the will “becomes an absolute that can manipulate the body as it pleases” (§22).

In a Christian anthropology, the person is an integral whole. Body and soul are not two separate entities but two dimensions of the one person, the former “giving flesh to” the latter (§22). The body reveals or speaks of the inner identity of the person . . . an identity which has been given her by the Creator (§24).

The dualistic anthropology characteristic of postmodern thought engenders a freedom without roots. It arises not from a relationship with a truth that precedes and defines the person, but instead concedes the person the freedom to construct truths of their own.

Alluring, surely, as it may seem, the document warns that this relativist notion of freedom gives rise to the illusion that “everything that exists is of equal value and at the same time undifferentiated, without any real order or purpose” (§20). Nothing is inherently meaningful, unless we arbitrarily decide to impose meaning on it.

In a recent article on gender theory, Abigail Favale attributes much of the contemporary discourse on gender to Judith Butler, the “godmother of contemporary gender theory.”

Butler argues, at least in her earlier works, that gender is an unconscious and socially compelled performance, a series of acts and behaviors that create the illusion of an essential identity of “man” and “woman.” In this view, gender is entirely a social construct, a complex fiction that we inherit and then repeatedly re-enact. . . .

Even more recently we have the cute and overly complicated understanding of gender popularized by the “gender unicorn” and “genderbread person” memes. . . . In this model, personal identity is collated from a menu of attributes, each of which runs along a spectrum. Gender identity, à la the transgender definition above, is located in the mind; gender expression, a trickle-down version of Butlerian performativity, refers to one’s external appearance and acts; sex, which is “assigned” rather than recognized at birth, is confined between the legs.

Thus gender theory and the flawed anthropology that underlies it are the fruits of a much greater metaphysical crisis. Favale points to Charles Taylor’s 775-page tome A Secular Age to flesh out this overarching confusion about the relationship between material reality and the sacred.

Taylor characterizes the Axial Framework (in which Christianity, and to a lesser extent Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, called the shots) by its “enchanted” view of the world. Physical objects, including our bodies, were thought to be charged with a spiritual meaning. The human body reflected God’s image and likeness, and was a vessel for carrying His life-giving love into the world.

In “the old framework . . . bodily sex referred to the person as a whole and was characterized by generative roles.” One’s identity as male or female was “not merely about external appearance, but also intimately connected to procreative function — one’s generative potential as a male or female.”

Contrary to Butler’s notion of gender as performance, being a man is not necessarily defined by the way one looks or acts. It’s about embracing a call, a purpose, which is inscribed into his soul and revealed through his body. Taylor would attribute this disconnect between the body and one’s “inner identity” to what he calls the “buffered self.” Stemming from a Cartesian separation between mind and matter, our identities are not molded by our experience in the material world. Matter is silenced — it no longer possesses the power to “speak” truths to us. Instead, it’s the duty of the mind to conform reality to its ideas.

This is why the document’s emphasis on getting our anthropology right is so important. We cannot begin to sort out contemporary concerns regarding gender without first establishing a clear understanding of the human person and her relationship with reality.

The Trajectory of Relativism: Impossible Authenticity

Considering the greater anthropological and metaphysical issues at stake here, it’s important to examine the relativistic notion of freedom on which gender theory depends. To do so, I’d like to point to the examples put forth in the popular FX series Pose.

The show features characters (and actors) who have transitioned, and who likely do experience Gender Dysphoria. Though it appears to promote respect and tolerance for people with GD, the show does much more than this. It presents a world in which this postmodern anthropology is not just accepted, but is made normative. The microcosm the show creates reveals the ultimate trajectory of relativism, should it be embraced universally (which, director Ryan Murphy is keen to tell us, it should be).

The plot of each episode revolves around the characters’ involvement in Manhattan’s “Ball scene.” A ball is a type of nightclub in which a number of Houses compete to perform a specific “category.” These performances include a combination of dancing, gesturing, and showing off wardrobe (or lack thereof).

In one episode, “Pray Tell,” the MC, announces that the category is “luscious femme queen body.” Each House selects one of its members to stage a performance that accentuates their body’s feminine attributes. Candy, of the House of Abundance, struts her stuff, only to be mocked by the audience for her skinny, “boyish” bodily features.

She walks out ashamed that her femininity is being questioned. Apparently her female clothes, makeup, and hormone therapy were not enough to make her a “real” woman. She decides to get silicone injections in her breasts and buttocks in order to make herself appear more feminine. Seeing as she doesn’t have health insurance, she seeks out underground house doctors who will give her the injections at a reasonable price. The cheapest option presents significant health risks — several of the girls who have seen this doctor have gotten infections. She decides the risk is worthwhile — as long as she comes out looking like a real woman.

In another episode, Elektra, the Mother of the House of Abundance, contemplates getting a gender reassignment (“gender confirmation”) surgery. While she boasts that she can pass as a woman on Fifth Avenue and flirt with cisgender heterosexual men at bars, she laments that, with her penis, she remains incomplete. It’s worth noting that “passing” is a major determinant of status in Ball culture, which can be further bolstered by the amount of cisgender heterosexual partners they attract to themselves.

After going through with the surgery, she returns to the ball. The crowd fawns over her, and she receives well-wishes for becoming more fully herself . . . many asking her how it feels to finally have “gotten rid of it.”

We begin to see that masculinity and femininity are not revealed through the body, but are imposed on the body. Thus the competition to be truly masculine or feminine is fierce. “Who is your doctor? Where did you get those clothes?” the crowd calls out, heckling those who they deem to be less “real” than themselves. The body in itself does not adequately render someone a true man or woman. But if you’re lucky enough to muster up the money, you’ll surely be able to purchase true femininity.

In one category, “Perfect Ten,” the women are told that they must have “face, body, and realness.”

You’ve got something to tuck? That [expletive] better be streamlined into invisibility. You have to pass in every way, [expletive]. Your hair has to pass. Your clothes have to pass. Your face has to pass. Your makeup has to pass . . . this is a category for real women only. . . . Shine woman, glow woman. Give us permission to celebrate you, in all your feminine glory.

It would appear that those who can’t afford to upkeep the “glory of their femininity” are not worthy of the title “woman.”

Conversely, in a category for cisgender (gay) men, “Butch Queen Body,” Pray Tell invites the men to show off “all that sexy-ass masculinity.” The first contestant proceeds to rip of his tank top and reveal his muscular body as the crowd goes wild.

The show reveals the ultimate trajectory of gender identity as performance: a never-ending race toward authenticity that only the elect can endure. The obsession with acquiring adequate clothing, makeup, body structure, and genitals makes up the content of true masculinity and femininity. Your body in itself is never masculine or feminine enough, something must always be added. We must always outperform the others, or your previous, less perfect expressions of your identity.

This utopia of freedom is undercut by a never-ending drive to acquire and consume more. The promise of freedom granted through the elimination of nature and the subsequent right to construct an identity of our own belies a tragic miscalculation.

At what point does our performance reach the apex of true authenticity? Is my power, my human energy, sufficient to reach the heights of authenticity to which I aspire? Can mere benevolence and social conditioning keep my desires in check?

The anthropology on which this promise relies offers no viable response to the reality of Original Sin. Be who you want, do what you want, and when doing so starts to get out of hand, your left on your own to make yourself free again. This view does not account for our limitations and for the ephemeral nature of our aspirations and whims.

Perhaps one day I feel comfortable in my skin. The next I don’t, because I see someone who passes better than I do. So I buy nicer clothes, I inject more hormones to eliminate some of my masculine facial features. And the next, I miss my birth sex, and start to stuff away the impulse to return to it. If our identity is not given to us by Someone who promises us lasting liberation, then we are constantly at the mercy of the limited and often confusing forces of human power and desire.

The Burden of Postmodern Freedom on the Poor

The severing of gender identity from the body’s generative powers impacts not only those with gender dysphoria, but also “cisgender” males and females. Somehow a woman who does not match the glamour and aesthetic precision of a drag queen is less a woman. No matter how much time she spends caring for her children or maintaining a job, if she does make time to upkeep her appearance, she is bound to be out-performed by “real” women who can afford the means to be more authentic than her. Same thing goes for the father who strives to serve his family, with his shockingly unimpressive “dad bod” . . . or the man who dedicates his life to serving the Church through the priesthood. With their schedules packed with activities that involve service to people other than themselves, they will surely be outperformed by the “sexy-ass” man who has enough time on his hands to go to the gym daily.

This view also imposes a hefty burden on those who face more severe limitations than others. The performance of identity (especially of gender identity) requires artifice — props, goods, and often medical services. What about those who have limited access to these “tools” for authenticity — whether due to economic or medical reasons?

John Milbank points to the capitalistic spirit driving the trans movement forward.

In the end, liberalism defines people as simply property owners, narcissistic self-owners, choosers and consumers. Aquinas thought that our natural orientation to something outside ourselves was fundamental to our being. Liberalism, by contrast, denies the importance of relationships. Thereby it encourages the undoing of community, locality, and beauty — and also marriage and the family.

And there is, naturally, money to be made out of all this. Husbands, wives, children, and adolescents (this last an invention of the market) are more effective and exploitable consumers when they are isolated. Fluctuating identities and fluid preferences, including as to sexual orientation, consume still more, more often. and more variously in terms of products and services. The fact that the market also continues to promote the nuclear family as the norm is not here to the point — of course it will make money from both the “normal” and the “deviant” and still more from their dispute. Ultimately, profits will accrue from reducing the heterosexual norm to the status of just another “lifestyle choice” . . . the poor or relatively poor simply cannot afford the experimentation with sex, drugs, and lifestyle that can be afforded by those cushioned by wealth. Thus the result of sexual liberalism and the decay of marriage as a norm for working people is too often women left on their own with babies, and young men (shorn of their traditional chivalric and regular breadwinning dignity) driven to suicide.

Gender and Education

My personal experience as a teacher in an inner-city all-boys high school (our K–8 is coed) has showed me how much anthropological clarity is essential in education, especially for the underprivileged.

I’ve never been immersed in an all-male or all-female environment before working at my school. For this reason I’ve struggled to recognize any real (essential) differences between men and women beyond biology and socially constructed norms of behavior. But ever since starting my job, I have learned and continue to learn much about masculinity and fatherhood through working with my students.

At first, I struggled in a mostly male environment (about 40% of our teachers are women). Our school takes athletics very seriously, and I’ve never been much of an athlete. While I’ve always recognized myself as a male, I always felt confused as to what that actually meant for me. Knowing that my personality and affinities don’t completely match up with the social norms ascribed to men, the question of true masculinity remained open for me.

But the more I got to know my students, as well as my coworkers (both male and female), the more I’ve started to understand that gender difference consists of more than a set of behavioral norms or preferences. I started to discover that in my call to foster the growth of these young men was a particular sensitivity, an attentiveness to them. I started taking an interest in their relationship with ultimate truth, with God, and with their vocation. I expressed this interest through the way I taught my lessons and the way I counseled them outside of class. Through this attentiveness to their growth, I found that I was able to serve them in new and surprising ways that I didn’t know myself to be capable of.

As I discussed these experiences with my female coworkers, I saw that we were often united by this drive to serve and foster the growth of our students. But in them, this drive usually took on a distinct flavor. My female coworkers were often attentive to certain needs of our students that I hadn’t picked up on before.

In her Essays on Woman, Edith Stein presents masculinity and femininity as distinct and complementary modes of self-gift and service which give rise to particular “sensibilities” (which John Paul II will go on to call the masculine and feminine “geniuses”). Stein’s distinction between men and women is more descriptive than prescriptive, as it believes that gender is something that is essential to our nature. We don’t perform it (whether according to the norms of society or of our own whims), we don’t have to live up to it. It’s who we already are, and it shapes and colors the way we act.

Our bodies play an important role in teaching us how to make a gift of ourselves — whether it’s through generating new life biologically or serving others in our work or relationships. Stein writes:

woman’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and it is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body has more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment.

Elsewhere she wrote that:

the relationship of soul and body is different in man and woman; the relationship of soul to body differs in their psychic life as well as that of the spiritual faculties to each other. The feminine species expresses a unity and wholeness of the total psychosomatic personality and a harmonious development of faculties. The masculine species strives to enhance individual abilities in order that they may attain their highest achievements.

There are certain virtues that enable me to live out my call to fatherhood. Though these virtues are neither unavailable to nor unattainable by women, I am naturally disposed to them. And it is these virtues which enable me to generate and foster the growth of others in a uniquely masculine mode.

Ultimately, true masculinity and femininity are fulfilled in the ideals of fatherhood and motherhood, respectively. These ideals don’t run on parallel planes, but instead complement and support each other. I’ve found that my own masculinity has only been strengthened by learning from my female coworkers. They have taught me to pay attention to things that I usually ignore or forget. This is not because one gender is better or smarter than the other, but because of the unique gifts that come along with our maleness and femaleness.

That being said, I’ve learned to become comfortable with my “less than masculine” interests. Perhaps society may not think the arts or a general appreciation for aesthetic beauty are masculine interests. But I’ve discovered that the way I engage with this interests is inherently masculine — because I am a man. The way I look at art or music is colored by my masculine genius, and by my capacity to be a father.

The Importance of Dialogue and Listening

Gender theory is in part a response to the oppressiveness of socially constructed gender norms. A young boy who likes dancing and cooking, or a young girl who likes sports and comic books, should not be made to feel that they aren’t masculine or feminine enough. Forcing people away from their interests because it doesn’t fit into a narrowly conceived notion of what is normal is extremely damaging psychologically.

This casts a light on the need to temper certain exaggerated, even fetishitic, expressions of gender. I see this in many of my students, who think being a real man is about exerting power over others . . . what many are now calling “toxic masculinity.” When removed from the ideal of self-gift embodied in fatherhood, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many young men are attracted to extreme performances of masculinity — be it through violence, abuse of others, or the demonstration of sexual prowess.

While the Church can align itself with some of the critiques of socially constructed gender norms, it must remain firm in its condemnation of relativism and anthropological dualism. Though men can express their masculinity in a variety of ways, young people ought not be told that their gender identity is arbitrary. The fact that your body is male means something. Your body, and all of the material world, is beautiful because it is a gift from God. It’s a gift that is full of meaning and purpose, in so far as it teaches you how to love others, and how to give to them in a particular mode.

The issue with gender theory is not that it questions socially constructed norms of gender, but that it totally separates gender from the body. Furthermore, it encourages people to think that they have the agency to determine their own identity. It assumes that nature does not exist and that we are free to construct our own truth.

Far from being liberating, this seems to just solidify the binary which it attempts to escape. If I have a student who is not as athletic as his classmates, should I tell him that maybe his interests indicates that he is actually a girl . . . and that he should consider transitioning? Were he to become a woman, this would only further bolster the idea that men should act like this and women should act like that.

As Milbank points out, equivocating on this matter puts the well-being of the poor at stake. While the rich can clean up the mess brought about by their libertinism with a variety of tools and “professional help” (birth control, medical treatments, psychological counseling), for the poor and underprivileged this often ends in violence and despair. Being a teacher of inner-city young men, I find it crucial to be clear on what constitutes the masculine genius. The lie that freedom and happiness are subject to our own whims is particularly destructive for young underprivileged men. Their masculine genius often atrophies into a drive for selfishness, domination, and abuse — giving them the illusion that it’s okay to “hit it and leave it,” even if he impregnates his sexual partner. This reality of absent fatherhood has done nothing but harm the lives of so many of my students.

Realistic Support for the Gender Dysphoric

The attitude of openness and listening that the document calls for can seem to be contradicted by the clear judgments it offers on the errors of gender theory. But affirming the gender binary as a God-given fact need not be used as a weapon to mock and belittle those who struggle to come to terms with their bodies. As Pose demonstrates, people with GD continue to face abuse and violence, which must be unequivocally condemned.

Those with GD need more than to be reminded that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Telling them that they just need to accept the body God gave them will likely be of little assistance. Instead, they would benefit from a nuanced approach informed by an authentic Christian anthropology and sound psychological research.

Mark Yarhouse, a clinical psychologist at Regent University, offers a compelling response that remains committed to orthodox Christian doctrine while being sensitive to the realities that those with GD face. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of his method is his ability to integrate three seemingly conflicting “lenses” to respond to people with GD.

The three lenses are integrity, disability, and diversity.

The integrity lens emphasizes Genesis 1 and 2 and God’s creational intent.

The disability lens focuses on how gender identity and biological sex do not align and this is a nonmoral variation that occurs in nature. It isn’t tied to moral categories in quite the same way I see happening among those who are proponents of the integrity framework. From the disability framework, gender dysphoria exists because something is not functioning properly, which I think creates more empathy and compassion for the person navigating gender identity concerns. Christians drawn to the disability lens often see lack of proper functioning as the result of the fall in Genesis 3.

The diversity lens looks at these variations as reflecting a sense of identity and community. A strong form of the diversity lens wishes to deconstruct the male-female binary, viewing this binary as a source of oppression.

Through his extensive research and clinical experience with those with GD, Yarhouse’s “integrated lens” is able to bring together the best of these lenses, without compromising his commitment to the Truth of the person.

For me, an integrated lens recognizes that the integrity lens is right in placing a high view of Scripture and God’s creational intent. It seems to me that a Christian account of gender and sex begins here. The strength of the integrity lens is the emphasis on Genesis 1 and 2. But what I appreciate about the disability lens is the way people there recognize the reality of Genesis 3. We live in a fallen world, and the fall has touched all of creation, including our experience of our gender. What the diversity lens brings to the discussion is the emphasis on identity and community. Again, these are emotionally compelling answers to fundamental longings for personhood and place in the world.

In a time when people with GD are turned into political footballs in a match waged between opposing teams, Yarhouse’s nuanced writings offer a breath of fresh air. His realism is a far cry from the politicization of the issue, thus enabling him to accommodate people in their actual situations while maintaining the normative premises of a Christian anthropology.

Yarhouse accepts that some people with GD may need to cross-dress or take hormones in order to deal adequately with their dysphoria. But he recommends that counselors, doctors, and pastors attempt to help the person to sort out their dysphoria and, if possible, to reconcile with their biological sex, before making any significant adjustments to their gender expression. When it’s deemed absolutely necessary, he suggests to opt for the least invasive changes possible, saving sex-reassignment surgery as a last resort. Yarhouse cites numerous examples of people who received a reassignment surgery who, years later, wanted to transition back, and experienced significant psychological trauma from not being able to do so.

An Invitation to Return to Our Origin

Above all, the Vatican’s document is an invitation to pay closer attention to the needs of the human person. What was the human person made for? What does she need in order to flourish? These questions apply to all people, male and female, and those who struggle to reconcile with their own gender.

The tendency of postmodern ideology to reduce the person to a receptacle of pleasure and unfettered freedom limits her capacity to achieve communion with the Truth for which she was made. The Church, in her mission of accompanying humanity in this pursuit, must speak boldly and compassionately, following the example of her Bridegroom, who loved the “littlest of these” to the point of dying for them. This mission must remain in constant dialogue with the changing circumstances in which humanity finds itself.

How can she listen attentively without compromising who she is, but instead being led forward by the Spirit which promises her integrity, her wholeness and unity with the Bridegroom? Let’s pray that this mission can continue to foster a “revolution of tenderness” in the lives of all people today.

Stephen G. Adubato About Stephen G. Adubato

Stephen G. Adubato received his BA in Religious Studies at Fordham University and his MA in Christian Ethics at the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall. He currently teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey. He writes at Cracks in Postmodernity on the Patheos Catholic Channel.

Comments

  1. Seems like the body is separated from the passions, the movements of the sense appetite. The human heart undergoes a reduction, excising the rational appetite or the will to the extent that iti is truly free.

  2. Early in my career, like many mental health professionals who worked with youth who had difficulty accepting their biological sex and met the DSM criteria for Gender Identity Disorder (GID).later Gender Dysphoria, I was greatly helped by the writing and research of Drs. Ken Zucker and his associate, Susan Bradley.

    Previously a BBC documentary, Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best, told the story of Kenneth Zucker, a leading, internationally respected Canadian researcher and psychologist who treated over 1,000 children with gender dysphoria over his 30 years career. This film is not surprisingly no longer available for viewing.

    He successfully encouraged the vast majority of his patients to realign their gender with their biological sex and only approved medical interventions when the initial therapy proved unsuccessful.

    In 2015, Zucker was forced to resign from his practice that was closed. In response, over 500 health professionals from around the world signed a petition protesting this politically correct action against a highly respected child psychologist.

    Youth with transsexual attractions deserve to be provided with informed consent about origins, risk factors and treatment options.
    https://www.hprweb.com/2016/08/transsexual-attractions-and-sexual-reassignment-surgery/
    https://www.mercatornet.com/conjugality/view/what-will-all-those-hormones-do-to-gender-dysphoric-kids/20985

  3. Readers may benefit from the BBC documentary on youth with transgender/transsexual issues and attractions as it relates to Dr. Zucker’s compassionate and successful work with over 1,000 youth in his 30 year distinguished career which I have been able to locate.
    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x58s24i

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