July 2019 Pulse
One of the most controversial fields of inquiry that has emerged in the last century during the post-war years is gender studies.
Various influences have been attributed to the shaping of this field, whose influence is now felt in a wide variety of academic disciplines including literature, language, history, political science, anthropology, cinema and media studies. They come from such diverse sources as psychoanalytic theories, literary theories and postmodern philosophies.
In essence, gender theories challenge the traditional way in which sexuality, masculinity and femininity are understood on the basis of fixed biological determinants. They propose this essentialist approach, which allegedly is the culprit behind social discrimination and oppression, should be replaced by a constructivist approach to gender, which (not surprisingly) emphasises its fluidity and malleability.
Simone de Beaviour has arguably epitomised this new approach – at least in some of its earlier incarnations – when she insists that: ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’
Gender theory has invaded the curriculum of many universities in the West. It is commandeered by activists in the LGBT communities around the world to advance their cause.
In a bold document titled ‘“Male and Female He Created Them”: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education’, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education evaluates and critiques this advant garde ideology of sexuality and gender in the context of public education (See https://www.americamagazine.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Vatican_Gender_Male_and_Female_He_created_them.pdf).
Describing it as ‘an educational crisis’, the Vatican laments the fact that in many institutions of education, the curricula ‘allegedly convey a neutral conception of the person and of life, yet in fact reflect an anthropology opposed to faith and to right reason.’ They ‘cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.’
In other words, what we are contending against is a profoundly theological issue, an anthropological heresy whose influence on society will have far-reaching social consequences.
Approaching the issue in the spirit of dialogue with an openness to genuinely listen to the concerns of those who champion this new approach to gender, the Vatican identified a few important areas of agreement.
These include the stance against any kind of discrimination based on sex or sexuality, and the need to teach children and young people ‘to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their special characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc).’
But the Vatican unequivocally critiques the way in which gender theory ‘denaturalises’ sex and introduces ‘liquidity’ and ‘fluidity’ to human sexual identity by prioritising choice over nature. In so doing, it is guilty of a serious anthropological distortion inspired by a version of Cartesianism, that is, a dualistic anthropology ‘separating body (reduced to the status of inert matter) from human will, which itself becomes an absolute that can manipulate the body as it pleases.’
Quoting a passage from Gaudium et spes, the Vatican document seeks to recover its holistic anthropology that gender theory has dismantled. In concert with the Vatican II document, the Congregation for Catholic Education insists that ‘though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of their Creator.’
An important distinction is made here between ‘the order of nature’ and the ‘order of biology’ that has profound currency not only in discussions of gender issues but also those concerning sexual orientation. By ‘order of nature’, the Vatican means what the Apostle Paul meant in Romans 1, namely, the order intended by the Creator.
By ‘order of biology’, however, the Vatican document refers to that which is only ‘accessible to methods of empirical and descriptive science …’ The two orders must therefore neither ‘be confused or regarded as identical.’
The Vatican document grounds its anthropology on the testimony of Scripture, especially the early chapters of Genesis. These chapters not only make the clear distinction between the sexes – between a man and a woman – it also emphasises that ‘human nature must be understood on the basis of the unity of body and soul, far removed from any sort of physicalism or naturalism …’
The Vatican document has unsurprisingly been heavily criticised by the Catholic LGBT community. One trans Catholic points out that although the authors of the document claim that they have listened hard to gender theorists, there is no evidence that they ‘have spent any time listening to transgender or intersex people.’
In an article published in America, James Martin, S.J. agrees: ‘One objection to that proposition is that it ignores the real-life experience of LGBT people.’ ‘In fact’, Fr Martin adds, ‘the document’s primary partners for conversation seem to be philosophers, theologians and older church documents and papal statements – not biologists or scientists, not psychiatrists or psychologists.’
There is a sense in which such responses from the LGBT community and their sympathisers are not unexpected. They do not, however, in any way undermine the soundness of the Vatican’s criticisms of gender theory, based on the clear teachings of the Bible and their interpretation by the traditions of the Church.
The critics of this document should note that its authors make a concerted effort at dialogue, carefully discussing the areas of agreement and dissent between the proposals of genders theorists and the traditional doctrines of the Church concerning human sexuality.
Their criticism that the authors of the documents have failed to listen and that they are not open to genuine dialogue is therefore blatantly baseless.
Perhaps it is those who oppose the position taken by the Vatican, who have no desire to take the teachings of the Christian Faith seriously, and who will only be content when the Church aligns its understanding of gender and sexuality with theirs, that are espousing a form of dogmatism and are closed to reason and honest dialogue.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.