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Vatican office calls gender theory 'confused concept' in guide for Catholic schools

Pope Francis' name is not on the Congregation for Catholic Education letter, but expert say his fingerprints are.
Image: Pentecost Mass at the Vatican
Pope Francis celebrates the Pentecost Mass in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican on June 9.Yara Nardi / Reuters

The Vatican office that lays down the official line for Roman Catholic educational institutions released a new document Monday that dismisses the scientifically accepted idea that gender identity is fluid as “nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants.”

Calling the current thinking an attempt to “annihilate the concept of ‘nature,’” the Congregation for Catholic Education insisted that biology decides what is “constitutive of human identity” and called for the reaffirming of “the metaphysical roots of sexual difference.”

“Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of ‘intersex’ or ‘transgender,’ lead to a masculinity or femininity that is ambiguous,” say the document.

That, in turn, has resulted in cultural “disorientation” and the destabilization of the family as an institution.

“This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks,’” it says.

Bearing the title “Male and female he created them” and signed by the Congregation’s leaders, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi and Archbishop Angelo Zani, the 31-page document was released as LGBTQ people around the world are celebrating pride month.

Their advocates were quick to condemn it.

“I find it a very dangerous statement. It’s incredibly disrespectful of the Vatican,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUsa, a group that advocates on behalf of the Catholic LGBTQ community. “The fact that it’s directed towards Catholic educators who are used as a vessel to impose these teachings is wrong. “

Jason Steidl, a professor of theology at Fordham University in the Bronx, said Francis’ name isn’t on the document but his fingerprints certainly appear to be.

“It’s clear he’s not in dialogue with recent science,” Steidl said of the pope. “This is a straw man he’s been attacking for many years now."

Transgender individuals and gender ideology “have become a scapegoat for a lot of the ills the Catholic Church sees in society,” he said.

And in Asia and Africa, Francis has likened gender theory “as close to colonization.”

NBC analyst George Weigel said Francis has made it “pretty clear that he regards" transgender ideology as a "Western cultural phenomenon being exported to the world, inappropriately.”

But the leader of the Roman Catholic Church bears no animus toward people who don’t fit into the traditional gender roles, he said.

The pope's feelings toward a transgender person "would be the same as his stance toward anyone else: respect, compassion and an invitation to let him be of help,” Weigel said.

Back in 2013, Francis raised hopes that he might be less doctrinaire when it comes to hot-button issues like homosexuality and gender identity when he responded to a question about whether he would allow gay priests to work at the Vatican by answering, “Who am I to judge?”

Since then, Francis has shown compassion for transgender Catholics who have become pariahs in their parishes.

In 2016, Francis recounted meeting with a Spanish transgender men who had written to him after the man's pastor told him he would "go to hell."

"Do you understand? Life is life and you must take things as they come. We must be attentive, not saying all are the same," Francis said. "Every case: Welcome it, accompany it, study it, discerning and integrating."

But at the same time, the pope has strongly criticized any gender theory that “does not recognize the order of creation.”

“The design of the Creator is written in nature,” the pope has said.

That stance is echoed in the new document, which claims genetic studies have shown that male and female embryos differ "from the very moment of conception."

"Gender theory … speaks of a gradual process of denaturalization, that is a move away from nature and towards an absolute option for the decision of the feelings of the human subject," the document states.

"In this understanding of things, the view of both sexuality identity and the family become subject to the same 'liquidity' and 'fluidity' that characterize other aspects of post-modern culture, often founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses and the will of the individual.”

Stan “J.R.” Zerkowski, executive director of Fortunate Families, a Kentucky-based Catholic organization that is trying to build a bridge between the church and the LGBTQ community, said he views the new document as an opening.

“I think that document shows that the church is evolving,” he said. “I see it as a step forward in terms of dialogue. While it can appear condemnatory, it opens the door toward communication.”

“I wish the document had embraced every sister and brother the way they are, but for sisters and brothers that are out there experiencing something that is not yet understood, this document helps enable discussions about the language used and the things not fully understood,” he said.

However, New Ways Ministry, another group that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ Catholics, called the new document a "harmful tool that will be used to oppress and harm not only transgender people, but lesbian, gay, [and] bisexual people, too."