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Vatican Rejects Notion That Gender Identity Can Be Fluid

ROME — The Vatican on Monday flatly rejected what it cast as the notion that individuals can choose their gender, releasing its first extensive document on the issue as Western countries are increasingly wrestling with the social and legal implications of more fluid definitions of identity.

The document, issued by the Vatican department overseeing Catholic education, echoed past statements by Pope Francis. It argued that acceptance of flexible ideas of gender posed a threat to traditional families and ignored the natural differences between men and women.

It lamented “calls for public recognition of the right to choose one’s gender, and of a plurality of new types of unions, in direct contradiction of the model of marriage as being between one man and one woman, which is portrayed as a vestige of patriarchal societies.”

The idea of gender moving along a spectrum was “nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants.”

The document broke little new ground in casting doubt on gender theory and promoting traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the intrinsic biological differences between men and women. But for some Catholic advocates for a more inclusive and understanding approach to L.G.B.T. people, the Vatican document represented a significant step backward.

Pope Francis had encouraged many of them that the church was changing when he memorably responded “Who am I to judge?” when asked in 2013 about a priest working at the Vatican who was said to be gay. In 2016, Francis reported at a news conference that he had met at the Vatican with a Spanish transgender man who had undergone gender reassignment surgery and been ostracized by his priest.

“We must be attentive, not saying all are the same,” Francis said at the time, adding that “people must be accompanied.”

But despite a small section warning against discrimination (“no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults”) and a few sentences about accompanying young Catholic school students in a way that “is discrete and confidential, capable of reaching out to those who are experiencing complex and painful situations,” the new church document immediately disappointed advocates who had hoped for greater acceptance.

They warned that the church was inviting discrimination, and that in delivering an anachronistic message on human sexuality, it had apparently decided to take on esoteric theories rather than the lived experiences of L.G.B.T. people.

Francis DeBernardo, director of the Maryland based New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for L.G.B.T. Catholics, took issue with the document’s assumption that “gender is determined solely by visible genitalia,” and not also by genetics, hormones and brain chemistry.

He also objected to the Vatican’s notion that people simply “choose” their gender. “They discover it through their lived experiences,” he said in a statement.

“The document associates sexual and gender minorities with libertine sexuality, a gross misrepresentation of the lives of L.G.B.T. people which perpetuates and encourages hatred, bigotry, and violence against them,” Mr. DeBernardo wrote.

Some advocates saw a particular slight in that the document, which was dated Feb. 4, was released in June, during L.G.B.T. pride month, though the purpose of the timing was unclear. More broadly, the document marked a clear attempt by the church to weigh in as countries like the United States respond to increasing acceptance of gender and sexual fluidity.

Titled “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” the document seemed to lay down a line on how far the Vatican was willing to go.

The document was signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, and written as a guide for Catholic schools, teachers and educators.

The guidance said that “ideas of ‘intersex’ or ‘transgender’ lead to a masculinity or femininity that is ‘ambiguous.’”

“This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks,’ and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy,” it added.

The document argued that the church should be open to listening to and talking with proponents of gender theory, and should not discriminate against those who defined their gender differently, something it acknowledged it had done in the past.

“The congregation’s call for listening and dialogue about gender is a positive step, however, it seems that the congregation is listening only to philosophers and theologians rather than to L.G.B.T. people who would share their real life experiences if asked,” said Rev. James Martin, the author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the Catholic church can reach out to L.G.B.T. faithful.

“L.G.B.T. people are usually not responding to a theory or ideology but their own inner feelings and their own desires,” he said.

The document warned that gender theory could cause confusion among the young and the erosion of the family.

It argued that studies in the last half century had asserted sexuality as a social construct, and that human identity has been “consigned to the individual’s choice, which can also change in time.”

It cautioned that confusion over gender “had destabilized the family as an institution, bringing with it a tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.”

The Vatican guidance on gender questions, and its idealization of women (“Women have a unique understanding of reality”) also seemed consistent with past statements by Pope Francis. He has often warned that gender theory is one of the principal threats to the modern family.

In a 2015 book-length interview, he listed gender theory alongside “nuclear arms” and “genetic manipulation” for its failure to “recognize the order of creation.”

Francis has also identified education programs as some of the primary channels through which gender theory has been allowed to take root in Western societies. Some prominent African clerics have long argued that a Western view that accepts shifting genders was poisonous to the church in Africa and should be rejected.

Returning from a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan in October 2016, Francis seemed to agree, speaking inclusively about gay people while blasting what he saw as the “wickedness” of indoctrinating people in gender theory, which was “against the natural order.”

“It is one thing for people to have a homosexual tendency or even to change sex, but it is another thing to try to teach along this line in schools, to change the mentality. I call this cultural colonialism,” the pope told reporters on the papal plane.

A few days earlier in Tbilisi, Georgia, the pope had said that gender theory was part of a “world war against marriage” and an example of the “ideological colonization” that had been spreading in many parts of the world.

The document calls on Catholic teachers and educators to be “sufficiently prepared regarding the intricacies of the various questions that gender theory brings up and be fully informed about both current and proposed legislation.”

Father Martin worried, though, that the document failed to encourage Catholic educators to be sufficiently prepared to deal with the real experiences of L.G.B.T. people in their midst.

“Anyone who thinks that being transgender is a response to ideology,” he said, “has not spoken to many transgender people.”