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Pope Francis has routinely criticized “gender ideology.” What does he mean?

Views David Palmieri / March 26, 2024 Print this:
Pope Francis meets transgender people in St. Peter’s Square. Sister Geneviève Jeanningros is at right. (Photo courtesy of the Dicastery for Communication)

On March 1, Pope Francis spoke to participants at a conference on the anthropology of vocations. Going off script, as he often does, the Holy Father said, “Today, the ugliest danger is gender ideology, which cancels out differences.” This comment is notable for two reasons. 

First, it signals the coming of a document referenced by Cardinal Víctor Fernández in a January interview. As prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Fernández said, “We are preparing a very important document on human dignity that includes not only social issues, but also a strong critique of moral issues,” including “gender ideology.”

Second, the pope’s condemnation of gender ideology is well documented, but it is also widely misunderstood as a judgement against transgender persons. It is not. The key to understanding Pope Francis on this issue is grasping the difference between a public ideology and a private identity. One is an idea. The other is a person.

The pope’s condemnation of gender ideology is widely misunderstood as a judgment against transgender persons.

An ideology is a shared way of thinking based on shallow theories. For example, “gender ideology” is a public claim that gender is fluid, transient, flexible and changeable. Pope Francis has rejected this theory. In addition to his comment that gender ideology is “the ugliest danger,” the following comments are the most cited in Pope Francis’s dismissal of gender ideology:

  • In a meeting with young people on March 21, 2015, Pope Francis warned that in Europe and elsewhere, “gender theory [is] creating so much confusion.” Here he introduced the phrase “ideological colonizations,” by which he meant invasive ways of thinking that promote secularization and a lack of commitment to the family.
  • In a General Audience on April 15, 2015, the pope cautioned that the modern world has opened “new forms of freedom” that create “many doubts.” Francis said that “so-called gender theory . . . seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.”
  • On May 24, 2015, he released his second encyclical, “Laudato Si’.” Francis promoted Pope Benedict XVI’s vision that humans have a nature that we “cannot manipulate at will.” He went on to share that “the acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father.” Furthermore, Francis affirmed the “mutual enrichment” of man and woman and concluded “it is not a healthy attitude to cancel out sexual difference.”
  • On March 19, 2016, Francis issued “Amoris Laetitia,” his apostolic exhortation on the family. He warned that today we are in danger of acting as if “everything were possible and permissible.” He expressed that gender ideology threatens the “anthropological basis on the family,” ending with a powerful statement that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.”
  • On July 27, 2016, the pope made a comment about cultural exploitations leading to “the annihilation of man as the image of God.” He continued that today “there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place.” With passion he denounced an “ideology of gender” pervading developed countries. “And this is terrible!” he concluded.

While his criticisms are clear, Pope Francis is not rejecting transgender persons, but the idea that gender is fleeting. This subtle insight is essential. People are not ideas. It is unfair not to make this distinction when trying to understand what Pope Francis is saying. Using his ideas to promote exclusion of LGBTQ persons is dishonest and does not respect the nuances necessary to engage this issue.

Pope Francis is not rejecting transgender persons, but the idea that gender is fleeting. This subtle insight is essential.

Consider that Pope Francis meets frequently with transgender persons and supports Catholic LGBTQ ministries. This is because he understands we are not actually experiencing a transgender tsunami in our Catholic spaces. Instead, what we are talking about are a relatively few number of people who accept their fundamental identity as “children of God,” but also experience something deep-seated, private and profound in terms of variation in their sexuality or gender identity.

Concerning a person’s private identity, Pope Francis has said, “For every case welcome it, accompany it, look into it, discern and integrate it. This is what Jesus would do today.” In fact, this is an example of the “translation into pastoral practice” called for by synthesis report from last year’s Synod sessions.

The danger of this forthcoming Vatican document is that it may continue to sow division and misunderstanding concerning transgender persons in the church and even in the larger society. It must give proper attention to the distinction between culturally salient ideas and the private experiences of human persons. Without this distinction, any commentary on “gender ideology” will merely exacerbate prejudice against transgender persons.

The cost of this error is that doctrine gets used as a sword. A friend of mine recently said to me, “Most people draw a straight line from condemning gender ideology to condemning transgender individuals.” Pope Francis and the D.D.F. do not intend this, but the evidence of its abuse is on display.

The above excerpts from Pope Francis are cited extensively in diocesan policies on sexuality and gender. Using the pope’s words like this incorrectly aligns him with policies that exclude transgender persons from Catholic spaces. 

Ideas are to be challenged with vigor, but people are to be accompanied with tenderness.

Also, within separate U.S. diocesan school policies, the word “transgenderism” is used more than 40 times. This word is widely regarded as pejorative yet it continues to surface as a label for “transgender ideology.” When people consistently express that this word is offensive, why can’t we honor that disclosure? To continue on without changing our language seems unnecessarily cruel.

Finally, the spread of the “tsunami” narrative has become its own ideology. This has resulted in the emergence of educational materials for Catholic schools like “Responding to Transgender Ideology.” But this seems to be a response to a problem that does not exist extensively in Catholic education. There is no data from within Catholic spaces that gives credence to this apocalyptic storyline.

Despite the close reading needed to distinguish between public ideologies and private identities, Pope Francis is consistent. Ideas are to be challenged with vigor, but people are to be accompanied with tenderness. If we can discern the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then we should also be able to find the real presence of Christ in our transgender neighbors, who exist in his one body.

David Palmieri

David Palmieri, a contributing writer for Outreach, teaches theology at a Catholic high school. He is a D.Min. candidate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

All articles by David Palmieri

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9 Comments
  1. Nice attempt at defusing the incoming missile from the DDF. However it’s not so clear that this generous interpretation of carefully selected off-the-cuff comments by Pope Francis will hold once we can read the very thoughtfully written document coming from the DDF.

    Just reading a few sentences before and after those linked in this article gives reason for concern for what’s coming. Further, I read elsewhere that Cardinal Fernandez gave explicit warnings that the document will oppose topics as gender re-assignment surgery and send shockwaves in the Church…

    Nevertheless let’s wait and see what’s actually written in that new document, in a couple of weeks or so. I really hope that after all the talk on pastoral care we won’t be served a double-down reminder of Church doctrine.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, JP.

      I am motivated by a principle that “everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (CCC 2478).

      As we approach the Easter season, I want to remain hopeful that well-mannered appeals to the DDF will encourage them to diffuse the language with which it addresses transgender issues.

      Yes, let’s wait and see.

      Reply
  2. I really struggle with disconnecting rhetoric/dialogue from the reality of persons and their identities. What is said/written is that which constructs our view of the world and the world itself. Distinguishing between public ideologies and private identities is not something we can do – not as in queer and trans*folk shouldn’t choose to do so, but because we actually cannot. Francis’s rhetoric about trans*folk is directly harmful to trans*folk, as it is spiritually painful and as it reifies the current culture of condemnation and oppression. It is not “incorrect” to connect these two things, especially when official Catholic documents cite them to reinforce exclusion (as the article notes with “The above excerpts from Pope Francis are cited extensively in diocesan policies on sexuality and gender.”) It is not “incorrect,” an “error,” or “abuse” to recognize that Francis’s word are used “like a sword” when, in reality, they are. Francis’s actions of welcoming are laudable, but his words that proclaim our identities are “ideologies” that are “dangerous” is, in fact, dangerous. This is why queer theorists and queer and trans* theologians warn against separating ideas/words/dialogue from their effects on structures of power and personal identities. What would queer and trans* advocacy in the Church look like if we wrestle with the reality that public ideas from personal identities are intimately intertwined?

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your insight, Nick.

      You are right that compartmentalizing public/private identities leads to dis-integrated results. What you say echoes my friend who expressed a direct causal relationship between how church leaders speak and how trans people are treated in Catholic spaces.

      In response to your closing question, I think LGBTQ advocacy looks like synodality. Our church can do better in the “art of storytelling” by allowing people to tell their own stories. If we just had the ears to listen …

      Reply
  3. Please mention that even if a “tsunami” of transgender people were in the church or catholic spaces that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Stop treating trans people and an absurdity that is “over there”, these are human beings that have live with us, our neighbors and friends.

    Reply
    • Good point, Bran.

      This ministry has blessed me with the grace to see and hear trans persons “here and now.” It is a gift to call many trans persons my friends — each one is unique, gifted, and loved.

      Reply
  4. Here we go again… “LGBTQ+ people are loved and welcomed in the church. Oh, and by the way, in a few weeks we’ll be releasing a strong critique of moral issues including gender ideology. We look forward to seeing you at mass on Sunday.”

    Reply
    • Rick, the saddest part is that when people don’t feel welcome they walk away. The Mass should be celebrated as an invitation to belonging in the Body of Christ.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for your thoughtful piece, David. I am struggling with the division drawn, but find that Vatican documents are often poorly translated into native Englishes, Vatican English is often starkly clerical and often harshly intellectual leaving little if any room for love. We can remember how words like inherently evil are officially in print for use against LGBT+ human beings. Such wounds are unlikely to be healed and may be yet again widened, I greatly fear.

    Reply
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