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Papal biographer: Vatican is right on gender theory, but the church must walk with transgender people

Views Austen Ivereigh / April 18, 2024 Print this:
Saint Peter's Basilica from the Via della Conciliazione in Vatican City, September 14, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Diego Delso)

Editor’s note: This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the Vatican declaration “Dignitas Infinita.” In a spirit of synodality, we have invited authors with a range of views on gender identity and its relation to Catholic teaching to present analysis and opinion. We invite you to read more of our coverage, including:

Because Pope Francis in March had told a conference in Rome that he had asked for studies into gender ideology, and because the new Vatican declaration, “Dignitas Infinita,” was known to be treating the topic, a few of us were expecting something more substantial on the topic than its five paragraphs.

It leaves many key questions hanging, and fails to take into account the growing body of science and literature on the topic of gender. A thoughtful piece on Outreach by Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., says all this very well, and it’s difficult not to agree. 

As a summary of gender theory—the scientific coherence of which, the document says, “is the subject of considerable debate among experts”—D.I. barely scratches the surface, because its purpose is not to go into detail on each of the challenges to contemporary human dignity, but to show how they are threaded together. We await a more systematic treatment.

It is the graciousness of the pope’s own outreach to trans people directly that has touched and edified.

But in reaching for the pen to write “needs more” in the margin, there is a danger that some use this an excuse to dismiss what is prophetic and challenging in D.I. 

Before explaining that point, I see one area where, even within its own framework, the document misses an important opportunity. For surely it is a sign of the outworking of the Gospel that there has been a growing awareness these past two decades of the dignity of those who suffer gender dysphoria.

A pope’s “gracious attentiveness”

Pope Francis himself has modeled this attentiveness to the dignity and fragility of transgender people, not just by making clear they can be baptized and be godparents (in other words, fully members of the People of God), but also by supporting those who minister to them, like Sister Mónica Astorga and Sister Jeannine Gramick. But most of all, it is the graciousness of the pope’s own outreach to trans people directly that has touched and edified, especially his bond with the trans women of a seaside town in Italy. 

Early on in his pontificate, Francis gave a striking example of that gracious attentiveness. He told journalists of the experience of a Spanish transgender man, Diego Neria, whom the pope received with Neria’s wife at the Vatican in January 2016. Francis had on that occasion embraced him, told him he was fully a son of the church and that, if people rejected him, it was their problem, not his.

Without naming him, Francis told reporters how, growing up, Neria “had suffered a lot because he felt himself to be a man, but was physically a girl.” Later in life, he had surgery, and had been supported by his bishop, even though he had experienced rejection from some in his parish. “Hormonal imbalances create a lot of problems,” Francis said on the flight back from Azerbaijan.

“We have to take each case, and welcome him, walk with him, study him, discern and integrate him. This is what Jesus would do today,” said the pope.

Compassionate attentiveness does not in and of itself resolve difficult questions. Is dysphoria a chromosomal variant or a psychological issue?

At the press conference to release D.I., Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández told the story of how one pope in 1537 excommunicated those who enslaved people, yet only 80 years earlier his predecessor had allowed the King of Portugal to enslave. He signaled this as a sign of the outworking of the Gospel, the unfurling awareness over time of the intrinsic, inalienable dignity of all human beings. Could something similar not have been said of Pope Francis—and society at large—in relation to gender dysphoria? 

But compassionate attentiveness does not in and of itself resolve difficult questions. Is dysphoria a chromosomal variant or a psychological issue?

D.I. does not get into that; nor does it deal with the therapeutic answers to dysphoria. It does make clear that attempts to “change sex” fail to respect and accept the order of creation we have been given, yet it notes the possibility of needing to “resolve” genital abnormalities evident at birth or that develop later. But such a medical procedure, the document says, “would not constitute a sex change in the sense intended here.”

Yet a “sex change” is surely what Diego Neria sought when he had his operation, changed his civil status and married a woman. And it is what Francis accepted as having taken place when he referred to Neria as “he, who had been she, but is he.” It is what he also appeared to acknowledge in telling his story: that Neria had been on a journey of struggle and self-acceptance, and had found resolution and peace.

Most medical experts accept that, in some cases and after long testing, medical therapies for gender reassignment could be the right or best path for treating gender dysphoria. Yet D.I. would appear to accept that Neria’s surgery would only be valid if it allowed her to remain the woman she was born. 

We await, then, a document from the Vatican capable of engaging with these complexities and experiences. But that doesn’t make what D.I. proclaims as true any less true. Sexual difference—the male-female polarity—is “foundational,” says D.I., for it is part of God’s gift to humanity in creating us male and female. In separating biological sex from the socio-cultural category of gender, which is denied any innate connection to anatomy and reduced to a social construction, gender theory envisages a society which has eradicated the male-female difference.

Most medical experts accept that … medical therapies for gender reassignment could be the right or best path for treating gender dysphoria.

Gender theory and gender dysphoria

The desire to be rid of that difference is to reject the God-givenness of creation itself. It is to seek self-determination apart from the truth of that creation, the “age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel.” Only by recognizing and acknowledging the male-female “difference in reciprocity” can each of us discover our true identity—and therefore our true dignity. 

Is any of this surprising or wrong? It is certainly not a critique directed at those suffering gender dysphoria, for dysphoria does not deny the male-female polarity.  

Many years ago, while running a team of Catholic media communicators in London, I invited two transgender Catholics to share their stories. Both had suffered intensely as children, and transitioned later in life. Both had been raised Catholic, and despite hostility and incomprehension, still believed and practiced their faith. I took away three points from their stories, which I have never forgotten. 

The first was the unique intensity of their anguish, the agonizing loneliness of their childhoods and the unjust way they were so often treated. (Hearing them, we were in tears.) The second was that surgery had brought a whole new catalogue of suffering and injustice, as well years of further indignity and physical and mental pain. (One said that, overall, gender reassignment treatment had been of benefit; the other deeply regretted it, wished she had never had it and wanted to “detransition.”)

The third point was surprising. Neither of them had time for gender theory as an account of what they were going through: the notion of gender as a fluid, nonbinary social construct struck them as wrong. Indeed, their whole painful journey illustrated the obverse: a struggle to overcome that disassociation, and to finally be a man or a woman. 

When D.I. says that gender theory is a threat to human dignity because it denies “the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference,” it is not critiquing gender dysphoria but a theory that denies the male-female polarity.

The declaration is not critiquing gender dysphoria but a theory that denies the male-female polarity.

One of the most systematic and careful accounts of that theory’s genesis and spread is by the New Feminist philosopher Prudence Allen, a U.S. Sister of Mercy who is consulted by the Vatican and who has spoken at conferences. The author of the three-volume work The Concept of Woman, a comprehensive study of the notion of gender throughout history, Sister Allen was one of five women appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to the International Theological Commission, where she helped produce its document on synodality.   

Her study of the origins and development of gender theory, and its denial of what she calls “gender reality,” is illuminating. She traces its genesis to the controversial research of Alfred Kinsey in the 1960s and ’70s, and especially to the psychologist John Money, who claimed that gender identity was primarily due to environmental factors rather than genes or anatomy. (Money notoriously encouraged sexual reassignment for the infant David Reimer to prove his case, with disastrous consequences.)

These concepts were taken up by feminists in social sciences to claim that gender is a social construct in which the division of the world into two sexes masks a system of male domination. From here gender theory morphed into an ideological drive to remake the social relations of sexuality via an androgynous, genderless society, in which sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is and what one does, where there are no more “men” and “women,” only “penis-havers” or “womb-havers” and individuals constructing infinitely malleable combinations. 

When D.I. speaks about sex change, it reminds us that “humans are inseparably composed of both body and soul,” and that “both participate in the dignity that characterizes every human.” This is the Aristotelian-Thomist descriptive metaphysics at the heart of Sister Allen’s description of gender reality.

What does the Vatican mean by “gender theory”?

Gender theory draws on a very different, dualistic metaphysics, which takes a deconstructionist approach to the person as a patchwork of qualities, or parts, that can be reconstructed or rearranged at will. The split in conception here is radical and real. Gender theory as such is incompatible with Christian anthropology. 

Yet, amazingly, some who speak for LGBTQ Catholics claim that gender theory is a “strawman,” a “Frankenstein’s monster” created by the Vatican or they critique D.I. as “gender essentialism” that fails to take into account nonbinary people. As Michael Sean Winters points out, D.I. goes to the core of the theological issue related to gender theory, yet “not one” of the reactions from those who minister and speak on behalf of that community has acknowledged it.   

Gender theory as such is incompatible with Christian anthropology. 

When Pope Francis speaks of “gender ideology” engaged in “ideological colonization,” he is referring to a movement that seeks to impose gender theory. Ideologies tend to ignore facts, to abuse power and to harm people; all three are true in this case.

In the U.K., we have seen the hounding and demonization of feminist critics of gender ideology such as Maya Forstater (who was sacked from her job) and Kathleen Stock (forced to stand down from her academic post) for claiming that a woman who has transitioned remains a woman. The intolerance and absolutism of the trans activist movement should ring alarm bells for those in the church who care about human dignity. 

Equally concerning is the way gender ideology has colonized the medical profession, laid bare in recent weeks in the U.K. by a high-level investigation into the scandal of the National Health Service’s “Gender Identity Development Service” (GIDS), which has since shut down. Some 9,000 young people were recklessly put on puberty blockers and hormone treatments, while experienced doctors who challenged the practice were silenced.

“There are few other areas of healthcare where professionals are so afraid to openly discuss their views, where people are vilified on social media and where name-calling echoes the worst bullying behaviour,” says the author of the report.

Gender ideology trumped evidence-based medicine. Rather than trying to understand the sudden rise in pubescent girls in the early 2010s presenting with depression, anxiety and doubts about their gender, they were given life-changing treatments to help them transition, with devastating consequences.   

A call for further engagement

Some fear that D.I. will be weaponized to justify discrimination against trans people. If it is—and let’s face it, anything can be weaponized—it will be a violation of the declaration’s core teaching about the dignity of all.

The church needs the study Francis has called for. 

But the Vatican needs far more engagement with the experience of transgender people and the issues surrounding dysphoria if it is to be credible in communicating that message. The church needs the study Francis has called for. 

Yet it is also vital that those who speak in the name of the LGBTQ community in the church reject the false claims and toxic outcomes of gender theory and ideologies, or at least not dismiss the Vatican’s well-founded concern about them.

A gracious, attentive and humble attitude is needed in both places, one that follows Francis’s example in attending firstly to the reality of suffering, and upholding the infinite dignity of those affected. From there, the conversation can begin. 

Austen Ivereigh

Austen Ivereigh is a British writer and biographer of Pope Francis. His most recent book is "First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis" (Loyola Press, 2024).

All articles by Austen Ivereigh

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  1. Ivereigh repeats DI’s original sin by not actually engaging with gender studies— merely repeating the ways that others have mischaracterized them. What a shame to throw our non-binary siblings under the bus for an unscientific and uncatholic understanding of the gender “binary.” This is something actual ministers to lgbtq people will never do. Ivereigh needs to do some more learning and listening to queer folks before he parrots harmful Vatican talking points. Saying “I once heard two trans folks say…” isn’t enough.

  2. Thank you very much for a thought provoking article. Certainly there are a variety of views among transgender people in terms of how their life experiences should be explained There is also a huge amount we don’t know. I do however have to raise a question about the article in relaton to the Cass review: ‘Some 9,000 young people were recklessly put on puberty blockers and hormone treatments, while experienced doctors who challenged the practice were silenced.’ Could that figure be checked. My understanding is that 9,000 children and young people went through the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service and only a minority were prescribed puberty blockers. Of course I don’t want to see bad outcomes for even one person. However if we are talking about scale it is important to get the numbers correct (as best we can, and of course I may well be wrong here). Thanks again