The Pope’s confusing statement on gender theory: a follow-up

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 05, 2016

Several readers have written to me overnight, saying that I was mistaken in saying that Pope Francis had sent mixed messages about gender theory. Let me respond to that concern.

When he spoke in Tbilisi, Georgia, the Pope was admirably clear in his denunciation of gender theory. (I said that much in my piece yesterday.) When he was pressed on the issue during his in-flight press conference, with a question from a National Catholic Reporter correspondent, he was not clear at all.

Let’s review what the Pope said in that exchange with reporters that, in the view of some readers, showed his opposition to gender ideology*:

  • He mentioned a French man who objected when his 10-year-old son was taught gender theory in school. Then he said: “It is one thing that a person has this tendency, this option; and even those who change sex. It is another thing to teach along this line in schools, to change the mentality.” Thus he implied—perhaps unintentionally—that his objection was to teaching gender ideology, not necessarily to sex-change procedures.
  • “Sin is sin,” the Pope said. “Tendencies or hormonal imbalances cause many problems…” Later he added: “It is a moral question. It is a problem.” Yes, but what is the nature of that problem: a hormonal imbalance, an emotional illness, or a mistaken gender assignment? What is the solution: conversion, counseling, or surgery?
  • “I wish to be clear,” the Pope said. In the more complete transcript furnished by CNA, he elaborated: “Please don’t say, ‘The Pope sanctifies transgenders.’” (Curiously that line was omitted from the official Vatican summary.) Unfortunately, wishing to be clear does not guarantee clarity. Surely the Holy Father did not set up transgender people as models. And we can all agree that the Pope does not endorse sex-change operations. But if a confused young person read through the Pope’s answer, looking for some reason not to change his sexual identity, he would not find it.

Yet this lack of clarity is not, in my view, the major problem with the Pope’s answer. My greater concern was his willingness to accept his Spanish visitor’s self-identification as a male. Right now, in the field of gender theory—which the Pope, in Tbilisi, rightly identified as a war on marriage—the main battleground is over the use of pronouns. The gender theorists insist that if a man identifies as a woman, or a woman as a man, we must use the pronouns those individuals prefer, rather than the pronouns that match objective reality. On that critical issue, the Pope yielded.

There are some unfortunate people who suffer from anorexia, and persist in thinking that they must lose weight even when they are dangerously undernourished. These people need our help, our support, our love. But they do not need us to reaffirm them in the mistaken perception that they are fat. They might harm themselves by continuing to diet; if we really love them we should try to correct their self-image, to usher them back to reality. So too with people who suffer from other warped perceptions of reality, including men who think they are women and women who think they are men.

During his press conference Pope Francis said that the problem of sexual identity “must be resolved as is possible, always with God’s mercy, with the truth, as we have said in the case of marriage.” [Emphasis added.] Telling the truth about sexual identity is the only effective way to counter the propaganda of the gender theorists.


* Except in the one case indicated above, I have taken quotations from the “summary” of the press conference produced by the Vatican press office, rather than from the full transcript, since the official summary presumably is a better indication of what the Pope intended.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - Oct. 05, 2016 8:19 AM ET USA

    Thank you for your example of anorexia . . . I have been looking for a good analogy to use in discussions with those caught up in the (evil) spirit of the moment.