The CCE on gender theory: Strengths and weaknesses of a Catholic position
The text of the statement on gender theory by the Congregation for Catholic Education is excellent, but the approach it proposes demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic position today. This is reflected in the full title/subtitle: “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education”. On the one hand we see the Church’s strong vision of the truth; on the other, we suffer the reality that the Church is largely incapable of implementing that truth—hence the path of dialogue.
(Note: When I first announced the availability of this concise text on CatholicCulture.org, I did not realize we had posted a corrupted conversion of the original. This has been corrected.)
It is not, of course, that dialogue should ever be lacking. We must all introduce the truth to our neighbors through our friendships, organizations, schools and civic bodies, engaging them in ways which lead to better understanding and a more complete commitment to the truth about the human person. At the same time, ideally the Church would have strong institutions of her own that would inculcate the truth as a matter of course, so that Catholics themselves would be well-protected. In our time, however, dialogue is necessary both inside and outside the Church, not only because of its value but because of Catholic institutional weakness.
But the CCE is still right: Though I will dare to mention discipline in my conclusion, the only hope of making progress is a patient witness on the Catholic side along with a patient exchange between those who grasp reality and those who flee from it, even within the Church herself.
The CCE document is therefore extremely well-organized, possessing a precise structure suited to this preferred method of engagement:
- Brief overview (of gender theory development) (nos. 8-14)
- Points of agreement (15-18)
- Critique (19-23)
- Rational arguments (24-29)
- Christian anthropology (30-35)
- The family (36-38)
- The school (39-42)
- Society (43-46)
- Forming Formators (47-51)
- Conclusions (52-57)
Those unfamiliar with gender theory and its dramatic inroads into our contemporary consciousness of the nature of the human person should obviously read the “Brief overview” section. But the counter-cultural Catholic perspective does not enter in until, following the predictable and perfectly acceptable “Points of agreement”, we reach the “Critique”. Here the problems are well-stated: The destructive fluidity of both personal identity and the family, based on a false dualistic anthropology; an alleged equality of value among “identities” which actually negates the value of each, radically undermining human dignity; and educational and legislative programs which deny reality by divorcing our identity from our given nature, including our fixed sexuality as male and female.
In response to these massive shortcomings of gender theory, the “Reasoning” or “Rational arguments” section introduces a counter-analysis based on the clear centrality of the human body to human existence. Drawing on scientific fields such as genetics and medicine, on classical philosophy, on self-evident physiology, and on key factors in human formation, the Congregation seeks to introduce into the discussion important elements which are ignored in the now dominant gender theory—to the immense detriment of the individual, the family and the social order. Finally, quoting Pope Benedict XVI, it introduces the importance of a dialogue between faith and reason that can and must “begin from the present concrete situation of humanity and upon this develop a reflection that draws from the ontological-metaphysical truth.”
Beyond question, modern culture needs to be awakened to the need for this dialogue, which ultimately becomes a conversation with God.
What the Church Offers
In this context, the document enters its phase of “Proposing”, in which the text explores key insights of Christian anthropology and applies them to the family, the school and society as a whole, with additional comments on how those involved in human formation must themselves be formed. As the reader might expect, the deepest observations are in the section on Christian anthropology, as demonstrated by the following extracts:
30. …The first step in this process of throwing light on anthropology consists in recognizing that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. This is the fulcrum on which to support a human ecology that moves from the “respect for our dignity as human beings” and from the necessary relationship of our life to “moral law, which is inscribed into our nature”.
31. …The self is completed by the one who is other than the self, according to the specific identity of each person, and both have a point of encounter forming a dynamic of reciprocity which is derived from and sustained by the Creator.
32. The Holy Scripture reveals the wisdom of the Creator’s design, which “has assigned as a task to man his body, his masculinity and femininity; and that in masculinity and femininity he, in a way, assigned to him as a task his humanity, the dignity of the person, and also the clear sign of the interpersonal communion in which man fulfils himself through the authentic gift of himself ”. Thus, human nature must be understood on the basis of the unity of body and soul, far removed from any sort of physicalism or naturalism, since “in the unity of his spiritual and biological inclinations and of all the other specific characteristics necessary for the pursuit of his end”.
33. This “unified totality” integrates the vertical dimension (human communion with God) with the horizontal dimension constituted by the interpersonal communion that men and woman are called to live. One’s identity as a human person comes to authentic maturity to the extent that one opens up to others….
34. There is a need to reaffirm the metaphysical roots of sexual difference, as an anthropological refutation of attempts to negate the male-female duality of human nature, from which the family is generated. The denial of this duality not only erases the vision of human beings as the fruit of an act of creation but creates the idea of the human person as a sort of abstraction who “chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him”.
35. Seen from this perspective, education on sexuality and affectivity must involve each person in a process of learning “with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of his or her body” in the full original truth of masculinity and femininity….
Conclusion: Family Primacy
The remainder of this key Catholic section applies these insights to the family, which must retain its human integrity, its foundational character in the social order, and its primacy in the formation and education of children. Brief sections on the school, society as a whole and the proper formation of all to whom children are entrusted follow upon the fundamental Christian anthropology of the document and its emphasis on the nature and importance of human families.
As we have already seen, the Congregation sees a dialogue with all parties as its best hope in our current situation: “[T]he path of dialogue, which involves listening, reasoning and proposing, appears the most effective way towards a positive transformation of concerns and misunderstandings, as well as a resource that in itself can help develop a network of relationships that is both more open and more human” (52). And while this is certainly true with respect to the larger secular world, and even to some extent with too many secularized families who, for various reasons, send their children to Catholic schools, I do not think we can forget a corresponding call to discipline within the Church herself.
The Congregation for Catholic Education cannot, of course, exercise this discipline itself. But the ongoing work of Catholic renewal surely demands that bishops around the world take steps to ensure that their elementary schools, high schools, CCD and youth programs are not infected with teachers and leaders who fail to share this Catholic understanding of human anthropology. This is implicit in the CCE’s section on “Forming formators”. Moreover, there must be a far greater emphasis throughout the Church on the reclamation and development of truly Catholic colleges and universities which will not seek to rob our children of a true understanding of what it means to be human as soon as they leave home.
Finally, there must be an ever-increasing insistence on not just the rights of parents but their ongoing effective responsibility. This responsibility includes, in the vast majority of cases, arrangements for an education firmly based in reality all the way through college. The Congregation for Catholic Education, along with the rest of the leadership of the Catholic Church, can also play an important role in pressing toward these even more important goals. For at some point we must create a generation of Catholics who can presuppose these truths within the Church, so that they can effectively continue this dialogue in the larger society, for the express purpose of transforming modern culture in Christ.
Dialogue within the Church herself is not enough. I should also insist once again that it is not enough—it has never been enough—simply to issue documents from which those of good will can learn.
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