Sexual difference, of which the difference between male and female human beings is an instance, is of theological significance, and is not simply a product of social construction or individual choice. I agree with that previous sentence, as do swathes of Catholics across the spectrum of positions ranging from von Balthasaar devotees through to probably most feminist theologians. If it is saying anything important or controversial enough to need ecclesiastical reinforcement, which is to be doubted, the Vatican could have simply have asserted the first sentence of this blogpost (I waive copyright if they want to follow me up on this). As it happens that sentence summarises the coherent content that is to be extracted from “Male and Female: he created them“.
The damage, however, is done by the incoherent bits of the document, by what is hinted at, condemned without being fully understood, asserted on the basis of inadequate justification. And these are not merely intellectual failings. The result is a document that will cause hurt and confusion among some of the Church’s most vulnerable members. It risks, especially in a culture in which the media will amplify and distort the already damaging content, pushing people away from the Church. The whole document deserves the response “Sed contra: ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.’ “
Don’t suppose that I am saying that the Church should conform itself to modish opinion, or that it should never make moral judgements for fear of people walking away. As an orthodox Catholic I take neither of these views, and whilst I wish that these kind of considerations were more often brought to bear on questions of, say, wealth and poverty or war, I think that Christian faith has implications for human sexuality and that it falls within the remit of the magisterium to teach on this. As it happens I think that Male and Female: he created them makes no useful contribution – it is a hasty, ill-argued, under-informed contribution on deep topics a proper ecclesial response to which would require years of prayer, accompaniment, dialogue, and simply living out the life of the Church in a world that poses new questions.
Even if that were wrong, however, tone matters. The Church doesn’t teach things simply to make people better informed. It does so as part of its mission to draw the creation into fellowship with God, in response to God’s love for us. ‘Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’. Truth and love are one for God, and our speaking of the truth must be loving. That means that we do not speak in a way which singles out those who are already vulnerable and persecuted (following Christ in Galilee, they can only be singled out as the privileged recipients of the Kingdom), it means that we don’t adopt a high-minded tone, blustering our way to condemn all of the world’s faults, and it means that we take the views of those with whom we disagree seriously. Compare the care Aquinas takes to answer Jewish, Muslim, and pagan thinkers, as well as his Christian interlocutors, in the Summa with the Vatican’s attitude towards what it calls ‘gender theory’.
This point really needs emphasising, since the language of gender theory is leaking into some Catholic vernaculars. The Vatican’s use of ‘gender theory’ in Male and Female and elsewhere does not pick out either a consistent doctrine or an idea signed up to by any living human being. At different points gender theory seems to be the idea that:
(a) gender is a property we have in virtue of social structures, in virtue of which we are subject to role expectations on the basis of our sex. Gender ought to be abolished.
elsewhere, it is more like,
(b) gender is a feature all human beings have, it can come apart from our biological sex. Peoples’ gender ought to be affirmed (and each person’s view of their own gender ought to be accepted).
Now (a) and (b) stand in stark practical contradiction, and it is difficult to imagine that anyone who hasn’t lived in a cave without wi-fi for the past decade having not noticed the battles within feminism and elsewhere over which is correct. Nor do (a) and (b) quite exhaust the field of ‘gender theory’. One imagines Judith Butler falling within the Vatican’s intended remit, but she in fact expresses scepticism about the sex-gender distinction. (In a bizarre, and rare, case of horseshoe theory being correct, this in fact is a point of agreement between her and Male and Female).
Bundling all these things together as ‘gender theory’ serves no useful purpose. It is a failure of comprehension of the most basic kind. Amalgamating as it does any view other than a traditional patriarchal one, it looks designed to funnel thought about gender and sexuality down an ultra-conservative path one imagines to be unattractive to the present Pope.
We need to do better on this stuff. And there is a ready resource available. The Catholic Church has thousands of theologians who work on questions around feminism and sexuality. Many of those are women, a group (if one can call half the human race a group) which the Pope has – rightly – spoken about the need to hear. Well, here’s an opportunity.