Earlier this month the Congregation for Catholic Education released a document titled “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” The document is aimed at addressing the “educational crisis” created by a widespread anthropological ideology that is being presented in curricula as “neutral,” while in fact it is opposed both “to faith and to right reason.” The document refers to this ideology as an “ideology of gender,” which the last two popes have criticized in various writings. This document, however, is the first written primarily to address this ideology, in this case by seeking to open a path toward dialogue and therefore inviting engagement.
Here I want to make explicit the philosophical dimension of this topic. In that light, I also address some common objections to the Church’s teaching.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis carefully distinguished between understanding human weakness and accepting an ideology. Because criticism of an ideology is not a criticism of any person or persons, “Male and Female” should not be taken as criticizing any persons. Its aim in criticizing gender ideology is to help us see more clearly the errors of this ideology, so that we can more clearly see and live in peace according to the truth. With regard to the treatment of persons, the document affirms the “laudable desire to combat all expressions of unjust discrimination,” the need to foster a culture of respect for every person, and the Church’s opposition to “bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination” based on a person’s “sexual tendencies.”
The Catholic Church seeks to build a culture that is based on the recognition of the equal intrinsic dignity of all persons, and the truth that each human person is made in God’s image and is loved by God. Each is a person for whom Christ died and with whom we hope to share eternal communion in heaven as beloved children of God. On this basis, the document opposes hateful acts of violence and unjust discrimination. At a time when persons who identify as transgender are vulnerable to higher rates of violence and suicide, these truths are an especially important message and serve as a necessary touchstone for dialogue.
On Philosophy Beyond the Limitations of Scientism
One of the most common sources of difficulty with the Church’s teaching in this area is a failure to recognize its philosophical dimension. This domain is between that of the physical and social sciences and that of sacred theology. As inheritors of twentieth-century positivism, many people today assume that the quantitative sciences are the arbiters of truth, and that any other way of knowing, except that privileged and direct access to one’s own internal subjectivity, can be no more than private opinion or pseudoscience. This diminished conception of the power of human reason is called scientism, and it is the philosophical air we breathe.
As a result of this tacit scientism, philosophy as a domain of inquiry and truth is often invisible or, at best, marginalized. Because gender ideology operates at the level of philosophy, it too tends to be invisible to those whose perspective is shaped by scientism. This is why persons can conceptually and performatively adhere to and advance gender ideology while sincerely denying that they hold any ideology, claiming instead to be following only science, best practices, and personal experience.
The 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio makes clear that the Church views scientism and its concomitant philosophical skepticism as a philosophical error. The Church thinks and speaks in a broader intellectual tradition not restricted by scientism.
This intentional appeal to philosophy can also be seen in “Male and Female.” See, for example, the distinction in paragraph 23 between the “order of nature” and the “order of biology,” the latter being limited to what is “accessible to methods of empirical and descriptive natural science.” Similarly, paragraph 29 argues for “a broadening of reason to include the dimension of the transcendent” and the need to “develop a reflection that draws from the ontological-metaphysical truth.” Paragraph 34 describes the “need to reaffirm the metaphysical roots of sexual difference.” Even the referent of “right reason” in the opening paragraph of “Male and Female” is not limited to what can be known through the scientific method but also includes philosophical insights.
Philosophical Anthropology and Sex
According to the philosophical anthropology of the Catholic philosophical tradition, we are a body-soul composite, not a spirit making use of a body. Patrick Lee and Robert George articulate this well in their critique of body-self dualism. The divinely revealed truth that God created us male and female is closely related to the truth that our bodies are not merely something that we have or use, but part of our very selves.
This doctrine is made more intelligible by the truth from the Catholic philosophical tradition that sex is part of human nature. Just as it belongs to the design plan of the human body to have a brain, arms, and legs, so it belongs to the design plan of the human body—and thus of the human person—to be male or female, for the sake of sexual reproduction and the communion of conjugal union.
Although sex ordinarily corresponds to the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, ontologically the distinction between male and female is not grounded in genetics but in the two natural orders of the body with respect to sex, toward the production of one gamete type or the other. In this way, sex is not at root private and subjective but objective and public. It is something that ordinarily can be directly recognized by others, because sex is manifested in the teleological order of the body. Sex is biological, yet it can be invisible to a reductionistic biology uninformed by the natural order visible in the bodily teleology present at the human scale.
This philosophical dimension of sex explains why treating intersex cases as a refutation of the male-female binary fails. This argument fails to recognize that anomalies from the natural order do not nullify that order. When a dog is born with only three legs, we recognize this not as an indication that the nature of dogs is to have either four legs or only three. Rather, we recognize such anomalies in relation to the design plan from which they depart.
Intersex conditions are rightly referred to as disorders of sexual development. Yet we must recognize the shared human nature fully present even in persons with a developmental disorder. This is the basis for affirming each person’s equal intrinsic dignity. When we fail to recognize the natural order at the philosophical level, then the only “nature” a type can have is some observable feature or component that all (and only) the members of that type have in common, without exception. Thus, the notion that intersex cases nullify the male-female binary is not a refutation of the binary, but an indication of a failure at the philosophical level to recognize an underlying order intelligible to human reason.
There is another related objection to the male-female binary. The argument is that because a multiplicity of biological factors contribute to sexual differentiation and development, sex must either be a continuum, or there must be many more sexes than male and female. Again, the binary quality of sex as male or female can be grounded in the two natural orders of the body with respect to gamete production. This is true even if there is no single genetic marker that determines this. When the philosophical apprehension of nature is missing on account of a background assumption of scientism, the multiple genetic, biochemical, and hormonal factors contributing to sexual development seem to imply only a continuous spectrum of sexual differentiations, as if there were no ontological basis for the male-female binary.
In the end, treating intersex cases as undermining the male-female binary, and reducing sex to a particular constellation of genetic factors, are not philosophically neutral inferences. Rather, they are based on a scientistic conceptual framework.
Philosophical Anthropology and Gender
“Male and Female” uses the term “gender” to refer to “the way in which the differences between the sexes are lived in each culture.” Gender, in this sense, is something objective and public, and yet culturally conditioned. The use of the term in this way is not an endorsement of unjust or sexist gender expressions. Instead, it is an affirmation of the virtuous, diverse ways that the real differences between the sexes are socially recognized, expressed, and celebrated in various cultures. Nor should this sense of gender be confused or conflated with the use of the term to refer to one’s sense of one’s own gender, often referred to as “gender identity.”
The document claims that gender ideology errs in two related ways with respect to gender. First, gender ideology treats gender as not merely distinct from sex (which the document affirms), but as entirely separable from sex, as though the way sexes are lived in each culture should have no relation to sex and to the ontological difference between the sexes. This is an error, because it denies the underlying sex binary discussed above.
Secondly, gender ideology treats gender as “dependent upon the subjective mindset of each person, who can choose a gender not corresponding to his or her biological sex, and therefore with the way others see that person (transgenderism).” Here too the reason why this ideology is mistaken has a philosophical basis. The document does not deny that some persons can and do experience a dissonance between their affective sense of personal identity (particularly in relation to the social expression of sexuality) and the sex of their bodies. Nor is the document claiming that this experience of dissonance is voluntarily chosen. Rather, it argues that because of the relation of the body and soul in our given and shared human nature, and because of the relation of gender to sex, our subjective experience is not ipso facto determinative of either our sex or our gender.
Personal Experience, Science, and Church Teaching
Our sex and gender are given to us objectively in our body. Gender ideology denies this, because it presupposes body-self dualism.
According to gender ideology, we should choose to allow our subjective experience to define our sex and gender rather than allow the sex of our body and the gender corresponding to that sex to define our personal identity. That is the choice referred to in the document’s criticism of gender ideology. Appealing to subjective experience as an objection to the document’s teaching would presuppose that very component of gender ideology. In other words, it would presuppose the very point in question.
Hence, the notion that the Church is “listening” only if she treats each person’s lived experience as the defining criterion of personal identity is itself an expression of the “absolute and unquestionable” character of gender ideology.
Another objection to the Church’s teaching regarding gender ideology is that this teaching is either opposed to science or has been disproven by science. This objection points to studies such as this, explained here, suggesting a genetic link to gender dysphoria, and others such as this and this, suggesting differences in brain structure for persons with gender dysphoria. The interpretation of these studies is disputed, as David Cloutier pointed out recently here. But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that researchers discover (a) a clear causal link between genetic factors and dissonance between one’s subjective sense of one’s affectivity and one’s physical sex and (b) statistically significant structural differences in the brains of transgender persons indicating greater similarity to the brain structure of persons of the opposite sex.
Such discoveries would still not disprove the Church’s teaching. On the contrary, they would be fully compatible with the truth of the Church’s teaching. Just as being male in sex and acting in accord with the male gender do not depend on the presence of sexual desire, fertility, or even the presence of the male genitalia, so they do not depend on the presence or absence of a particular brain structure or genetic factors. The claim that such studies falsify or disprove the Church’s teaching is itself based on an implicit scientism, according to which sex and gender are not grounded ontologically in human nature and the order of the body toward the production of one gamete type or the other, but rather in genetic constellations or brain structures.
There are many other possible objections both to the document and to this essay, which space and time do not allow me to address here. And I welcome critical replies as part of the dialogue for which this document calls. I hope that I have shown here at least two things.
First, that from a perspective of scientism and reductionism, scientific evidence can be perceived as conflicting with Church teaching, when in fact it does not. From that perspective, there is simply no ontological space in which to see how the teaching could harmonize with those scientific data. Second, that when this document states that gender ideology presents itself as neutral but also as “absolute and unquestionable,” and thus precluding dialogue, it is pointing to a philosophical error that silences objection by defining disagreement with itself as hateful and anathematizing.
At the same time, our response to persons who experience gender dysphoria, who identify as transgender, who are victims of violence, or who hold and advance gender ideology—as well as those who oppose it—should always be one of respect. We should strive for openness, an authentic desire to hear their stories, and a robust defense of their human dignity as fellow children of God.