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Reading Pope Francis backwards on ‘gender ideology’

Pope Francis has said transgender people must be “accepted and integrated into society” in a private letter to the founder of a dissident Catholic ministry.

The letter was addressed to Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, an organization that provides pastoral outreach to self-identified LGBT persons and called for changes to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. 

Francis wrote the note in response to a letter from Gramick after the publication of Dignitas infinita, the Vatican doctrinal office’s declaration on human dignity, which she said “is harming the transgender people I love” because of its rejection of gender ideology.

According to Gramick, Francis responded by proposing an understanding of “gender ideology” which she “had not heard before” and, in a post on New Ways’ website, suggested that Francis’ expressed views mean he should be supportive of sex-change surgeries for transgender people.

But despite lamenting that “the same words mean different things to different people,” Gramick appeared to advance the argument Dignitas teaches against, and attempted to repurpose the pope’s condemnation of “gender ideology” into support for it.


In Dignitas infinita, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that “respect for both one’s own body and that of others is crucial in light of the proliferation of claims to new rights advanced by gender theory.” 

“This ideology envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family,” the DDF said, while affirming that “the dignity of the body cannot be considered inferior to that of the person.”

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church expressly invites us to recognize that ‘the human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God.’ Such a truth deserves to be remembered, especially when it comes to sex change, for humans are inseparably composed of both body and soul,” reads the declaration.

It was this section, according to Gramick, which “is harming” transgender people and which prompted her to write to the pope, decrying the use of the term “gender ideology” and explaining that while she “could not understand why some transgender people seek ‘sex-change interventions,’” (which she also called “gender affirming medical interventions”) she “has [emphasis original] listened to their stories.” 

The sister went on to make an argument which essentially equates acceptance of transgender people, as advocated by Pope Francis, with acceptance of sex-change surgeries, which both the pope and the DDF reject.

In doing so, Gramick insisted that Francis’ condemnation of an ideology which “which nullifies differences” between the sexes and genders is a (perhaps unwitting) endorsement of sex-change surgery because transgender people are, by virtue of their condition, most especially and acutely aware of these very differences.

“Transgender people do not wantonly decide that their gender identity differs from their bodily appearances,” she argued. “They make this decision after much soul-searching, reflection, distress, and pain. The Church should aid in removing the pain so the person can become one in mind and body as God intends.”

But Gramick’s argument appeared to miss the basic point made by Francis and explained fully in the DDF declaration: that to imagine one can “change sex” through cosmetic means is to affirm the denial of embodied sex as an objective reality.

Answering this apparent contradiction, Gramick shifted the Church’s responsibility to articulate objective truth into an attempt to impose an oppressive worldview formed, rather than received, by the Church and which the Church should therefore change.

“If ‘it is in the body that each person recognizes himself or herself,’ as Dignitas Infinita asserts, what a serious burden the Church is placing on the person who does not recognize themselves in the body of their birth!” said Gramick.

As a line of reasoning, this would appear to fail a basic test of internal coherence. 

If, as she recognized Dignitas infinita teaches to be objective truth, it is a fact that “the soul and the body both participate in the dignity that characterizes every human” and are inseparable and immutable, it does not follow that the Church places a serious burden on people by recognizing that fact. 

Indeed such “logic” would appear to be an inversion of Christ’s own statement that “you will know the truth, and that truth will set you free.”

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While Gramick’s inversion of both the Church’s understanding of truth and Pope Francis’ observations about gender ideology do not appear to hold logical water, she did present it along familiar rhetorical lines, framing opposition to sex-change surgeries as equivalent to a rejection of transgender people qua people.

The false equivalency between accepting and loving a person and accepting and validating their choices is a well rehearsed trope in opposition to the Church’s teaching on issues of sex and sexuality. 

In response, the Church has, for decades following the sexual revolution, continued to affirm that an essential part of loving a person is warning against choices which can do them harm. 

This is often presented by some as evidence of a kind of doctrinal rigidity, or even a kind of veiled bigotry. Indeed prominent Churchmen like San Diego’s Cardinal Robert McElroy have argued in much the same style, equating the welcoming homosexual persons with validating sexual behaviors, while similarly seeking to support Pope Francis by contradicting him

Yet Pope Francis’ call, as systematically presented in Dignitas infinita, for inclusion and acceptance to be necessarily joined to and linked with loving articulation of the truth has been carefully and compassionately articulated for decades, including by some of Francis’ own closest episcopal collaborators.

In his own pastoral letter on homosexuality, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of Francis’ C9 council of cardinal advisers, said that “The Church has often warned against defining people by their sexual orientation in a way that diminishes their humanity.” 

“Each person is a mystery, an irreplaceable treasure, precious in God’s eye,” wrote the cardinal. “We are God’s creatures and in baptism we are His sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to one another.”

But, O’Malley warned, “the extreme individualism of our age is undermining the common good and fractionalizing the community.”

“It is never easy to deliver a message that calls people to make sacrifices or to do difficult things,” he said, but “it is important to express the moral teachings of the Church with clarity and fidelity. The Church must be Church. We must teach the truths of the Gospel in season and out of season.”

“We must never deliver the message in a self-righteous way, but rather with compassion and humility,” O’Malley said but warned that “sometimes people want to punish the messenger.”

In the case of Pope Francis and the DDF declaration on gender ideology, the emerging tactic seems not to be to punish the messenger, but instead to distort the message itself to co-opt him.

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