Amid a flurry of headlines denouncing the Vatican for releasing a document condemning “gender theory,” theology professors and Catholic educators told CNA that the document will be helpful in setting priorities for Catholic educators going forward, as Catholic schools respond to questions about LGBT issues.
“I love the emphasis on ‘forming the formators’...It’s important for teachers to realize that they’ve got to be able to answer their students’ questions, whether in religious education or teaching in a Catholic school,” Dr. Theresa Farnan, a professor of philosophy at St. Paul Seminary, the minor seminary of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, told CNA.
“You’ve got to be able to answer your students’ questions. Because you might get one shot to answer that question, and that may be it.”
Published at the beginning of “Pride Month,” during which many cities and corporations mark the campaign of LGBT advocacy, the document says that the Church teaches an essential difference between men and woman, ordered in the natural law and essential to the family and human flourishing.
“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 Congregation for Catholic Education wrote June 10, in a document entitled “Male and Female He Created Them.”
“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’,” the document states.
For Christians working in schools, both religious and secular, the radical individualism of gender theory should be avoided in favor of teaching children “to overcome their individualism and discover, in the light of faith, their specific vocation to live responsibly in a community.”
Dr. Susan Selner-Wright, who holds the Archbishop Chaput Chair in Philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, told CNA that “dialogue” does not, as some may believe, mean the same thing as “compromise” when it comes to talking about these kinds of issues.
“‘Dialogue’ right now, in the culture, basically means everybody’s got a right to their opinion, all opinions are equal, and ‘dialogue’ is just basically cover for never having to disagree with each other. And I think the congregation was just brilliant in explaining what dialogue really is,” Selner-Wright said.
The document also states that many efforts to implement “gender theory” into society shut down any possibility of dialogue from the Christian perspective.
“[Pope] Francis says that the ideologues just want to ‘assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised,’ and then that cuts off dialogue...That’s not real dialogue. That’s just people shouting at each other. It’s not a way to go forward and to help people to live well.”
True dialogue, she said, is not just “dropping knowledge” on people, but rather inviting them into a conversation in order to be able to propose reasons to support your point of view.
“I would caution people not to dismiss dialogue as something that always leads to compromise. It shouldn’t. It should lead us to journey together towards the one who is Truth,” she said.
Much of the document is a reiteration of existing Church teaching on gender, but Farnan said she appreciated the document’s points of emphasis on formation of teachers.
“I will say the gamechanger...is the absolute insistence that they have to form all of their teachers, so that every teacher who is in a classroom with a kid can articulate the Church’s teaching on gender,” Farnan said.
The document says that “school managers, teaching staff and personnel all share the responsibility of both guaranteeing delivery of a high-quality service coherent with the Christian principles.”
“The other brilliant thing about the document, I think, is that it shows the utter continuity from John Paul II through Benedict XVI to Francis on this specific issue,” Selner-Wright said.
“People want to say ‘Oh Francis is my guy,’ well, he’s really not if what you’re talking about is transgenderism. He’s been completely clear that [transgender ideology] is bankrupt,” she said.
“I really liked the model that [the document] used: listen, reason, and propose,” Farnan said.
Farnan said she just finished a three-day workshop with members of the “iGen” generation, who have never known a time before the internet. She said the way to connect with members of the iGen is to be able to back claims up with science and to “be able to carefully distinguish between ideology and genuine scientific contribution.”
“The final part of it, which I think is the most important, is to propose Christian anthropology as a way of life,” Farnan explained.
“And honestly, if there’s anything that over the last four decades, five decades, we’ve been failing at as a Church is that we’re not going out and presenting a confidant vision of how Christianity differs from culture. And this is an opportunity to present a pretty stark difference. I think it’s really important.”
“What this document reminds us is that, as educators, we have to make sure that they’re getting a complete understanding of what Christianity has to offer in a very positive way...the authentic way to live a life of fulfillment of the human being.”
Farnan said she will watch with interest as individual dioceses work to implement the contents of the document. She highlighted Fort Wayne-South Bend as an example of a diocese that has been proactive in holding workshops for their teachers, educators, and priests to form them in Christian anthropology so they can answer their students’ questions about gender theory.
Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA in an interview that she also thinks the document will be useful for ongoing formation of Catholic educators.
“It's a call for all of us to enter more deeply into an understanding of the Church's teaching. I think that the document serves that purpose very, very beautifully,” Donoghue said.
“It also, though, has an element encouraging compassionate pastoral response, and I think that is important as well. So on a local level, diocesan level, finding ways to respond and to help schools to respond should these types of situations arise.”
Donoghue echoed Farnan’s point about the importance of “forming the formators.” Individual situations will always vary, she said, but schools faced with challenging situations related to gender theory should always be able to look to the diocesan level for guidance.
“It's important for our schools to have clear and consistent teaching, certainly around something that's this important,” she explained.
“It's also important for our teachers to understand that the Church's teaching contains the fullness of truth, therefore it's always going to be the most charitable and the most loving answer. Pairing that with a compassionate person-to-person response I think is the best way forward.”
Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland is the chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education for the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Donoghue said she believes Barber would describe the document as a means to better understand Church teaching about the nature of the human person.
“All human people struggle and bear crosses in many, many different forms, and a person suffering from gender dysphoria bears a very painful cross, and so we certainly don't stand to condemn or to judge, but to offer care and to bring about the fullness of the teaching to help to liberate that person,” Donoghue said.
Bea Cuasay and Michelle McDaniel contributed to this report.