Pope Francis’s concern for people at the margins, be it the poor or immigrants, is well known, as is his strong environmentalism and his opposition to the death penalty:  His fiery rhetoric on these issues often make shockwaves.

Less known - but, some would argue, not because of his lack of equally forceful insistence - is his concern for what the Church labels “gender ideology,” or gender theory.

The core of this ideology, as the Catholic Church has come to define it, is the claim that one’s gender is detached from one’s sex, and that gender is, in fact, fluid.

According to an all-female panel this weekend at Notre Dame’s Fall Conference, organized by the Center for Ethics and Culture, it’s something that today is being taught in schools across the United States, and it’s something for which some parents are even losing custody of their children for refusing to allow them to begin gender re-assignment therapies, with hormonal blockers applied before they even reach puberty.

According to Mary Rice Hasson, from the Catholic Women’s Forum, the idea of “good parenting” today includes parents listening to gender dysphoria experts who recommend transition by “stages,” with no age barriers.

Hence, a two-year-old can be given a new name if he or she decides to identify with the opposite gender and should be dressed for school according to their perceived identity. In early puberty, Rice said, these children are given puberty blockers, which is an experimental treatment that is known to affect height and produce bone loss. In addition, it disrupts sexual development as genitals shrivel.

At age 14, children undergoing a gender transition treatment are given cross-sex hormones to induce “puberty” of the opposite sex. This can also sterilize the teen, if it didn’t happen with the puberty blockers.

Not too long after that, when they’re still considered too young to have a beer or join the army, they can go through a life-altering sex reorientation surgery.

Legally, in some states in the U.S., parents refusing to encourage this treatment risk losing their children due to accusations of “abuse,” said Rice, who’s a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC.

This was the case of parents in Cincinnati, for instance, who earlier this year lost custody over their 17-year old daughter who, after seeking inpatient treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center for anxiety and depression in 2016, was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and began identifying as a boy.

When parents refused to okay the sexual-reorientation treatment, the case reached the courts. The maternal grandparents were granted custody so the change could go ahead, despite the fact that, as the court noted, until the summer of 2016, the child had “lived consistently with the assigned gender at birth.”

According to Rice, a “sparse” research base hasn’t stopped “gender experts” from plunging ahead, promoting “gender-affirming” medical interventions for kids and creating new transgender programs at hospitals across the country. In the past five years, the number of U.S. gender clinics for children and adolescents has exploded, she said.

Margaret McCarthy, from Catholic University of America, gave an address on the same panel, arguing for the inseparability of St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae and the defense of freedom in the wake of gender ideology.

Her thesis was that there’s been a separation of sex from generation, which leads to a series of other separations: Sex from marriage; children from marriage; spouses from each other; and finally, man and woman from marriage itself.

“More fundamentally, though, it separates us from reality itself,” said the expert from Catholic University.

Added to this separation, she said, there’s now an even “more radical form of the separation from reality, one which concerns not just the reality of our acts but what and who we are: A man or a woman.”

“Gender,” she said, according to its current usage and practice, attempts to separate our “selves” and “identities” from the fundamental fact of being born.

“By separating ourselves (our sexual identity) from the fact of our having been born (our nature), ‘gender’ offers the final guarantee for all the other separations in the sexual realm,” McCarthy argued. “In sum, the separation of the ‘two meanings’ is the sine qua non of a ‘fragmentation’ at every point, and at the deepest level.”

“Putting asunder what God has joined, it has put us asunder from God Himself,” she said.

Some experts, she argued, define gender as a groundless deed “performed” on ourselves, a sort of creation ex nihilo: “It’s the ultimate expression (for now) of modernity’s stalemate between ‘nature’ and ‘person,’ where person means pure indeterminacy (pure will) standing over and against nature.”

McCarthy also said that the idea of gender underwent a long “incubation period” that can be traced back to “feminism, and the homosexual movement which put into question marriage, family, motherhood, fatherhood, and the natural relation between man and woman, by suggesting they were ‘social constructs’ imposed ‘compulsorily’ on individuals.”

The true meaning of freedom

Also speaking on the panel was Michelle Powers Gress, Associate Director for Pro-Life and Catholic Education Issues at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose presentation was titled “Distorted Freedom and Women’s Immiseration.”

She began by going through what the Catholic Church teaches when it comes to freedom, quoting several sources, from St. John Paul II to the Catechism, that reads: “There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin’.”

The authentic understanding of freedom, Gress argued, supports the full dignity of every human. Yet presently, there’s a “gross distortion” of authentic freedom, giving shape to the “problematic liberties” of America today.

As an example, she quoted Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

According to Gress, this idea of freedom being completely self-centered and internal is the “greatest” example of distortion of the idea of freedom.

She argued that beginning in 1965, over a “head-spinning few decades,” these distortions of authentic freedom have gone from illegal, to taboo, to accepted, to celebrated, which she exemplified with a video of comedian Michelle Wolf’s “God Bless Abortion” skit on Netflix.

These liberties, many of which are so-called “pro-women policies,” have created “a catastrophic environment for women,” according to the expert, who quoted author Tim Reichert who’s argued on the basis of economic data how the contraceptive revolution has resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth and power from women and children to men.

“These liberties have not advanced women, but done the opposite: Women are less happy, more isolated, working harder, and are poorer today,” Gress said.

Due to contraception and abortion, she argued, “sex is free and without consequences (except emotional fall-out to women). In addition, thanks to free and easy sex, and no-fault divorce, marriage is diminished.

“Abortion and contraception have degraded motherhood to simply a choice when it’s convenient, at worst as a burden born by the woman alone,” Gress said. “And for many women who are pursuing a professional career, that doesn’t happen until it’s too late for natural pregnancy, so women rely on artificial reproductive technologies, and in many cases exploit other women - their economic inferiors - for egg harvesting, or for surrogacy.”

Yet according to Gress, “resistance is not futile.” Change can happen, and it begins in the personal sphere, with people living their freedom, “fully and authentically, and subvert the elites who live and promote a gross distortion of freedom.”

Another example she gave is Radio Free Europe, funded by the United States during the Cold War, which was broadcast into the Soviet-held countries to break through the propaganda, to give hope against the almost consuming hopelessness.

“We need to create our own RFE, using the transcendentals - the good, the true, the beautiful. Women and organizations should be creative about reflecting the good, the true, the beautiful, leading others to a proper understanding of freedom,” she said.

“Pop culture is not the enemy; it can be used as a medium for helping people understand authentic freedom,” Gress argued. “We need hundreds or thousands of subversive measures that break through the propaganda and the false popular narrative, that upends the notion that resistance is futile.”