Nick Chui looks at gender theory and what Pope Francis says about it
“It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them. Don’t you oppress me.” “I am not oppressing you Stan, you haven’t got a womb!” – From the movie Life of Brian
“My boy, he loves all things elephant and wants to be one when he grows up. Who am I to crush his little dreams?” If you want to be an elephant, be an elephant…because this is zootopia, anyone can be anything! – From the movie Zootopia
In the 1979 movie Life of Brian, an argument ensues between four characters over whether their struggle against an oppressive government should include a “man’s rights to have babies if he wants them”. The group’s leader is adamant that such an idea is absurd. To a suggestion that fighting for such a right can be a symbol of struggle against oppression, he blithely dismissed it as “symbolic of a struggle against reality”.
In one particular scene, Judy Hopps, the first female rabbit police officer encounters Finnick, apparently a young fox who loves “all things elephant and wants to be one when he grows up”. He dons an elephant costume, makes elephant toots with his “trunk” and wants to eat an elephant-size popsicle. Far from discouraging him, Judy Hopps sees this as something to be encouraged. The young fox has every right to be an elephant when he grows up. Anyone can be anything they so desire if they so put their heart to it.
If we put these two movies side by side, we ultimately see two irreconcilable views of the human person. In Life of Brian, the body is a reality that “speaks”. It offers clues for correct behaviour. Fighting against oppression is a good thing but physical reality is not oppression. To achieve happiness, one should strive to harmonise one’s desires with the language of one’s body.
Not so in the movie Zootopia. The body does not “speak”. It offers no clues for correct behaviour. Fighting oppression may sometimes mean fighting physical reality, which, if it gets in the way of your will/desire, is oppressive. To achieve happiness, one should manipulate one’s body if necessary to make it conform to one’s desires.
This shift in attitude towards the human person has been inspired by what is known as “gender theory.” For gender theorists, statements like “I am a girl so I must act like a girl” and vice versa are inherently oppressive. Gender theorists insist that there is a distinction between: a) sex which is biological and dependent on the chromosomes and sexual genitalia, and b) gender which is influenced by culture and upbringing. Gender has nothing to do with sex and is what society imposes on people as “natural”.
To take an example, when someone concludes that “a girl must act like a girl by knowing that her place is in the home”, based on the biological fact that women give birth to children, that person is engaged in “gender stereotyping”. There is nothing intrinsic about a woman’s biological sex which says that she must stay at home. Saying this often becomes an excuse to deprive women of an education and opportunities to advance in their professional lives. Women in this context would be able to find their “true self” by being liberated from such oppressive gender stereotypes.
Taking this further, gender theorists argue that the true self can be discovered only in the will. To take a current controversy, if a biological male identifies himself as a “female”, it would be oppressive to tell him that this cannot be his true self as it is against biology. In this case, liberation would mean him being able to use the bathroom of his choice.
For Catholics and people of good will, the question has to be asked. Is such a shift a sign of progress or a dangerous step in the wrong direction? How can we even decide upon an answer?
The method of philosopher Etienne Gilson might be helpful here. Gilson was a historian of philosophy who traces what he believes to be the claims of dubious philosophical positions to their logical conclusion. In that, he hoped to show that what seemed to be an initially helpful statement leads logically to absurdity.
If we apply this to gender theory, we can see how it leads inevitably to incoherence. If the will is the only determinant of the true self, than one is logically forced to identify children not as “he” or “she” based on biology but to use the generic word “babyself” until they are old enough to choose their gender. To do otherwise is to impose an identity on the helpless other.
Further problems arise when a person who is a thorough-going practitioner of gender theory attempts to help their child decide their gender. Should children be exposed and made to dress in what has previously been recognised as “male” and “female” attire so that they can eventually decide for themselves? Does this not seem to be a form of child abuse, a recipe for causing confusion in children?
The alternative to gender theory, which locates the discovery of the true self through the dynamic interaction between body and mind, does not suffer from these logical absurdities. It is able to assert that social equality is better served by recognising that man and woman are different yet complementary and thus equal in dignity. It is able to recognise that there will be people who would have difficulties in accepting their biological sex.
Instead of suggesting the mutilation of the body through “gender reassignment” surgeries, it would strive to help them in the harmonisation of body and mind.
In his latest Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, (n.56) Pope Francis identified, among the myriad threats to family life, “the ideology of gender”.
In remarkably strong language, the Holy Father insists that such an ideology seeks to “sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality” and “falls into the sin of trying to replace the Creator”. True liberation begins when we realise that we are not omnipotent. “Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.”
The writer holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family and is vice-president of the Catholic Theology Network.He will give a talk on this topic at St Joseph’s Church, Victoria St, Conference Room (inside canteen) on July 8 at 7.45 pm.