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Vatican disappoints LGBT advocates as it rejects progressive views on gender identity

Members of Transgender Club of New England carried portraits of murdered transgender women of color during the Boston Pride Parade in Boston, Mass. on Saturday. LGBT advocates have condemned the Vatican’s statement as the kind of rhetoric that leads to violence against people who are LGBT.
Members of Transgender Club of New England carried portraits of murdered transgender women of color during the Boston Pride Parade in Boston, Mass. on Saturday. LGBT advocates have condemned the Vatican’s statement as the kind of rhetoric that leads to violence against people who are LGBT.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

ROME — The Vatican on Monday released its first extensive official document on gender theory, rejecting the notion that individuals can assign their own gender identity.

The document, issued by the Vatican department overseeing Catholic education, argued that increasing acceptance of fluid definitions of gender by schools and legal systems posed a threat to traditional families and ignored the natural differences between men and women.

It lamented “calls for public recognition of the right to choose one’s gender, and of a plurality of new types of unions, in direct contradiction of the model of marriage as being between one man and one woman, which is portrayed as a vestige of patriarchal societies.”

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The document broke little new ground in promoting traditional Catholic teaching on the intrinsic biological differences between men and women. But coming from a church led by Pope Francis, who has struck an inclusive tone toward homosexual Catholics, it immediately disappointed advocates who had hoped for a more tolerant message.

They warned that the church was inviting discrimination and that in delivering an anachronistic message on human sexuality, it had apparently decided to take on esoteric theories rather than the lived experiences of LGBT people.

Some saw a particular slight in that the document, which was dated Feb. 4, was released during LGBT pride month, though the purpose of the timing was unclear. More broadly, the document marked a clear attempt by the church to weigh in as countries like the United States wrestle with increased acceptance of gender fluidity and sexuality.

Titled “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” the document seemed to lay down a line on how far it was willing to go.

The document was signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, and written as a guide for Catholic schools, teachers, and educators.

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The guidance said that ideas of “intersex” or “transgender” lead to a masculinity or femininity that is “ambiguous.”

“This oscillation between male and female becomes, at the end of the day, only a ‘provocative’ display against so-called ‘traditional frameworks,’ and one which, in fact, ignores the suffering of those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy,” it said.

The document argued that the church should be open to listening to and talking with proponents of gender theory and should not discriminate against those who defined their gender differently, something it acknowledged it had done in the past.

“The congregation’s call for listening and dialogue about gender is a positive step, however, it seems that the congregation is listening only to philosophers and theologians rather than to LGBT people who would share their real life experiences if asked,” said the Rev. James Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the Catholic church can reach out to LGBT faithful.

“LGBT people are usually not responding to a theory or ideology but their own inner feelings and their own desires,” he said.

Francis De Bernardo, director of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, was also alarmed.

“The document associates sexual and gender minorities with libertine sexuality, a gross misrepresentation of the lives of LGBT people which perpetuates and encourages hatred, bigotry, and violence against them,” he wrote.

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The Vatican document instead warned that gender theory could cause confusion among the young and the erosion of the family.

The document argued that studies in the last half-century had asserted sexuality as a social construct and that human identity has been “consigned to the individual’s choice, which can also change in time.”

It cautioned that confusion over gender “had destabilized the family as an institution, bringing with it a tendency to cancel out the differences between men and women, presenting them instead as merely the product of historical and cultural conditioning.”

The guidance also echoed past statements by Francis, who tends to use nurturing imagery when speaking of women and often warns that gender theory is one of the principal threats to the modern family. He has identified education programs as some of the primary channels through which gender theory has been promoted and allowed to take root in Western societies.