News emerged last week that Pope Francis has strongly criticized modern theories of gender, comparing them to the educational policies of Hitler and the destructive possibilities of the nuclear arms race.
In an interview included in a new book by Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, and released in part in the Italian daily La Stampa, Francis compared gender theory to nuclear arms: “Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings. … Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.”
In using the term “gender theory,” Francis is denouncing the academic perspective that sees gender identities as a spectrum rather than as binaries. Gender theorists argue that the way people identify themselves is the result of social and cultural constructions of gender.
This has important ramifications for how we think about biology and sexuality. While the point may seem academic, its ramifications are not. The recognition that gender exists on a spectrum has provided part of the intellectual foundations for both LGBTQIA advocacy and women’s rights.
In the interview, Francis recalled how a public education minister was given funding for new schools for the poor only on the condition that school textbooks taught gender theory. Francis described this as “ideological colonization” and added that “the same was done by the dictators of the last century. … think of Hitler Youth.”
In his comments on gender and creation, Francis was alluding to the Catholic notion of natural law: that moral and theological principles are encoded in the created world, there to be seen and studied and learned: “The design of the Creator is written in nature.”
But in invoking creation, Francis unavoidably invokes the first chapters of Genesis, where the Bible lays out “the order of creation.” This is where the confluence of tradition, biblical text, and gender runs into some difficulty.
The “natural” relationship of men and women is commonly understood on the basis of the story in Genesis 2, the Garden of Eden, where Eve is famously created after Adam, formed from a rib taken from the side of the first man.
This story has given rise to millennia of female subordination. The Catholic notion of complementarity, like many other religious positions on the matter, goes back to the statement that woman was created to be, in the words of the King James Bible, a “help meet for him.” It says there, after all, that “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
But this two-step process of the creation of humanity, first male and then female, is directly at odds with the description of creation in Genesis 1.
There, in the magisterial seven-day creation story, we find this verse: “God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created it. Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
The simultaneous creation of both male and female on the sixth day presents a very different perspective on the relative roles of the two genders. Unlike in the Garden of Eden, where Eve is created in order to provide Adam with fit company, in Genesis 1 the two first humans are treated as equals: everything that God says—the blessing of fertility, dominion over the earth, and the granting of plants and trees for food—he says to both of them, using the plural “you.”
It might seem that regardless of which version of creation one chooses, the basic division of humanity into male and female remains evident. But the history of interpretation tells a different story.
Indeed, one of the very earliest interpretations of Genesis 1:27 evinced just the kind of gender confusion that Francis castigates as a peculiarly modern problem. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who was contemporaneous with Jesus, declared that the first human creation was not two individuals, “male and female,” but one individual, “neither male nor female.”
Some of the early versions of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, in fact rendered the verse as “male and female he created him.”
This idea was taken up both in Judaism and early Christianity. In the writings of the rabbis of the early first millennium CE, we read: “At the time that God created the first human, he created him as an androgyne.” Though they may have come to be deemed heretical with time, some Gnostic Christian texts say the same: “By means of verbal expression he created an androgyne.”
What may seem to be the “natural order of creation” is therefore not necessarily so—the conventional understanding to which Francis alludes is, like everything else, a product of a particular culturally-bound reading of the biblical text.
The Pope’s statements about gender identity were made in the context of his current push to raise awareness of the importance of caring for the environment. It’s for this reason that he constantly returns to the importance of creation. This has been a controversial topic for Pope Francis, with many conservative politicians refusing to stake out a new position on climate change. Perhaps, then, his strong language about traditional gender roles is intended to soothe the frayed nerves of conservative Catholics.
It wouldn’t have been the first time Pope Francis had followed a seemingly liberal (although often just traditional) statement on poverty, the environment, and charity with a seemingly conservative (although, again, just traditional) statement on contraception, the importance of procreation, and women’s roles. In September 2013, the day after he gave his famous America interview about how Catholics shouldn’t “insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he gave a statement reaffirming the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception. And shortly after saying that Catholic families don’t have to reproduce “like rabbits,” Francis said last week that deliberately childless couples are “selfish.” There seems to be a strategy here.
But whether he means to or not, when it comes to placating conservative elements in the Church, Pope Francis consistently sells women down the river. For Francis, the go-to issues for establishing his conservative bona fides are his opposition to women priests, contraception, and his scathing judgment of childless families. He may just be rehearsing traditional Catholic perspectives, but when you add to this his tendency to use negative and mildly chauvinistic imagery to describe women a pattern emerges. Even if Francis were a closet liberal, he’s a liberal who ranks women’s interests at the bottom of his list of priorities. And if we take Francis’s position on gender theory and the “natural order” seriously, then we give up certain kinds of gender equality, as well as the possibility of creating a fully welcoming environment for same-sex couples or trans-individuals.
Francis’s interests in poverty and the environment are welcome, exciting, and sorely needed. His comments on women are not. And at the end of the day it’s possible to recycle cardboard without recycling centuries of misogyny.