Pope Francis’s Gender Trouble


by Matt Sheedy

The other day I came across a short article on Facebook entitled, “Pope says gender theory part of ‘global war’ on marriage, family,” which I promptly shared on my wall.

The Reuters News Agency piece recounts comments made by pope Francis while on a trip to Georgia last week (the country, not the state), where he warned that “traditional marriage” and the family were under attack from the twin threats of gender theory and divorce.

Quoting Francis, the article reports:

Today, there is a global war out to destroy marriage,” Francis said. “Not with weapons but with ideas … we have to defend ourselves from ideological colonization.

This notion of “ideological colonization,” as the article further points out, is a phrase that the pope has used in the past to criticize rich countries for tying aid programs to policies that favor things like contraception and gay marriage.

It is also noted that Francis has been more accepting of homosexuality than his predecessors, while maintaining the sanctity of heterosexual marriage as “the most beautiful thing that God created.”

There is much that could be unpacked for analysis in this news brief, from shifting notions of heteronormativity within the Catholic Church (however glacial the shift may be … probably not the best metaphor in an era of rapid climate change, but you get my point), to the pairing of gender theory with divorce, the rhetorical inversion of “ideological colonization” to criticize socially liberal policies, the theologies that lay behind such an exalted view of marriage, to a comment appearing below an embedded video link, which reads, “Orthodox shun pope’s mass in Georgia,” signaling divisions between Roman and Eastern Orthodox factions.

Like most news items that aren’t in-depth articles (and Reuters prides itself as the first agency to report breaking news from around the world, so it ain’t The New Yorker) there is little to be learned here unless one has prior knowledge of some of the issues at stake. Despite the dearth of information, however, I often find such articles to be a goldmine in the classroom for illustrating how ideology works in subtle (and not so subtle) ways to shape how we perceive the world around us as natural and given.

Take, for instance, the way that Reuters characterizes gender theory in this piece:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

On the one hand, it is somewhat refreshing to see the inclusion of ideas most commonly associated with brainy books and university classrooms appear in popular media, though what this brief definition suggests about “gender theory” is, to quote Slavoj Zizek, “ideology at its purest” (I bet you said it with the accent, no?).

Despite the appearance of seemingly neutral language, this idea reflects a particular understanding of biology along an XX-female XY-male axis, obscuring more nuanced analysis of intersex variations that destabilize this binary as a neat and universal form of biological classification. The emphasis on “rights” is also telling as it reflects the rhetoric of individualism, commonly associated with liberal and neo-liberal ideology, where freedom is imagined in relation to the ability to choose one’s own identity. Among other things, this classification exalts the idea of free choice while placing it in the hands of individuals (the “all about you” language of contemporary marketing), rather than signaling the ways in which ideological apparatus’s construct gender identity in the first place, to which people are force to interpellate and adapt to in some way.

Seeing as this article is produced for an English speaking audience in the United States, we might surmise that the description of gender theory is meant to appeal to these common liberal sensibilities, which hold a fair bit of currency within contemporary American society. Like so much else in popular media, however, the symbolic power of language shapes the world for us (I should have called this post “Reuters Gender Trouble,” but that’s not as sexy, right?) in ways that often go unnoticed, unless theory steps-in to trouble our neat little categories.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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