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Pope Francis, ‘gender ideology’ and our colonialist blinders

(RNS) The pontiff provoked an outcry when he condemned 'ideological colonization' on gender issues. But there’s a context that we in the West must recognize, and work to repair.

Pope Francis leads a Mass at the Campus Misericordiae during World Youth Day in Brzegi near Krakow, Poland, on July 31, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

(RNS) At World Youth Day in Poland last month, Pope Francis again condemned “ideological colonization” on issues of gender. It’s a note he has struck before, and the outcry from LGBTQ advocates that resulted from his latest remark was both predictable and understandable.

In his address to the Polish hierarchy, Francis once again upheld gender essentialism against the more complex experiences of LGBTQ people. Once again he seemed, paternalistically, to prefer a “simple faith” over sophisticated theological reflection on gender. And once again he seemed simply to repeat the maxims of his two immediate predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

We should never minimize the pain such declarations cause, particularly when they result in coercive policies. Yet we should not overlook an important difference in Francis’ position, a difference we need to understand if we hope to have thoughtful discussions on LGBTQ issues with people of his persuasion.

Specifically, we can listen more closely to Francis’ claim that rich countries are unjustly shoving the idea of gender choice down the throats of poor nations. We hear Francis as if he were talking primarily about gender. But for him the real problems are Northern cultural imperialism and the still-potent effects of colonialism.

For Francis, the story behind the slogan “the ideology of gender” — a slogan that almost always appears in the context of coercion of poor countries — is one he has told before, and it concerns a loan for the construction of schools for the poor two decades ago in his native Argentina.

Approval of the loan, Francis noted in a press conference last year, was contingent on a minister of education accepting and using a textbook that the unnamed funders prescribed in which “gender theory was taught.”

In Francis’ words:

“This is ideological colonization. They introduce an idea to the people that has nothing to do with the people. With groups of people yes, but not with the people. And they colonize the people with an idea which changes, or means to change, a mentality or a structure … certain loans in exchange for certain conditions … Why do I say ‘ideological colonization’? Because they take, they actually take the need of a people to seize an opportunity to enter and grow strong — through the children.”

It’s clear from the context that the situation was coercive: If you want to borrow our money to serve children in desperate need of education, you will use the book that we approve, whether or not it makes sense to your students in their historical and cultural setting or addresses their most pressing educational deficits.


READ: In Poland, Pope Francis tries countering message of religious violence


From Francis’ perspective, Northern countries that still benefit from colonialism should not be placing endless conditions on almost all forms of grant-in-aid, and even interest-bearing loans, that they make to the Global South, as if Southern countries should “earn” Northern support.

Rather, as a matter of justice, Northern nations should be freely sharing wealth, academic expertise and other advantages they wrongly gained from colonialism with their neighbors whom they wrongly impoverished by it. When Northern nations place conditions on aid that seem intended to undermine what he perceives as the last outpost of indigenous strength in Southern nations — their family networks — it’s the last straw.

Let’s be clear: I’m not arguing that Francis does not have a traditional Argentinian cultural view of gender as binary. He does. I’m not arguing that he’s demonstrated a subtle understanding of LGBTQ experiences of gender. He hasn’t.

But what Francis is saying, we need to hear: If almost nothing the Global North has forced on the Global South has benefited it, if almost everything the Global North does is poisoned by self-interest, and if almost everything it has imposed has destroyed Southern cultural systems, why should he trust the Global North on gender?

We can work, write and pray for Francis’ conversion on this issue. But in the meantime, here is an opportunity for a creative response to his legitimate frustration with the Global North. We can recognize that bad delivery systems compromise good content.


READ: Is Pope Francis a Lone Ranger on apologizing to gays?


To cite one example: Nearly 500 years ago a Spanish bishop and an early missionary to Latin America, Bartolomé de Las Casas, condemned the coercive, ultimately unsuccessful Northern methods of “conversion.” It was a time when the dominant evangelization method of European explorers was, in his words, to “annoy, persecute, afflict, and arouse” Native Americans.

Some Northerners managed to follow his advice to employ “the power of gentleness, service, kindness, and the words of the gospel to encourage them [the indigenous peoples] to put on the gentle yoke of Christ.” He argued for this, and more, for the Native American in European courts. He didn’t always win. But thanks in part to his critique of coercion, Christianity stuck.

Likewise, we Northerners believe that the spirit of freedom and truth is truly stirring among LGBTQ people today.

Yet, our governments and multinational institutions are justly accused of repeating the sin of coercion. What if, despite our marginalization, we recognized our comparative privilege and power? What if we used that power to lobby not just for loans, but for reparations for the Global South? What if, in addition to continuing our important efforts at gentle, kind, compassionate service to LGBTQ people worldwide, we used that power to persuade our perhaps well-meaning but coercive governments to be less heavy-handed?

That might preach. Like Bartolomé de Las Casas, we will lose some cases. But our message, too, will eventually stick.

(Cristina Traina is a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University and a member of the advisory board of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic advocacy group for LGBT Christians. This column first appeared on the ministry’s blog, Bondings 2.0)