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Pope Francis, ‘gender ideology’ and our colonialist blinders

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)

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Why do we need to understand” Francis once again upheld gender essentialism against the more complex experiences of LGBTQ people.” Sin is sin. We don’t need to understand thieves, or murderers to bring them to the reality that Jesus loves them and wants them in His family and all they have to do is renounce their sin and accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Nuances are BS (probably endorsed by the homosexual activists )intended to make the job harder when let’s face it, homosexuality and the rest, are just a plain, old, ugly sin which Jesus said he would forgive and heal us of.

  • With all due respect for Pope Francis, I really wonder why it is so difficult to recognize that patriarchal gender theory (i.e., the sex/gender binary, usually coupled with male headship) is as much an ideology of gender as any other gender theory; except that it has been used for “ideological colonization” for 5000+ years.

  • This is what the pope actually said, “In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa and some Asian countries we are seeing some real ideological colonizations. And one of these, I’m going to say it outright, is gender. Today, children, children! are told at school that they can choose their sex. Why are they taught this? Because the books are supplied by the people and institutions that give you the money. These are the ideological colonizations backed also by countries that wield a great deal of influence. And this is terrible. Speaking with Benedict XVI, who is well and lucid, he told me: ‘Holiness, this is the age of sin against the Creator!’ He is intelligent! God created man and woman.”
    In 2015, the pope compared transgender people to nuclear weapons saying both do not “recognize the order of creation.”

  • (i)Pope Francis didn’t compare transgender people to nuclear weapons. That is a misquote from the press.
    (ii)When he talks about ideological colonization that is something that he has been doing consistently on various subjects. In South America for instance last year he spoke about ideological colonialism in the context of capitalism and mass media. In the philippines and here he is speaking about ideological colonialism in the context of Gender politics. So Gender politics being used as a way to engage in cultural imperialism in developing countries.

    Are the Pope and the Vaticans views on Gender backwards and routed in Patriarchy? Yes. But at the same time it would be foolish for Western liberals not to recognize the fact that Gender politics can be used to engage in imperialism in the Third world. Look at Afghanistan. The justification for intervening there was that we were going to “liberate” those poor Muslim women.

  • The pope said: “”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. With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator.”

  • The pope said. “Today, children, children! are told at school that they can choose their sex … this is the age of sin against the Creator!’ He is intelligent! God created man and woman.”
    And “gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.” I should have included that he continued, “God has placed man and woman and the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth,” Francis says. “The design of the Creator is written in nature.”
    Stating literally dozens of time in the past 3 1/2 years that “God’s creation” means “man and woman” is not only referring to transgender persons but also has been the basis for his continued opposition to same sex marriage which he referred to as an “anthropological regression” in 2014.
    I know it’s difficult to acknowledge that a “superstar” pope generates more readers and viewers for the media, and therefore, more revenue dollars from their advertisers. But we should all be worried that the media has the power to create “superstars” by omission and misreporting.

  • Your irrationality is glaring, but then I realize that your religious beliefs can’t possibly exist without irrationality.

    If you are incapable or unwilling to differentiate between homosexuality, which never harms anyone, from theft or murder, which always harms someone, then you are drowning in irrationality.

    If you were able and willing to think rationally, you would realize that more homosexuality and less heterosexuality would actually benefit the earth and humanity by reducing the vast number of unintended/unwanted pregnancies.

    After we deal with banning human behavior that causes verifiable tangible harm to others, the remaining religious notion of SIN is Simply Ignorant Nonsense.

  • Does anyone see the irony of the Pope decrying “ideological colonization” on behalf of a church which expanded primarily through actual colonization and imperialism. Who is from a country which was a European colony, whose ancestry is of European colonists.

  • Children are indeed being taught they can choose their sex, and it honors the current style of thinking which makes the child is the center of the universe, and NOT the deity who created her/him/it! No one is counseled to embrace and extend one’s specific gender giftedness in service to others. Instead, modern psychology, pharmacology and surgery keeps holding up the myriad of possibilities for anyone feeling the slightest dissatisfaction with their gender endowment. The idea of a Creator-God is ‘way out of style these days.

  • Who needs nuance? who needs to understand anything? Why not compare people who harm no one to murderers and thieves? JUst insist that you have authority over their lives and tell them what to do.

  • Ben, that is how Jesus sees us, when we aren’t saved. All sins are equal. The good news is He will forgive and heal us of our sins if we repent and He will help us.

  • As always, hysteria rather than fact.

    Children are not being taught they can choose their gender. Nonsense. What they are being taught is reality: that for some small minority of people, gender is not the binary that so many people seem to so desperate to believe is fact, rather than ideology.

  • ” All sins are equal.”

    So your judgmental behavior, false witness, arrogant pride are the same sort of acts as committing murder, theft and rape. Good to know. So when are you repenting for such things?

  • Concerns about colonialism are valid. However, in this case, nothing is being forced on the southern hemisphere. LBTG folks are already there. Conditional offers that protect people are nothing new and are, in fact, laudable. Think about the African nations that imprison or kill LBTGs, their own citizens. We should protect innocent people whenever possible.

  • Right Ben. That’s just more of the old dog whistle, “They’re gonna get our kids!” It’s geared to lead to wild-eyed hysteria. Maybe that’s not colonialization, but it’s certainly taking cruel advantage of ignorant, fearful people. Shame on Francisco for that.

  • After I commit them. All sins lead to the same place, Spud, that’s my point. Romans 6:23King James Version (KJV)

    23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • That’s you; not me. It has been shown that people who participate in homosexuality have on average a 20 year shorter lifespan. Yup Spud. You may want to endorse their sin, I want to help them get to Heaven.
    Just look over your shoulder and ask your bud, Satan, what your next comment should be.

  • I am sure plenty of vile sinners thought they were safe by saying that. Satan’s coming for you!!!! RUN!!!! 🙂

  • I don’t deny that Pope Francis has conservative views on Gender, Sexuality and Gender Identity. That’s no secret. And I strongly disagree with him on that. What I am saying though is the specific accusation that he “compared trans people to nukes” is just tabloid reporting.

    I can disagree with the Pope’s views on one area, and still be a big admirer of him on other areas when it comes to his stance on refugees, imperialism, war, militarism, economic injustice, normalizing relations with Cuba, solidarity with indigenous people, etc.

    Also, you do realize that while the Pope is still socially conservative on LGBTQ issues and Gender in general that there has been more progress under him on that front right? He is the first Pope for instance to visit Queer and Trans inmates. Last year he met a Trans man and his partner and when the Trans man told his story about how he was kicked out of his Church he forced the Church to accept them back in. His document Amoris Laetitia states that all forms of unjust discrimination and violence against the LGBT community has to be opposed and he is the first Pope historically to say that the Catholic Church needs to apologize to the queer community for the times it has failed them just like it needs to apologize to women.

    Yeah. The dude has massive flaws. You can still admire a person who has massive flaws. Mandela had massive flaws. Gandhi had massive flaws. They’re still icons though. So is this Pope.

  • I would suggest that you reread the above words that the pope said.
    In Amoris Laetitia he wrote about the ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised.”
    On “Homosexuality and Homosexual Unions,” Pope Francis wrote: “In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, ‘as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.’ It is unacceptable ‘that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”

  • “It has been shown that people who participate in homosexuality have on average a 20 year shorter lifespan”

    Because their chances of being assaulted or murdered by people who believe as you do is higher than average.

  • He lost me at “unjust discrimination”, leaving the just discrimination loophole, so large you could drive a cathedral through it.
    Its just discrimination, all right.

  • I don’t think we need to spend our time worrying about life span. I’m not surprised Sandi raised it, she is something of a “false teacher”. (Luke 12)

  • I think the term “ideological colonisation” is just a name for ideas that go against strict Catholic teaching. Calling it colonisation makes it easier to condemn new ideas as being against religion or the Catholic faith. Trouble is, the spread of ideas is something quite natural to humans. We all learn from one another, whether the ideas are good or bad.

    Of the pope wants to fight ideas he finds unacceptable he will have to come up with something better than demonising the ideas as foreign. Like actually engaging with these new and unwelcome ideas and arguing against them if he finds them unacceptable.