Pope Benedict XVI died on New Year’s Eve 2022. May he rest in piss. He’s remembered for a litany of foul deeds in his life, and rightfully so. He was a conscripted member of the Hitler Youth, and the years that followed he beatified Pope Pius XII, a man who knew about the Holocaust but remained silent and in fact collaborated with the Nazis on “anti-communist” grounds. He also excommunicated a 9-year old child for having an abortion after being raped by her stepfather, who he did not excommunicate for anything, and is in general notorious for his role in protecting priests who committed child sexual abuse. He also probably helped HIV/AIDS spread in the global south by actively discouraging condom use. But there’s one other horrible legacy that Benedict left in the world, and in fact it’s the continued modern legacy of the Catholic Church at large: the transphobic fascist concept of “gender ideology”.
Every time someone wants to intellectually justify their hatred of trans people, along with queer and non-binary people, and from there justify many policies that are meant to oppress them, they refer to this abstract concept called “gender ideology”. The term “Gender ideology” doesn’t have any real meaning in itself, in that it doesn’t seem to correspond to any clearly defined ideology, or really anything except for the premise that trans people exist and that the experience of their gender identity is real. “Gender ideology” is a rhetorical device favoured by a variety of reactionary ideologues ranging from Christian conservatives to aging Marxist-Leninists, but is often especially deployed by so-called “gender critical feminists”, or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), as part of an apparent ideological opposition to the concept of gender, which is obviously a front from which to attack and marginalize trans and queer people. As Judith Butler notes in a 2021 interview with The Guardian (which we should keep in mind was later censored), the “anti-gender ideology movement” seeks not to oppose any specific account or idea of gender but rather to remove the concept of gender from discourse and banish it from academic study, in order to privilege the concept of biological sex, sometimes with a religious basis, in order to exclude non-traditional gender identities from the social order. The very phrase “gender ideology” seems like a relative novelty, but it has been around for years already. In fact, it seems that the core concept was invented by the Catholic Church.
It’s not clear who individually coined the phrase “gender ideology”, but there are three likely candidates: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), and an American Catholic anti-abortion activist named Dale O’Leary. Per Juan Marco Vaggione’s account of the Catholic discourse on “gender ideology”, it would seem that most studies trace the spread of the concept of “gender ideology” to Dale O’Leary. Yet, Benedict XVI and John Paul II were an instrumental part of the whole construction of the concept and discourse of “gender ideology”, which was itself created by the Catholic Church as a response to both contemporary feminist theory and an emerging new political framework around gender, human rights, and the sexual sphere.
In the 1990s, the United Nations held conferences in Cairo, Egypt and Beijing, China to discuss and establish the recognition of reproductive rights and sexual rights as part of the overall concept of human rights. The Catholic Church opposed this development, on the grounds that it deemed sexual and reproductive rights to be antithetical to the doctrine of the Holy See. John Paul II referred to the UN recognition of sexual and reproductive rights as a “tragic denial” of human rights and regarded it as an affirmation of the “culture of death” – this seemed to be an umbrella term for all manner of things that the Church opposed, including abortion, euthanasia, artificial reproduction, and contraception. The Vatican opposed the UN by contrasting sexual and reproductive rights with a concept of “natural law”, presumably deriving from God, as the basis of “objective moral law”, which in turn they regarded as the necessary basis of civil law.
Beginning in 1994, Pope John Paul II launched a concerted campaign to promote the conservative/traditionalist agenda of Church ideology against progressive frameworks of human rights. This was done through the creation of two Pontifical Academies (the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences in 1994 and then the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1998), the publication of an encyclical titled Evangelium Vitae in 1995, and the establishment of a triennial Catholic conference called the World Meeting of Families in 1994. All of this was aimed at presenting sexual and reproductive rights as an attack on the traditional family, whose defense the Church saw as one of its main roles, as well as crafting a Catholic traditionalist narrative to be inserted in contradiction to the perceived new liberal cultural mainstream. He even seemed to include in his overall argument a proposal for “a new feminism”, which would oppose “gender ideology” and ultimately conform to Catholic essentialism.
The concept of “gender ideology” as an amorphous threat to society seems to have emerged within this background, and eventually replaced the idea of “the culture of death” in Vatican rhetoric. In this setting, Benedict XVI played an essential role in the construction of the discourse of “gender ideology”. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he apparently encountered feminist literature in his native Germany and then made it his business to oppose whatever ideas he saw in them. For Ratzinger, the so-called “ideology of gender” meant making “every role interchangeable between man and woman”, the idea that sex is no longer “a determined characteristic”, the idea that everything is a culturally and historically conditioned role rather than “a natural specificity inscribed in the depths of being”, and the idea that technology can allow both women and men to procreate at will without sex. There’s obviously a lot to unpack, and this all but a summary of Ratzinger ‘s larger rambling in The Ratzinger Report, which he released in 1985, but the general throughline of it all is that he viewed radical feminism and trans rights as an attack on the natural order of being dictated by God, and the basic arguments form a similar family of reactionary objections to the movement for trans rights. In fact, the way that Ratzinger paired feminism and trans rights with certain spectral notions of hyper-individualism and transhumanism recall the way that traditionalists like Aleksandr Dugin also talk about modern liberalism in general, and thus we see a pattern familiar to much of the far-right and modern fascism.
As Pope Benedict XVI, he continued to echo this form of traditionalism, repeatedly denouncing “gender ideology” as “rebellion against our God-given nature”. In 2000, Benedict XVI asserted that the United Nations was trying to destroy the family and world nations by “imposing” reproductive rights and other social changes. Such an idea bears obvious resonances to right-wing anti-UN conspiracy theories about “one world government” and later reactionary commentary concerning “cultural imperialism”. In 2003, the Vatican published the Lexicon of the Pontifical Council for the Family in order to oppose “misleading use of certain terms in order to create new rights that were contrary to universal principles” on the grounds that they “immediately turn crimes into rights”. In 2004, the Vatican released a letter addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning “the collaboration of men and women in the church and in the world”, in which the Church under Benedict XVI explicitly attacked a certain “theory” of gender for its “obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes” and for “inspiring” ideologies that “call into question the family”, “make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent”, and “strengthens the idea that the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture”, while affirming the idea of an objective gender binary as human nature, as reflective not only of the limit of biology but also the idea of difference as the basis of an ordered universe as created by God. Furthermore, Benedict XVI often espoused “anti-gender” traditionalism through the metaphor of ecology. In 2010, Benedict XVI asserted the existence of human nature as consisting of a binary between man and woman, likened this constructed state of human nature to endangered rainforests, and insisted that proponents of “gender ideology” threatened to destroy human nature, just as clear-cutters were destroying the rainforests, by advocating for reproductive rights and the concept of gender identity. In all, Benedict XVI represented the evolution of the Catholic Church’s campaign against sexual and reproductive rights and “gender ideology” as systematic defense of Catholic traditionalism and conservatism based around this overall theme, which of course has the effect of ideologically anchoring the Catholic Church to many forms of reactionary bigotry and cultural authoritarianism as reflective of the order of partiarchy.
Benedict XVI’s reactionary pronouncements about “gender ideology” and its supposedly destructive nature are probably no surprise to many people who are already aware of his apparent role as a strictly conservative Pope, notwithstanding the fact that his ideas about gender were also established by his predecessor John Paul II. But Pope Francis, despite his progressive-reformist reputation, not only did not oppose the traditionalist rhetoric predecessors but instead he continued the conservative Catholic discourse on “gender ideology”, albeit with his own superficially “anti-capitalist” twist.
In general, Pope Francis continued to espouse that “gender ideology” (or rather “gender theory” as he preferred to call it) as a threat to “human rights”. One difference in his rhetoric is that, unlike previous Popes, Francis positioned “gender ideology” as a form of intellectual colonialism. He in fact explicitly referred to it as “ideological colonization”, and accused people of demanding conformity to the teaching of “gender theory” as a condition of receiving grants for the education of the poor. This of course rings familiar to the right-wing conspiracist idea of the “long march through the institutions” as the triumph of so-called “Cultural Marxism”, pioneered by such ideologues as William Lind and Pat Buchanan. Another rhetorical difference is that, also unlike previous Popes, Francis connected “gender theory” to neoliberal capitalism by asserting that it is the product of the so-called “individualism” and “technocratic materialism” of capitalism. Francis also explicitly compared “gender theory” to nuclear war, Nazism, and the reign of King Herod, describing it as one of the so-called “Herods that destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation”. Ironically, he apparently said it right after embracing a trans Catholic man who wanted to know if he was welcome in “the house of God”. In 2016 Pope Francis remarked with horror at what he believed was the idea of children being taught that they can choose their own sex, claiming that this was the work of influential nations and a well-funded “ideological colonization”. In 2019, the Congregation for Catholic Education published documents that establish a theoretical separation between “gender theory” and “gender ideology”, the latter concept being reasserted as referring to “unnatural tendencies” that lead to “educational programs and legislative enactments” that supposedly promoted ideas about identity and the body that “make a radical break with the actual biological difference between male and female”. The CCE’s “Guidance on Gender Issues” also explicitly positions the gender binary as human nature, based on the narrative in Genesis 1:27 that God created humanity in the image of man and woman, which is explicitly framed as “moral law, inscribed in our nature”. In a 2020 book titled San Giovanni Paulo Magno, Francis described “gender theory” as a place where “evil” is at work today, describing it as “erasing all distinctions between men and women, male and female” and “an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women”.
It is clear that, even in view of the rhetorical differences from previous Popes, Francis’ actual views on gender are not substantially different from previous Popes. He is still a conservative traditionalist on this question, still continuing the tradition of Catholic ideology in asserting a human nature defined by an essentialized gender binary versus “gender ideology” or “gender theory” which aims to destroy it. His arguments about the nature of “gender theory” come from the same place as Benedict XVI and John Paul II in that they emerge from the traditionalist concern that the nuclear heterosexual family will no longer be a political absolute ostensibly secured by divine will, and this sense Francis has done nothing but continue and if anything expand the project of these two Popes. In fact, I am of the persuasion that perhaps this worldview, and particularly Francis’ emphasis on “gender ideology” as colonialism may resonate with reactionary “anti-imperialist” ideas about how “progressive” values concerning individual autonomy are inherently “imperialist”, supposedly a dogmatic imposition by “Western” powers upon the global south, and it may have some bearing on Francis’ lack of solidarity with Ukraine. Note that within the last year, Vladimir Putin in Russia used the idea of “the West” somehow imposing progressive values through imperialism as a justification for invading Ukraine.
But more importantly, Francis has clearly referenced Benedict XVI in his views. Allow me to present a quotation from his dialogue with the Bishops of Poland, which was held in Krakow on July 27th 2016, in which he presents “gender theory” as connected to “colonization”. Here, he emphatically restates Benedict XVI’s ideas about “gender ideology” and references him accordingly:
In a conversation with Pope Benedict, who is in good health and very perceptive, he said to me: “Holiness, this is the age of sin against God the Creator”. He is very perceptive. God created man and woman; God created the world in a certain way… and we are doing the exact opposite. God gave us things in a “raw” state, so that we could shape a culture; and then with this culture, we are shaping things that bring us back to the “raw” state! Pope Benedict’s observation should make us think. “This is the age of sin against God the Creator”. That will help us.
It’s worth noting that, in this same speech, Francis even continues the older Catholic use of the term “gender ideology”, saying of his so-called “ideological colonization”: “I will call it clearly by its name – is [the ideology of] ‘gender'”.
Much of these ideas are, of course, a major part of the modern international right-wing movement. Consider that Jair Bolsonaro, during his inauguration as President of Brazil in 2019, promised to eradicate “gender ideology in the schools”, framing this as a resistance against “ideological submission”, and to that effect he replaced basically all sex education in Brazil with a cirriculum that enforces the teaching of the universal gender binary. In Poland, the term “gender ideology” is frequently deployed by right-wing activists who also use it to attack homosexuals, and the Polish government itself, ruled by the Law and Justice Party, explicitly attacked “gender ideology” as a facet of neoliberal globalisation, while far-right critics of the government insist that they are not doing enough. Right-wing parties across Europe, including the Italian Lega Nord, as well as right-wing protest movements, all deploy some variation of the concept of “gender ideology”, and in many cases use it as a platform to attack not only feminism and trans rights but also same-sex marriage. In Peru, conservative Catholics adapted the work of American conservative activists like Dale O’Leary to develop a notion of “gender ideology” as the secret antithesis to all morality, which then became part of the official rhetoric of Catholic churches throughout Latin America since the late 1990s. Denunciations of “gender ideology” as a threat to “identity”, “soul”, and “body” are common in right-wing anti-gender protests, and the idea presented in these protests is basically identical to the argument given by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. But of course it’s not strictly confined to the Right, either. Ostensibly “socialist” populists like Rafael Correa, former President of Ecuador, have also decried “gender ideology” as a tool to “destroy the family”.
To summarize the subject of “gender ideology”: “gender ideology” is not real. It’s nothing more than an invention of the Catholic Church, and particularly the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It exists as nothing other than a projected “Other” that can be opposed in defense of essentialist ideology, presumably without taking on the crass language associated with conventional far-right bigots even while sharing the actual sexual politics of the far-right. The necessary premise of such an attack on the notion of gender is a belief in human nature as consisting principally of a static gender binary, man and woman as strictly defined representations of sex, which is thus a moral law that is set into the nature of being by God, and, co-attendant to this, the belief in its antithesis, “gender ideology” as a shadowy umbrella category for anything which might oppose or deviate from it. This idea can, in secular terms, be understood as essentialism. But in its religious underpinnings, and more specifically the modern project of the Catholic Church in its response to the United Nations’ definition of human rights, I would regard the construction of “gender ideology” as part of an edifice that I am inclined to refer to as Catholic ideology. In any case, this also means that all non-Christian proponents of this form of essentialism, whether it’s atheists or anybody else, are, despite any professed objection to Christianity (let alone specifically the Catholic Church), to be understood as simply regurgitating the propaganda of the Catholic Church.
So, in other words, to all the New Atheists, the folkists, or anything like that who might be reading this, congratulations; by attacking trans people in defense of gender essentialism in opposition to “gender ideology”, you’re actually just promoting Catholic ideology! Good going, you reactionary assholes.
To summarize the legacy of Benedict XVI in relation to “gender ideology”: for decades, he helped shaped the scope and agenda of Catholic ideology as part of a larger Church campaign against the ascent of a new framework of human rights that would account for ways of life that the Church deemed sinful. Things like sexual and reproductive rights and the category of gender appeared to present an expansion of individual autonomy within the legal and conceptual framework of human rights, which in turn appeared to present a threat to the moral authority of the Catholic Church, which insisted that these rights were contrary to “natural moral law”. To defend this moral authority, and the ideas about “natural moral law” that it was based on, the Catholic Church created an ideology in which “human nature” is constructed as an absolute binary and then pitted against an amorphous anti-essentialist ideology that somehow threatens to destroy it and thereby corrupt the order of God’s creation. That is what I call Catholic ideology. This Catholic ideology was originally meant to attack feminism, abortion, and the rights of homosexuals from a Catholic religious standpoint, but has over the last decade been deployed with increasing specificity against trans people and trans rights, presumably in reaction to an overall increase in the social visibility of trans people. In view of the nature of anti-trans arguments that appeal to “human nature”, even secular “scientific” forms that hinge strictly on biological essentialism sans the deity, we can trace the influence of Catholic ideology across the entirety of the Right, and all expressions of anti-gender thought, to the point that we can locate the Catholic Church as the fundamental basis of much of modern anti-trans opinion. In this sense, Benedict XVI probably helped create the modern anti-trans movement, having (at least partially) composed the fundamental logic of its animus and argument and having laid the groundwork for it even as far back as the 1970s, when he first began writing about supposed artificial reproduction technology in Germany. And not only this, but Pope Francis to this day continues the legacy of ideological anti-genderism and anti-transness that he consciously attributes to Benedict XVI.
In a way, then, contemporary anti-trans backlash can be understood as the handiwork of the Catholic Church through the last three Popes, including Benedict XVI, and in this sense it is a noxious legacy that will not die with him. By now Catholic ideology is already deeply embedded as part of a vast ecosystem of micro-fascisms that pervade the culture of modernity, and the current Pope continues to wage the same systematic anti-gender campaign. What radicals of all stripes should derive from this knowledge is that the Catholic Church, in its entirety, is to be understood as an enemy in the struggle for LGBTQ liberation. The Church’s interests and institutional legacy are incompatible with the autonomy of gender, and thus the Church opposed the freedom of trans, queer, and non-binary people to be themselves. That on top of everything else is part of the horrible legacy of Benedict XVI.
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