Gender: A Word Worth Saving?

I have been largely skeptical about efforts to revive words or ideas that the left has either invented or eventually swamped. Take feminism, for instance. Even John Paul II talking about the New Feminism made some of us itchy. How can you make nectar out of something that was poison to begin with?

For the same reason, I have been highly critical of this word “gender.” We have fought over gender for three decades at the UN. At the Beijing women’s conference in 1995, pro-life lobbyist wore buttons that said, “Sex is Better than Gender.”

We have both won and lost on gender at the UN. Gender was defined pretty well in the document that came out of the Beijing women’s conference—“Gender is to be understood as it has traditionally been understood.” But Beijing was a resolution without any binding effect.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Gender is defined much more strongly in the hard-law Rome Statutes establishing the International Criminal Court where it is defined as “men and women in the context of society.” Of course, “in the context of society” is the left’s wiggle room. Still, it’s a pretty solid definition and ought to be the end of it. No chance.

No matter what the UN General Assembly does, no matter what the sovereign states decide in a treaty, the UN bureaucrats always go their own way. Even with two solid definitions in Beijing and the ICC, the UN bureaucrats still define gender as a “social construct.”

In recent years, UN pro-family lobbyists have been fighting a new gender term called “gender identity.” It is always paired with “sexual orientation” and therefore signals its own smelly provenance. The sexual left has had a remarkably difficult time getting either part of that phrase in any UN document no matter how inconsequential the document. UN delegates have caught on to the dishonest ways and dangerous legal theories of the sexual left.

Even though the good guys have largely won on gender at the UN, in the academy, certainly, but also in the general public, “gender ideology” metastasizes. A few months ago Facebook announced they were allowing a choice of 57 genders for their users. UN regulars were aware of such lunacy since they had observed efforts to promote merely seven genders during UN negotiations over the past few decades.

The sexual buccaneers inform us that “gender” is assigned at birth, usually by the doctor who delivers the baby, and that the doctor often gets it wrong. Gender is something chosen by the person and the choosing can be amazingly fluid, constantly changing, changing even between lunch and late afternoon tea time.

For these and many other reasons I have been very supportive of women like independent researcher Dale O’Leary, Marguerite Peeters, a scholar/journalist working out of Brussels, and Jane Adolph, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law now seconded to the Vatican Secretariat of State, who have been my colleagues in arms at the international level for many years and who say gender ought never to be used.

But, at the Vatican marriage conference a few weeks ago, I heard a presentation from philosopher and religious sister Prudence Allen who said something like “Hold on, we need to keep gender. It is ours and it is good, no matter what the ideologists have done to it.”

First, consider Sister Prudence Allen’s bona fides. She is not one of the Nuns on the Bus. Now living in London, Sister Prudence was recently appointed to the International Theological Commission, a move that Church conservatives cheered.

For years she lived and worked out of the great Chaput’s apparatus at the Archdiocese of Denver. She was a professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and chair of the department. So, Sister Prudence is a solid citizen in the ecclesiastical city.

She spoke only briefly at the Vatican conference but directed us to a longer paper she published in Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics.

Sister Allen traces the beginning of “sex ideology” and “gender ideology” and then maps how “gender ideology” went viral. In her reclaiming of the term, Allen identifies the conflict between “gender ideology” and what she calls “gender reality.” She writes,

Gender Reality holds that human beings are ‘always or for the most part’ women or men, female or male. Gender Ideology holds that human beings fall along a continuum of 3, 5, or even 15 different loose groups of genders. Gender Reality is rooted philosophically in a descriptive metaphysics (Aristotelian and Thomistic grounded) and Gender Ideology is philosophically rooted in a revisionary metaphysics (Neo Platonist or Cartesian founded). Finally, Gender Reality depends upon a hylomorphic (soul/body composite unity) understanding of a human person, woman or man; Gender Ideology leads to a deconstructionist approach to the human person as a loose collection of qualities, attributes, or parts.

She begins with Alfred Kinsey. Actually, she begins with Nicholas of Cusa, moves into 1620 Reformation England, then Bernardus Silvestris, and then C.S. Lewis. She said each had at least an inadvertent hand in the development of “gender ideology.” To see how, you should read the paper. I will begin with Alfred Kinsey.

Thanks to the work of Judith Reisman, the enormities of Alfred Kinsey are now well known. The essential Kinsey message, which the world has subsumed, was that we are constantly sexual, even from our first breaths, and that we—everyone of us—eventually do everything sexual—all permutations and combinations—and it is therefore normal so stop complaining. This view became wholly accepted and promoted by counselors, teachers, psychologists, writers, even newspaper reporters, all the better to become part of the air we breathe.

She shows how French philosopher Michael Foucault “thought that sexuality ought to displace sex identity in any analysis of this aspect of human life. In The History of Sexuality he claimed that ‘sex…[is] an imaginary point determined by the deployment of sexuality.’” Foucault argued that sex identity was a social construct and that the “anchorage points of ‘the body, anatomy, the biological, and the functional’ should be eliminated in favor of ‘sexuality.’” Foucault contracted HIV/AIDs and knowingly continued his sexual forays into the bathhouse culture of San Francisco.

Allen touches on Margaret Mead who wondered, “What a language could be like that had thirteen genders.” Allen says, “In her framing of this hypothetical question, Margaret Mead set the world stage, perhaps unknowingly, for a mutation of gender ideology to begin.”

Dr. John Money was a Harvard-educated psychologist whose specialty was hermaphrodites. Money joined a new “gender” unit at Johns Hopkins University. In 1955 Money published a paper based on the study of 131 intersexed people and concluded “gender is environmentally caused during the first two years of life.” He called this two-year period a “gender gate” and that this “gender window” applied to all human persons.

Money became renowned years later when he experimented on a toddler who had his penis burned off during circumcision. Money convinced the parents of this “gender window” and that the boy could be raised as a girl with no one the wiser. The treatment of the boy included showing him pornography and having him act out sexually with his twin brother.

The success of the case was celebrated in the scientific literature and in the mainstream press and became the rationale for the nascent sex-change industry. However, there was no success; the case was a fraud. The boy never acclimated as a girl. He hated it and when he was eventually told his true-life story, he became a regular blue-collar guy with a family. Sadly, he later committed suicide and his twin brother died of a drug overdose.

Even so, the false story helped the reprobate Money to create a sex change industry that flourishes to this day and has become a human rights cause celeb for dress-wearing men who want to use the girls’ restroom.

Allen lists several faulty arguments of the sexual and gender ideologues. They argue from the exception to the rule.

John Money argued from the fact of hermaphrodites to “the rule that gender development is fluid and able to be changed in all children for a period of up to two years.”

Michael Foucault analyzed the personal diary of a person identified as female at birth but who later developed male anatomy and physiology. Based on this case, Foucault concluded: “…no children should be male or female.”

They argued from the animal behavior to human behavior. Kinsey drew conclusions about humans from the study of insects. John Money “was fascinated with lower forms of animals and fish.” Some fish breed first as males then as females therefore humans can change their sex, too.

A reporter from BuzzFeed called me during the Extraordinary Synod and wanted to know about “gender ideology” because the phrase had been used in the controversial interim document. He said no one on the sexual left had ever heard of it and were amused that we thought they were promoting something called “gender ideology.” Of course, “gender ideology” is our descriptor of things like allowing a man, indeed giving this man a right, to use a girl’s restroom. Such things, laughable only a few years ago, are now the cause of state and local legislation and are the natural spooling out of “gender ideology.”

So, how can such a poisoned thing as gender be saved? And should it be saved? Prudence Allen says yes to both questions.

Sister Prudence ransoms “gender through scripture and philosophy.” She finds gender rooted in the Old Testament starting with, well, Genesis: “The root ‘gen’ from the beginning of Judaism establishes the significance of the history of people living in continuity generation after generation. It incorporates the act of sexual intercourse, of a male and a female, of a man and a woman who become father and mother through their synergetic union.” She says therefore, “sex is included within the concept of the root of generation, or ‘gen’.”

She finds gender in the ancient Greeks, specifically Aristotle’s Generation of Animals that describes the division of higher animals into male and female “distinguished by the functions of the respective sexual parts or genitals.”

She finds gender in the New Testament. In the beginning of the book of Matthew we find, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham. In verses 1:1-16 the Latin word ‘genuit’ with the root ‘gen’ (meaning ‘to beget,’ ‘to generate,’ ‘to father’) is repeated thirty-nine times. In verse 17, the root ‘gen’ is repeated in the word ‘generationes’ (meaning ‘generations’) four times.”

Allen argues from ordinary usage. She writes, “Aristotle, as a natural philosopher, recognized that claims about nature or science are directed towards what is ‘always or for the most part’ the case. He realized that in natural beings there is always some ‘grey’ area which allows for exceptions to be explained within the wider brackets of what is always or for the most part the case.” In ordinary usage gender means “male or female, man or woman.”

The longest part of her defense is the ransom of gender through Catholic philosophy, which is her specialty: Aquinas, von Hildebrand, Edith Stein, the Maritains, Gabriel Marcel, Lonergan, Wojtyla and others.

It does seem somehow incorrect to abandon the playing field of such giants to the midgets Money/Kinsey/Foucault and the largely unknown radical feminists and transvestites who have dominated the field for a mere thirty years or so.

The arguments are mostly above and beyond the likes of me, no more than a ham-and-egger. I fight the gender ideologists at the UN. Others will fight them in the Congress, in the academy, in your local parish perhaps. What I know is that we all have our part to play and it is a remarkable privilege for us to be here now during the time of an epoch-making debate.

There early Church saw monumental debates about the nature of Christ, later debates about the nature of the Church. This debate, the one that has barely begun, is about the nature of God’s most beloved creature, man. The argument over gender is an important skirmish in a battle that will likely last decades and even longer, certainly longer than our lives.

Thank God Dale O’Leary, Marguerite Peeters, Sister Prudence Allen and others like them are on our side.


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...