His Holiness Pope Francis will probably not hear about my blog so I should make it clear I'm not writing to him, I'm writing about something he said recently. As part of World Youth Day, Pope Francis said "we are living in an age of sin"..."I’ll say it clearly with its first and last name – is gender" and “Today, children are taught this at school: that everyone can choose their own sex. And why do they teach this? Because the books come from those people and institutions who give money."
The Pope has made it clear in this statement that he opposes the genderqueer movement and seems to be especially worried about what's being taught in school. This struck a pretty big nerve with me because I am one of those school teachers who is educating people about sex and gender and (as I said in last week's blog) I come down very much in support of genderqueer rights.
So this is a tricky one and I don't want to get into theology. I'm not a theologian and, as I've said before, I keep my religious stance very private, both online and in the classroom.
I could be a passionate atheist, I could be a devout Catholic. I'm not going to say, so I'm going to ask you to avoid making any assumptions. Unless I've spoken to you personally, you probably don't know what I believe about God. But this isn't a dicussion about God, it's about Biology.
The Pope has openly criticised my position. I could stay quiet on the whole thing, but I feel that would be cowardly. I'm not afraid of discussing difficult topics in Science and Philosophy, so I decided I would write a few words about my thoughts on what the Pope has said this week.
Can you disagree with the Pope?
I'm well aware that in writing this blog post I will upset some readers and I am sorry. It's not my purpose to cause pain, but I am (obviously) going to be disagreeing with his Holiness. This is very dangerous ground for some because of an oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood dogma of the Catholic faith: the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
Papal Infallibility is the teaching that the Pope can, on some issues, be regarded as unquestionably correct, meaning if he teaches something as part of his infallibility, whatever he teaches is to be taken as true. Therefore, if I try to argue that the Pope is wrong about something I am challenging not only him, but his percieved infallibility and therefore the Catholic Church as a whole...which I'm not wanting to do.
However, the teaching of Papal Infallibility is a little more subtle so we need to be abundantly clear on what it means. In fact, Papal Infallibility has a very precise definition, laid down in 1870, which states that the Pope must clearly declare what he's saying to be an infallible decree. So, unless the Pope himself is defining one of his own teachings as part of the Infallibility doctrine, people are allowed to challenge and question him.
Most Popes do not invoke the infallibility right because most Popes are not idiots, most Popes are pretty sensible. Pope Benedict 16th once said "the Pope is infallible in very rare situations" and Pope John 23rd said, rather bluntly "I am not infallible".
Popes know they make mistakes, of course they do, they're usually highly educated men with backgrounds in Philosophy and Catholic history. Popes are human and they are well aware of it, so they don't use their infallibility to decree whatever they want. In fact there is a very short list of declarations which have been decreed "infallible" by the Catholic Church and most of them relate to the nature of Jesus or the Saints.
So, to challenge what Pope Francis said earlier this week is not challenging his Papal Infallibility, because he did not declare what he was saying to be infallible. Catholics can disagree with him, atheists can disagree with him and nobody is crossing any religious boundaries by doing so.
I'm not attacking Pope Francis as a person, either. For what it's worth, while I do feel he is mistaken on this issue, a lot of the time I have a great deal of respect for his teachings. He strikes me as a wise man who wants to focus on the Christian doctrines of substitutionary atonement and the love of Jesus...I just think he's misinformed on the Biology but that's fine, he's not a Biologist!
Isn't it a matter of opinion?
As I've said in pretty much every blog post (so much that my regular readers can probably chant it along with me now): you are entitled to your opinion, but you can't have an opinion about nature.
When the Pope talks about sex and gender he is talking about the natural world. Not only that, he's talking about the easily observable natural world. If the natural world says one thing, you can't challenge it by saying "well I disagree". Reality doesn't work like that. If the evidence says x, you are only allowed to challenge it with counter-evidence, not your gut feeling.
If you want to defend the Pope, go for it, I'm willing to be argued around. But saying things like "well that's just your opinion" doesn't carry much weight with a Scientist . So, I do think the Pope is wrong but I'm not advocating satanism, I'm not trying to oppose God, I'm not being paid for saying this and I'm not going on opinion or gut-feeling. I believe the Pope's mistake is simple:
It's not about Choice
I'm not going to pick up on the Pope using "gender" and "sex" synonymously, that would be a little pedantic because we know exactly what he means. He's objecting to the idea of teaching children "that everyone can choose their own sex" (he means gender).
Well, the thing is, I agree with him 100%. You can't choose your gender and it would be inaccurate to teach that you can. For the same reason you can't choose the number of legs you have. If a teacher got up and told her class "you can have as many legs as you want" I'd be first in line to object. The Pope is actually right; it would be wrong to teach children that gender is a choice, but that's not what schools are teaching, that's not what Biology is saying and that's also not what the genderqueer movement is about.
The Pope seems to think that trans and genderqueer people are naturally born cisgendered (male in a man's body for instance) and then choosing to be something else. This is not the case at all. Gender does not seem to be something you can choose, but it can mismatch the typical anatomy. Look at the story of David Reimer, the male person who was raised female and ended up killing himself due to depression. Gender is an inbuilt thing and you can't easily change it.
The Milton Diamond study points to genetic components being involved and the work of neuroscientists like Zhou, Chung and Swaab have shown that gender is most likely determined by neural architecture, specifically the BSTc region of the brain (there are likely other factors but this seems to be a principle one).
Genderqueer people choose their gender no more than a person chooses the colour of their skin. In fact, many genderqueer people, given the choice, would choose not to be genderqueer as it can lead to all sorts of legal, social and cultural problems. Genderqueer people are often made to suffer because of their identity.
If we replaced the word sex/gender in the Pope's words with the word blood-type then it would read "children are being taught they can choose their blood type" and that would definitely be wrong. But no Biologist or Biology teacher is teaching that because blood type, like gender, seems to be something you are born with.
Granted, a very small number of people do make a mistake and decide they are genderqueer when they are not, but (as I said in my previous blog) that number is, at most, 5% of the trans community. 95% of people are a lot happier after transition.
The number of people who identify as genderqueer is less than 1% i.e. the majority of children do not identify as genderqueer. Some boys might try makeup on and some girls might dress in army fatigues but this isn't the same thing. A trans person isn't just dabbling with being feminine or masculine as all children do...it's their entire life.
Likewise, letting children know that some people are genderqueer doesn't mean every child will decide they are as well. After all, letting children know some people get A grades, doesn't mean that every child will suddenly get As (it don't work like that guv).
But what it might do is give the genderqueer students the confidence to admit to themselves, and to others, that they are genderqueer, without feeling any shame over something which is natural. Being genderqueer is natural in the same way having green eyes is natural. Uncommon, yes, but not a chosen thing.
If we rephrase the Pope's wording to reflect what the Biology is telling us it would read "children are being taught in schools that gender is something you're born with". And who could possibly object to teaching children that?
His Holiness, Pope Francis: cruxnow
I love science, let me tell you why.