The Polish Catholic Church is on a mission -- a mission to destroy its new enemy: "gender
While Pope Francis has
staked out a conciliatory stance toward divisive social issues that have
plagued the church in recent years, Polish bishops are taking a hard stand in
favor of a doctrinaire, conservative brand of Catholicism. Though they are
alienating themselves from their leader and much of their flock, they are not alone in their fight. On
Wednesday, 16 Polish MPs from the ultraconservative "United Poland" party --
15 men and one woman -- formed a "Stop gender ideology" parliamentary
committee. The body aims to fight the "negative impact of gender ideology on
the Polish family and the education of the youth," according to the committee's
head, initiator, and only female member, MP Beata Kempa.
The crusaders use the
word "gender" in its English form and argue that it refers to a concoction of
all the social changes the church finds unacceptable, including gay marriage
and contraception. For several months, priests and Catholic commentators have
been pushing the concept of "gender ideology" in the Polish media, and the highest
church authority issued a letter titled "The Dangers Stemming From Gender
Ideology" to be read in churches the Sunday after Christmas. The debate has
gotten so much traction that a group of prominent linguists declared the word "gender" the word of the year in Poland.
The country is one of
the few remaining stalwarts of Catholicism in Europe. But disillusionment with
the church is spreading even to die-hard Catholic Poland. The number of
churchgoing Catholics has been waning -- from 48 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2010 (with 87
percent of the population self-identifying as Catholic, according to measurements
carried out in the 2011 census).
Reminiscent of Russia's
controversial anti-gay propaganda laws, the committee wants to crack down on
public funding for programs that it believes promote "gender ideology" --
especially in educational institutions.
When describing this
gender ideology, church officials have referenced the central premise of gender
theory -- that gender is a product of culture and not inherent to human nature.
It's a concept that has long been
in the church's cross-hairs. In its attack on this ideology, the Polish church now argues
that just about every hot-button social issue is a result of this troubling
ideology, including gay marriage, sex change, abortion, non-traditional family
models, artificial insemination, and contraception. "'Gender' promotes
principles that stand in complete contradiction with reality and the
traditional understanding of human nature. It claims that gender is merely a
cultural product; that with age, one's gender can become a choice; that the
traditional family model is archaic, and that it is a social burden. According
to 'gender' homosexuality is innate and gays and lesbians have the right to
start relationships that become a basis for a new type of family, and that they
even have the right to raise children. The promoters of this ideology argue
that every human has so-called 'reproductive rights,' which include the right
to a sex change, to in vitro, contraception and even abortion,'" reads the letter
that the church authorities sent out to local parishes to be read after
One of the other
take-aways? "The aim of gender education is essentially the sexualization of
children and youth."
obsession with gender ideology serves as something of a diversionary tactic in
dealing with an explosive problem that the church has yet to confront: the sexual
abuse of children. In October, reacting to the latest abuse scandal, the head
of the Polish church -- Archbishop Jozef Michalik -- said
that divorced parents or even the children themselves were to be blamed for
being molested. Later, in a sermon, speaking of introducing sex education in
schools, Michalik said that gender ideology "elicits a legitimate fear" as it
instructs schools to "extinguish a sense of shame in a child and teach it about
the possibility of taking pleasure from bodily acts." In his back-breaking construct, the archbishop was basically blaming "gender ideology" for sex abuse by priests.
So who is the
youth-sexualizing enemy in the church's gender war? Scholars of gender theory
and other observers, including Catholic commentators, have repeatedly emphasized that there is no such thing as "gender ideology." The definition
that the Polish church offers is so broad that it encompasses most liberal
social politics -- a true gender conspiracy. So far, the enemy ranks include
feminists, gays, journalists, educators, politicians, scholars, and even the
prime minister, whose center-right party wholeheartedly embraces Catholic
values but who has said he has never heard such "stupidity" as the one
surrounding the gender debate.
And if the Polish church
stayed true to its "anti-gender" convictions, another potential enemy would
be the Holy Father himself. The Argentine pope's pontificate has so far been called a "gentle revolution." There is no sign of change in the church's
teachings on abortion or homosexuality, but the pope has softened his stance on
issues such as homosexuality. And surely, talk of the Vatican allowing women a
greater role in
the church would be an abomination following anti-gender logic.
The movement in Poland
is therefore indicative of the problems Francis faces in mollifying
conservative elements among his flock. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, appeared
happy to preside over what was often described as a "rump church," one true to doctrine but with a smaller flock
as a result of refusing to bend on social issues. Francis, however, has showed
no patience for such rigid thinking and has during his still-young papacy adopted
a rhetoric aimed at
building a more inclusive church. But that language of inclusion of
historically shunned individuals -- such as homosexuals -- has created
discontent among the church's more doctrinaire members.
To find the front lines
of Francis's fight to reform the Catholic Church, look no further than Poland.