The Polish Catholic Church is on a mission -- a mission to destroy its new enemy: "gender ideology."
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 Christmas.
One of the other take-aways? "The aim of gender education is essentially the sexualization of children and youth."
Conveniently, the 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.