ArticlePDF Available
Vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), 293-296 | DOI: 10.18352/rg.10181
*Correspondence: School of Culture and Education, Södertörn University, Stockholm,
Sweden. E-mail: elzbieta.korolczuk@sh.se.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (3.0)
Religion and Gender | ISSN: 1878-5417 | www.religionandgender.org | Uopen Journals
The Vatican and the Birth of Anti-Gender Studies
Elz˙biEta KorolczuK*
This special issue of Religion and Gender comes as timely and highly relevant
contribution to the ongoing debate on the origins, characteristics and effects of
the current pushback against ‘gender’. Sarah Bracke and David Paternotte have
put together five texts that scrutinize different aspects of the Roman Catholic
Church’s engagement with ‘gender’ in specific national contexts (Argentina,
France, Italy and Poland) and internationally. The contributors convincingly
argue that even though the opposition against ‘gender’ can be attributed to
many sources and engages different groups, including Protestant, Muslim as
well as non-denominational actors, the development of anti-genderism has
been driven mainly by the Vatican and informed by the Roman Catholic Church’s
key theological invention: the theory of the complementarity of the sexes. By
tracing the development of anti-genderism as an ideological position and effec-
tive rhetorical device, the authors show how the anathematization of ‘gender’
emerged and spread through the world. The case studies included here cover
only a fraction of national contexts in which this trend is present, yet they sug-
gest that the spread of anti-genderism is uneven (for example while it has been
widely used in France and Poland, it has not become a prominent discourse in
Argentina, despite the strength of the Catholic Church there). Moreover, they
suggest that so far the anti-genderist movements achieved relatively little in
terms of changes in legislation. Even though in some cases opposition against
‘gender’ led to mass mobilizations, it did not result in blocking and outvoting
progressive regulations (as evidenced by mass demonstrations against same-sex
marriage in France, which was nevertheless introduced by the government).
Arguably, one of key contributions of this special issue lies in de-natural-
izing the Catholic Church’s position on ‘gender’. Stronger in some national
contexts, almost non-existent in others, opposition to ‘gender’ is neither uni-
versally embraced by Catholics, nor flows naturally from the Church’s theology.
The contributions offer an overview of the ways in which the Roman Catholic
Church’s mobilization against gender theory unfolded over time, pointing to
some continuities between the previous waves of religiously grounded anti-
feminism and the current one, but also showing that there are distinctively
new developments and strategies employed. For example, Sara Garbagnoli
points out that distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminism, and ‘authen-
tic’ and ‘false’ emancipation dates back to post-WWII period, while Eric Fassin
Korolczuk: The Vatican and the Birth of Anti-Gender Studies
294 Religion and Gender vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), pp. 293–296
proposes to view the current controversy in the perspective of a recurrent con-
flict between essentialist and social constructionist paradigms, which can be
traced back to Plato and Aristotle. At the same time, authors show that the
theological developments and the conservative political mobilization under the
banner of opposing ‘gender’ is a new phenomenon within the Church, a reac-
tion to the advances of the feminist and LGBTQ movements, the development
of gender studies and policy changes, including anti-discriminatory legislation
and equality measures introduced by specific states and transnational institu-
tions. Mary Anne Case, who examines how the Vatican employs the theological
anthropology of complementarity of the sexes, demonstrates that even though
this doctrine is portrayed as a longstanding Catholic orthodoxy, it is a fairly
recent invention, formulated by Popes (Pius XII, Jan Paul II and Benedict XVI).
She argues, that it is ‘a mid-twentieth century innovation imported into Catholi-
cism at a theoretical level through the work of converts such as the married
former Protestant Dietrich von Hildebrand and at a more pastoral and politi-
cal level by members of the Catholic hierarchy such as Pope Pius XII trying to
reconcile commitments to separate spheres and the equality of the sexes’ (156).
In other words, the Catholic Church’s claims to represent views on the relations
between women and men that are ‘natural’ and not ‘fabricated’, ‘authentic’
but not ‘constructed,’ and ‘timeless’ rather than ‘newly invented’ could not be
further from truth.
Contributions to this issue convincingly argue that the concept of ‘gender
ideology’ has been invented and popularized by the Church because it encapsu-
lates a number of critical issues, linking vital concerns regarding gender order,
family and sexuality, which for a long time were not necessarily a part of the
same conversation, for example the issues of women’s reproductive rights and
homosexuality, marriage and education. There is an interesting discrepancy,
however, between the authors as to the relevance and possible effects of this
development. The editors assert, somewhat optimistically, that the emergence
and promulgation of the concept of ‘gender ideology’, in all its opposition to
gender as a concept, nevertheless firmly relies on and reproduces the analytical
work that gender as a category does connecting dots between sexuality, family-
formation and reproduction (148). Other scholars, however, seem to be less pos-
itive pointing to disastrous effects of strategic conflation of gender theory and
‘gender ideology’. Garbagnoli argues that this conflation ‘constitutes a single
and frightening enemy, it assemblies religious and non-religious actors […] and,
finally, it produces moral panic in the public sphere that subsequently allows
to influence legislators and block juridical and social reforms’ (192) aiming to
counter discrimination against minority groups. So far, such effects have been
observed in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, where anti-
gender rhetoric and moral panic around the alleged threat posed by homosexu-
als led to penalization of anti-discrimination education addressed to minors and
de-penalization of domestic violence. Today, as the right-wing populist move-
ments gains momentum in Europe and elsewhere, we can expect such initiatives
to emerge and possibly win in many other countries.
Analyses of the Catholic Church’s position on ‘gender’ confirm the view that
anti-genderism is not just a set of ‘post-truths’ disseminated by Catholic media
outlets, but a coherent worldview and an area of expertise. Although none
of the authors focuses solely on the relation between religious and scientific
arguments and language, the special issue offers fascinating insights into how
Korolczuk: The Vatican and the Birth of Anti-Gender Studies
Religion and Gender vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), pp. 293–296 295
anti-genderism legitimizes itself ‘scientifically’. In the words of Bracke and
Paternotte: ‘these oppositions to ‘gender’ can be read as projects of alternative
knowledge production’ (144). Anti-genderists not only insist that gender studies
scholars are ideologues rather than scientists, as shown by Garbagnoli, but also
claim that their religiously grounded claims are in fact scientific. At its core, anti-
genderism represents ‘a deeply pessimistic and consistently anti-modernist nar-
rative of Western intellectual, cultural and social history’ (Graff and Korolczuk
2017). Profoundly suspicious of existing academic institutions, anti-genderism
has build up its own sources of legitimacy, a body of knowledge and its own
pantheon of intellectual celebrities with academic titles, many of them women.
A close reading of texts by exponents of transnational anti- genderism, includ-
ing Gabrielle Kuby and Marguerite Peeters – or their local versions such as Polish
anti-genderists Father Oko or Marzena Nykiel – reveals an ambitious intellectual
project, one that at times verges on conspiracy theory, yet strives to present
itself as rational and rooted in science. Books are published, lectures are given
and academic conferences are organized at institutions of higher learning,
online courses and workshops are offered. Anti-genderism is spread through
various channels, both religious and secular: it became a vast project of educa-
tion which has led to the development of an alternative public sphere, perhaps
even an alternative civil society. Just like second wave feminism established itself
in the academic world in the form of gender studies, the present wave of anti-
feminist activism seeks to legitimize itself by establishing anti-gender studies.
The scale of this educational effort is remarkable. For example, in Poland during
2015 alone the Association of Catholic Families organized over 120 meetings
for parents concerned about the ‘sexualization of children’ through ‘gender’
education in parishes all over Poland (Duda 2016: 37). Though the proclaimed
aims are moral and the highest authorities tend to be religious, anti-genderism
claims to be scientific. The key experts – some local, some international, often
endowed with scientific titles – engage in their texts and lectures in endless
mutual citation, a vicious circle of self-legitimation, which not only lends cred-
ibility to unfounded claims that may otherwise seem absurd but often verges
on collective plagiarism. Anti-genderists have established an intellectual circuit
alternative not just to gender studies or feminism but to contemporary social
sciences and cultural studies. As Kuhar has observed ‘the Church’s discourse (and
its public appearance) seems to be ‘secularizing’: the Bible is substituted by sci-
ence and the Church itself by civil society proxies’ (2014: 7). Thus, I would argue
that we should view anti-genderism not as stemming from the lack of knowl-
edge and understanding of what gender studies and gender theory stand for,
as suggested by Father Krzysztof Charamsa, but rather as reflecting an ambi-
tious plan to establish anti-gender studies and new social sciences, based on a
different set of fundamental truths about human nature, sexuality, family and
society.
Focusing on the role played by the Roman Catholic Church in the current wave
of the opposition towards ‘gender’ allows for a deeper and more nuanced analy-
sis of the concept of gender and its usefulness for religious authorities. Embracing
such a perspective, however, one risks discussing the theological and ideological
differences as detached from the actual global geopolitical power struggles. As
evidenced in previous studies, ‘gender’ became a highly effective discursive tool
mobilizing different groups, including non-religious people on a transnational
level, effectively linking different right-wing parties in Europe (Korolczuk 2014;
Korolczuk: The Vatican and the Birth of Anti-Gender Studies
296 Religion and Gender vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), pp. 293–296
Kováts and Põim 2015). Arguably, anti-genderism is at its core a political rather
than a religious movement, affected by realignments and tensions in interna-
tional politics (Graff and Korolczuk 2017). While Bracke and Paternotte make a
convincing argument explaining why the contributions to the special issue do
not include the analysis of the role played by other denominations, the collec-
tion would have benefited from a detailed analysis of the connections between
the Catholic and non-Catholic actors and the ways in which religiously grounded
critiques of ‘gender ideology’ spread also through non-religious channels, influ-
encing public debates and political decisions. Garbagnoli’s analysis of the similar-
ities and continuities between the anti-gender mobilizations in Italy and France
shows that transnational connections may play crucial role in spreading moral
panics around the concept of ‘gender’ and anti-discrimination legislation. Thus,
they clearly deserve more scholarly attention.
Finally, contributing authors point to the fact that anti-genderists attempt
to amalgamate different progressive actors including activists, academics and
policy-makers, presenting them as ‘the enemy’ to be combated by all those who
fear for the future of family and children. This leads to an important question
concerning the ways in which such amalgamation may facilitate mobilization
and cooperation of different individuals and groups identified as ‘genderists’.
So far, the dominant paradigm of identity politics on the left (and right) appears
to be based on a continuous boundary work, which leads to the exclusion of
those who ‘are not exactly like us’. This trend seems to have a powerful centrifu-
gal effect on the left and the feminist movements, resulting in ever-increasing
fragmentation and endless internal struggles over what constitutes the core
of the feminist or left identity. Should we expect that the attack on different
groups which allegedly propagate ‘gender ideology’ may have a centripetal
effect on these groups, exposing what they have in common and preventing
some of them from alienation in search for the lowest common denominator?
References
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Culture and Society (forthcoming).
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sons for Feminist Strategizing’ in Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategizing
for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe. Berlin: Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
Kováts, Eszter, and Maari Põim (eds.). 2015. Gender as Symbolic Glue: The Position and
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Dogmat Płci. Polska Wojna z Gender [Gender Dogma. The Polish War on Gender
  • Maciej Duda
Duda, Maciej. 2016. Dogmat Płci. Polska Wojna z Gender [Gender Dogma. The Polish War on Gender], Gdan ' sk: Katedra Wydawnictwo Naukowe.
The War on Gender" from a Transnational Perspective -Lessons for Feminist Strategizing' in Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategizing for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe
  • Elżbieta Korolczuk
Korolczuk, Elżbieta. 2014. '"The War on Gender" from a Transnational Perspective -Lessons for Feminist Strategizing' in Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategizing for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe. Berlin: Heinrich Böll Stiftung.