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Vatican Rejects Idea That People Can Choose Or Change Their Gender


The Vatican issued an official document this week rejecting the idea that people can choose or change their gender. It says that allowing gender to be determined by personal feeling rather than biology would be to, quote, "annihilate nature." The document was prepared earlier this year but has been released now, smack in the middle of LGBTQ pride month. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli covers the Vatican. She is here in our studio now.

Hey, Sylvia. Welcome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you - nice to be here.

KELLY: Nice to have you. So the official title of this document - "Male And Female He Created Them." What else does it say?

POGGIOLI: Well, essentially, it blasts what's called the gender theory, saying that it ignores natural differences between men and women and that it's a threat to the concept of the traditional family. It rejects this notion of gender fluidity. And it's aimed at Catholic teachers, parents, students and clergy to help address what the authors call an educational crisis in the field of sexual orientation.

KELLY: Do we know who wrote it?

POGGIOLI: It was written by two Italians who head the Vatican department on Catholic education - Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi and Archbishop Angelo Zani. It was not signed by the pope, but it quotes from his speeches. And it makes no reference to whether the pope reviewed it or not.

KELLY: So do we know whether it's in line with his views and his official position?

POGGIOLI: Oh, absolutely. This is an issue on which - it disturbs him a lot. He's very upset about it, in fact. He - so it's not surprising that the Vatican has issued a document. But frankly, he has been contradictory on some of these issues. You could say almost he's been pretty fluid.

KELLY: Because he has said more progressive things than some of his predecessors in terms of gay rights.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. Famously, he said, who am I to judge? - when he was asked about an alleged gay priest working at the Vatican. And he has made it very clear the need for outreach to gay people. But on gender identity, he's very tough. Once, he said it's part of a world war against marriage, an example of ideological colonization that's been spreading in many parts of the world.

KELLY: Well, talk to me about the timing and the fact that this was issued right in the middle of Pride Month. Is the Vatican making a point here?

POGGIOLI: Well, probably. It's actually - formally, it's dated February 4. But, of course, the fact that it's coming out now, it can't be - it's making a statement. It contains sections that talk very much - very positively about the need to avoid discrimination. But it is, essentially, a document that takes a very strong stand against the fear that schools will start introducing this and that will sort of undermine the authority of parents and teachers in how children are brought up. That's one of the basic fears the Vatican - Pope Francis is expressing.

KELLY: What kind of reaction are you hearing among Catholics? - and I suppose specifically LGBTQ Catholics.

POGGIOLI: Well, there's been very strong criticism. They've denounced the document as contributing to bigotry and violence against gay and transgender people and sending a harmful sign that's - and a confusing message. Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry - it's an advocacy group - said the document's concepts are outdated and misinformed. He said gender is also biologically determined by genetics, hormones and brain chemistry - things not visible at birth.

But perhaps one of the most forceful criticisms came from a Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, who has written on the need to improve Catholic outreach to the LGBT community. He tweeted, the document is mainly a dialogue with philosophers and theologians not with scientists and biologists, certainly not with LGBT people, whose experiences are given little if any weight. He added, sadly, it will be used as a cudgel against transgender people and an excuse to argue that they shouldn't exist.

KELLY: Wow. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting there.

Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.


Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.