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The Vatican, LGBT Rights, and the Anti-Gender Movement

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The Vatican, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has recently released statements about blessing same-sex civil unions and the roles transgender people may hold within the Church. In the Catholic Church, same-sex marriages are not permitted; however, Pope Francis has voiced his support for civil unions since 2020, and a new document released on December 18, 2023, formally approves blessings for same-sex civil unions. This approval is a sea change in long-held Church stances on homosexuality and has been met with both praise and criticism from inside and outside the Catholic Church.

In another recent development, the Vatican released a document outlining the inclusion of transgender people in Catholic sacraments. The document states that transgender people may be baptized like any other faithful person and may be permitted to serve as godparents and witnesses at Catholic baptisms and weddings. This document is a reversal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2015 statement, which stated that transgender people were not allowed to serve as godparents.

Both of these developments come after years of controversy and criticism, and while they demonstrate a shift toward acceptance and increased LGBTQ rights in the Catholic Church, the changes may not be welcomed or even followed in some places. The Catholic Church has inextricable links with both anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender movements around the world, and SIS professor Alexandria Wilson-McDonald has researched these movements in Eastern Europe, particularly in countries such as Poland and Slovakia that have strong religious and government ties with the Catholic Church. We asked Wilson-McDonald a few questions to better understand the Vatican’s recent statements and its influence on these movements.

The Vatican has imposed certain conditions on civil union blessings, including that they are not to be conferred in any ceremony that resembles a wedding and are not tied to any Catholic ritual or service. What message do these conditions convey to LGBTQ members of the Church?
We should consider how this message will be received in different contexts. For example, there is a conservative movement that has been growing across Europe in the last decade known as the “anti-gender movement.” This movement has been supported by the Catholic Church, among other conservative organizations and individuals. Actors in this movement specifically target the LGBTQ community and human rights activists in the field of LGBTQ rights.
In Poland and Slovakia—two countries I focus on in my research—where there are high levels of religiosity and support for the Catholic Church, national and local-level churches and church-related organizations have aligned themselves with far-right organizations and parties that promote “traditional family values.” This relationship is deeply embedded in politics and society, especially in Poland, which ratified the Concordat between the Vatican and the Republic of Poland in 1998, preventing the separation of church and state and giving the Vatican a say in policymaking. Slovakia signed the “Basic Agreement” with the Vatican in 2000, giving the Church similar privileges in Slovakia. The Catholic Church’s historical intolerance of LGBTQ rights, aided by those on the political right, has led to serious consequences in recent years, such as the establishment of “LGBT-Free Zones” in Poland.
Given the Church’s close relationship with the political right, which has built much of its political platform around anti-LGBT rhetoric in recent years in these countries, it seems unlikely that the Church and closely affiliated organizations in Poland and Slovakia will use this as an opportunity to support blessings for same-sex couples. Nevertheless, the Pope’s statements can be beneficial for human rights and LGBTQ rights activists working to change the rhetoric regarding LGBTQ rights in the broader community.
Another recent statement regarding the role of LGBTQ people in the Catholic Church allows for the potential of transgender people to be baptized and become godparents. How has the Church regarded transgender people in the past, and how has this new statement been received?
While this recent statement allows for transgender people to be baptized and become godparents, it is crucial to keep in mind that the Catholic Church still maintains strict views on sex and gender. For one, the Church maintains that gender as a social construct is an ontological impossibility. The Church only accepts the existence of biological sex. In other words, Catholic doctrine does not accept that gender is socially constructed and is something that is acted out on a daily basis through interactions with one's community and society; rather, the Church supports essentialized notions of sex—i.e., one is born a male and therefore practices and represents masculinity.
The Church's refutation of gender as a social construction goes back to the 1990s when there were discussions within the Catholic Church about countering the 1995 World Conference on Women and, subsequently, the United Nation's recognition of sexual and reproductive rights, which religious conservatives feared would make abortion a right. Since at least this period, the term gender has been viewed as a threat to the "traditional family," and the Church has actively sought to oppose international documents that use the term gender. Therefore, while these statements are certainly a good step, they fail to address the core Catholic doctrine rooted in essentialized notions of sex and gender, which prevent the Church from fully recognizing transgender and gender non-binary people.
As the Catholic Church continues to periodically reassess its stances on the LGBTQ community, it sparks both change and controversy inside and outside the Church. How extensive is the Vatican’s influence, and do you believe these recent statements signify a move toward greater acceptance and equality for LGBTQ people both inside and outside of the Church?
Pope Francis' approval of blessings for same-sex couples could be limited in its actual implementation in places where the anti-gender movement has already produced a strong link between the Catholic Church, anti-LGBT rhetoric, and right-wing politics. The Polish Episcopal Conference, the central governing body of the Catholic Church in Poland, released a statement after the Pope approved the blessing for same-sex couples, stating that it does not plan to bless same-sex couples. The Polish Episcopal Conference's statement demonstrates that this topic is not without controversy in the Catholic Church and seemingly will not be implemented uniformly.