When Poland’s bishops circulated a pastoral letter attacking the “ideology of gender,” it touched off fierce disputes in this traditionally Catholic country.
The letter, read in all churches on Dec. 29, 2013, said the concept of gender was “deeply destructive” to “the person, inter-human relations and all social life,” and called on Poles to resist it.
Six weeks on, many think the controversy is being stoked by misunderstandings.
“Gender Studies have been taught at Polish universities for years, and no one ’til now has questioned this,” said Piotr Mucharski, chief editor of the Krakow-based Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny weekly.
In their letter, the bishops said the “ideology of gender” was “strongly rooted in Marxism and neo-Marxism” and had been promoted in Poland “for several months” by “vocal circles with considerable financial means” who wanted to “experiment on children.”
“God created men and women — with the great and indispensable gift that, in body and spirit, they should be men for women, and women for men, assigned to married life,” the pastoral letter noted. “It must therefore arouse the greatest concern that an attempt is now being made to redefine marriage and family, especially by supporters of this ideology of gender.”
The claim was rejected by the Polish government’s Equal Rights Plenipotentiary, Agnieszka Kozlowska-Rajewicz, who said no such programs existed in Polish schools and accused the bishops’ conference of inventing the term “gender ideology” as an “imagined enemy.”
Meanwhile, a group of Warsaw-based professors said the Church’s new campaign risked “endangering freedom of research,” while another group wrote to the pope, complaining of a “witch hunt.” Several prominent churchmen also questioned the bishops’ move.
A Jesuit editor, Father Jacek Prusak, said the pastoral letter appeared to have “distorted relations between religion and science,” while a leading Dominican, Father Maciej Zieba, questioned the wisdom of denouncing “gender” when most Poles had never heard the term.
Gender Studies emerged at Western universities in the late 1950s, as an interdisciplinary area of research drawing on fields from literature and history to law and medicine.
Many proponents maintain that male and female roles are socially and culturally constructed, rather than reflecting inherent biological differences, and say a traditional focus on binary male and female genders causes discrimination against people displaying sexual variance or nonconformity.
Ideology of gender
In an early January commentary, the Polish Church’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, said the Catholic Church worldwide had “unanimously rejected the ideology of gender” after being warned about it by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in a December 2012 Christmas address to the Roman Curia.
In the address, the pope described gender theory as a “new philosophy of sexuality,” which maintained that “sex is no longer a given element of nature” but “a social role we choose for ourselves.”
The “profound falsehood” of the theory risked an “anthropological revolution,” the pontiff added, which would threaten human dignity by undermining the family and leading people to “deny their nature.”
Individual Polish bishops began denouncing “gender” last autumn.
In October, the head of the Church’s Catholic Education Commission, Bishop Marek Mendyk of Legnica, said he’d written to the Education Ministry, demanding its removal from schools.
In November, Bishop Kazimierz Ryczan of Kielce wrote to Polish parliament members, urging them to “defend the homeland against totalitarian genderism,” while Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Lodz warned that “gender” would bring the “denial of God and “death of civilization.”
In their post-Christmas pastoral letter, the bishops said the “ideology of gender” encouraged people to “decide whether they are men or women” and “set up a new type of family,” typically based on homosexual unions. They added that the ideology was being introduced to Poland “without the knowledge of society or consent of Poles,” under the guise of resisting domestic violence and promoting equal rights, and threatened “not just the family, but also our homeland and all humanity.”
Mucharski thinks many Polish Catholics are confused about just what’s under attack. Some media commentators believe the Church chose to highlight “gender,” he said, to divert public discussion away from sexual abuse by priests, which became headlines in Poland in early 2013, and has now widened the term to cover threats to social and moral issues from homosexuality to abortion.
This has been denied by the bishops’ conference spokesman Father Jozef Kloch. But many Catholics remain at a loss to explain how the storm over “gender” suddenly erupted.
“There’s no doubt it was the Church which started this debate — and in a radical form,” Mucharski told Our Sunday Visitor.
“Some people here wish to promote egalitarian changes, loosening up the traditionalist view of women as consigned to cooking and child-care, whereas others resist all talk of change as a destructive ideological attack. The misunderstandings between them seem to be what’s fueling this war.”
For now, the Church is pressing on with its campaign.Addressing parliamentarians on Jan. 23, a lecturer at Krakow’s John Paul II Papal University, Father Dariusz Oko, said “gender ideology” was being “pushed by atheists” and “threatened civilization.”
“Just as the Church criticized Marxist and Nazi ideology, and was persecuted for it, so now it’s criticizing gender ideology,” Father Oko, a key bishops’ conference adviser, told the members. “Whoever fails to remember history is condemned to repeat it. Just as the genderists maintain that sex is not determined, so Pol Pot argued that society is not determined and set out with great fervor to reshape it.”
Call for bans
Polish newspapers say many parents are now calling for a ban on “gender” at schools and complained recently when children were asked to draw a picture of monks, or “men in dresses.”
In January, a group of teachers backed the Church in a hard-hitting statement, claiming “so-called Gender Studies” should be banned from educational institutions. This was rejected by Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, Poland’s higher education minister, who said Polish colleges would be denied European Union funding if they failed to comply with equality norms, which were enshrined in the national constitution. Piotr Mucharski fears the current conflict could damage the Church at home and hold it up to ridicule abroad.
In early January, a public meeting on sexual equality at Warsaw’s main Dominican monastery was disrupted by anti-gender protesters. During a conference at the bishops’ conference headquarters, an academic expert, Professor Malgorzata Fuszara, bitterly rejected the bishops’ “false linking” of gender with Marxism and accused them of touching off “a spirit of moral panic” from which “incompetent people are seeking political capital.”
“Perhaps the academics now teaching about gender made a mistake in failing to explain it to the wider society,” Mucharski, the Tygodnik Powszechny editor, told OSV. “But many others are now saying gender is an anti-religious, atheist ideology because that’s what they’ve heard in their churches. None of this bodes well for public discourse in our country.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.