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On Fascism, Gender Theory, and the Vatican

  1. Introduction: Masculine Totalities

Ce qui y tombe et qui y vit c’est une sorte d’ êtres laids qui me font mal et qui viennent de je ne sais où.
~ Guillaume Apollonaire, “Dans L’Abri-Caverne.”

In the second volume of Klaus Theweleit’s Males Fantasies series—wherein he examines the devastated and devastating masculinity that came to the fore in Germany after the First World War, as Freikorps of embittered Veterans formed and roamed the Weimar Republic, while the Sturmabteilung and the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei began to take shape on the horizon—Theweleit examines the “soldier male,” who had been shattered by the betrayal that came from far behind the lines, giving birth to the loss of the war on June 28, 1919 although “the German Army was never defeated.” This male, Theweleit argues, is constantly driven to avoid the experience of fragmentation by “fusing himself into a unity” (“the troop, the Freikorps), “in which he remains on top. Only this can make him whole.” Here, a relationship of hierarchical domination is experienced, by the soldier male, as “wholeness.” The soldier male both experiences wholeness in the company of his fellows and in society divided into two parts: those above who possess power (the soldier male), and those below who are required to sacrifice (e.g., the “good woman”) or die (e.g., “the Jew”). Therefore, and this point is critical, “[t]he harmony of the whole is never harmony among its parts; it is a harmony imposed by hierarchical orderings.” Furthermore, if this (oppressive) social harmony is not maintained, if “diverse social organizations and groups split the wholeness” of the arrangement, the soldier male experiences this as a rupture within his own totality. It is existentially and very intimately unbearable.

It is hard not to think of Joseph Ratzinger, who grew up in this milieu and who joined the Hitlerjugend at the age of fourteen before briefly serving in the Luftwaffenhelfer and the German infantry, when reading this description of violent men whose fractured sense of self leads them to pursue any and all forms of violence in order to maintain an always precarious sense of wholeness, both within one’s self and within society.


Joseph Ratzinger.

Before spending most of his post-Nazi career as the Grand Inquisitor for the Roman Catholic Church (although the title had been rebranded as “Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” for obvious P.R. reasons), a position he held from 1981 until 2005 and wherein he received the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” for the tenacity and ruthlessness with which he pursued his understanding of pure or proper doctrine, Ratzinger had already showed his propensity to act in the manner of the “soldier male” described by Theweleit during the student uprisings that took place in 1968. At the time, he was a professor at Tübingen where Ernst Bloch was also teaching (and Bloch’s Marxist analysis, especially of Christianity, made it something of a hot-spot for students who were rapidly radicalizing). Bloch was joined by Jürgen Moltmann, whose post-War experience of his own  Germanness drove him in the opposite direction of Ratzinger, making Moltmann both one of the greatest Occidental theologians of the twentieth century, and a supporter of local students and of various global liberation movements. Moltmann, in turn, was joined by Ernst Käsemann, a New Testament scholar informed equally by the always-political apocalypticism of the movement associated with Paul and his co-workers, and by the execution of his daughter at the hands of the Argentinian military regime. Not surprisingly, then, Ratzinger was not inclined to spend time with his peers. In fact, he felt isolated from them and only lasted at Tübingen for three years before resigning from his post to go to a much less prestigious institution.

However, during his tenure at Tübingen, the students became increasingly hostile to Ratzinger and Leftist students staged sit-ins within his classroom. While some professors found these to be an annoyance and other professors actively supported them, Ratzinger experienced these student protests in a very traumatic way. He described them in the language of a military occupation and applied words like “tyrannical, cruel, and brutal” to the Leftist Roman Catholics who were involved in these activities. Thus, a former student of Ratzinger’s argues that the events of ’68 “had an extraordinarily strong impact” on Ratzinger as he came to see that “new ideas were connected to violence and a destruction of the order of what came before. He was simply no longer able to bear it.”

And this, too, fits incredibly well with Theweleit’s description of the proto-fascist (and then fascist) male who came to dominate Germany after the First World War. As Theweleit argues:

The emergence of revolutionary masses into the public arena occurs as a consequence of the rupturing of dams. At the same time, it threatens to undermine the internal dams of these men, as if their bodily boundaries might collapse under the pressure of the masses without. Their own inner mass “dissipates” into the mass which is outside, and the external mass comes to embody their own erupted interior. The man is “inundated.”

The army, or, in Ratzinger’s case, the Church, with its firm hierarchies, proper order, and strict regimentation, is then offered as the solution to this threatening mass. These institutions become “reactionary formations” that take shape due to “the horror that freedom potentially holds.” Likewise, they become places that are legitimate sources of commands that can issued to reconstitute the bodily mass of the male and defend it from dissolution. However, as I have already mentioned, the unity that these institutions end up enforcing, is the unity of the oppressor and the oppressed within the ongoing context of oppression. Here, “[w]hat seems to hold the masculine-soldierly body together is his compulsion to oppress the body of another … His relation to the bodies he subordinates is one of violence.”

This leads to another critical insight: because these men only feel whole within the context of this kind of social order, they will both perceive and experience anything or anyone that upsets this order as perpetrators of great harm, trauma, and violence. Precisely the experience Ratzinger had at Tübingen. As a result, the violence of the oppressor is presented as a moral and justifiably unlimited violence that, far from being aggressive, is defending society from its dissolution into chaos. As Theweleit asserts: terror against any who step out of their assigned roles is essentially self-defense. In other words, as Theweleit explains, what others experience as acts of invasion, genocide, enslavement, and brutality, are experienced by the proto-fascist or fascist male as acts of self-preservation. Vengeance may then be wreaked upon any who violate the order that is required to make these men feel safe—“either the world is incorporated into a destructive totality or it is condemned to death … Fascist revenge is vast and expansive; it devastates the earth and annihilates human beings by the millions … Wreaking revenge is their way of becoming one with themselves.”

“Wreaking revenge” is a good way to describe what Ratzinger has done since ’68—both as Grand Inquisitor, then as Pope Benedict XVI, then, after a brief retreat from the public after his resignation due to scandals related to sexual abuse, money laundering, and large scale corruption in the Vatican, once again as his influence continues to make itself felt. Ratzinger has spent most of his life devastating almost all of the uprisings of Life within global Roman Catholicism. In my opinion, he has done incalculably harm, not only because of the brutal Dictators and policies he supported in his war on Marxism, Communism, Liberation Theology, and feminism, but even more so because of what he stopped from coming to be. I rank him amongst the great murderers of the twentieth century (Hitler, Stalin, and every American President). But his influence along with his desperate desire for the kind of social order Theweleit describes as necessary to the fascist male, persists. And this is nowhere more obvious than in the recent publication from the Congregation for Catholic Education entitled “Male and Female He Created Them.” Explore the citations and you will discover that not only is Ratzinger the first source mentioned but his name, and his influence (as demonstrated by quotations from documents published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during his tenure) run like a constant leitmotif throughout the whole thing.

  1. Who Did What with Whom? The Vatican’s Path to “Dialogue” on the Question of Gender Theory

Later on, we will see that one of the primary traits of fascists is assigning greater importance to the battle of the sexes than to class struggle.
~ Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Volume 1.

“Gender Ideology” is a term that (according to Judith Butler) was coined by Ratzinger in the ‘90s to refer to the ways in which feminists, Queer scholars, and gender-nonconforming folx were pushing back against the traditional gendered binary of male and female. The term spread throughout Roman Catholic social theory, sometimes being presented as “Gender Perspective” or, in this its most recent permutation, “Gender Theory.” I personally remember encountering Ratzinger’s use of thislanguage back in 2005 when he accused feminist theologians of imposing an “ideology of gender” onto Roman Catholic theology when they began using feminine pronouns (She, Her) to refer to the Divine. Ratzinger’s argument was that “God” should always be referred to as “He” or “Him” and that speaking about the Divine  in this way freed us from ideologically-loaded social constructs of gender. Obviously, it’s not a very convincing argument but those who are benefit from the social order that arises in relation to patriarchal religions seemed to find it convincing enough. So, in many ways, the title of this latest document—Male and Female He Created Them (emphasis added)—tells you all you need to know about it. However, in this section, I will briefly examine the case that it makes.

In the Introduction, we are told that we are currently experiencing a crisis of education because children are being taught “an ideology that is given the general name ‘gender theory’” which (and here the documents quotes Pope Francis’s 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia), “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature [elsewhere referred to as “the biological difference”] of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” Thus, according to “Male and Female He Created Them,” gender theory is rooted in a perverse anthropology that denies the divinely constructed binary nature of humans wherein, according to a quotation from one of Ratzinger’s publications with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely conditions his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society.” In other words, as in the case of the fascist male described by Theweleit, strict categorical distinctions are reported as existing within nature and these categorical distinctions must be acknowledged and enforced so that everyone can know “his” or “her” place, thereby causing society to run smoothly.

Having laid this foundation, the second section of the document turns to the dialogue mentioned in the subtitle (“Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education”). The first task, according to the authors, is to listen. Here, listening means understanding that gender theorists have sought “strictly sociological” foundations for gender as they have tried to entirely remove “sexuality identity” from the domains of nature and biology. Here, such things as procreation, the “institutional model of the family,” and “sexual difference,” are “bypassed” in favour of the pursuit of personal freedom and contractual, voluntary relationships. The separation of (the social construct of) gender from the (biological category of) sex has been essential to this. This results in queer sexualities that are “fluid, flexible, and … nomadic” and people “who can choose a gender not corresponding to his or her biological sex … (transgenderism).” Note then that, already in their section where they are posturing as open to critical self-reflection and are trying to “listen” to voices from others, the authors are still operating with the assumptions that there are only two biological sexes (male and female) and that there is one specific gender that corresponds to each of those sexes (again, male and female).

So what do the authors like about this? Essentially three things. First, the desire of gender theorists to “combat all expressions of unjust discrimination” which, they assert, is a desire they also share. Second, the educational goal of teaching young people to respect the particularity and difference of every person. Third, the authors note that many gender theorists also value femininity and the authors affirm this, especially as it relates to the “affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood” of women “which has inestimable value for the development of individuals and the future of society. This third point should, of course, make us immediately question the commitment of the authors to affirming the first two points. How do the authors actually understand a commitment to combating “unjust discrimination”? Furthermore, does the seemingly redundant disclaimer “unjust” when attached to the word “discrimination” mean that they believe that there are just forms of discrimination? What might those be? And if the particularity and difference that the authors celebrate are the traditional (socially constructed) sexed and gendered differences between “men” and “women,” with women being praised because they are said to fulfill some kind of sacred motherly role, then what about differences that challenge this notion of both women and motherhood? As we will see, the authors are posturing as though they are open to others but are, in fact, actually paving the way for re-inscribing the social order, norms, and hierarchies, they feel necessary to maintain their sense of wholeness.

And so a critique of “gender theory” quickly follows. The problem, according to the authors, is that gender theory is “founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses … as opposed to anything based on the truths of existence.” Here, the ideology of “relativism” drives a wedge between the will and the (sexed and gendered) body. Poorly thought out, overly emotional, and driven by primal desires divorced from reality, gender theory resembles the thinking of the kind of women—Red women, Proletarian women, Communist women, Loose women—whom Theweleit’s fascist male views as forces of chaos that must the dominated, disciplined, or annihilated (in the most violent ways possible) for the good of the whole.


Serpent Nightmare by Alfred Kubin.

These women are the antithesis of the woman celebrated by fascism—the pure and sacred mother who knows her role and finds fulfillment in her subordination. Consequently, the differences affirmed and welcomed by gender theorists under the concept of “non-discrimination” are actually categories that deny the true and proper “difference as well as natural reciprocity that exists between men and women.” It is critical to reaffirm this because this true and proper difference and reciprocity is the basis for the family which, in turn, is the basis for society. In other words, we are back to the affirmation of difference between those above and those below—the oppressor and the oppressed—within the kind of unity or totality that the fascist male views as natural and essential to the smooth functioning of the world.

Adding to this is the brief third section, “Reasoning,” wherein the male authors lay claim to “rational arguments,” “medical science,” “genetics,” and “philosophical analysis” (classical Greek and Roman notions of personhood are highlighted). It is within the context of their all-encompassing (oh-so-masculine) expertise that the authors then invite others to “peaceful dialogue and a fruitful meteing together of peoples and a meeting of minds.”

The bulk of the document is then laid out in the fifth section, “Proposing,” wherein the nested hierarchies of the Vatican’s ideology of gender and its integral relation to the various levels of the social—from an overarching “Christian anthropology,” to the family, to the school, to society as a whole—are explained. The section concludes with advice specific to educators.

Beginning with “Christian Anthropology,” the authors assert that educational programs must be coherent with “the true nature of human persons (with a view to guiding them towards a full actualisation of their sexual identity within the context of a vocation of self-giving).” Here, appeals are made to the creation account in Gen 1.27 (not the account in Gen 2), wherein the human person is assigned a gendered body and a place within both horizontal relationships between people and vertical relationships between people and the Divine. Tellingly, these well-defined and essentially gendered relationships are described as a “unified totality.” Here, the “need to reaffirm the metaphysical roots of sexual difference” are emphasized because the denial of the “male-female duality of human nature” results in abstractions and erasures that annihilate identity, the reality of the family, and the “original truth of masculinity and femininity.”

The family, then, is posited as the “natural place” for these relationships to be developed. It presents “a totality in which all the elements of the person enter” and become fully realized. Here, two things are emphasized: first, that the family is the primary pedagogical environment for the formation of children and, second, that the father and mother (cis-male father, cis-female mother in a heterosexual relationship blessed by the Roman Catholic Church) present the children with the proper model of masculinity and femininity so that the children can mature appropriately.

The school is to supplement and compliment the work of the family. Educators should be especially focused on teaching children the importance of overcoming their individualism so that they can fulfill their vocation and “live responsibly” in the broader community.

Finally, when it comes to society, the “decline of the culture of marriage” is blamed for all kinds of social problems (that “disproportionately affect women, children and the elderly”), and so the authors urge people to reconstruct the alliance between the family, school, and society—in other words, to restore the totality in which they feel whole.

The document closes with some suggestions for the formation of “formators” or educators, and calls for furthering the resources, tools, and strategies available based on “the Christian vision of man and women.”

  1. Reflection: “Therefore, Choose Life”

It is imperative to understand our sexual identities as the traumatic effects of a violent biopolitical system of sex, gender, sexuality, and race and to work out new myths that will allow us to interpret psychopolitical harm and give us the courage needed for collective transformation.
~ Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie.

What, then, is the desired outcome of “Male and Female He Created Them”? As far as I can tell, the re-inscription of misogynistic, homo- and transantagonistic heteropatriarchal norms, roles, and values, within a totality that understands unity as premised upon the co-existence of those who have power and those who obey them, and further justified by appeals to religious traditions, classical philosophies, and medical science. However, while there is nothing essentially new here, the document is presented so as to suggest that it was produced based upon respectful listening to others who are different than the authors. The authors present themselves as open-minded and kind-hearted academics who just want what is best for everyone. But that is not the case and they have, once again, excluded Queer and gender-nonconforming folx from the community of those who are fully, properly, and maturely human. The Vatican’s understanding of “dialogue” is little more than an approach that says, “okay, we let you talk, now we’re going to tell you how it is, what’s permissible, and what’s actually best for you.”

Certainly the oddest appeal the authors make is to Greek and Roman conceptions of what it means to be gendered human beings. Odd, not only because of the way in which rape was fundamental to Roman maleness, and not only because “Greek” is slang for anal sex on menus of what sex workers today provide (because, you know, all the stories about Greek men and boys), but also odd because people who understood very little about what we understand about, well, anything and everything, are held up as some kind of authority on the matter. But, yeah, when it comes to sex and gender, the Greeks and Romans were telling all kinds of stories about gods taking on animal shapes to “seduce” and fuck women.

padua zwaan

Exhibit A: Leda and the Swan (1939) by Paul Mathias Padua.

(By the way, Hitler was also really into this story about Zeus taking on the form of a swan in order to “seduce” Leda, so Hitler bought the above painting by Padua to hang in his guest bedroom; thus, many years later, prompting the following painting by Wang Xingwei.)


Leda and the Swan (2007) by Wang Xingwei.

That said, the appeals the authors make to “medical science” and “genetics” are entirely unsourced and, frankly, amount to little more than a schoolyard bully spouting nonsense that he thinks sounds smart in order to beat someone down. The authors pair maleness and femaleness to XY and XX chromosomal pairs, but they don’t mention that there are people who possess a single chromosome (an X with no Y, or a Y with no X), other people who possess three chromosomes (XXX, XYY, or XXY), and still other people who are XX but who are born with a penis and no vagina, as well as people who are XY but are born with a vagina but no penis. There are also people born with both a penis and a vagina, neither a penis nor a vagina (at least in the traditional sense—for example, an extended clitoris and fused labia or some other variation of “ambiguous” genitalia, like a small penis nestled into a scrotum that looks more like labia), and everything in between. For example, people with what we refer to as “congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), will have two X chromosomes but what are taken to be “male” genitalia on the outside with “female” reproductive organs on the inside. If that doesn’t complicate things enough, geneticists studying heredity have also discovered that cis-gendered women who have given birth to cis-gendered male children, often have cells within their bodies that possess XY chromosomes (and, in fact, the genetic content of their children), due to the transfer of blood and stem cells back into the mother’s body from the zygote or fetus during its development in the uterus. Similarly, cis-gendered men may also possess blood in their body that has XX chromosomes (and the genetic content of their mother) because of the blood that transferred from their mother’s body into the zygote or fetus that they once were. It turns out that this kind of transfer is far more common than we once thought. So, when we study these things, we discover that, despite what the Vatican tells us, the “truths of existence” are exceedingly queer. What any examination of both medical science and genetics reveals is that both phenotype and chromosomes cannot be the basis upon which we develop the case for a male-female gender binary. Life, not only bacterial life, plant life, and the lives of the great variety of other things we call animals, but also human life, is far more fluid, diverse, fascinating, and awe-inspiring than that.


Jack Unveiled by De Lagrace Volcano.

Recognizing this is one of the strengths of the diverse “gender theorists,” whom the Vatican neither names nor seriously engages before discounting (and urging us all to do the same). For, by moving beyond phenotypes and chromosomes and recognizing the inherent limits of both, they help us to see how both gender and sex are social constructs. Hence, Judith Butler’s famous saying that “there is no sex behind the gender.” Not only is associating a specific thing like “male” or “female” with a certain kind of appearance, genitalia, or genetic code, an act of discursive overcoding that requires reiterative performances to continually bring those “things” into being, but the whole idea of “biological sex” is, itself, an ideological construct. Here, far from denying differences (as “Male and Female He Created Them” asserts), differences are brought to light and celebrated. Seriously engaging with this way of thinking, playing with it, or even adopting it need not be scary—it can help to open our eyes to how wonderful all of this everything is, and how wonderful all of us everyone are, too.

Unless, that is, you are like the men Theweleit describes and you need all of this everything and all of us everyone clearly marked, categorized, and ranked, so that you can feel both whole within yourself and superior to others. Because here’s one thing “Male and Female He Created Them” does not tell you—it’s not as though the Vatican’s scholars are unaware of anything I’ve just mentioned. They just choose not to mention any of it. This is so because they believe that they have the power to pick and choose what gets to show up as relevant “facts” within the regime of truth that they impose; but it is also so because they are aware of the trans*, intersexed, asexual, and gender-nonconforming people whom I have mentioned—it’s just that they don’t think they are fully, truly, and gloriously human. They see them as aberrations. As evidence of the widespread nature of the Fall. As corrupted beings marks by the stain of sin. And so on. This is the fundamental dishonesty of “Male and Female He Created Them.” The authors are misrepresenting what they know, what they desire, and what they actually think about you, if you are different than them and persist in that difference. The patriarchs are gaslighting us again. And doing so in a fascist manner, as Theweleit explains:

as a form of reality production that is constantly present and possible under determinate conditions, [fascism] can, and does, become our production. The crudest examples of this are to be seen in … male-female relations, which are also relations of production.

Under certain conditions, this particular relation of production yields fascist reality; it creates life-destroying structures. I think that has become apparent, just as it becomes apparent that fascism is a current reality whenever we try to establish what kinds of reality present-day male-female relations produce.

Consequently, as in the quotation from Preciado that opened this section, Theweleit concludes that:

if male-female relations of production under patriarchy are relations of oppression, it is appropriate to understand the sexuality created by, and active within, those relations as a sexuality of the oppressor and the oppressed. If the social nature of such “gender-distinctions” isn’t expressly emphasized, it seems grievously wrong to distinguish these sexualities according to the categories “male” and “female.” The sexuality of the patriarch is less “male” than it is deadly, just as that of the subjected women is not so much “female” as suppressed, devivified.

And this is what makes “Male and Female He Created Them” not only oppressive and abusive but tragic. What the Vatican misses are the ways in which their own Scriptures—as confusing, problematic, contradictory, and messy as they (like all Scriptures) are—are far more open to the wonderful diversity of what the authors of those Scriptures take to be the astounding creativity of the Creator. That things are not so easy to understand, that things are not so easy to classify, that life is full of surprises becomes something that inspires humility, awe, and gratitude, not fear. Those who love, and who love well, understand this for, as the Vatican’s own Scriptures say, “perfect love drives out all fear.” In fact, “do not be afraid” is the most repeated command in those Scriptures—a command that, like the one calling them to love their neighbours, these men have never heeded. For, if they had learned to love their neighbours they would not be so afraid of them, or, conversely, if they had learned not to be afraid they would not view their neighbours as aberrations but would, instead, love them. But these men are afraid and so, like the Freikorps, they wreak vengeance on life itself.

After all, as Theweleit observes, “it is above all the aliveness of the real that threatens these men.” Men who need to dominate others within a totality that assigns everyone their proper (and subservient) places, are men who can never embrace the fullness of life. And, even from the standpoint of their own Scriptures, this is a devastating loss. For, just as the first chapter of Genesis is not the final word on all the creative acts of their Creator, or all that their Creator pronounces as good, so it need not be the final word on what it means to be human or to hold, within oneself, something of the image of the Divine. It is just as easy to make the case that trans*, intersexed, asexual, and gender-nonconforming folx are proof of the wonderful, surprising, beautiful diversity of life and of what it means to be fully, gloriously, and oh-so-briefly, alive, in a way that the Creator pronounces good.

Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic 'Pillars of Creation'

The Pillars of Creation, NASA.


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