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Pope's gender comments underscore uneasy fit with partisan politics

Many of the pope's gestures have momentarily thrilled progressives and angered conservatives. But others have left liberals disappointed, highlighting his unique role in political debates.

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    Pope Francis speaks with journalists on board the flight from Baku to Rome on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016.
    Luca Zennaro/Pool Photo via AP
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Pope Francis said that gender theory was being taught in schools, and called it evidence of "ideological colonization" on Sunday, reiterating earlier comments in which he condemned as "terrible" the idea that schools should educate children on the topic. 

In conversation with reporters accompanying him on a flight home from Azerbaijan, the pope recounted a conversation with a French man who lamented that his 10-year-old son wanted to be “a girl” when he grew up. 

“The father realized that at school they were teaching him gender theory, and this is against the natural things,” the pontiff said, according to a transcript from the Catholic News Agency. “One thing is that a person has this tendency, this condition and even changes their sex, but it's another thing to teach this in schools in order to change the mentality.”

Such sentiments have tempered the excitement of social progressives who seemed to hear their own beliefs echoed in the pope’s earlier, socially liberal pronouncements on shibboleths like homosexuality and divorce. And some commentators from those spheres have since urged readers not to be persuaded by good PR alone, pointing to Francis’ refusal to decree changes to traditional Church doctrine on those topics, as well as his public battles with Argentina’s leaders over the 2010 legalization of gay marriage – a proposal he called a “destructive attack on God’s plan." 

But the larger point may be the difficulty of sussing out how the pope believes universal tenets should be turned into local policy – even if the pope has undeniably tried to stoke the Church’s influence as a shaper of governments’ policy, from calling on Europe to "tear down" walls and accept refugees, to giving his blessing to deals struck between the US and rivals like Iran and Cuba. 

One of the problems about being pope, says Francis Clooney, professor at Harvard Divinity School and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, is the immensely diverse set of political situations with which a pontiff’s words carry weight.

“If he says something that seems to fit in New York, people in Nigeria are going to be saying that he’s not in fidelity with the teachings of the church … and vice versa,” Dr. Clooney tells The Christian Science Monitor. 

Francis’ earlier gestures of liberal-mindedness on issues of gender and sexuality may be more of a reflection of his ideas about how pastors should lead their flock – less by censure and rebuke than by a gentler breed of guidance, an approach that goes back to his days as a bishop who became a familiar face in Buenos Aires slums. 

And his expressions of displeasure with the teaching of gender theory – a term that could encompass a vast realm of often-competing ideas about how gender is expressed and constructed – connects to his broader criticisms of global policies, in which Francis has suggested that wealthier, often more liberal countries' economic heft can force secular attitudes on poorer ones. The pope, notes Reuters, has previously described as  “ideological colonization” attempts from rich-country donors to tie development aid to liberal social policies.

The pope’s identity as a political figure may more closely resemble that of an arbiter of what governments should prioritize and what they should leave to be sorted out by the individual – a point made by the Atlantic in 2015, in an article defending the notion that Francis could be regarded as a “liberal pontiff”.

“[W]hat makes Francis different is really a matter of which Catholic beliefs he has elevated to the level of communal concerns – public policy – and which he has framed as individual choices,” wrote the Atlantic's Molly Ball. “To Francis, sharing wealth and fixing global warming are matters that governments should address, while not committing homosexual acts or having abortions are individual choices he endorses. (As he famously put it: “Who am I to judge?”) This is quite different from the American Catholic church, which has poured its political energy into laws banning gay marriage and restricting abortion.”

The pope’s conservatism, then, might consist most crucially of all in what he hasn’t done.

“He’s the pope. He could change these teachings,” says Clooney. “He could announce that married men can be ordained, or that divorced and remarried Catholics be welcomed back to communion. He’s not living in a place where doctrine is set and won’t be interpreted.”

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