Sexuality and Religion

Sexual Difference And The Vatican – A Lacanian Response, Part 1 (Melissa Conroy)

The following is the first of a three-part series.


In June 2019 the Congregation for Catholic Education released a document entitled “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” Written on behalf of the Congregation for Catholic Education the document purports to “guide and support those who work in the education of young people.”[1] Authors Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi and Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani warn of the dangers of gender theory, arguing that it has created a society where sex is separate from gender and sexual differences are devalued in favor of a sexually egalitarian world.

The Congregation for Catholic Education, a long-standing institution founded in 1588 and that has been revised various times under several popes, aims to oversee the education of ecclesiastical persons and in all schools, “of any order and grade,” that instruct lay people.[2] As such their instruction is wide-ranging and far-reaching. Furthermore, it is in line with Catholic doctrine espoused by Pope John Paull II, Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict. Both the fear and the vagueness of Vatican’s understanding of gender ideology are echoed in Versaldi and Zani’s document. Judith Butler summarizes the situation: “gender is understood as a single ‘ideology’ that refutes the reality of sexual difference and that seeks to appropriate the divine power of creation for those who wish to create their own genders. . .. There seems to be no interest in what the complex and conflictual field of gender and sexuality studies actually includes.”[3]

Quoting Pope Francis, the authors explain that gender theory “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”[4] Versaldi and Zani contend that this has led to a variety of non-heterosexual orientations, transgender identity, and non-monogamous relationships. Sexuality is presented as a “fundamental component of one’s personhood” that provides the origin of three levels of one’s identity — biological, psychological, and spiritual — which they see as important for the individual’s subsequent maturity and ability to contribute to society.[5]  This article investigates each level of the Catholic vision of identity by examining it with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of human reality.

To explain how a human subject operates in the world, Lacan developed a complex three-layered model that accounted for the perception and meaning of images, signification, and aspects of reality that are ultimately unknowable. These he named the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, referring to these as “the three quite distinct registers that are essential registers of human reality.”[6] Lacan likened this model of reality to a quilt, one whose layers are held together by various stitches or quilting points (pointe de capiton) that knot together signifiers to the signified, thus creating meaning.

Like Versaldi and Zani, Lacan thought of sexual difference as the foundation for the development of personhood; however, unlike the Vatican authors, Lacan did not suppose that sexual duality was a God-given component of our identity. Indeed, Lacan argued that “the two sides, male and female, of sexuality are not given data, are nothing that could be deduced from experience.”[7] Instead, the subject is formed in relation to the symbolic field of signifiers, a field that precedes the subject and by which the subject is formed in an encounter with cultural systems of meaning.

By linking the proper signifiers to what is signified, the subject shares in the social world of the symbolic. The symbolic, or what neurologist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls “social reality,” is the fundamental aspect of all human existence: “This sort of social reality, in which two or more people agree that something purely mental is real, is a foundation of human culture and civilization. Infants thereby learn to categorize the world in ways that are consistent, meaningful, and predictable to us (the speakers), and eventually to themselves. Their mental model of the world becomes similar to ours, so we can communicate, share experiences, and perceive the same world.”[8] Much of Lacan’s understanding of our thoughts and actions within the social world concern how we categorize the world in terms of sexual identity.

For Lacan, sexual identity is formed in fearful response to the symbolic law of sexual difference. By answering the law, one takes a position in the symbolic order thereby submitting to the authority of the symbolic and gaining identity through recognition as a subject. This authority is described by Lacan as the nom-du-père. The double-meaning of the term, which, when spoken in French, can be understood to be both the “no” of the father and the “name” of the father, refers to the subject’s development in terms of law and language.

The subject’s identity is formed in and through language (the nom-du-père) and by accepting the authority of the father (the nom-du-père). The biblically-based discourse from the various Vatican authors align natural aspects of sexual identity with supernatural narratives, thus producing an ideology sanctioned by a divine father. Physical and spiritual aspects of existence are knotted together to produce hierarchal positions of father and mother in the Catholic imagination. Lacan’s insights into the production and operation of these taxonomies reveal how power and fear are used to create these seemingly natural positions. 

This article investigates each aspect of the authors’ arguments in conjunction with Lacan’s three registers. The first section addresses the natural and supernatural claims of the Vatican authors that address biological aspects of sexual identity, such as sexual dimorphism, by considering Lacan’s understanding of the real and how taxonomic categories are created. The second section compares the Vatican authors’ claims regarding the psychological needs for a sexual difference in the family to Lacan’s understanding of the mirror stage and identity formation.

The third section analyzes the Vatican’s claims regarding the societal and spiritual need for sexual difference by utilizing Lacan’s understanding of the quilting point and the role religion plays in creating power and meaning. The final section examines Lacan’s concept of the veiled phallus to grasp why gender theory is such a threat to the Vatican’s position on sexual difference. Lacan’s theories expose the ideological motivations behind the Vatican’s insistence on sexual dimorphism and their insistence on the “natural” positions of male and female.

Sensing the Real

Versaldi and Zani contend that one of the reasons gender theory is a problem is because it makes “a radical break with the actual biological difference between male and female.”[9] The authors turn to the story of Genesis to explain the divine origin of sexual dimorphism, that is, the idea that humans are born as one of two physical forms: “Christian anthropology has its roots in the narrative of human origins that appears in the Book of Genesis, where we read that ‘God created man in his own image [. . .] male and female he created them (Gen. 1: 27).’”[10]

In addition to the creation story of Genesis, Versaldi and Zani state that sexual dimorphism is evident throughout the human body, maintaining that sexual difference has a natural, biological origin: sexual dimorphism “can be demonstrated scientifically by such fields as genetics, endocrinology and neurology.”[11] This sentiment is echoed in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body where he declares that “the fundamental fact of human existence at every stage of history is that God ‘created them male and female.’ He always created them in this way and they are always such.”[12] People who identify outside of the binary framework are belittled as nothing but a “provocative” display while third genders are dismissed as a “fictitious construct.”[13]

Finally, people who are born outside the binary of male and female, that is, people with disorders of sex development (DSD) are eliminated with the help of the medical establishment: “medical science should act with purely therapeutic ends, and intervene in the least invasive fashion, on the basis of objective parameters and with a view to establishing the person’s constitutive identity.”[14] 

Versaldi and Zani’s dismissive attitude towards transgender people, non-binary gender systems, and people with a DSD, indicates an inability to address bodies and systems that disrupt the normative classification of male and female. The need to downplay the instances where sexual dimorphism and the alignment of sex with gender is not present indicates the vulnerabilities of the system, a fact that Bruce Lincoln observes in his analysis of taxonomies: “Anomalies remain always a potential threat to the taxonomic structures under which they are marginalized, for in the very fact of their existence they reveal the shortcomings, inadequacies, contradictions, and arbitrary nature of such structures.”[15] In the following section, I examine Lacan’s order of the real and the function of taxonomy in order to understand how bodily anomalies threaten the binaries of the sex classification system.                  

Lacan separates reality, the coherent sense story that we make, from what he terms the real. Such a distinction is useful given that the reality we experience is only a fraction of what is actually present. We can only see certain wavelengths of light, we can only hear within a certain range of frequencies, we can only detect certain smells. Lacan brings attention to this in Seminar XVII: “In the light spectrum there is an ultraviolet that we have no perception of – and why wouldn’t we have any? At the other end, infrared end it’s the same.

The same goes for the ear – there are sounds that we stop hearing, and no one can tell very well why it stops there rather than further on.”[16] Lacan explains that our experience of reality is like that of a filter which allows only fragments of the real to enter: “Something sifts, sieves, in such a way that reality is only perceived by man, in his natural, spontaneous state at least, as radically selected. Man deals with selected bits of reality.”[17] Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explains that is the result of the evolution of the various systems of the brain: “The brain, for example, does not have a system dedicated to perception.

The word ‘perception’ describes in a general way what goes on in a number of specific neural systems – we see, hear, and smell the world with our visual, auditory, and olfactory systems. Each system evolved to solve different problems that animals face.”[18] With our limited sensory system, we are, as brain researcher David Linden says, “’peering through a keyhole’ into sensory space.”[19] Our knowledge of perception reveals that not only is our sensory system detecting only a part of the world but that it is also incapable of detecting the whole of it. Access to the whole of reality is, as Lacan writes, impossible: “since the opposite of the possible is certainly the real, we would be led to define the real as the impossible.[20]  

Michael Pastoureau’s history of the color blue demonstrates the impossibility of the real. Unlike red, a color used by prehistoric humans, blue has a relatively short history. It is not until the 15th to 17th century, when technological advances made the pigment accessible, that blue emerged as a dominant color. Prehistoric human societies did not produce blue. The rarity of blue in ancient cultures means that they did not include it in their color schemas: “no ancient author mentions the color blue. For both the Greeks and the Romans, there was no blue in the rainbow.”[21]  Ancient color schemas have three to five colors listed in their spectrum of the rainbow.

To a person born into a world that includes blue, it is hard to imagine anything else when encountering the sky on a sunny day. Blue seems to be an objective reality, yet, as Barrett makes clear, this is mere illusion. While our brain tells us there are stripes of distinct color — red, orange, yellow, and so on — there is, in reality, only “a continuous spectrum of light, with wavelengths that range from approximately 400-750 nanometers. This spectrum has no borders or bands of any kind.”[22]

Despite this, we perceive distinct bands of color. Barrett asks why this is so: “Why do you and I see stripes? Because we have mental concepts for colors like ‘Red,’ ‘Orange,’ and ‘Yellow.’ Your brain automatically uses these concepts to group together the wavelengths in certain ranges of the spectrum, categorizing them as the same color. Your brain downplays the variations within each color category and magnifies the differences between categories, causing you to perceive bands of color.”[23] This is particularly evident when comparing a culture that has distinct concepts for green and blue, versus a culture that does not have blue and consequently includes blue as an aspect of green. In other words, not all rainbows have the same number of stripes. Color is a concept created by the perceiver.

Barrett gives the example of experiencing roses in a botanical garden: “Your brain downplays the differences between the members of a category, which as the diverse shades of red roses in a botanical garden, to consider those members equivalent as ‘red.’ Your brain also magnifies differences between members and nonmembers (say, red versus pink roses) so that you perceive firm boundaries between them.”[24]  Thus, Barrett concludes, when your brain is categorizing, “You are not finding similarities in the world but creating them.”[25]

To understand the color blue, one must understand the society that created it. The culture creates a symbolic category by carving out a space for the color blue. This creation of a taxonomical space is similar to how Lacan’s commentators have understood the real. 

According to Jacques-Alain Miller, it is “a kind of excluded interior or an intimate exterior” while to Charles Shepherdson it is a “void within the structure.”[26] Lacan explains the real through the comedy of the humble macaroni: “Everyone makes jokes about macaroni, because it is a hole with something around it, or about cannons. The fact that we laugh doesn’t change the situation, however: the fashioning of the signifier and the introduction of a gap or a hole in the real is identical.”[27] Macaroni are a structure around a gap; similarly, our experience of reality through symbolic categories allows partial access to an otherwise unknowable real.

The creation of a symbolic category and the brain’s need to magnify differences reveals how taxonomic systems work to produce social reality. Pastoureau explains that in order to understand color, we must consider that “the artist, the intellectual, human biology, and even nature are ultimately irrelevant to this process of ascribing meaning to color. The issues surrounding color are above all social issues.”[28] The experience of blue, like the experience of seeing bands in a rainbow, is part of the historical, social fabric we accept as reality. In contrast, in the real, no blue exists, nor do bands of color exist in the rainbow.

Likewise, for Lacan, sexuality has no pre-given meaning, no natural connection to social categories. Like Pastoureau, Teresa de Lauretis explains this phenomenon by use of the social reality: “It isn’t until it becomes (i.e. until it is signified as) a boy or a girl that it acquires a gender. What the popular wisdom knows then, is that gender is not sex, a state of nature, but the representation of each individual in terms of a particular social relation which pre-exists the individual and is predicated on the conceptual and rigid (structural) opposition of two biological sexes.”[29]

The various voices of the Vatican assert that sexual dimorphism is natural. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists one of the articles in the profession of faith as belief in humanity that is “created male and female.” This is even though one in two thousand births or 1.7% of the population is born with atypical characteristics, not to mention DSDs that are not visually evident at birth. There are over thirty different types of DSD, each of which manifest in chromosomes, gonads, internal genitals, and genitalia in various ways.

The complexity of the natural world is nowhere in evidence in Versaldi and Zani’s article. Consider Versaldi and Zani’s statement regarding chromosomes: “male cells (which contain XY chromosomes) differ from the very moment of conception from female cells (with their XX chromosomes.”[30]  In Versaldi and Zani’s view, chromosomes only come in two possibilities: XY for male and XX for female. In reality the dizzying array of karyotypes, such as XO, XXY, XYY, XXYY, XXX, XXXY, XXXXY, XYYY, XYYYY, XXXYY, XXXX, and XXXXX, considerably complicate this binary.[31] In addition, cases of chimerism, a rare form of DSD where a person has both XY and XX present, destabilizes the underlying assumption that every body has a determining chromosomal identity in the first place.       

Furthermore, Versaldi and Zani’s claim that sexual dimorphism is evident from “the very moment of conception” is refuted by the development of the fetus. During the initial few weeks of conception, all embryos are the same. In the early stages of fetal development, embryonic gonads contain undifferentiated cells and therefore have the potential to be become testes, ovaries, or, more rarely, a combination of the two.  Similarly, all mammalian embryos begin with the same internal urogenital duct structure that allows for the development of Wolffian ducts in typical males or Müllerian ducts in typical females.

In neonatal development, reproductive organs and genitals are formed from the same basic structures that remain undifferentiated until six to eight weeks. Depending on hormones, Müllerian ducts can become fallopian tubes, the uterus, and the upper vagina. Conversely, the Wolffian ducts can become epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicle of typical males. Finally, and most significantly for this discussion, there is the genital tubercle which can become either a clitoris or a penis, or somewhere between the two.

Having a penis or lacking a penis is the usual way one determines sexual identity, yet the reality is more complex. The existence and use of the Prader Scale reveals just how indistinct the line is between a penis and a clitoris. When is a genital tubercle a small penis, as in cases involving micropenises, or a large clitoris, as in cases of clitoromegaly? Conceived by endocrinologist Andrea Prader, the Prader Scale is a way to measure the amount of virilization present in the genitals.

A Prader Scale of 1 is a “normal” female while 5 is a “normal” male. Through use of this scale, along with inspection of the genitals, classification of the organ occurs. A well-defined line between penises and clitorises is, however, muddied by the variations in measurement standards used to separate the two. The definition of a micropenis, for example, varies from 2.5 to 1.5 centimeters, depending on whose scale you use.[32]

Like the bands in a rainbow or the color blue, sexual difference is not simply cultural or natural. Just as the social world creates meaning for how the human eye perceives a certain wavelength of electromagnetic radiation, our social world likewise makes meaning of biological reality, similarly minimizing differences and creating distinctions. The impulse to create distinction between the sexes becomes apparent when one considers how similar male and female bodies really are. In fact, all of humanity is rather similar.

Myra Hird points out this out clearly: “at the chromosomal level, while no two people (except for identical twins) have the same chromosomal constitution, all humans share 99 percent of their chromosomes. The differences which we hold so dear (hair color, skin tone, and so on) and on which so much of our social organization is based . . . are miniscule in comparison with our biological similarities.”[33]

The Judeo-Christian understanding of the sexual dimorphism present in the story of Adam and Eve has led to “unconditional support for surgical interventions, as early as possible, aimed at making the unacceptably ambiguous bodies of intersexed infants and children conform to the dichotomous model in which there is no room whatsoever for ambiguity” despite the prohibition on removing gonads in Deuteronomy 23.1.[34] This inability to accept the natural diversity of bodies is evident in “Male and Female He Created Them” when the authors advise that, “in cases where a person’s sex is not clearly defined, it is medical professionals who can make a therapeutic intervention . . . intervene in the least invasive fashion, on the basis of objective parameters and with a view to establishing the person’s constitutive identity.[35]

While this statement suggests that there are “objective parameters” to determining a person’s identity, there are currently no universal guidelines for such interventions. More importantly, the assignment of a child’s “constitutive identity” is not possible to determine. Depending on the particular DSD, between five and forty percent of people end up rejecting the sex they were assigned.[36]  

Melissa Conroy is Associate Professor of Religion at Muskingum University. She has been published in the Journal of Religion and Film and Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science and is currently working on a book about Jacques Lacan.

[1] Giuseppe Versaldi and Angelo Vincenzo Zani, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” (2019. Vatican City., 4-5.

[2] Details of the history of the institution are available on its website. See

[3] Judith Butler, “Anti-Gender Ideology and Mahmood’s Critique of the Secular Age.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 87, issue 4 (December 2019): 957.

[4] Versaldi and Zani, 3.

[5] Versaldi and Zani, 4.

[6] Jacques Lacan. On the Names-of-the-Father, Trans. Bruce Fink, (Malden, MA: Polity, 2013), 4.

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956, Trans. Russell Grigg, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 248.

[8] Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 99.

[9] Versaldi and Zani, 12 (emphasis in original).

[10] Versaldi and Zani, 17.

[11] Versaldi and Zani, 13.

[12] Pope John Paul II, The Redemption of the Body and the Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body) (Rome: L’Osservatore Romano. Rome, 1974-1984), 47.

[13] Versaldi and Zani, 13-14.

[14] Versaldi and Zani, 13 (emphasis in original).

[15] Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: comparative studies of myth, ritual, and classification (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), 166.

[16] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Trans. Russell Grigg, (New York. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 47.

[17] Ibid., 47.

[18] Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1998), 16.

[19] David J. Linden, The Accidental Brain: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008), 92.

[20] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts, Trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton C& Company, 1998), 60.

[21] Michel Pastoureau, Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 31.

[22] Barrett, 84.

[23] Ibid., 84.

[24] Ibid., 87.

[25] Ibid., 92 (emphasis in original).

[26] Charles Shepherdson, Lacan and the Limits of Language (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2008), 2-3.

[27] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Trans. Denis Porter, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 121.

[28] Pastoureau, 10.

[29] Teresa De Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory Film and Fiction (Theories of Representation and Difference) (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 5 (emphasis in original).

[30] Versaldi and Zani, 12.

[31] Julia A. Greenberg, Intersexuality and the Law (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 13.

[32] Katrina Karkazis, Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 103.

[33] Myra Hird, Sex, Gender, and Science (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 44.

[34] Sally Gross, “Intersexuality and Scripture.” Theology and Sexuality 11, 65-74 (1999): 68.

[35] Versaldi and Zani, 13.

[36] Human Rights Watch, “I Want to Be Like Nature Made Me;” Medically Unnecessary Surgeries on Intersex Children in the US (2017), 58.

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