ROME – When he was elected Successor of Peter in 2013, Pope Francis asked the pontifical academies to study the phenomenon of human trafficking, making the fight against it one of the first and most enduring hallmarks of his papacy.

Now, it appears the pope has set a new topic in his sights: So-called “gender theory,” saying it “cancels differences” and therefore “cancels humanity” in an audience with participants in a March 1-2 conference titled, “Man-Woman Image of God: For an Anthropology of Vocations.”

Francis has repeatedly condemned gender theory throughout his nearly 11-year reign, calling it at various junctures “ideological colonization,” a “mistake in the human mind,” an expression of “frustration and resignation,” a “war on marriage,” and “nefarious.”

In his traditional New Year’s speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, which this year took place Jan. 8, the pope again condemned gender theory, calling it an “extremely dangerous” phenomenon that threatens genuine human rights.

Pointing to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pope Francis in that speech lamented that “in recent decades attempts have been made to introduce new rights that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable.”

“They have led to instances of ideological colonization, in which gender theory plays a central role; the latter is extremely dangerous since it cancels differences in its claim to make everyone equal,” he said, saying, “these instances of ideological colonization prove injurious and create divisions between states, rather than fostering peace.”

In his meeting Friday with participants in the “Man-Woman Image of God: For an Anthropology of Vocations” conference, Francis in a brief off-the-cuff greeting said that the event held great importance, “because today the ugliest danger is gender ideology, which cancels differences.”

“I asked that studies be done about this terrible ideology of our time, which cancels differences and makes everything the same,” he said, saying that to cancel differences is “to cancel humanity.”

He then, as he often has, referred to twentieth century novel Lord of the World by Robert Benson, an apocalyptical work centering on the reign of the antichrist, calling the book “prophetic, because it shows this tendency to cancel all differences.”

Francis had his prepared remarks read aloud by an official of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, saying he is still suffering from the effects of a cold that make it difficult to deliver long speeches, but he offered a spontaneous greeting and farewell to the group.

The two-day conference, which has drawn scholars, theologians, philosophers, and other experts from around the world, was organized by the Center for Research and Anthropology of Vocations (CRAV), established in 2020 by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, who serves as its president and is widely considered to be a close papal aide.

Jesuit Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda, an expert in Canon Law and a close papal advisor, is a member of CRAV, as is Italian Sister Linda Pocher, who has addressed the past two sessions of the pope’s Council of Cardinals advisory body, speaking on the topic of women in the Church, and who recently said Pope Francis is in favor of the women’s diaconate.

Gender theory is not a new topic for Pope Francis, who spoke of “ideological colonization” as early as 2015, on his return flight from the Philippines, nor for the Roman Curia.

In 2019, the then-Congregation for Catholic Education, which has since been folded into the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education, published a document titled, “Male and female he created them: For a path of dialogue on the issue of gender in education.”

The text was offered as a tool for educators on how to address the topic of human sexuality and gender amid the increased prevalence of so-called gender theory in schools, as well as academic institutions and environments.

In 2021, gender theory became a hot source of debate as the Vatican and the Italian government feuded over a draft bill that would have made gender theory a mandatory part of the curriculum in schools.

The so-called “DDL Zan,” named for openly gay parliamentarian Alessandro Zan who introduced it, was a proposed anti-discrimination bill which sought to impose legal penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation, and which strove to incorporate gender theory into school curricula, including an annual anti-homophobia day at schools.

In an unprecedented move, the Holy See intervened at the state level, issuing a nota verbale, meaning a formal diplomatic communication, to the Italian government in objection to the bill.

In the nota verbale, the Vatican for the first time invoked the 1929 Lateran Pacts, which established Vatican City State as a sovereign entity and which governs relations between Italy and the Holy See, to oppose the bill on grounds that it would criminalize Church teaching on marriage and the family, thus violating constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

Both the bill itself and the Holy See’s objections were a source of intense public debate for months, however, the bill was eventually defeated in the Italian senate and a new version has not been presented.

In his speech, Pope Francis highlighted the goal of the conference to explore the “anthropological dimension” of every vocation, which implies an evaluation of vocation for both men and women.

Pope Francis when speaking about the various life vocations in the Church, such as the priesthood, consecrated life, and marriage, has stressed the need to value the differences between men and women, invoking Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Petrine” and “Marian” principles, which explore the Church’s ministerial and mystical dimensions.

Francis has often referred to these principles when speaking about the role of women in the Church, specifically the Church’s ban on women priests, noting that for von Balthasar, Mary held a higher place in the Church than Peter, using this as an example of how women in the Catholic Church can have a more significant role than men, even if they are not ordained.

Pocher, who spoke to the pope’s Council of Cardinals in December and in February, weighed in on these principles in an interview with a Spanish magazine after the December session, saying there is no “rigid” separation between men and women in applying these principles, and that “both the Marian principle and the Petrine principle belong to men and women, and are carried out differently in each person.”

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In an interview with the Europa Press news agency in February, Pocher said that when she and two other women, including a Anglican bishop, addressed the Council of Cardinals that month, they offered a presentation on the women’s diaconate.

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She clarified that currently “There is no reflection on the priestly ordination of women in the Catholic Church,” but said the pope “is very much in favor of the female diaconate.”

In terms of Pope Francis’s request to study gender theory, it is unclear what institutions beyond the CRAV are studying the topic, or whether the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences have also been asked to weigh in.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen