Monthly Archives: December 2014

Of Cheetahs, Cars, Girls, and Boys

I had an interesting conversation at a coffee shop a few weeks ago. My daughter and I were discussing modern “gender politics.” I was remarking on how the intelligentsia now frowns on labeling children “boys or girls.” A stranger (a woman) overheard our conversation and interrupted to let me know that she thought these new social conventions are entirely reasonable, even salubrious. This led to a lengthy exchange about language, culture, identity, and sex.

CheetahsMy new friend argued that language and the concepts it expresses are entirely conventional and malleable.  I, on the other hand, suggested that our language can attain something true (if not the whole truth) about reality. To illustrate, I pointed to car and said, “That is a car. It is not a cheetah.”

But she would not concede the point. “It has things in common with a cheetah,” she answered (as if that made the apparent differences entirely subjective).

Next, I pointed to my daughter (a beautiful, feminine young woman). “That is a girl,” I said.

“No offense to your daughter,” she replied, “but I don’t know that.” (Let me tell you, there is no mistaking that my daughter is a girl.)

I found the interchange to be both mildly amusing and sad. My daughter captured my sentiments exactly. When we got in the car, she said to me, “Daddy, that woman can’t tell the difference between a car and a cheetah.”

It’s a strange ideology that makes people deny the obvious. Cars are not cheetahs. Girls are not boys.  However, it might surprise you to know that the new gender theorists aren’t the first to call these things into question. In the 14th century, the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) became the most important western proponent of “nominalism.”  Nominalists think our language does not capture the reality of things. Our categories (boy, girl, dog, tree) don’t really address the nature of things, but are simply names we give to objects that appear similar to us.

Occam worked within a Catholic theological framework, but most historians believe he was important for the development of Protestant theology.  (Luther trained as nominalist and once called Occam “his master.”)  In contrast to Occam and nominalism, the Church’s Magisterium has repeatedly upheld St. Thomas Aquinas as the model for philosophy and our understanding of language. Thomism is the “perennial philosophy” because it gives scientific form to the certitudes of common sense.  As Chesterton said, “The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs.”

This is not to say that every egg is exactly the same or that the “true egg” must conform in every way to some platonic ideal.  Thomism (and common sense) does not deny that eggs can change, some are big, some are small, some may produce chickens, others, because of some defect, may produce nothing. Catholic philosophy simply says that calling something an egg is not a meaningless statement, not simply an expression of my subjective opinion.

How does this affect the current discussion about gender politics?  First of all, it does not mean that we deny or ignore the sometimes considerable difficulties people may face in living out their biological sex.  What the Catechism says about homosexuality would be applicable here as well: the number of people facing this difficulty is “not negligible” and for most of them it “constitutes a trial.” “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” (CCC 2358)

But the truth about language and reason is that the concepts “male and female” are not purely arbitrary.  And this does have normative implications. A man fathers a child. A woman conceives, carries, and bears a child.  Children deserve a mother and a father.  In marriage, a man and a woman pledge themselves to give children what they deserve.  This is what we call family.

Pope Benedict made similar remarks in an address to the Roman Curia (Christmas 2012).  He complained about the “new philosophy” in which: “sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of.” He said this philosophy is “profoundly false.” The duality of male and female is “an essential aspect of what being human is all about.”

I know a man who divorced his wife and left his kids to have a surgical procedure making himself look more female. The number of people imitating this decision today is not negligible. (And the number who profoundly regret this decision is also not negligible.) The suffering which prompts such a decision must be acute and suffering calls for our compassion.  But this man (for only a man can father a child) placed his subjective sense of wellbeing ahead of the objective realities of fatherhood. We should not be afraid to say this is wrong.  Behind our moral conviction lies the evident fact that cars are cars and cheetahs are cheetahs.

Mean Catholics

I once had an argument with a non-Christian friend about a point of Christian apologetics. I thought I came off pretty well in the debate, and I was hoping my friend would concede the point.  Instead, he said something I was not expecting. “But Dave,” he said, “I just don’t like Christians.” Ouch! Truth is a lot less persuasive if you can’t stand the person delivering it.


I hear this a lot in my work with non-Catholics. I sometimes ask, “What is keeping you from becoming a Catholic?” Not infrequently they answer, “Catholics. Catholics are my biggest obstacle to becoming Catholic.” I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ.  I don’t like your Christians.”  This is something the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has also spoken about. In a Wednesday audience (October 29, 2014), he complained about mean Catholics: “if this or that person is a Christian,” someone might say, “then I shall become an atheist.”

So what should we do about the problem of mean Catholics? One option, historically, has been Puritanism.  Puritans are those who are sure they know who the “real” Christians are.  They reject everyone else.  In colonial New England, for example, Puritans wouldn’t let you receive the sacraments, or become a minister or even vote in civil elections or run for office if you couldn’t “prove” you were one of the “real” Christians. Puritanism is attractive because it seems to solve the problem of bad Christians. We write them off as “not really Christian” and withdraw into our sect.

But Puritanism doesn’t work. New England Puritans from the very beginning split up into factions, each one sure they were the “real Christians” and that everyone else was a mere pretender. Puritanism is also unfaithful to the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the tares, the Lord teaches there are good and bad in the Church. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” he said. (Matthew 13: 24-30)

We must avoid Puritanism, furthermore, because we can make mistakes about who the “good” and “bad” Catholics really are. It’s very easy to think the “good Catholics” are those we feel comfortable with, those who look or sound like us.  But the best Catholics may be the ones who go unnoticed, like the poor widow in the gospel. “Do you see this poor widow,” Jesus said, “She put in more than all the rest.” (Luke 21:3)

We may also misjudge who is really mean or bad. In 1944, the Anglican theologian and lay apologist C.S. Lewis gave an address called “The Inner Ring.” He pointed out that in most organizations or societies there are confidential discussions, unofficial hierarchies, and intimate circles that exclude us.  One of our strongest temptations is to resent that exclusion, even when it is perfectly innocent.  Sometimes we may call someone “mean,” simply because we envy their friends or influence.

But I don’t deny that there are truly “mean” peple in the church. There are the self-absorbed, the narcissistic, and the materialistic.  There are also the cocky, doctrinaire, holier-than-thou Pharisees. Jesus told us to expect this. We find both types even among his disciples. (Judas was a money grubber and a traitor. James and John could be unforgiving and censorious.)

So, again, what do we do? The solution is to remember why Christ founded the Church. The Church is not an exclusive social club for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners. The whole liturgical and sacramental system of the Chruch presumes that we will sin against each other. “If you remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled to your brother.” (Matthew 5:23)  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters. . .

The truth is we need our sinful, mean, fellow Catholics. The Church is supposed to be like a sacrament, a sign and instrument of union between God and neighbor. We are supposed to show the world how to forgive, how to overcome differences, how to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)  If everyone were beautiful and easy, what kind of heroic charity would we need? Like in marriage, we enter the Church starry-eyed and full of wonder. But reality sets in eventually and the work begins. “But the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)

I went to Mass recently with a friend who complained to me, “These aren’t my people. I don’t have anything in common with them.” Exactly. Where else can you find a bunch of people (some nice, some mean), thrown together, with nothing in common, but pledged to get along no matter what.  Jesus gives us the example. As St. Paul once said, “For a good man, someone might dare to die. But God showed his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)