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.
My 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.