I received a call last week from a man who was considering being Catholic, but facing a difficulty. “I think I’m transgendered,” he told me. “How does this affect me?” The immediate answer, of course, is that no personal challenge is an absolute barrier to becoming Catholic. There is always a way, even if that way may entail significant sacrifice. But this man’s challenge taps into a larger cultural phenomenon and one which will pose more and more difficulty in accepting a fully Catholic worldview.
Some people do obviously experience very real and acute suffering in integrating their sexual identity. This can include feeling positively disconnected from one’s body or sexuality. But the fact of such suffering is distinct from the larger cultural crisis about the meaning (if any) attaching to femininity and masculinity. What are masculinity, femininity, male, female? Are these essential elements of our personality, or accidental features, as changeable or variable as hair, eye, skin color? The growing trend in culture is to insist on distinguishing one’s biological sex from one’s subjective experience of gender. There is an implicit assumption that if biology and psychology come into conflict, then biology must always give way to psychology. We see this modern preference expressed in legal codes and judicial decisions.
Underlying this modern notion is a form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that saw humans as “essentially” immaterial souls, disconnected from the body. For Gnostics, the body is evil, a burden to be sloughed off and not an essential element of one’s being. The early modern philosopher Rene Descartes proposed a similar view of humanity in which we are essentially souls in fleshly vessels.
The current Gnosticism is more subtle. In this version, our “true self,” or “what really counts” are feelings, sentiments, preferences, and personal decision. There is no objective order to reality, no “world out there” to which we are answerable. There is only the right to define my own meaning, whether about my body or anything else. From such a mindset, the body becomes a tool to be exploited or an obstacle to be overcome. The body provides no objective meaning to my existence, but only raw material to be shaped to serve the sovereign “true self,” an ethereal entity found only in one’s radically subjective experience of the world.
Against this Gnosticism stands the unalterable reality of objective meaning. Things exist in a context. They can be understood through a nexus of cause and effect, matter and form, purposes and ends. The whole goal of empirical science and philosophy is to explore these relationships. The whole purpose of the human intellect (very deeply rooted to our subjectivity) is to understand them. To deny that things have meaning is not to liberate the human spirit, but to denude our intellectual nature of any value. This includes the meaning of the human body.
St. John Paul II is well known for having made an extensive analysis of the meaning of the human body. According to the Pope and all of Catholic tradition, male and female are not adventitious accretions to the human soul, but essential elements of our identity, given facts to be made sense of. Their meaning is revealed preeminently in the type of love we call family. Women bear and nurture children. They have a particular genius for the exercise of that gift. They have “special communion with the mystery of life,” and are “more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more.” (Mulieris dignitatem) Men also have a special gift. Following St. Joseph, they are to be just and merciful protectors of the family. Pope Francis says a father, “is . . . able to correct with firmness: he is not a weak, compliant and sentimental father.”
As Catholics, we confess that the world is real, the world is good, and we are unambiguously creatures of the material world. The soul (the inner self) is not something radically discontinuous with the material world, but something intrinsically connected to it. We are not “souls in bodies,” but rather bodies formed with rational, intellectual natures, natures capable of knowing and loving the truth about the world. The philosopher William James once said that religion consists in “the belief that there is an unseen order and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” I think that is basically correct. Spirituality is about bringing our lives into line with the objective meaning of reality as a whole. As Catholics, this means integrating our knowledge and love with the truth about the body.
I do not want to make light of the challenges people face in coming to terms with the meaning of their bodies. Catholic thought has always acknowledged this difficulty. At creation, man enjoyed “an inner harmony of the human person.” This harmony (called original justice) was shattered by sin. As a result, says the Catechism, we are now “wounded in the natural powers . . , subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death.” (CCC 405) They keys to overcoming this wound are the gift of grace, the teaching of truth, and the arduous personal decision to cooperate with grace. St. Irenaeus says, “What we lost in Adam we regain in Christ.” This means the unified totality of body and soul, “the vocation of the human person in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy.” (Familiaris Consortio)