“God,” states the opening chapter of Genesis, “created man in his image … male and female he created them” (1:27). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, remarking on this foundational…
“God,” states the opening chapter of Genesis, “created man in his image … male and female he created them” (1:27).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, remarking on this foundational fact, says that everyone, “man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life” (No. 2333). Needless to say, this is unpopular for many, today. Not only are the Church’s perennial teachings on marriage and family under attack, the long-standing acceptance that men are men and women are women (and both are “Man”) has rapidly eroded in recent years. The so-called bathroom wars are indicative of this development regarding “gender” — a remarkably elusive and fluid term. But the conflicts are not merely “out there” in the secular public square. Sadly, this is becoming normal, despite being abjectly abnormal.
How did we get here? There are, of course, numerous factors. But I reflect here on a foundational — yet oft-neglected — theological and philosophical factor: the rejection of realism and the embrace of nominalism.
Realism, stated simply, is the belief that reality can be known and described as it really is. Further, realism — especially as taught by St. Thomas Aquinas — emphasizes that “universals” exist and can be known. So, not only is my golden retriever a dog, the reality of “dog” is a universal reality; there truly is an objective “dog-ness” that can be recognized, named and studied. He also taught we can know reality because it is the creation of a rational, divine Intellect — all that is came into being through the Logos, the Eternal Word, and we are able to use words to rightly name and describe what we observe, know and think.
Then along came nominalism. Much has been written about this fateful school of thought, but one of the most accessible is Richard Weaver’s 1948 book “Ideas Have Consequences.” Denouncing the growing assault on language and objective truth, Weaver placed much blame on William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347), who, he said, “propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience.”
Weaver then zeroed in on this key point: “The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.” Nominalism (from the Latin nomen, or “name”) marked a radical shift in how to view and understood both God and reality. Rather than reality being understand and perceived by one’s intellect — that is, by looking outside of oneself — reality became increasingly a matter of sensation and subjective perceptive — that is, by looking inside of oneself for ultimate meaning. “With this change in the affirmation of what is real,” Weaver noted, “the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.” Once objective, transcendent reality was questioned and then denied, truth was the next logical victim in the confusing drama called modernity.
As Michael Allen Gillespie demonstrates in “The Theological Origins of Modernity” (2008), a central figure in this upheaval of nominalism was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). “There are no facts,” claimed Nietzsche, “only interpretations.” Thus — fast-forwarding to today — there is no “man” or “woman,” only a smorgasbord of genders and identities.
One result of all this, Gillespie shows, is the belief that human beings “had no supernatural end or telos.” In short, man now has to create his own meaning; he, she or “it” must summon up their own reality and “truth.” But man is made to know God and be known by God, to find ultimate meaning. The creation of countless “genders” is just one way God’s creatures seek to be their own creator, grasping at the tantalizing fruit offered by the serpent who whispers, “You will be like gods” (Gn 3:5).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.
We tend to think the oft-noted “war” between the sexes is normal. In his discussion with the Pharisees, however, Jesus points out that “from the beginning it was not so”…
We tend to think the oft-noted “war” between the sexes is normal. In his discussion with the Pharisees, however, Jesus points out that “from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). Before sin, man and woman experienced their union as a participation in God’s eternal love. This is the model for us all, and although we’ve fallen from it, Christ gives us real power to reclaim it.
The biblical creation stories use symbolic language to help us understand deep truths about ourselves. For example, Pope John Paul observed that the original unity of our first parents flows from the human experience of solitude. At first the man was “alone” (see Gn 2:18). Among the animals there was no “suitable partner for the man” (Gn 2:20). It’s on the basis of this solitude — an experience common to male and female — that we experience our longing for union.
The point is that human sexual union differs radically from the mating of animals. If they were the same, Adam would have found plenty of “helpers” among the animals. But in naming the animals he realized he was different; he alone was a person called to love with his body in God’s image. At the sight of the woman the man immediately declared: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23). That is to say: “Finally, a person I can love.”
How did he know that she, too, was a person called to love? Her naked body revealed the mystery! For the pure of heart, nakedness reveals what Pope John Paul called “the nuptial meaning of the body.” This is the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and — by means of this gift — fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Jan. 16, 1980).
Yes, the late pontiff said that if we live according to the truth of our sexuality, we fulfill the very meaning of life. What is it? Jesus reveals it when He says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). How did Jesus love us? “This is my body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19).
God created sexual desire as the power to love as He loves. And this is how the first couple experienced it. Hence, they “were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gn 2:25).
There’s no shame in love; “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Living in complete accord with the nuptial meaning of their bodies, the first man and woman saw and knew each other “with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates … the fullness of the intimacy of persons” (Jan. 2, 1980).
After the Fall
The fall of our first parents caused the death of divine love in the human heart. The entrance of shame into human history indicates the dawn of lust, of erotic desire void of God’s love. Men and women now begin seeking the sensation of sexuality apart from the true gift of themselves, apart from authentic love.
We cover our bodies not because they’re bad, but to protect their inherent goodness from the degradation of lust. Since we know we’re made for love, we feel instinctively threatened, not only by overt lustful behavior, but even by a lustful look.
Christ’s words are severe in this regard. He insists that if we look lustfully at others, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts (see Mt 5:28). Pope John Paul posed the question: “Are we to fear the severity of these words, or rather have confidence in their salvific . . . power?” (Oct. 8, 1980). These words actually have power to save us because the man who utters them is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Christ didn’t die and rise from the dead merely to give us coping mechanisms for sin. “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2336). As we open ourselves to the work of redemption, Christ’s death and resurrection effectively “liberate our liberty from the domination of lust,” Pope John Paul explained (March 1, 1984).
On this side of heaven, we’ll always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Even so, Pope John Paul insisted that “the redemption of our bodies” (see Rom 8:23) is already at work in men and women within history. This means as we allow our lusts to be crucified with Christ (see Gal 5:24), we can progressively rediscover that original “nuptial meaning of the body” and live it. This liberation from lust and the freedom it affords is, in fact, “the condition of all life together in truth” (Oct. 8, 1980).
After the Resurrection
What about our experience of the body in the resurrection? Didn’t Christ say we’ll no longer be given in marriage when we rise from the dead (see Mt 22:30)? Yes, but this doesn’t mean our longing for union will be done away with. It means this longing will be fulfilled.
As a sacrament, marriage is only an earthly sign of the heavenly reality. We no longer need signs to point us to heaven when we’re in heaven. The “marriage of the Lamb” (Rv 19:7) — the union of love we all desire — will be eternally consummated.
“For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation. . . . Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, ‘the holy city’ of God, ‘the Bride, the wife of the Lamb'” (Catechism, no. 1045). This eternal reality is what the “one flesh” union foreshadows from the beginning (see Eph 5:31-32).
Hence, in the resurrection of the body we rediscover — in an eternal dimension — the same nuptial meaning of the body in our meeting with the mystery of the living God face to face (see Dec. 9, 1981). “This will be a completely new experience,” Pope John Paul said, beyond anything we can imagine. Yet “it will not be alienated in any way from what man took part in from ‘the beginning,’ nor from [what concerns] the procreative meaning of the body and of sex” (Jan. 13, 1982).
By looking at who we are in our origin, history and destiny, we open the door to a proper understanding of the Christian vocations of celibacy and marriage. Both vocations are an authentic living out of the most profound truth of who we are as male and female.
When lived authentically, Christian celibacy isn’t a rejection of sexuality and our call to union. It actually points to their ultimate fulfillment. Those who sacrifice marriage “for the sake of the kingdom” (Mt 19:12) do so in order to devote all their energies and desires to the marriage that alone can satisfy: the marriage of Christ and the Church.
In a way, they’re “skipping” the sacrament (the earthly sign) in anticipation of the ultimate reality. By doing so, celibate men and women declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (see Mt 12:28).
In a different way, marriage also anticipates heaven. “In the joys of their love [God gives spouses] here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb” (Catechism, no. 1642). Why, then, do so many couples experience marriage as a living hell? For marriage to bring the happiness it’s meant to bring, spouses must live it as God intended “from the beginning.” This means they must contend diligently with the effects of sin.
Marriage doesn’t justify lust. Marriage “corresponds to the vocation of Christians only when it reflects the love which Christ the Bridegroom gives to the Church His Bride, and which the Church . . . attempts to return to Christ [see Eph 5:31-32]. This is redeeming love, love as salvation” (Aug. 18, 1982). In other words, authentic marital love has the power to heal and restore us as true images of God.
Liberation from Sin
In a short introduction such as this, we can only scratch the surface of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Nevertheless, the profound insights we’ve noted provide new visions of human possibilities. The late pontiff’s teaching demonstrates the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to liberate us from sin, not only to cope with it. Only in that divine power are we capable of becoming the men and women we’re created to be.
Christopher West lectures around the world on the theology of the body and has written three books on the subject. To learn more, visit christopherwest.com. Dates cited after quotes from Pope John Paul II refer to the particular lectures in the “Theology of the Body” series from which they come.
After decades, perhaps even more than a century, of proving that women and men can do almost all of the same things, it seems to follow somewhat that sex or…
After decades, perhaps even more than a century, of proving that women and men can do almost all of the same things, it seems to follow somewhat that sex or gender would have little significance. And yet, despite the reality that we can do many of the same things, women and men retain significant biological differences that do not change regardless of medical treatments and wardrobe changes.
No matter how we physically change ourselves or how hard we try to hide who we are, science betrays us. Every cell in our body reveals that we are either male or female. To my mind, this points to a significant reality which cannot be escaped: the sexually differentiated body matters. These are real aspects of our being that cannot be changed.
In an effort to cloud the significance of sex, theorists and activists introduced the term “gender.” This refers to one’s preference of sexual identity and expression or desire rather than to one’s biologically determined sex, suggesting something radically fluid about sex. Written in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is an early fictional account which played with this theme. The character Orlando lives in different time periods, as a man or a woman, depending on how he dresses and chooses to reveal himself. While the term “gender” was not yet used, undeniably, biological sex and sexual identity were portrayed as something fluid, more to do with culture and nurture than nature.
In response to the scientific reality of biological sex, gender became a term to indicate that one’s biological sex was not determinant of sexual identity and expression.
And yet it seems that we cannot ignore the reality of sexual differentiation. Over the past few years, we’ve all seen headlines about men giving birth. However, if we read beyond the headlines, we see that these men were actually women who began to identify as men, even undergoing medical interventions such as hormone therapy to suppress feminine aspects of their bodies and develop masculine aspects — for example, stopping menstruation and growing facial hair. But these women never had hysterectomies. So their reproductive organs remained intact. In most cases, they eased off on the hormone treatments so that their bodies were able to resume their normal functioning, unimpeded. Thus they were able to get pregnant, most often using some form of assisted reproductive technologies. Unless it’s news that a woman can get pregnant, there was no news.
More recently, the headlines proclaimed a first-ever: a transgender couple had given birth to their own child. In reality, this couple was a man identifying as a woman and a woman identifying as a man, both of whom had retained their original sexual organs. The only difference between them and a heterosexual couple is that they each identify as the opposite sex. In biological terms, they are exactly the same as a heterosexual couple.
People who identify as a gender other than their biologically determined sex are described in clinical terms as having gender dysphoria. In an effort to correct the dramatic and even traumatic disconnect that these individuals experience, the medical community frequently recommends that the individual physically transition to the sex or gender with which they identify, calling this process gender reassignment. This transition can be as simple as changing one’s exterior appearance, including clothing. Typically, it involves additional medical procedures so that the physical body takes on the appearance of the type of sexually differentiated body the individual identifies with. Nevertheless, as more cases of transgender men giving birth surface, the stark reality remains that the changes are, in fact, cosmetic, even if they are outwardly very convincing.
The Fall 2016 edition of The New Atlantis, a journal dedicated to technology and science, covers the various aspects surrounding sexuality, gender and gender dysphoria. The lead authors, Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer and Dr. Paul R. McHugh, experts in epidemiology and psychiatry, respectively, reviewed research from the biological, psychological and social sciences. In general, they found that for those suffering from gender dysphoria, the data does not support the current treatment models of gender reassignment. In fact, individuals undertaking this treatment suffer higher negative outcomes in every area from anxiety to substance abuse to suicide.
One study found that individuals who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery(ies) had a much higher rate of suicide than the general public. They were five times more likely to die by suicide and approximately 19 times more likely to attempt suicide, hardly indicators of successful treatment.
A recent estimate suggested that about 0.6 percent of U.S. adults identify with a gender that is other than their biologically determined sex. Keep in mind, too, that this is not simply a matter of an individual identifying as the opposite sex. Iterations of gender are multiple and complex according to various markers. Facebook for example, offers more than 50 options for users, clearly reflecting and responding to a significant societal reality.
There can be no doubt that an individual diagnosed with gender dysphoria faces innumerable challenges that most people will never face. This is a real diagnosis. As such, it requires evidenced-based treatments, not policy-driven treatments driven by popular opinion or special interest groups.
Imagine if we had allowed public opinion and lobbyists to determine how we address the link between tobacco and lung cancer. We’d probably be smoking at “Mad Men” levels and wondering why we get lung cancer. Instead, when policy was informed by science and medicine, the tobacco companies began to be held responsible for the consequences of the product that they were literally pushing onto the American people.
Similarly, with gender dysphoria, we have to find treatments that actually help the person live a healthier, happier life. Documented negative outcomes not only contradict any illusion of happiness, but could also be conceivably identified as unethical medical practices. After all, the Hippocratic oath requires the doctor to “do no harm.” Encouraging the medical community to engage in practices that result in substantially increased rates of suicide, not to mention other adverse responses, therefore seems gravely unethical.
We are one of the richest and most gifted countries in the world; we ought to be able to come up with better treatment, treatment that is life giving and life affirming.
As a theologian and an ethicist, when I review scientific articles like the one referenced here, I rely heavily on an accurate and comprehensive presentation of the studies and/or the issue. One of the things that jumps out at me is that the failure of the current gender-reassignment practices point to an undeniable reality about the human person, the one with which I began this article: sex matters, body matters.
There’s a tendency to think that because the Catholic Church values celibate vocations that we somehow denigrate sex. In fact, the opposite is true. We understand that sex has more to do than with genital activity. It permeates the entire human person. Otherwise, those gender-reassignment surgeries would be yielding far better outcomes.
Being a man or a woman is not about what we do or what we look like, it’s about who we are. Everything we do should be positively influenced by our sexuality.
Similarly, because the Church has eschewed sexual activity outside of the marital bond, there exists the same tendency to think that the Church does not look kindly on sex. In fact, the opposite is true. As one of my young high school students, arriving at a point of discovery and acceptance of these teachings, once said, “I think I get it.… It’s because sex is so good and beautiful!” Exactly. When we cherish something or someone for its or their innate goodness, we want to protect, not expose.
If I own a beautiful car, I want to take care that the car is kept in good shape, that it’s free from vandalism and so on. All the more so with our children, spouses and other loved ones. We don’t want to see them hurt, in need, unhappy. So, too, with sex. It is good and beautiful, meant to create not only new life but the union between the married couple. It is meant to generate various forms of pleasure. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas, not one to revile the passions, surmised that the pleasures of sex would have been even greater in the Garden of Eden before the Fall because the passions would have been perfectly in accord with reason or reality.
Perhaps a key to further understanding the Church’s insistence on the body can be found in St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families (1994). Specifically, he addresses the contemporary anthropological crisis in light of the dramatic reality of marriage which St. Paul calls a “great mystery” in Ephesians 5:32 (see Letter to Families, No. 19).
The aspect of mystery reveals itself in at least two ways. First it points to the covenantal reality of the relationship between Christ and the Church: Bridegroom and Bride. But the mystery is extended when St. Paul speaks to husbands and wives in terms of Christ and the Church. In other words, marriage, which we experience in and through our sexually differentiated bodies (not just minds as Shakespeare beautifully wrote), points to the reality of marriage between Christ and the Church. Christ’s maleness is absolutely essential for this spousal relationship, as is the Church’s femaleness.
St. John Paul II notes that our contemporary understanding of spirit and body has moved from the Christian view of a body and soul that are deeply united to a dualism, dating at least back to the time of the philosopher René Descartes, who lived in the 17th century. While gender scholars would identify this dualism even in Plato, it was nevertheless not a dominant view until Descartes, who centered all of his reality and even being in the mind or the soul with his famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am.”
From that point, St. John Paul notes that we have increasingly begun to live as de-spiritualized bodies and disembodied spirits. In other words, our created unity of body and soul has steadily been dismembered (no pun intended).
We know what happens when we leave apart any consideration of the soul from the body. That’s when it makes it possible for us to see others as objects, even raw material. That’s when we begin the litany of isms: racism, sexism and so on, resulting in a reality where we do not even know ourselves and the family becomes “an unknown reality.”
By virtue of the soul, we know who and what we are: the human person — a man or a woman, created in the image and likeness of God, even if the person is not baptized.
Body matters. It is through a body that the soul is informed and comes to know. And it is through a specifically, intentionally, sexually differentiated male body that the Second Person of the Trinity revealed God to humanity, starting as a miniscule embryo and entering the world just like all of us, nurtured and birthed by a woman. God could have chosen many ways to reveal himself to us. Instead He chose to live as a human male person, the unity of body and soul. Had He not been a man, He could not have been Bridegroom to the Church. Remember, the Church deals in stark and dramatic realities, not mere symbolism.
The reality of the creation of each of us is that it necessarily involves a sexually differentiated body, through which we are intended to experience and participate in the nuclear family and the larger families of humanity and the Church.
For those who struggle with gender dysphoria, I offer that we are seeing a profound struggle with created biological reality, one that requires effective therapies, extreme understanding and authentic love. Treatments that encourage the disconnect have been statistically demonstrated to yield negative, even fatal outcomes. This suggests that perhaps we should begin to look at means that seek to integrate the individual’s identity with his or her biologically determined body.
Gender and sex matter very greatly. Without them, we are not able to experience the reality and nature of our existence. St. John Paul further noted that they also enable us to enter into the great mystery, the climax of salvation history in Christ and the Church.
Pia de Solenni, SThD is chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, California.
Pope Francis on Sexual Difference
God, after having created the universe and all living beings, created His masterpiece, the human being, whom He made in His own image: “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27), so says the Book of Genesis.
And as we all know, sexual difference is present in so many forms of life, on the great scale of living beings. But man and woman alone are made in the image and likeness of God: the biblical text repeats it three times in two passages (vv. 26-27): man and woman are the image and likeness of God. This tells us that it is not man alone who is the image of God or woman alone who is the image of God, but man and woman as a couple who are the image of God. The difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, but is for the sake of communion and generation, always in the image and likeness of God.
Experience teaches us: in order to know oneself well and develop harmoniously, a human being needs the reciprocity of man and woman. When that is lacking, one can see the consequences. We are made to listen to one another and help one another. We can say that without the mutual enrichment of this relationship — in thought and in action, in affection and in work, as well as in faith — the two cannot even understand the depth of what it means to be man and woman.
Modern contemporary culture has opened new spaces, new forms of freedom and new depths in order to enrich the understanding of this difference. But it has also introduced many doubts and much skepticism. For example, I ask myself, if the so-called gender theory is not, at the same time, an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it. Yes, we risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution. In order to resolve the problems in their relationships, men and women need to speak to one another more, listen to each other more, get to know one another better, love one another more. They must treat each other with respect and cooperate in friendship. On this human basis, sustained by the grace of God, it is possible to plan a lifelong marital and familial union. The marital and familial bond is a serious matter, and it is so for everyone, not just for believers. I would urge intellectuals not to leave this theme aside, as if it had to become secondary in order to foster a more free and just society.
God entrusted the earth to the alliance between man and woman: its failure deprives the earth of warmth and darkens the sky of hope. The signs are already worrisome, and we see them.
— General Audience, April 15, 2015
With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the growing push for the social acceptance of homosexuality in our country and around the world, the Church has been challenged to respond…
With the legalization of same-sex marriage and the growing push for the social acceptance of homosexuality in our country and around the world, the Church has been challenged to respond in a way that is both pastoral to individuals and faithful to Church teaching. Because homosexuality as a moral question is so charged with emotion and tension for many people, I offer my reflections on the subject from a place of prayer and love, asking the Lord to guide our thoughts, beliefs and actions in the face of the challenging situations that affect many of our brothers and sisters.
We all know individuals among our friends and/or in our families who experience a homosexual orientation. We love and value them as significant people in our lives, and like all of us, they struggle to find meaning, peace, love and sanity. Some may be in a romantic and sexual relationship, while others may be living celibacy; some have embraced a gay lifestyle, while others try to live the Church’s teachings. Some feel the stance of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality is harsh and cruel; others respect what the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses.
As followers of Christ, we seek to love and respect every single person as our brother or sister, regardless of their situation or circumstance. If some people who identify as gay feel that the Catholic Church hates and condemns them, we should examine our own consciences and hearts, seeking to root out any prejudice, bias or lack of love we may have toward anyone. The first message everyone should hear from the Church is that he or she is created in the image and likeness of God, is loved by Christ and carries an inestimable worth and dignity as a child of the Father.
With love and respect as a fundamental basis for all human relationships, the Catholic Church has always taught a moral law, built on the divine revelation found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and inscribed within our embodied human experience. Both the divine law and natural law have viewed homosexual activity as sinful because, like any sexual expression outside of marriage, it falls outside God’s intentions for man and woman, who are created for each other in a sexual complementarity which reaches its beauty, truth and goodness in an exclusive, permanent marriage and is open to new life through the gift of children.
Today, many question this moral stance, which the Church has embraced through its long 2,000-year history. People should be free to love and marry whom they choose. Many people say they were born gay, that their homosexuality was not a choice but a reality they knew, even as young children. The nature or nurture debate continues. Many no longer accept the Church’s moral distinction between a homosexual orientation, which is not inherently sinful, and homosexual activity, which has always been seen as sinful.
Even with all the developments and insights psychology has given us, sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular remain profound mysteries which we do not fully or readily understand. While seeking to know, understand and love all people, including those who experience homosexual attraction, I struggle with the current societal pressure to simply jettison our consistent and long-standing Catholic teaching regarding homosexual behavior. Today, if you dare to even question the morality of same-sex marriage or sexual activity, you will be labeled as intolerant, a hater, as someone on the wrong side of history.
As a bishop, I made a solemn vow on the day of my episcopal ordination to embrace, uphold and defend the Church’s moral teachings. Catholicism has never accepted sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage as complete or good. Should we now simply acquiesce and surrender the full weight of our Catholic tradition on this subject without question, analysis, reflection and prayer because our prevailing culture tells us to? Should I timidly remain silent for fear of offending? Many of us may live in the tension between a sincere desire to love and accept everyone and to proclaim the “hard” teachings of the Church that fly in the face of today’s prevalent social norms. But that tension is not a bad one.
Does loving someone imply that we can never question any of their actions or decisions? Does accepting another person require that I accept everything they believe and practice? I know individuals who have embraced a gay identity and lifestyle, only to find it extremely damaging to their soul, psyche and heart. Many people with same-sex attraction find hope and peace in the Church’s traditional teaching and loving embrace. Yet this does not imply there is neither struggle nor difficulty. Many find strength and healing through deep prayer and recourse to the sacraments. We should listen to their experience as well.
This cultural moment asks us to listen to, respect and love one another more than ever before. The experience and reality of homosexuality is part of the human situation. The Church’s teaching on homosexual activity has always been clear. Can we dialogue and engage one another without surrendering genuine charity, respect and kindness, on the one hand, nor facilely rejecting the teaching of the Church, on the other? What is God asking of us in all of this? An embrace of love and truth, a genuine dialogue built on reverence and attentiveness, a willingness to move beyond slogans and labels, the courage to live in the tension that always exists between the teachings of the Scriptures and the Church and the reality of people’s struggles. May the Lord help us all to listen, learn and love.
Bishop Donald J. Hying is the bishop of Gary, Indiana.
Against many expectations and in the middle of the 1960s sexual revolution, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, reaffirming the Church’s traditional teaching on…
Against many expectations and in the middle of the 1960s sexual revolution, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, reaffirming the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and her prohibition of artificial means of birth control. This document created a firestorm of controversy and dissent in the Church, especially since it went against the majority report of the special commission, which Pope John XXIII had set up to theologically evaluate the issue of artificial birth control. Nevertheless, Humanae Vitae has stood the test of time, still serving as a prophetic and profound articulation of the Church’s teaching on marriage, sexuality and fertility.
Paul VI lifts up the beauty and truth of Christian marriage, emphasizing four vital components which constitute the reality of the sacrament. Marriage must be fully human, incorporating the mind, body, heart and soul of the spouses in a loving and freely-chosen union that brings joy, peace, grace and goodness to themselves, their children and the broader community. True marriage is total, in that it demands a radical and sacrificial gift of self to the other in all circumstances and in all ways. Christian marriage is faithful and exclusive, as the spouses are joined together in Christ in a bond that is unbreakable. Marriage is fruitful, open to children and to life-giving love. Even couples who cannot conceive children are called to bring life and love to others in a fundamental stance of self-gift.
Pope Paul reflects on the natural law, affirming that the marriage act, the sexual embrace, “while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life” (No. 12). Sexual expression has two fundamental purposes — the intimate and loving union of the married couple and the procreation of children. These two purposes or ends cannot be separated without violating the fundamental meaning of human sexuality as a participation in both God’s unifying love and creative power. Thus, artificial means of contraception suppress the openness of the couple to the full meaning of their sexual expression.
The pope affirms that responsible parenthood may demand the postponement of pregnancy or the spacing of children. He lifts up Natural Family Planning as a method that respects the health of the woman, the mutual obligation of both the husband and the wife to participate in family planning and the truth of the natural law. Contraceptives are known to have negative side effects and are sometimes abortifacient, not only preventing conception but actually destroying initial human life.
Humanae Vitae offers some prophetic concerns regarding the widespread usage of artificial contraception. It will open the way to “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (No. 17). In a contraceptive relationship, a man “may forget the reverence due to a woman … [and] reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires …” (No. 17). The pope also expresses concern about governments coercing people to use contraception as a way of controlling entire populations, thereby inserting political control into the most intimate and holy of relationships.
As we survey the damage of the sexual revolution, we clearly see that, once we sever the intrinsic connection between sexuality, marriage and procreation, we suffer tragic consequences. For many people, sex has simply become recreational pleasure, not a consummation of a marital love open to new life. Sex outside marriage has become the new norm. Marriage has become a private sexualized friendship. Children have become an intentional choice, not the logical fruit of marriage. So now, we have sex without marriage and marriages planned without children. Abortion has become widespread, deemed necessary to prevent the birth of a child when contraceptives fail, as they often do. A quick analysis of the contemporary social landscape reveals that Pope Paul VI’s prophetic concerns have come true in many destructive ways.
But we always have reason to hope. Increasing numbers of young people are pro-life, embracing the importance of standing up for the lives of unborn children. A strong core of Catholics of all ages still believes and lives the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. More young people see the meaninglessness and damage of our casual hook-up culture. People are awakening to the damaging fallout of the sexual revolution, which promised fulfillment through freedom from societal inhibitions, moral rules, biological determination and traditional family structures. The legacy is a 60 percent decline in the number of marriages over the last 30 years, 40 percent of children born outside of wedlock, dramatic increases in divorces and abortions, and many children deprived of a stable and loving family environment.
The Church proclaims the teachings on the beauty, truth and goodness of marriage and sexuality, not to hurt people, not to make them feel guilty, not to stunt their potential and their happiness, but rather, to help them flourish in loving, fruitful, generative relationships that fulfill and bring life, blessings and wholeness to others. We need to pastorally accompany young people with love and support, so that they can hear the good news about love, sex and marriage and put the teachings of the Church into practice with joy, peace and generosity. The damage of the sexual revolution cannot extinguish the beautiful and powerful truth of our human dignity; God has hard-wired us for relationship, generativity, sacrifice and self-gift. Our divinely-created reality will always shine through human weakness, confusion and sin.
As I ponder my childhood, I am so grateful that my parents understood and lived the truth of their marriage and the gift of their sexuality. The love and nurture I received inspires me to strive to build up marriages and families in Christ so that all children will receive what they need to truly flourish as beloved children of God. A central part of the Church’s mission is to serve the domestic Church — the family.
Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana.