The Holy Father Gets to the Heart of the Matter

In the comments box of one of my recent posts about the redefinition of marriage, I had an interesting discussion with a homosexual gentleman about the nature of sexuality.

In that discussion, our essential disagreement came down to a fundamental point about what it is to be human.  As I framed the question (I’ve cut and pasted from separate comments to boil this down to its clearest expression),

The whole idea of “gender” reflected in your posts is that it’s just a bundle of attributes that are largely socially determined, and that can be revised according to the subjective desires of the individual… Our position rests on the notion that sexual difference can’t be assumed away. The complementary (i.e., different, equal, and necessarily interdependent) nature of male and female sexuality is a constitutive element of what it is to be a human being.

The Holy Father has now addressed this point directly and powerfully, in his annual address to the Curia — what you might call his “State of the Church and the World Address”.  His comments, which come in the context of a discussion of the threats to the family, are worth quoting at length (my emphasis is added in bold):

[T]he question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves.

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.

But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

The Holy Father thus gets to the precise center of the question — the debate about marriage and family is, at its heart, about the nature of the human person.  It is in the end a question about “who created me”.  The modernist approach is to create myself in my own image and likeness, making myself into my own little god, answerable to no objective or higher truth.  We’ve already seen how that false and destructive approach works (see Genesis 3, and the entire history of the Twentieth Century).

The Holy Father has pointed to us the way out of this problem — to embrace the truth of our nature and the truth of our origin, and to defend the social expressions of those truths in marriage and the family.

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13 Responses to “The Holy Father Gets to the Heart of the Matter”

  1. Peter Rox says:

    There was a time when learned Churchmen debated whether or not blacks had souls. There was the same debate as to whether or not the indigenous peoples of the Americas had souls. The debates occurred because the human experiences of those denying the full humanity of such God-created persons had been limited to experiences with Europeans, preferably those who looked like they came from Italy, Spain, Portugal, or other western European areas. It is fortunate that eventually the Church decided to enlarge its understanding of what it means to be human, and recognized blacks and indigenous persons as fully human, even if it did not readily treat these persons as such in all instances.

    Likewise, the Church is engaging in a similar debate today. Are homosexuals, humans created by God, entitled to sex lives and to responsibly live such sex lives through Civil marriage. The Church would have more credibility in this discussion if it had not opposed every single instance of gays working for various civil legal rights throughout the USA. It is a fact, that every time a state legislature has considered legislation for ending discrimination against gays in employment, or medical care, or housing, or in other instances in which they faced discrimination due to being gay, the Catholic Church has strongly opposed such laws.
    The fact that today, the Church has opposed CIVIL marriage for gays is no surprise.
    Numerous other religious bodies have in fact supported marriage equality for gays. However, somehow, there is a Catholic attitude that Catholic religious opinions in our diverse democracy should always trump the religious opinions of other denominations. The Church has engaged in sophistry and semantic arguments to confuse the Catholic sacrament of matrimony with civil marriage. Throughout much of the world, persons who wish to receive the sacrament of matrimony must also obtain a civil marriage, or else the civil laws do not recognize such a marriage. Because ministers of all faiths are normally allowed the privilege in the US to certify the civil marriage also, Catholics are acting like its authority to perform the sacrament of matrimony is given by the state, when in fact it is not.Yet, the Church has muddled the two together, and cries that the end of the world is nigh if gays marry, and that its religious liberty is threatened.
    If Catholics are truly concerned about marriage and about children, why is so little being done to promote more heterosexual marriage? The Church does precious little to promote fidelity between couples. It is shocking how many births in the US are out of wedlock. The Catholic Church has also become a full partner in promoting the delay of marriage among heterosexuals, to ages when young women reach the end of their most fertile childbearing years. Most delays are so that individuals may acquire more material things along the way. Then, when heterosexual marriages do occur, the Church is a partner in promoting costly extravaganzas. I have heard many young people who have kids and who are not married simply say that “marriage is too expensive”.
    The Church needs to be open to the developments in science and in medicine that tell us that gays are in fact fully human, normal, have sexual urges that are part of the human condition in which God created them, and thus they deserve civil marriage. The Church has been historically cruel to this very marginalized group in society.
    The battles that it is waging against civil marriage equality are not in fact strengthening heterosexual marriage at all. These efforts are simply more of the same anti-gay actions that always come from the Catholic Church, regardless of the issue.
    It is highly laughable that the Church claims such authority on sexual matters, all decided by men who have sworn off sex whether heterosexual or homosexual, and in most instances faced a life long struggle to live accordingly.

  2. MaryGr says:

    Benedict is like an EMT delivering life-saving truth to a sickened wasted world. Many need a spoonful of obedience to help the medicine go down.

  3. Joey says:

    @MaryGr, how can Benedict be an EMT if he never expressed support for LGBT youth? There was no statement from the bishops or the pope on the the suicides that occurred two years ago with Tyler Clementi and others. The only thing you support is an anti-gay marriage stance. How can you call yourself a Catholic if you do not care about the lives of LGBT people.

  4. Joey says:

    Mr Mechmann,

    “The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. ”

    This explanation still does not get to the heart of the issue. It’s merely stating that gender is subjected to sexual difference/identity (i.e. male or female). How do we know our nature? This quote essentially states that according to the Bible, men and women have different sexual natures (male and female) and that their gender (attitudinal/behavioral attributes) are defined by their sexual natures. It, and the Church’s teachings do not emphasize self-reflection and introspection at all. You have to conform yourself to a book’s interpretation. There is no thought about your true nature. How can one book and Church teaching define every person’s true nature?

  5. Ed Mechmann says:

    The Church proclaims it to be true not just because of divine revelation, but also because of philosophical reflection.

    Really, nobody — and certainly no leading philosopher — doubted the inherent nature of human sexuality as male and female until the invention of “gender theory” over the last few decades. Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Descartes, Kant — they all would have viewed it as a very strange notion. Plus, “gender theory” is hardly universally accepted among philosophers. The irony is that “gender theory” proposes its own universal definition of human nature — just one that entails a flexible gender identity or expression and self-defined rules of sexual morality.

    Once again, the key sentence in the Holy Father’s reflection is this: “They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.” We believe that we are made for a purpose, with an intrinsic nature that is not subject to personal revision. This belief in an objective human nature is at the heart of the teachings of the Church. It is also, I might add, necessary for any coherent notion of universal human rights.

    The Church certainly does not reject “self-reflection and introspection” — it’s a fundamental obligation. The difference, I suspect, is that we believe that the challenge is to reflect upon our nature, to accept it, and then to conform our conduct to the necessary moral consequences of that nature.

  6. MaryGr says:

    Clearly, the truth hurts. Even when it is delivered by the gentlest and holiest of men.

  7. Joey says:

    @MaryGr, clearly you do not think for yourself, considering you never answered my post. Show me where the pope and/or bishops actually expressed his/their support for gay teens during that period. I’m not talking about relationships, I’m speaking of their lives. Catholic doctrine teaches that LGBT people should be supported (not their relationships). Where and how is that practiced by the community? Instead of focusing on the marriage question, the pope should focus on caring for the whole person. Sad to see how ignorant some people such as yourself can be.

  8. Joey says:

    “Really, nobody — and certainly no leading philosopher — doubted the inherent nature of human sexuality as male and female until the invention of “gender theory” over the last few decades. Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Descartes, Kant — they all would have viewed it as a very strange notion.”

    You can say the same for the physics community when Einstein proposed his novel theories of energy and relativity and even in the development of quantum theory.

    I may be referring to something entirely different from what you are saying, please correct me if I am of the wrong understanding. From what you said, men and women have two different genders. Basically men, in order to be classified as men, but be strong, dominant, and protective, while women must be more fragile, submissive, and more affectionate/compassionate. This is what I see with the Church’s position of gender identity. What I am proposing is that this classification is inaccurate because people (whether man or woman) have different personalities, attitudes, and traits. A woman can be strong-willed, while a man can be compassionate. The traditional notion of gender roles is inaccurate and are expressed in this way in the Church’s position.

    Additionally, what you are saying is that we, as people, do have to constantly reflect on our lives and our nature. BUT, people who do this will always arrive at the Church’s teachings as the end result of their reflections, not their own convictions. Or at least, if we don’t end with the Church’s teachings, then our self-reflection is flawed. If we must conform ourselves to a teaching of the Church to be liberated and be with God, how exactly is that faith? Faith is trusting in the complete unknown whether it leads to a “good” or “bad” end. If we follow a set guidebook (both physical and spiritual) to get to heaven, how does that strengthen faith at all? It only strengthens dependence on a BELIEF that the guidebook is absolutely correct.

  9. Ed Mechmann says:

    “From what you said, men and women have two different genders. Basically men, in order to be classified as men, but be strong, dominant, and protective, while women must be more fragile, submissive, and more affectionate/compassionate. This is what I see with the Church’s position of gender identity.”

    I hope that’s not what you heard me say, because I certainly never meant to say any such thing. The things you’re describing as male and female characteristics are not essential, but accidental, to human nature (to use the philosophical approach Aristotle/Aquinas would use, and which the Church would tend to use). The characteristics you describe, and which we generally associate with masculinity and femininity, are partly innate, but are also partly socially determined. But in themselves they are inadequate in defining the nature of humanity and sexuality — we’re more than the sum of our characteristics (or our flaws, for that matter).

    If you really want to get a better understanding of the Church’s teaching on human nature and sex, especially how the male/female component plays into that, I would recommend that you read Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Letter “On the Dignity of Women”, particularly Part III, “The Image and Likeness of God”. It’s pretty accessible, and it will give you a taste of what is called “the Theology of the Body”, which is a very sophisticated theological inquiry into human nature and sexuality.

    Our idea of self-reflection is a searching rational inquiry into our true nature. What you’re describing is pure fideism, faith separated from reason, which the Church has always rejected. (By the way, you can see a good example of fideism in Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, particularly his laughable approach to being catechized — Google it, I think it’s pretty funny, and I’m not a big Brideshead fan).

    We believe that we can discover a truth embedded in our nature, something that was created by another (i.e., God), and which is knowable by reason. In other words, when we do this inquiry, we believe that there’s a truth there that I can find. At the same time, we reject pure subjectivism, which is the favored approach of modernity (beginning with Descartes), in which I search for something that I create myself — with that approach, I might as well just look in a mirror and see myself. Not very instructive.

    Fortunately for us, we also believe that the Church has been given to us as a guide to this truth, and we can trust her to teach us the truth. Of course, we also believe that human nature can best be known with the aid of faith and prayer, particularly by contemplating Jesus, the God-Man.

  10. Henry says:

    Since this is a Catholic Christian blog — presumably read by those interested in deepening their Faith in Christ and His teachings as passed on to us through His Body, the Church — I advise reader’s of this post to read Msgr. Charles Pope’s post titled “Living on the Dark Side of the Cartesian Divide. A Reflection on the Gnosticism of our Times” because I believe it illuminates some of the comments posted here. Another post I highly recommend is titled “Interracial Marriage and Same-Sex Marriage” by Francis J. Beckwith. Lastly, I strongly recommend Josef Pieper’s book, “Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power” so one can learn to more easily recognize the verbal engineering being utilized to engage in the massive social engineering we are witnessing in our culture.

    Turning now to the post, Ed accurately states that “the debate about marriage and family is, at its heart, about the nature of the human person.”

    Setting aside the usual comments often encountered whenever today’s “pet social engineering project” is discussed, I am continually struck by the fact that most people’s starting point is rarely “wonder”. How many people are amazed by the fact that men’s bodies are different than women’s bodies? Why does that difference exist? Does it signify anything? What role does it play in human reproduction? Did the word “gender”, prior to 1955, name and identify something tied to wonder in front of the real and not to an ideologically driven construct? Why would anyone want to redefine what “gender” is and why was this redefinition so wholeheartedly embraced in the 1970s?

    If a person doesn’t want to be brainwashed by today’s Zeitgeist, they must live always and intensely the “real”, without precluding, negating, or forgetting all the factors of the “real.”

  11. Henry says:

    Clarification because some words were excluded: …read Msgr. Charles Pope’s post titled “Living on the Dark Side of the Cartesian Divide. A Reflection on the Gnosticism of our Times” because I believe it illuminates the premises behind some of the comments posted here.

  12. MaryGr says:

    Joey, I am not ignoring you or unwilling to engage. But, understand, I am not an intellectual and have no talent talking about Catholicism in scholarly fashion. I’m a simpleton not a Jesuit. : ) I’m Dorothy without Todo : ). I was caught up in a furious lifelong tornado until God finally dropped my house into the technicolor world of His grace which is where I have found true, solid, reliable happiness. Pope Benedict is the only leader who can address the darkness that has come over the world. He does so in a Christlike, loving way. I know you don’t see that. But that’s the way I see him. I wish you well in your search for love and unity.

  13. Ed Mechmann says:

    Msgr. Pope’s post is excellent (and his blog in general is a favorite of mine). Here’s the link.