A True Understanding of Sexual Identity

Having written a number of blogs about the nonsense of gender ideology, it’s only fair that I outline the true vision of sexuality presented by the Church.

It’s very important to understand at the outset that this vision is part of a coherent system of thought about human nature — anthropology in the real sense. It is informed by faith and revelation, but it is also confirmed by reason and science. It is not to be accepted just because the Church says so. It is proposed for acceptance because God has revealed it to us, and also because it makes sense.

First, let’s lay out a few definitions of terms.

  • “Sex” means whether a person is male or female.
  • “Sexuality” is a much broader term that encompasses one’s biological sex, but is not limited to our reproductive anatomy. It includes the characteristics that have been identified by science (e.g., psychology, neuroscience) to have an impact on the way we experience the world as males or as females. It also has an element of divine will in it – we are made deliberately by God as male or female, and are intended to express and receive love as men or women in all our relationships with family, friends, spouses, etc.
  • “Sexual identity” is the way that we integrate our sexuality into the overall self-understanding of who we are as persons.
  • “Gender”  I have serious misgivings about using this word.  The way it is currently being used, it means both too much and therefore virtually nothing at all, and it presupposes an irrational complete separation from biological sex. However, I think the term has some validity if it is understood in the narrow sense that Pope Francis uses it in Amoris Laetitia: “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated”. So in this limited sense, the term “gender” would mean our biological sex, including the innate characteristics that flow from that, plus socially-defined ideas and expectations about men and women.

Having said that, there are several points that serve as the fundamental foundation for our view of the human person, and thus of human sexuality.

  • Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. We are not just accidents of an impersonal evolutionary process (although we have certainly evolved in many ways from earlier forms). Instead, each person is directly willed by God and brought into existence. We are, each and every one of us, good in God’s eyes, even with all of our faults. And we have a purpose in life — to be happy in this life, and to be happy with God forever in the next.
  • Human beings are not just material, but are the union of soul and body. Our soul is our spiritual component, the part of us where we experience feelings, thoughts, dreams, knowledge, personality, and free will. Our lives are a constant partnership of the physical and spiritual, in which we live in both the world of our senses and in our inner life. The physical and spiritual are intrinsically united, and I cannot even exist without both — their separation is the actual definition of death.
  • Every human person is made male or female. Our sex is a definitional part of who we are — God deliberately made each one of us, both body and soul, as a man or a woman. This is part of the innermost core of our being. This is crucially important — we are not male and female just because of our biological sex, we have that biological sex because God has made us male or female. Our anatomy is one of the ways that our male or female identity is revealed, but we can also see it in so many aspects of our lives.  We don’t know this just because of revelation, but it is confirmed by the evidence of science. Genetics, physiology, neurology, and psychology all recognize the intrinsic differences between the sexes. These can be seen in the ways that men and women experience the world, have feelings, and form our relationships. The differences between men and women do not in any way imply inequality. Instead, “Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary. ” (St. John Paul II, Letter to Women, 7) This complementarity and equality of male and female has a deep meaning and significance for who we are and what we are meant to be.

The Church proposes a vision of human nature and sexuality that brings these principles into harmony and allows every human being to develop and flourish as God desires, so that we can find genuine love and be truly happy.

We hold firmly to the truth that we cannot separate sexuality or sexual identity from biological fact. The reality of our biological sex “is a fundamental component of personality, one of its modes of being, of manifestation, of communicating with others, of feeling, of expressing and of living human love”. (Congregation for Catholic Education, Educational Guidance in Human Love, 4). So our sexuality is not just a physical phenomenon. It helps to define every human being on every level – emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

Indeed, since by our very nature we are ensouled bodies, there can’t be a radical separation of the physical and spiritual. Our true identity depends on both — we are male or female in both our body and our soul. Our bodies are not just raw material to be changed and adjusted to match our feelings, no matter how transitory or deeply-seated. Every person is a man or a woman, regardless of how they might feel, or how they might change their anatomy. I would be operating under a serious delusion if I were to make a mistake about this.

As a result, we have no need for notions of “gender identity” or “gender expression” that are at odds with our biological sex. Remember, as those terms are used in our culture nowadays, they mean one’s subjective attitude and experience of one’s “gender”, and how one expresses that. But it makes no sense to adopt an identity that denies an essential fact about myself (i.e., that was made by God as male or female), to define my identity based purely on transitory cultural norms, or — even more so — to trade one socially-defined “gender identity” for another. People can accept or reject social norms as much as they want — it’s a free country, after all — but it isn’t healthy to deny the truth about our sex, and what it means for who we are.

Instead, a healthy sexual identity is always rooted in the reality that we are male and female in both body and soul. We then seek to integrate our feelings, personality, self-image, etc. with that fact, and express ourselves accordingly in our relationships. In this way, there is no separation between a person’s “gender identity” and their sexual identity.

To do this, it is vital to understand that my sexuality is not just about me. The physical reality of male and female anatomy itself shows that we are created for others, and that God did not intend for us to live in isolation. After all, “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) In fact, we believe that human sexuality is fundamentally ordered towards the union of man and woman in matrimony – the unique loving relationship that involves a gift of self to another that is designed to bear fruit.

This means that every person is called to develop their sexual identity in a way that integrates their masculinity or femininity, and their call to live in relationship with others. This is a life-long task, and it goes through stages of development. Frequently, we find this to be difficult. There is often a tension between our physical impulses, our feelings, and God’s will. Society sends us conflicting signals about how to deal with this, signals that are becoming more and more confusing.

The way to integrate all of the elements of a healthy sexuality and sexual identity is by working on developing the virtue of chastity. That word is typically understood to mean abstinence from any sexual behavior, but in our view it actually means living our sexuality in the fullness of its deeper meaning, according to our state in life. “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” ( CCC 2337) Chastity is expressed in different ways, in different relationships, according to God’s will.  For example, chastity means continence for single people and fidelity for married people.

Of course, it is not easy to live a life of chastity, and our present cultural values make it particularly difficult. But by developing this virtue with the help of God’s grace, we can harmonize our physical reality (e.g., our bodies and sensory desires), our spiritual nature and our affective experiences (e.g., our feelings and personality), and live in authentic loving relationships. We can thus truly be ourselves, on all levels of our being.

That is how a fully and properly ordered sexual identity works. We don’t try to change reality, nor do we deny human nature. We embrace them, and learn to live with them, however difficult that may be. But in the end this is the way to true happiness, by living according to the plan that God has set out for each one of us.

(Special thanks to my friend and colleague, Alexis Carra, for her contributions to this article, particularly her challenging questions that helped greatly to clarify my thinking and language)

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.