Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Our body is revelation because it comes from God with a specific design. Through it, God is teaching us; He is revealing His truth, just as He does in the whole of His creation and in the sacred Scriptures.
The notion that our bodies have anything to say to us, let alone teach us, is not popular today. Indeed, there seems today to be a great divorce of the human person from the body. For many moderns, the body is little more than a machine that can be redesigned and accessorized at will.
This mentality finds its most extreme form in the widespread sexual confusion of our day. It is a kind of resurgent Gnostic dualism in which one’s “identity” is something separate from one’s body. And thus there is the idea that one can be a woman trapped in a man’s body, a man trapped in a woman’s body, or any of 50-some-odd other categories (see Facebook) within a fluid notion of “gender.”
Nothing could be more clear than our sex as disclosed by our body. We are either male or female. But to many moderns, our body has nothing to say to us, nothing to reveal to us about our own self.
But just try to say to supporters of “transgenderism” that a person is quite obviously male or female, that it is clearly indicated by the very structure of the body. The usual response is a blank stare followed by the insistence that the body has little to do with it, that feelings and attractions are what matters.
This same scenario plays out when speaking with those who support homosexual acts. Saying to them that the design of the body reveals the flawed nature of homosexual acts, that the body parts don’t “fit” in this way and that something is obviously amiss elicits blank stares and a sort of incredulity that the body really has anything to do with it.
It is pure Gnostic dualism, an almost complete divorce of the human person from the body. Only feelings, attractions, and thoughts matter; the body is irrelevant. In our culture we have elevated feelings to such an extent that we seem to have lost our reason. Indeed, if someone from a mere ten years in the past, let alone fifty, were dropped forward into our time, he would conclude that we had lost our minds or become delusional, denying the obvious reality right before our very eyes.
Our time traveler, unaffected by recent errors in thinking, would make the (once) common sense assessment that an obviously male person who thinks he is actually a female needs psychological help and healing. He needs our sympathy and offer of help, not our encouragement of his delusion. Our time traveler would marvel at the shocking and collective delusion of a culture that so widely approves of and even celebrates such sad confusion.
And so here we are as a culture. Yet here we are and in such a bad state that there are so-called “bathroom bills” in various phases of the legislative process in many states, to require that people must use the public bathroom that conforms with their biological “gender” (we used to call this a person’s sex). Even five years ago, such a legislated requirement would have needed no law to spell it out; it was axiomatic, just common sense. But the reaction to such legislation today has elicited denunciation and calls for boycotts.
How have so many gotten so lost so quickly?
A lot of it comes down to identity politics and the “born that way” assertion. In our culture there is a kind of default acceptance of the idea that people with same-sex attraction, or with the belief that they are a different gender than their biologically defined one, are not only born that way, but even further, that it is their deepest identity. “This is what I am. This is who I am.”
Really? Why are your sexual attractions your deepest identity? Why is your sexual dissociation your deepest identity? Why are these attractions/feelings more significant than that fact that you are an electrician or a teacher, or that you are good at music, or biologically male or female, or even—dare I say—a child of God?
Welcome to the world of identity politics. This notion that “I am X and this is my deepest identity” is presented as a kind of unassailable stance. If you or I question a certain behavior, feeling, or attraction, we are accused of questioning the very core and identity of another person, who also often asserts that “God made me this way.” It is very hard to argue against this mere supposition because people choose to take it all very personally. The prevailing rule is that you aren’t allowed to question other people’s “identity,” or to question the assertion that their attractions are their identity.
It all gets very ugly. Because of this, many well-meaning people are shamed into going along with some pretty confused pathologies. A person, let’s call him Bob, might go to a family gathering and see the man he once knew as his brother John now presenting himself as a woman named Jessica. But Bob is labeled the “bad guy” if he doesn’t play along. Bob isn’t allowed to be upset that his brother is dressing like a woman and calling himself Jessica. Bob’s feelings don’t matter because this is all about John’s/Jessica’s identity. An identity, rooted in this case in things like feelings and dissociation from reality, gets to overrule reality merely because John/Jessica says so, and would be deeply hurt if someone disrespects “her” identity.
And now many are also seriously saying that a woman is wrong to be offended or fearful that a man is permitted to walk into the locker room where she is undressing and showering because he “feels” he is a woman. The showering woman’s feelings and fears are not protected, his are. Somehow, because they are his “identity,” she is a bigot if she protests. And not only has she offended this man (who strangely thinks himself a woman), but an entire community united by their identification with increasingly narrow and hyper-specified sexual proclivities/attractions.
But this is where we are today. More than ever we need a good theology and philosophy of the body, one that takes the body seriously as a revelation from God. It is clear that humans come in two kinds, male and female, and that human sexual union and differentiation have an obvious purpose that is easily discerned from the way we are made. (Hermaphroditism, which is extremely rare, is no more an indication of a new category of human sex than are children born with missing or extra limbs indicative of a new kind of human person. It is a birth defect, and defects are anomalous, not indicative.)
We are not to be reduced merely to our body, but neither are we to be reduced merely to our soul or our feelings, attractions, or thoughts. We are incarnate persons. We do not just have bodies; we are bodies. The mere fact that we can mentally distinguish between our body and our soul does not make them divisible in practice. Just because I can distinguish between a flame’s heat and its light does not mean that I can place its heat over here and its light over there. They are not divisible in this way; they are so united as to be one. And so also it is with our body and our soul.
We cannot simply disregard the body as of no informational help in sexual distinction. To look at a person with an obviously male body and say that he is a female is a delusion. No amount of surgery or other types of pretending (e.g., cross-dressing, ignoring restroom signs) will change reality. John can never really be Jessica. The body is revelation that cannot be denied.