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Unraveling Gender:
The Battle Over Sexual Difference
by john s. grabowski
tan books, 200 pages, $24.95

What is a human person? The question runs through all of recorded history, a puzzle for philosophers and poets, a challenge that each society has answered in its own distinctive way. Are we spirits or animals or somehow both? Are we mortal or immortal? Are we free, rational, choosing beings, responsible for our own actions? Or are we ruled by the stars, spirits, humors, genes, upbringing, instincts, passions beyond our control? Are we atoms, bouncing off each other, ­creating our own values, rivals seeking our own will, as some libertarians have believed? Or are we, as in the left-wing imagination, best defined as parts of some greater whole—our class, our race? To call the human being just an animal, or a rational animal, a speaking-­promising animal, a social-political being, or a religious being, is to take a position not just on what we are, but on what our purpose is, what makes us happy, how we should behave, how we should be organized and treated, and more.

For more than half a century, the arena where the nature of the human person has been most hotly contested is sexuality. Most recently the debate has turned to the meaning and significance of male and female. A cardinal recently told me of a meeting he attended, where the contemporary positions of the Church and society on gender were being disputed. Looking to turn down the temperature and find some common ground, he asked: “Can we all at least agree—­whatever our gender identity and sexual attractions, backgrounds and beliefs, affiliations and ­agendas—can we all at least agree that we were all born of a woman?” In any other age it would have been an uncontroversial question; for St. Paul, this common origin was definitional of our common humanity with Christ (Galatians 4:4). But my eminent friend met, first, a stunned, silent incomprehension (what was he ­getting at?), and then outrage. In many ears today, even the most irenic suggestion sounds like an assertion of bigotry.

Laudably, John S. Grabow­ski’s Unraveling Gender maintains a patient, reasoned posture. There is no sloganeering or ridicule in his account, nor any scorn toward individuals suffering from gender confusion. Instead, Grabowski’s target is an ­ideology—one he is convinced hurts such ­individuals—and his response is to point a better way to human flourishing: the beauty and rationality of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual difference.

The term “gender ideology,” first used by the Church in the Relatio ­Finalis of the 2015 Synod on the ­Family, refers to the sundering of personal gender identity from biological sex. Having removed the ­biological foundation for male-female difference, it grounds its understanding of gender in social convention and personal will. Gender becomes something optional, changeable, and esoteric. Responding to that synod in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016), Pope Francis warned against a way of thinking that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman,” “promotes a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female,” and “envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” New technologies, laws, and educational programs are all co-opted for the purpose of promoting this ideology.

Pope Francis has addressed the matter on many other occasions. He told a 2015 meeting of Equipes Notre-Dame that a missionary commitment to promoting conjugal spirituality “is all the more important inasmuch as the image of the family—as God wills it, composed of one man and one woman in view of the good of the spouses and also of the procreation and upbringing of children—is deformed through powerful adverse projects supported by ideological trends.” In a general audience the same year he reflected: “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.” Western civilization once exulted in the human person, a perspective summed up in Hamlet’s celebrated speech: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” Now, like Hamlet in his fit of depression, postmodernity looks at the human person as just so much dust: “man delights not me; no, nor woman neither.” 

As Grabowski notes, the Church anticipated the errors of gender ­ideology—in John Paul II’s emphasis on the complementarity of the ­sexes and the disastrous consequences of reducing masculinity and femininity to social inventions, and in Benedict XVI’s warnings about the promethean impulse to liberate ourselves from all authorities, traditions, nature, and God, making us into our own creators. Such an impulse ultimately dissolves our understanding of what it is to be human, denigrates our physical bodies, and weakens our relationships, especially within the family. It also, as Grabowski demonstrates, contradicts the Christocentric notion of personhood at the heart of the Catholic faith.

First, however, ­Grabowski outlines the origin story of gender ideology—a necessary step, since beneath any worldview there are always philosophical premises and a unique grammar. The book makes the case that, far from being sui generis to postmodern culture, gender ideology in fact resembles (or is a mutation of) the Gnosticism that challenged the early Church and lived on in medieval Catharism. The Gnostics and their successors judged the body inferior to the spirit—and ultimately, the body could be overcome by the spirit. Gender ideology, although it borrows from this dualism, does not see the discordance as something to be solved by the victory of spirit over body. Rather—here Grabowski traces the influence of existentialism, Marxism, materialism, and certain schools of feminism—the conflict is solved by individual choice. Self-expression takes first place, unrestrained by nature, tradition, morality, or logic.

Sex organs and the whole human body are just vehicles for achieving desires; where they are experienced as unsatisfactory, medical and other technologies allow for their manipulation or transformation. The now-common usage “sex assigned at birth” demonstrates precisely this type of thinking: that there is no more to being male or female than someone’s identifying a person as such, at first a doctor or guardian, but ultimately the subject himself.

The erasure of any substantive content to sexual difference has had many ill effects. Grabowski provides some worrying statistics regarding the use of “gender-affirming” medical treatments and their impacts on health and well-being. For ­post-­operative transgender people, the rate of psychiatric ­hospitalization is three times higher than for control groups; rates of mortality and criminal conviction are also significantly higher; suicide attempts nearly five times higher, and likelihood of death by suicide nineteen times higher. Particularly troubling has been the use of cross-hormone therapy in teenagers to block the onset of ­puberty and/or to bring on ­secondary sex characteristics of the opposite sex. The negative impacts of these chemical, surgical, and ­psycho-social interventions on personal identity, psychological health, and future fertility have been, in many cases, disastrous.

A more compassionate approach, Grabowski argues, is to treat gender dysphoria like other psychological disorders, and to offer counseling and therapy to its sufferers. However, in order for such an approach to be accepted as best practice, gender ideology itself must first be out-­narrated.

Grabowski shows that the Church offers a better understanding: one that reads sexual difference through the lens of biological, personal, and spiritual complementarity. The basis of this, of course, is a Christian cosmology: a belief that God, as the source of all, creates out of nothing; that the human being is a result of more than mindless chemical and biological processes; that God in fact made a creature after his own heart and mind, his “image and likeness.” Thus bodily life is part of the essence of the creature God made, including human sexuality, which, as John Paul II articulated, enables the reciprocal self-gift of the spouses in marriage and family, and enables marriage and family to be icons of both Christ and the Church and the Trinitarian God.

There could be no greater confirmation of the sheer goodness of human bodily life than that God himself, in becoming incarnate, took on that life. Grabowski notes that the doctrine of the Incarnation unites us all—whether male or female, or differentiated in any other way—as of the self-same nature as the God-made-man, so that there can be no “second-class humans,” no “second-class sex.” The human body is good and ordered toward goodness; sexual differences exist as distinct modes of a single human nature that constitutes personhood, enabling the person to give uniquely of himself in a manner patterned after Christ’s self-giving, and, God willing, even to cooperate in the creation of another bodily human person.

It is tempting to flee from today’s ideological battles—or, conversely, to add to the indignation and polarization. Grabowski wisely counsels the reader to rely only on the weapons of “truth, love and the grace of the Holy Spirit wielded through humility and self-sacrifice.” Above all, we must demonstrate that virtue that Pope Francis, following St. Thomas ­Aquinas, tells us is this most perfect manifestation of God: mercy. For mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth—a bouncing baby boy, born of a woman. 

Anthony Fisher, O.P., is the Archbishop of Sydney, Australia.