St. Jerome, angry over the protracted Arian crisis and the apparent victory of the “semi-Arians” at the Council of Rimini, expressed his exasperation and amazement in words that have endured across the centuries: “The whole world groaned and marveled to see itself Arian.”
Over the past decade, the West has seen a massive push for so-called LGBT rights and the codification of radical new human archetypes, with ramifications for law, politics, family, technology, and social structure that we have barely begun to contemplate. Meanwhile, the Church has witnessed the McCarrick revelations, the exposure of widespread, predominantly homosexual abuse, and the allegations by Archbishop Viganò of a homosexual cabal operating at the highest levels of the Roman Curia. We have endured the machinations connected with two controversial Synods on the Family, the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia, two World Meetings of Families and, now, the Synod on Youth. And we have seen the rise of a public-relations juggernaut, buttressed by progressive bishops and a fawning media, aimed at “building bridges” to the LGBT community. Dissenters are intimidated by the toxic charges of “hate” and “homophobia,” coming from inside the Church. One could hardly be blamed for wondering whether future historians and theologians will look back on this period in ecclesial history and say, with an amazement similar to St. Jerome’s: “The whole world groaned and marveled to see itself gay.” Of course, our moment will merit comparison with the great heresies of ages past only if the question of sexuality pertains to fundamental truths and puts the integrity of the faith into question.
It is a serious and urgent question how to think rigorously and without moralism about the phenomenon of same-sex attraction, while treating with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” people whose lives are so deeply characterized by this desire. Serious and urgent, too, is the question of how to accompany them in the Christian life, not qua homosexuals but qua beloved children of God, many of whom doubtless live lives of great personal holiness. Unfortunately, the current “bridge-building” pastoral approach is not a serious answer to these questions. Using “the pastoral” as a weapon against the intrusion of both doctrine and thought, this approach pretends to do justice to people’s “concrete circumstances,” but in fact it is wonderfully abstract. It brackets the order of creation—which is the real world, after all—and separates the subjective experience of “LGBT identity” from all the actual circumstances that make “sexual and gender identity” a dominant preoccupation in our time: from its meaning as the centerpiece of a new authoritarian politics; from the consequences of reimagining the basic human realities of mother, father, and child, and inscribing the new human archetypes into law; and from its necessary relation to the biotech revolution and the flourishing ART and surrogacy industries, all of which promise to reshape family, law, and society. The bridge-building approach thus obscures what is most fundamentally at stake for the human future in the question of sexual “identity”: the truth of the humanum and the human archetypes by which we order our lives.
We seem to have lost our capacity to think and speak about “LGBT identity” without capitulating to it. One needn’t even mention the campaign of Fr. James Martin to adopt LGBT nomenclature and amend the Catechism. The mere idea of heterosexual “orientation,” as one of two species of the genus sexuality, is already “gay,” since both “species” presuppose that sexual desire and identity are only arbitrarily related to a meaningless biological substrate. This same dualistic understanding is the premise of the revolution in assisted reproductive technologies and the normalization of surrogacy. Transgenderism follows quite logically from this premise, just as surely as the push for transgender rights followed the Obergefell decision in time. Yet if “gender,” like “orientation,” is merely a function of a self-appropriated identity distinct from one’s sexually differentiated body (now relegated to the realm of “mere biology”), then in fact there is no longer any such thing as man or woman as heretofore understood. We are all transgender now, even if gender and sexual identity accidentally coincide in the great majority of instances. It is whistling past the graveyard to pretend that these ideas will have no social, legal, political, or eugenical ramifications beyond the subjective experience of individuals; indeed, they have already had such consequences. Yet one searches in vain to discover any acknowledgment of these consequences in the bridge-building pastoral approach, in the two Synods on the Family, or in any of the recent teaching regarding what Church leaders are now calling “affectivity.”
This fact is all the stranger in view of the centrality of the “anthropological question” in the last two pontificates and their interpretation of Vatican II. Long before LGBT rights and “transgenderism” appeared on the horizon, John Paul II saw firsthand the great threat to the human future posed by the reductive political, economic, and technological ideologies of late-twentieth-century modernity. This is why he thought it so important to rescue Humanae Vitae from a reductive moralism and to deepen what he called its anthropological meaning. Rejected by progressives as a romantic form of biologism, dismissed by many conservatives as inspirational poetry rather than theology, and mistaken for a Catholic sex manual by many well-intentioned souls, John Paul’s Theology of the Body attempted to do just this—by restoring a symbolic order of nature in the face of these dangerous reductionisms, and by reasserting the human person as an indivisible unity of body and soul, and the male and female bodies as bearers of intrinsic meaning. Years later, with the full meaning of the sexual revolution much clearer, Benedict XVI ended his pontificate with a prophetic warning, mostly unnoticed it seems, about the impending loss of the “essential elements of being human”—father, mother, child—in the brave new world now upon us. It is tragic to think how many of the pointless controversies and bitter divisions in the years since his resignation might have been avoided if the Synod Fathers had heeded these “last words” and kept them at the center of their deliberations:
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 defense 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.
How is it that we can no longer see this? How could we have forgotten it so quickly, even as daily reminders of this “anthropological revolution” press upon us from every side? These are the questions that amazed historians and theologians, writing about these years from our posthuman future, will have to answer.
Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.