Gender Ideology 2: Personal disorder and personal sin
When it comes to gender ideology, which roots human identity in personal desire, clear thinking is essential. But clear thinking itself depends on a proper recognition of the human condition, including self-awareness of our own passions. Perhaps the first thing we notice on careful reflection is that, throughout our lives, the harmonious virtue of our desires is undermined by the pervasiveness of all kinds of disorder, including moral failures. It is time to examine these negative elements, and the difference between what we might call inadvertent and culpable disorder.
Christians describe the entire human race with the term “fallen”. Whatever term we use, every one of us notices fairly early in life that human existence is somehow out of sync with what should be. On every side, we find people falling short of their own standards, failing to enjoy the goods they desire, injuring others, suffering want in the midst of nature’s bounty, misunderstanding each other, pursuing contradictory (and often even self-contradictory) goals, suffering all manner of personal handicaps and interior trials, and of course failing both to achieve justice for others and to experience justice themselves.
As the great St. Augustine noted, from the first pangs of infant hunger (and perhaps even in the womb itself), we begin to perceive that our universe is somehow out of kilter. Our aspirations and our needs often go unfulfilled. They do not synchronize with the larger reality around us, and it is part of the process of growing up to learn that this is sometimes because life is not “fair” and sometimes because our own desires are “unrealistic”. This concept of fairness is one of our first, strongest and most universally-felt apprehensions of what we call the natural law. All by itself, our strong apprehension of the lack of fairness in the world is sufficient for our recognition that something that should be very right is actually very wrong.
An awareness of this difference between what is and what ought to be is extraordinarily strong in the human person from a very early age, and will be recognized by every man, woman and child capable of reading and reflecting on these words. While this recognition can be confusing, it has led many (including a great many philosophers) to the conclusion that the world has suffered some great calamity which has reduced it from an original harmony to its present state of disorder—in which the proper relationship of all goods is glimpsed but disrupted, desired but difficult to achieve. Many religions seek to account for this devastating anomaly. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition we find the most complete explanation: The perfect harmony of the universe has been disrupted by sin.
We come back, then, to the Fall. The Christian doctrine of the Fall of man was instrumental in the conversion of such relatively modern figures as John Henry Newman and Gilbert Keith Chesterton, both of whom wrote about it with considerable eloquence. Like them, most of us recognize the Fall as an enormous fact of history, without which it is impossible to make sense of the world. But even the smallest degree of life experience leads to a distinction concerning this endemic disorder. Each of us gradually learns the difference, at least to some imperfect degree, between impersonal disorders which, through no discernible present fault, afflict everything in creation, and disorders which arise from our own inappropriate desires, intellectual stubbornness, weakness of will, ill-conceived thought or speech or actions, objectionable habits, selfishness and pride.
This latter sort of disorder has a moral character, and so it can involve culpability, or guilt. When we experience such disorders in the form of any sort of interior pressure—pressure which threatens what we call our integrity (ordered wholeness) as human persons—we describe them variously as psychological problems, inordinate attachments, disordered affections, unruly passions, forbidden desires, and temptations. When we consent to these pressures by choosing to think, speak or act in conformity with them, we describe the results as personal failures or sins.
A vital distinction
This distinction is of the greatest importance for one simple reason. Given the presence of disorder around and within us, this distinction provides us with the concepts and vocabulary necessary to assess human behavior accurately. It permits us to acknowledge, first, the general disorder which afflicts everything and, second, moral disorder and culpability. Many disorders have no moral component, and can be ameliorated or corrected through a wide variety of interventions (medical, technological, economic, creative, etc.). But moral disorders can be eliminated only through the habitual choice of the Good.
It is possible to limit the scope of moral disorder through government by declaring some sins to be crimes and punishing those who commit them, not only to render them as harmless as possible but also, as the ironic French expression has it, pour encourager les autres. Society can benefit from various disincentives to sin. But at its root, what makes a disorder specifically moral is the need for each person to eliminate it through strength of will. Only a kind of spiritual warfare can attack the root of moral disorder, especially in ourselves.
Now I hope the key point in this discussion will become clear. We all experience inordinate attachments, disordered affections and unruly passions, and we all must learn to recognize them by making moral judgments about reality. But our contemporary culture very frequently seeks instead to judge and condemn reality based on our disordered desires (an absurdity which reaches new heights in gender ideology, as noted in the previous installment). This is why it is impossible to adopt a virtuous plan of life, to formulate helpful counsel, to engage in appropriate medical and psychological interventions, or to provide sound spiritual direction without first acquiring a proper grasp of reality from sources and studies other than our desires.
And this is why the Catholic Church insists—without the least prejudice—on describing things like temptations to sexual relations outside of marriage, same-sex attraction, discontent with one's biologically-determined sex, and unbidden lustful thoughts as disordered. Such things are disordered in the same way as are anger management problems, preoccupation with wealth, the itch to go shopping when one has “the blues”, kleptomania (the urge to steal), a predisposition toward alcoholism, a tendency to self-exaltation, feelings of contempt for others, and a thousand other afflictions. These disorders may be only occasional or they may be deeply rooted in the weakened particularities of our “fallen” human nature.
I say again that the Catholic Church uses the term “disordered” without prejudice. She knows very well that every one of us is disordered in various ways, not least those of us who use the term. I grant that those who wish to regard everything about themselves as good may be offended. Nonetheless, to take offense is very foolish, for the term just as easily applies to everyone else, though in a nearly infinite variety of ways. Once again, we must use other sources of information to determine what ought to be the case—usually either a careful assessment of the purposes connected with the various features of human nature, or an appropriation of our Creator’s disclosures of these purposes through Divine Revelation. Based on these insights, we recognize tendencies that work against the order proper to our nature as disordered.
While it is fashionable to deny it today, the most fundamental purposes of our male and female anatomy are extraordinarily clear. It is obvious what our sexual organs are for, how they are to be coupled, and what they are to bring forth when used in an ordered way. Through widespread contraception, modern culture has artificially separated reproduction from sexual activity, and so has generally lost the ordered connection between the two. Once we recognize this order, we see how it leads to human blossoming and fruitfulness in love, marriage, family and the formation of children to recognize their true ends. Here we have a series of fundamental biological facts which serve, in an ordered way, the highest purposes of the whole person, both individually and socially. We must recognize that the desire to use human sexuality to weaken, obscure or eliminate these purposes is disordered, in whatever form that desire takes.
But it is only when we yield to such desires, by entertaining them lustfully in our minds, by promoting them and arguing for their rightness, or by engaging in the actions they suggest, that we become guilty of a moral failure—that we sin. And the solution to sin, once again, is the cultivation of the moral habits necessary to avoid it. Christians know this always entails a growing openness to grace. But whether we are consciously working on a supernatural level or not, the need to restore order is clear, and the importance of new habits remains the same.
We must understand, then, the vital distinction between personal disorder, in which we all share without the least hint of inferiority or condemnation, and personal sin, for which we all bear our own share of guilt in different ways. Our nature’s thirst for ordered fulfillment demands that we struggle against whatever renders us guilty. This struggle produces a growing ability to direct all of our faculties toward our true ends. It results in what we call personal growth because it gradually maximizes our ordered wholeness. Sometimes the formation of new habits will lead to the complete elimination of the disorder in question; at other times, it will lead to greater self-mastery despite the continuing affliction of a particular disorder.
To use an important word once again, this struggle increases our personal integrity. This can be profitably considered on both the natural and the supernatural levels. But Christians know this growth in integrity is a cooperation with God’s supremely ordered desire for eternal union with each of us. It is how we realize our personal destiny of perfect love.
Previous in series: Gender ideology and our fatal empire of desire
Next in series: Gender Ideology 3: The values of personal relationships
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