Gender ideology and our fatal empire of desire
I’ve recently exchanged emails with an ostensibly Catholic man who is convinced the Church does not have a vocabulary sufficient to articulate the full positive range of human gender identity and sexual relationships. He grounds this conviction in two ways: First, by stressing that we can learn who we are—and therefore who God made us to be—only by responding to our unique personal perceptions, interests and desires as they unfold within us; second, by stressing the witness of those who have found personal satisfaction, peace and growth in what we might call non-standard relationships.
In the first case, his conclusion is that we ought not to allow just one aspect of our experience—he means our biological sexual construction—to determine our gender identity, which must be more varied and nuanced than biological sex would indicate. In the second case, his conclusion is that when satisfaction is found in a homosexual (or other non-traditional) relationship, it serves as proof of the goodness of that kind of relationship.
It is difficult to imagine any presentation which could better illustrate the total confusion of our culture’s concepts of personal identity and personal fulfillment, a confusion which flows from a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be human. And yet, given this essential confusion, it is very difficult for those formed by contemporary Western culture to see the matter in any other way. To them, these conclusions seem self-evident. Let us try to unravel at least a few necessary points.
Modern Western culture is weakened by a great vacuum of systematic thought about the nature of man. To anyone with the slightest degree of intellectual discernment, it should be obvious that modern “ideas” in this matter are formed not through rigorous analysis but through wish-fulfillment—and, above all, sexual wish-fulfillment. The modern mind does not even attempt to understand traditional norms of sexual morality mainly because it prefers to ignore ideas whenever they impede desires. Thus, for example, the entirety of past systematic thought about sexuality, the relationship between men and women, and the nature of the family is summarily swept aside with a merely emotive question: “Why should we make judgments about anyone based on who he or she chooses to love?”
Ever since the quarrel over artificial birth control in the 1960s, wayward Catholic theologians have led the way in dismissing Catholic sexual morality as mere “physicalism”, this being an attitude which ignores the dual character of human nature as a union of body and soul. But in reality, the shoe is on the other foot. It is precisely those who recognize that the body is a critical part of our total identity as persons who recognize the unity of the person. The true physicalists are those who see the body essentially as a machine which the “person within” controls. They argue that only the inner dreams are human, and they assume that the glory of the human person is the capacity to manipulate the body in accordance with human desire.
It is easy to link such an attitude to our long and successful experience with technology, which has in fact bred a technocratic attitude toward all of nature. Thus we no longer accept what is “given” by the loving Creator; instead we seek to transform the “given” into whatever we, in our individual and highly personal tendencies, would prefer it to be. When we manipulate and repurpose our bodies, then, we do not believe we are denying ourselves. Rather, we are liberating ourselves to be “who we really are”—as dictated by our desires. This is physicalism with a vengeance.
Even so, it is somewhat surprising that we see all the ways the body frustrates our desires as limitations which can and should be corrected (in effect, illnesses), yet we are rapidly losing our awareness of the illnesses of the mind and of the spirit. Instead of providing some insight into the pathological nature of certain human confusions, psychology and psychiatry (and too often even spiritual direction) have become mere servants in the kingdom of desire. Whatever anyone wants (at least where sexuality is concerned—the Achilles heel of modern sensibilities) must be recognized as healthy, and whatever is necessary to conform the body to what we want—no matter how patently absurd—is a proper exercise of both medical intervention and political change.
The misapprehension of desire
We could turn to Revelation to guide us through these confusions, for while we may be sympathetic to non-believers who cannot sort these things out, it is categorically absurd for anyone who claims to accept Jewish and/or Christian revelation to fall into such egregious errors. Such persons have almost entirely lost the sense that authentic religion is based on a revealed knowledge of the dispositions of the Creator; they simply carry on as if religion consists of a vague warm and accepting attitude, within which even the Revelation that gave birth to it is subject to correction by the spirit of the age, that is, by the ultimately changeable desires which dominate our present culture.
But we will come to this in a later installment. For now it is sufficient to emphasize that nobody who thinks deeply about reality at all can possibly believe that right and wrong are determined by human desire. Once again it is difficult to imagine a more fundamental confusion. For it is again self-evident that each of us over the course of our lives desires many things that are neither good for us, nor good for others, nor conducive to the common good. We are all prone to vicious habits and delusions of grandeur. It takes an arduous and prolonged schooling of our attitudes and habits to overcome our tendency toward selfishness.
This is universally known through common experience, philosophy and all widely-accepted religions. It is even acknowledged by modern secularism, where it is enforced as a kind of positivism through the agency of the State.
We should therefore ask why we approach our very deep and passionate sexual desires with any less natural suspicion. By what frank and honest appreciation of the human person could we ever assume that such desires are both good enough and stable enough to be taken as an expression of moral norms? The very idea is absurd on its face. Indeed, the first rule in the assessment of our desires is that they signal a thirst for happiness that exceeds what is available to us in this mortal life. And the second is that typically our specific desires are indicative neither of God’s will nor of the natural law; rather, they are passionate, blundering substitutes for that hard-won and deeper happiness which can be found in both.
There is more to consider, including the nature of both our “givenness” and our “fallenness”, the differences between disorder and sin, and the confusing reality that even in relationships forbidden by their objectively evil elements, some good will very often be present. The last point suggests why pointing out even very legitimate goods present in such relationships tells us nothing about the moral points at issue. And surely we could include many other considerations as well.
But (with the blessing) there will be time enough for all this in the future. My purpose here has been merely to sketch the broad outlines of the problem. For if we attempt to draw both moral laws and an understanding of maximum happiness from our own particular desires, or if we assume that God’s will may be read in either the crassest sexual desire or the deepest feelings of “romance”, then we will find no way forward at all. On that basis we will remain unable to distinguish between destructive and constructive desires—or between our finite and invariably crooked attachments and the infinitely perfect love of God.
Next in series: Personal disorder and personal sin
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