A Perversion of Faith
The battle over religious liberty in Missouri reminds us how deeply our culture misunderstands nature and religion.
Faith leaders in Missouri are speaking out against the state’s intrusion into their family life and violation of their religious liberty, the Washington Post reported Monday. These clergymen are upset about government initiatives regarding transgenderism.
But it is not what you think. These pastors and rabbis are angry about measures proposed in the Republican-controlled state legislature that would classify as child abuse efforts to help children transition to their preferred gender. Rabbi Daniel Bogard declared he opposes the government “creating an undue burden on me from practicing my faith”; Rabbi Rori Picker Neiss told the Post: “I don’t think God lives in binary.”
Exploiting the causes of religious liberty and family privacy—usually attributed as political weapons of the right, not the left—is a clever rhetorical move. It is unsurprising the Post would devote a massive feature to discuss the irony. In words that in a not-so-different scenario could be imagined coming from a conservative home-schooling household, Bogard told the newspaper: “Our state is at war with our family.”
Yet, understood in a different light, the battle over religious liberty and family privacy in Missouri reminds us how deeply our culture misunderstands both nature and religion. Untethered from an appreciation for teleology (sometimes called final causality), our culture understands our bodies, our sexuality, and our religious faith not as subject to ends predetermined by nature and a creator God—to be interpreted by well-formed intellects—but subordinated solely to our autonomous wills.
“All being is per se inclinational, intentional, and ordered to its properly proportioned end. Thus, all being is constituted with (and in) a natural teleology,” writes Fr. Cajetan Cuddy, O.P., in his introduction to the excellent book The Natural Law According to Aquinas and Suárez, by Walter Farrell, O.P. “If there is a nature, there is a natural end,” asserts Farrell. We see this at work every day: via a process we call phototropism, plants naturally move towards sunlight in order to survive so that they can grow, fruit, and reproduce, thus perpetuating their species. Animals, in their own various ways, do more or less the same thing.
“For we see things in nature acting on account of an end,” wrote medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. When various organisms don’t seem to act toward that end—say, lemmings throwing themselves from cliffs—we recognize something has gone wrong, such as overpopulation, a threat to the survival of the entire animal colony, or some debilitating illness. Yet, even in those examples, what is quite amazing is that while the particular organism may no longer seek its own welfare, it typically seems to be protecting that of its broader species.
Humans are not exempt from this. We also seek to grow, thrive, procreate, and perpetuate our species. All humans have one of two forms of gametes, or sex cells to reproduce: sperm or ovum. But, humans, unlike the rest of creation, can dramatically repudiate our natural propensity to thrive and reproduce. Because of our intellect and will, we are capable of causing greater harm to ourselves than other animals. This happens when our intellect is malformed and does not choose the goods (or, ultimately the good) that we are by nature (and God) directed towards.
For we humans, there is an added complexity to realizing our proper end in earthly life: our intellects and wills derive from, and ultimately find their fulfillment in, the transcendent (this makes sense, given that both are immaterial, and thus their ends would, logically, also be immaterial). Aquinas explains: “Since the whole course of nature proceeds and is directed to an end in an orderly manner, we must posit something higher which directs and governs these things as Lord: and this is God.” Man’s end, as even one of our nation’s founding documents declares, is our happiness. Granted, ours is ultimately a supernatural happiness, but all societies are confronted with the choice of leading or hindering its members from realizing that transcendent end.
The more a political community understands itself and directs its participants towards those natural and supernatural ends, the more properly ordered (and prosperous) it will be. The further it strays from those ends, the more confused, fractious, and destructive it will become. The rejection of the order of creation, unsurprisingly, fosters disorder and distemper.
This illuminates the Washington Post story about religious leaders attacking measures aimed at curbing the proliferation of transgenderism on the grounds of religious liberty and privacy. For such persons—and, concerningly, an increasing number of Americans—our physical givenness is not interpreted as representative of a created order that directs us towards our natural happiness, but a straitjacket that inhibits our self-expression and self-realization. As O. Carter Snead argues in What It Means to Be Human, our contemporary bioethics, “defines the human being fundamentally as an atomized and solitary will. It equates human flourishing slowly with the capacity to formulate and pursue future plans of one’s own invention.”
Get daily emails in your inbox
Religion, in turn, is not something that encourages those natural ends through the formation of virtue and orients us towards the divine person who created that order and will, in time, bring it to its perfection, but simply another thing we can fashion to our own preferences. Your church teaches about sin and redemption; my church celebrates diversity and authenticity. Religious belief and practice is not inviolably protected because we recognize it as essential to republican government, but simply because it is another manifestation of our autonomous will.
In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor, John Paul II noted that some moralists conceived of freedom as “somehow in opposition to or in conflict with material and biological nature.” For such persons, nature “becomes reduced to raw material for human activity and its power,” warned the philosopher pope. “When all is said and done, man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project. Man would be nothing more than his own freedom.”
That interpretation is perhaps the best for interpreting an America in which clergymen claim that government attempts to protect children from chemicals and procedures that will vitiate their sexuality and harm their bodies can be described as an attack on religious liberty and family privacy. In a society that has rejected teleology—something Farrell argued is a “self-evident truth”—the unencumbered, emotive will ascends to a place of preeminence, even over creation itself. Unwilling to accept our givenness, our natural and supernatural ends, we would rather contrive our own, even if the result is atomization, disconnection and distemper. This will not turn out well, for those clergyman’s kids, or for us.