Many people don’t understand why Christians like me hold the opinions that we do about homosexuality and transgenderism. They assume that it can only come from either a visceral sense of disgust, or from mindless adherence to arbitrary commands set down in the Bible. That may be true for some, but as I write in The Benedict Option, there is something far more fundamental to humanity at stake in this issue:
The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early church’s.
In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says the body
was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.
Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.
In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal.
Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule breaking but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself.
The Christian who lives in reality will not join his body to another’s outside the order God gives us. That means no sex outside the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ. In orthodox Christian teaching, the two really do become “one flesh” in a way that transcends the symbolic.
If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage is an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition.
“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man. “As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.
Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.
It seems to me that most participants in this debate, on both sides, want to talk about sex and sexuality exclusively in moral terms, whereas we need to be discussing it in anthropological terms to understand what’s truly at stake.
In a fascinating short reflection on the First Things page, philosopher Michael Hanby discusses why the queering of seemingly everything today is not simply a slight shift of our point of view to assimilate LGBT perspectives, but is, in fact, the radical remaking of our worldview. Hanby says these things cannot be separated from the deconstruction of the ideals of family and childbearing — and, indeed, from what it means to be human. Excerpts:
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.”
Hanby quotes from Benedict XVI’s 2012 Christmas message, in which the pope spoke of how these liberationist philosophies taking over our thinking and discourse about sex and sexual identity are actually leading to the abolition of man. Benedict:
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.
The Church universal faces a deadly heresy. I don’t have a lot of confidence that any churches are fully prepared to fight it — not even conservatives. As Hanby said in this recent lecture at Catholic University, though left-wing moralism seems to be ascendant, “a moralism of the Right would be no less impotent in grasping our historical moment.” Certain the Catholic Church, under this left-wing moralist pope, is not going to be able to confront it. In fact, I fear quite the opposite. Here’s an excerpt from the opening address of Pope Francis to the current Synod of Youth ongoing on Rome:
We are a sign of a Church that listens and journeys. The attitude of listening cannot be limited to the words we will exchange during the work of the Synod. The path of preparation for this moment has highlighted a Church that needs to listen, including those young people who often do not feel understood by the Church in their originality and therefore not accepted for who they really are, and sometimes even rejected. This Synod has the opportunity, the task and the duty to be a sign of a Church that really listens, that allows herself to be questioned by the experiences of those she meets, and who does not always have a ready-made answer. A Church that does not listen shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach.
You know what this jargon means, don’t you? Catholics, brace yourselves for impact.
UPDATE: Listen, readers, if you are struggling to understand what Hanby means, then read it a second time, carefully. It’s not mumbo-jumbo. Try thinking, why don’t you?