Dear Fr. Jim: Twitter is probably not the best place for the discussion I’d like to have, but I would like to make a few points here in defense of Pope Francis and of the teachings of the Church that are strongly reinforced in the recent document about which you, in your laudable compassion, have expressed reservations and concern.
Among the greatest achievements of Christianity is its thoroughgoing rejection of the separation of self and body that one finds in, for example, Platonism, Cartesianism, and (most pertinently) various forms of gnosticism—ancient and modern. The temptation to embrace such separation is perennial, but the Church has always resisted it and borne faithful witness to the unity of the human person—body and spirit. We human beings are not “ghosts in machines.” We are our bodies (whatever else we are) and do not merely “inhabit” them and use them as extrinsic instruments of the supposed “real self,” considered as the psyche, spirit, or soul. The body, male or female, far from being a subpersonal object to be used and even manipulated by the “self” or “person,” is part of—an irreducible aspect of—the personal reality of the human being.
This understanding of the human person—this philosophical anthropology—undergirds the moral truths proclaimed by the Church, including (among many others) those pertaining to marriage and sexual morality, and to the sanctity of human life. To reject it is to cut the rug out from under those truths. It is this anthropology that is at stake in the debate over sexual or gender identity. To affirm that the human person is his or her (male or female) body is by no means to suggest that persons who experience gender dysphorias “do not exist.” Nor is it to suggest that such persons are anything less than bearers of profound, inherent, and equal dignity, precious brothers and sisters who deserve to be not only respected, but loved and cherished.
To respect, love, and cherish a person, however, does not require us—and sometimes does not permit us—to endorse their philosophical or ideological beliefs or, a fortiori, to affirm choices they may make in light of those beliefs. A standard rhetorical move one encounters when one makes this point is the claim that a person’s “truth” (especially the truth about his or her “identity”) is established by his or her “lived experience.” But experience (including “lived experience”) is not self-validating. To suppose otherwise is to fall into a form of subjectivism that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and, indeed, all sound philosophy firmly rejects. Our feelings are real, but they do not determine reality—even the reality of one’s identity as a human being. A dysphoria, whether it is a gender dysphoria or a dysphoria of another type, may cause a person sincerely—and intensely—to feel that he or she is something other than what he or she is, but it cannot make him or her into what he or she feels he or she is. Feelings are indeed subjective; but fundamental anthropological truths are objective.
Of course, to disrespect someone who experiences a dysphoria of any type, including a gender dysphoria, is wrong. To ridicule, mock, or taunt someone who is trying to deal with a dysphoria, is cruel and grotesque. It is, indeed, unChristian and, to be bluntly judgmental, sinful. And this is true irrespective of whether an individual who experiences a dysphoria deals with it in a way that we believe (or the Church teaches) does justice to our obligations to the truth about the human person and his or her identity. I have always praised and commended you for defending the humanity and dignity of all people–including those who self-identify as “sexual minorities,” including those who identify as transgender. But I hope that you will also, particularly in your one-on-one pastoral ministry and in your public commentary, found your work on the truths proclaimed by the Church about our embodied nature as male and female.
We would have compelling reasons to affirm these truths—and to join Pope Francis in rejecting gender ideologies that reject or compromise them—even if we were not Catholics. Sound philosophy is sound philosophy. But as Catholics we have additional reasons to attend to these truths and to join in their proclamation—even when bearing witness to them is difficult and risky, as it has become in our day when basic anthropological and moral truths proclaimed by the Church are unpopular among the powerful and influential. And if I may say so, these truths must be at the foundation of a priest’s or a deacon’s pastoral care of Catholics who experience, and so often struggle deeply with, gender dysphorias. It is critical for those providing pastoral care to speak truth—the whole truth—in love, even when truth, or aspects of the truth, are unwelcome and perhaps off-putting. To withhold the truth, even out of a sense of compassion, is not truly to love the person to whom one is ministering. The truth, we as Catholics believe, is liberating and life-giving, even when it is hard to hear and hard to live up to. The pastoral and the truthful are in the same “hylomorphic” unity as body and spirit. They are inseparable—and any attempt to separate them will, in the end, prove to be something far worse than a mere failure. And the highest price will be paid by those who most badly needed to hear the whole truth proclaimed. — Yours faithfully, Robby