Saturday, March 12, 2016

God, Galileo, and the Transgendered

On February 27, Melinda Selmys, a self-described “queer convert to Catholicism”, wrote a post for her blog on Patheos titled, “Does God Make Mistakes? (And are Trans People One of Them?)” There are two ways, Selmys asserts, that trans identities could be “real and valid” without using a fallible God as an explanation. The first is the fallen nature of man; the second is that the binary model of sexuality is too simplistic.

Here Comes Galileo (Again!?)

I have a lot of respect for Selmys. C. S. Lewis said once that he didn’t talk about homosexuality as a rule because it wasn’t a problem in his life; he wouldn’t tell someone how to fight a battle he’d never fought. Likewise, never having thought of myself as anything but a male, I’m in no position to tell people with gender-identity disorder how to overcome it, nor can I fault them if they fail. In fact, as I understand it, GID is an almost intractable problem; even sexual-reassignment surgery is unreliable as a palliative. (See my post in The Impractical Catholic on sex changes.)

As I say, I respect Selmys, and don’t wish to impugn her fidelity to the Church. However, in defending her second postulate, instead of stepping through the common arguments in support of Church teaching and calling them into question, she drags Galileo into the argument to serve once more as the sine qua non of magisterial error. Poor, abused Galileo! Never simply allowed to rest vindicated, his shade must be constantly conjured up to bolster weak arguments: “Well, the Church has been wrong before. Just look at Galileo!”

Why, O why does Selmys, who is capable of so much better, reach for such a hackneyed and intellectually lazy comparison? Well, because apparently the Church hasn’t formally instituted the “binary model” as dogma:

How does this relate to the transgender question? Well, today we know that various bodies with lower levels of authority (lower, in many cases than the Inquisition of 1616) have condemned transgender identities. We know that Popes have offered indirect criticism (though Christmas greetings and Papal homilies are not official dogmatic pronouncements any more than airplane interviews are.) We know that the weight of theological tradition falls on the side of a strict male-female binary, and we know that Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4 are traditionally interpreted as excluding legitimate variation from this scheme.
We also know that nothing about transgender or intersex conditions has been promulgated at a level of authority that meets Vatican I’s criteria for infallibility. This means that there remains open the possibility of developments in doctrine that will reveal a space within the order of creation for those who do not fit neatly into binary categories [bold type mine.—ASL]. The basic teaching — that we are created male and female in the image and likeness of God — could be compatible with the idea that there is some admixture of both the male and the female in certain individuals (an idea which, in fact, has roots in some ancient Jewish interpretive traditions.)

Put differently, neither the pope nor any Council has said the magic words “anathema sit”. So, despite her own admission that “the weight of theological tradition falls on the side of a strict male-female binary”, Selmys retains hope the Church will decide “that God has made trans people and intersex people exactly as they are meant to be, that variations across a spectrum of masculinity and femininity are part of the diversity of His creative genius.”

“If You Were an Amoeba …”

However, there’s more to the “strict male-female binary” than the mere weight of tradition. Selmys, like other advocates of the “social construct” theory, has got into the bad habit of regarding biology as ancillary, if not irrelevant, to sexuality, placing emphasis rather on psychological and social characteristics that are secondary and to some undetermined extent mutable.

As I’ve said before, the binary model exists because sexual bifurcation makes human reproduction possible. If we’d evolved to reproduce in any other manner, we wouldn’t have the kinds of sexual organs we do; we might not even be capable of sexual intercourse in any meaningful sense of the term. The current technological innovations still rely on this fact; there are no innovations on the horizon which will make female impregnation of men possible … or even likely. As the late Robin Williams put it, “If you were an amoeba, you’d split in two and say, ‘Was it good for me?’”

No one, so far as I know, supposes that people eat only to replenish the calories one expends in a day, or to restock on vital nutrients. At the same time, no one (again, so far as I know) who discusses different diets considers the nutritive function of eating irrelevant to the discussion. As a matter of fact, the nutritive aspect of eating is routinely granted as of first importance, and different diets are routinely held up for analysis in its light. Why, then, would someone think our biological roles in reproduction had no bearing or great weight in the matter of sexual identity?

Amoebas and Amoebettes

Our emotional and behavioral differences aren’t all either “nature” or “nurture”; both biology and culture contribute to different degrees. However, our physical roles in reproduction — whether we individually choose to reproduce or not, I add, or are capable of it — precede in causality any “hard-wired” emotional or behavioral differences we have as men and women. To the degree that such differences are natural rather than taught (i.e., “socially constructed”), they have bearing on the way we pair, the way we mate, and the way we nurture our offspring; they even have some bearing on the grounds upon which gender roles are socially constructed.

Without the physical facts of maleness and femaleness, there would be no points of reference, no hooks on which one could hang a “spectrum” of identities. To speak of men and women in such a case would be as nonsensical as it is to speak about amoebas and amoebettes. Once we acknowledge reproduction as the final or necessary cause of sexual bifurcation, however, further division is stopped in its tracks: there is no need for a “gender continuum” when only two genders are needed to procreate. Beyond this point lie only disorder and error, both of which abound in diversity.

A full critique of transgender theory is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that it’s not universally accepted by social scientists or mental-health professionals, just as the heliocentric theory had not been proven when Galileo propounded it. Certainly I don’t mean to imply that human sexuality is not complex. However, any account of human sexuality that doesn’t accept the causal priority of reproduction is bound to be misleading, as (oddly enough) the heliocentric model misleads by not representing the motion of the sun through the galaxy (the planets’ motions are not circular or elliptical but rather helical). The causal priority of reproduction doesn’t make human sexuality “frighteningly simple”; rather, it tethers human sexuality to the real world, to brute physical facts that must be accounted for in any reasonable explanation.

A World “In a State of Journeying”

In Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Dr. Ludwig Ott states that God wills physical evil for higher ends, that in the end even moral evil is permitted that He may bring good out of all things for His greater glory (pp. 45-46). Says the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

With infinite power God could always create something better [cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6]. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection. (CCC 310)

It’s no contradiction, then, to say both that X is disordered and that its existence as such is no mistake on God’s part. God allows us to err, but also gives us the faculties and ability to recognize error, and to avoid or correct it. God permits cancer and spina bifida to exist; it doesn’t follow, however, that we must celebrate them as examples of the diversity of God’s creation, let alone leave them uncured and incurable.

As I said at the beginning, never having questioned my own maleness, I can’t tell people how to deal with gender-identity disorder. And I can certainly sympathize with the desire to avoid the stigma that is often wrongly attached to having a mental or emotional disorder. However, it is a disorder, one that springs from our fallen nature, as Selmys first surmised. Differences aren’t good merely by being different; our imperfections, faults, and failings are as diverse as we are.

As for Galileo: let’s give the poor guy a rest.