THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Unraveling Gender: The Battle Over Sexual Difference
Deacon Rick Bauer

THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Unraveling Gender: The Battle Over Sexual Difference

by Deacon Rick Bauer

We have witnessed a dizzying array of ideologies since the 1960s that threaten the truth and meaning of human sexuality. In the past decade, the gender (activities, roles, and norms of men and women) and their sex (that binary biological designation of a human being as male or female) are being uncoupled with increasing frequency. Can one’s gender be separated from the sex one was identified as at birth? Is it possible to determine that an individual was born “the wrong sex” and “gender reassignment healthcare” treatments are then necessary? Should I happen to disagree with these actions, and how should I respond if I am a friend, family member, or colleague of such a person? I may face not only the rejection of others, but the loss of my job. What does the Catholic Church teach on this subject?

On the other hand, isn’t this just a free choice made by another person, with whom I have no right to question or even discuss? After all, “do not judge” seems to be the only bible verse people recall these days. After all, we Catholics just need to be more tolerant, right? As Chesterton observed, however, in “The Everlasting Man,” “tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” We may not have eagerly run toward this issue, but make no mistake — this issue has run into we Catholics and the teachings of our faith. As much as we might want to look the other way or change the subject, we will eventually have to educate ourselves on this subject. “Unraveling Gender” is one of the better places to start building a solid Catholic understanding. 

Let’s be clear from the start: we do not seek to in any way diminish or disrespect the people who make these choices, but what should be a more fully formed Catholic understanding of gender ideology, and how might we thoughtfully, patiently, engage with others on this subject? Dr. John Grabowski, Professor of Moral Theology & Ethics at the Catholic University of America, has studied sexual difference and its consequences since his Ph.D. dissertation on sex and gender 30 years ago. “Unraveling Gender” is a helpful “first start” for any Christian seeking to understand this phenomenon clearly and calmly, and to be prepared when some aspect of transgender behavior or culture confronts them. I found Dr. Grabowski to be a thoroughly informed guide, and he has also been found worthy of trust by Catholics both in the pew and in positions of worldwide leadership (including counselor to three popes over his career), and an able teacher of the fundamental Catholic moral teachings necessary to ground any teaching on sexuality in today’s world.

In this book, Dr. Grabowski lays out the roots of gender ideology and identifies its sources — the currents of modern secularism, the chaos of the sexual revolution, and the derailment of the original feminist movements, which were mainly concerned with voting rights and whose founders were pro-life.  These developments have contributed to what even liberal atheist critics have named a “gender identity crisis in our culture.”

“Unraveling Gender” demonstrates that what may seem like a new fad is actually the most recent manifestation of one of the oldest heresies in the Church’s history — Gnosticism. This line of thought denies the unity of the flesh and spirit that make up the human person. As the Gnostics taught (and many were influential in the early church), the body is secondary — even evil and loathsome in some senses — and what matters most is the spirit (i.e., the gender, not the sex). Indeed, Dr. Grabowski helps us see that indeed, as the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Gender ideology has appeared as a direct descendent of the Sexual Revolution and is something that every thoughtful Christian, especially parents, should understand as an influencing presence in today’s world. Though exact statistics are difficult to find (and there are obvious interests about which group of advocates benefit by exaggerating or minimizing the phenomenon), a rapidly increasing number of adolescents have become caught up in what we might call the transgender trend.

A decade ago, less than a fraction of a percent identified as transgender. In 2017 and 2018, studies reported that between 2 and 3 percent of teens identify as transgender, according to journalist/author Abigail Shrier’s book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” (2020). Young people are being taught, Shrier asserts, in schools, peer groups, and media, that their identities are self-defined and that the body can be manipulated to match their self-perception (what they are taught to call their “gender identity”). In documented cases, the most vulnerable young people — those suffering from mental health issues, trauma, abuse, autism, or other issues — begin to believe that the true nature of their discomfort or anxiety lies in their gender.

 In addition, other researchers describe a social contagion effect, which causes multiple adolescents within a single peer group to identify as transgender or non-binary. Certainly, promotion and visibility in social media have been influencing factors, too. What are we to do?

Compassionate Catholics addressing a person who identifies as transgender need to see clearly the good for that person, according to God’s plan. Not every response, however, should reflect an untrammeled acceptance of a behavior that is intrinsically disordered from the Christian understanding of “male and female He created them.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that each person should accept his or her sexual identity (No. 2333). In “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis reminds us that our bodies are given as a gift from the Lord, to be received with gratitude from the Lord. For one’s identity/gender to be at odds with a person’s body/sex is a troubling circumstance because scripturally we are embodied persons. No one can be “born in the wrong body” (Grabowski walks through some of the few instances of medical conditions of newborn sexual ambiguity in the book, infinitely small percentages of hundredths of one percent in number that can occur and be treated).

If a person’s self-perception (however acquired) conflicts with the reality of his/her body, then the good that a Christian may provide (if trusted and welcomed, that is) is to help the person recover a clearer self-perception, one that aligns with the truth. Grabowski cautions us that this can be a complicated task because of the psychological issues that are often involved.

Drawing upon Scripture and Church teaching, “Unraveling Gender” equips parents, religious educators, and clergy with the information they need to confront this dangerous ideology with clarity, confidence, and charity. As gender ideology continues to spread its errors, infecting our culture like a deadly virus, this book is a must-read for every Catholic.

In 2019, the Vatican rejected the idea that people can change their gender identity. The document, titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” suggests only men and women are sexually complementary, and that changing norms in gender identity contribute to the “destabilization of the family.”

“Unraveling Gender” is less than 200 pages, fully supported by timely and informative references, web links that touch all aspects of Church writings and guidance, and an army of medical, theological, and scholarly evidentiary support. This book, although somewhat uncomfortable to read and digest due to the topic, is a timely, sober, and thoughtful contribution to educating and persuading Catholics everywhere about this new challenge for our faith and moral living.

Note: Many Catholics in the diocese subscribe to “First Things” magazine. Editor Rusty Reno has written an editorial on gender ideology entitled “Transgenderism: Escaping Limits” in the June/July edition; I heartily recommend you read it, in print or online.

—Deacon Rick Bauer

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