Yesterday, I talked about the problem with what the Church calls “gender ideology,” that is, the belief that human sexual identity is largely or entirely reducible to socially constructed ideas about gender. I also promised that I would talk about why the Church’s teaching on sex and gender should not result in the stigmatization, marginalization or condemnation of gender minorities.
I’m going to tackle this by way of analogy. The Church’s teaching about sexuality, the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God through the somatic structure of the body, male and female, is routinely used as a beating stick against those who, for whatever reason, either cannot or do not conform to the ideas about gender that are encoded without our social structures. What I’d like to do is to look at a different area of Church teaching – and see what the consequences would be if normative statements about humanity generally were universally enforced in a punitive and dogmatic way against marginal minorities.
Specifically, I’m going to look at the teaching on human reason.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that natural reason is “the reflection in man of the splendour of God’s countenance,” that it is “nothing else but an imprint on us of the divine light.” “Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end.” These sayings of Aquinas rise to the level of formal teaching as they are quoted in later encyclicals.
The praise that is poured out on the rational faculty in Catholic teaching is not limited to the writings of Aquinas. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II teaches that “Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy, which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks. According to its Greek etymology, the term philosophy means “love of wisdom”. Born and nurtured when the human being first asked questions about the reason for things and their purpose, philosophy shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself.”
He goes on to the say that “the desire for knowledge is characteristic of all people. Intelligence enables everyone, believer and non-believer, to reach “the deep waters” of knowledge (cf. Prov 20:5).”
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Catholic teaching sees human reason and intelligence as a reflection of the Divine wisdom, a means of participating in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos, an important part of the way in which we are made in God’s image, an essential aspect of human nature, and as one of the primary means by which we come to know and love God.
Because of these beliefs, the Church has constantly defended the exercise of human reason, both against the pessimism of Protestant fideists, and against the despair of those modern and postmodern philosophies which cast doubt on the relationship between reason and truth. She sees the rejection of reason as a rejection of God, and of the divine light that illuminates the heart of the human person.
Okay. So what does this tell us about the ontological and moral status of human beings in whom the rational faculty is impaired, or even non-existent? How do we apply this teaching to humans who have not yet achieved the capacity for reason? How about those who have severe mental illnesses that prevent them from reasoning properly? Those with cognitive disabilities? Brain damage? People in vegetative states? Those born without a frontal cortex?
In such cases, the Church is absolutely adamant: the full humanity of the person must in every and all cases be defended. The person must be accommodated, included, cared for, loved, valued, and treated with inestimable dignity as a beloved child of God, made in His image and likeness. They must never be subjected to violence or contempt as a result of their situation. Indeed, the Church has been at the forefront of the fight to uphold the rights of those whose lack of rational functioning has caused modern rationalists to dismiss them as “unfit,” “sub-human,” “life unworthy of life.”
The Church simultaneously insists on the dignity of human reason, and also on the dignity of humans who are not capable of reasoning. There is no contradiction here, for the simple reason that normative statements made by the Church concern…well, the norm. When John Paul II says that “No-one can avoid this questioning [concerning the meaning of life], neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person,” he is not literally making a statement about every human being. He’s not talking about babies that die at 2 weeks of gestation, before the brain has even started to develop. He’s not talking about people born with severe brain damage. He may not even be talking about my autistic son, who so far shows no interest in learning language and whose rational functions mostly seem to be dedicated to learning TV theme songs and lining up dinky cars in very neat rows. Indeed, if you add up all of the humans who live and die without ever being cognitively capable of asking the Big Questions, you find that JPII’s statement is actually inapplicable to a very substantial segment of the human population. Clearly, the encyclical is talking about a reality that pertains to humanity generally, not setting up a condition for being considered fully human.
Now, this is where we need to pause for a moment. It’s not so long ago, actually, that we did see a very unfortunate idolatry of reason – not only in secular institutions, like the ones that sterilized “mental defectives,” but also within Catholic educational institutions. The use of the dunce cap and other mechanisms of shame or punishment against children with learning disabilities, cognitive delays or neurological conditions, was widespread until quite recently in both secular and religious schools. The belief that human reason was best exemplified within European systems of thought functioned as one justification for atrocities committed against non-Europeans, including the establishment of residential schools for Native American children. These evils seemed justifiable because of an excessive focus on intellectual and rational functioning, over and against the totality of the person and their inalienable dignity as a child of God.
Today, it seems to me, we make the same error with respect to gender minorities. In order to uphold the dignity of human sexuality, male and female, we end up resorting to unjustifiable forms of shame and coercion against those who cannot achieve the norm. In the absence of compelling evidence for the causation of gender dysphoria, Catholics uncharitably assume that it must be caused by sin or mental illness – often stridently dismissing the perfectly reasonable possibility that there may be hormonal or neurological causes. Trans people and gender-non-conforming people are denied accommodation and inclusion under the assumption that if they really tried and really gave their lives to God, they would be able to function as cisgenders. Just as atypical neurological and cognitive functioning were once routinely ascribed to sloth, today, gender atypicality is routinely ascribed to lust. The result, in both cases, is violence against the person and a grave lack of charity towards vulnerable individuals and communities.
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