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Male and Female
Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic. It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality. For Gnosticism ‘by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery’, whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of other’s lives.
Speaking on the subject of sexuality can be done from the vantage point of the Church in a pastoral, accessible manner. However, that approach, which is accessible, is rooted in a heavy philosophical foundation. This philosophical science (metaphysics and philosophical anthropology) helps us establish some principles that are fundamentally debated in our own day. It is interesting to note, for instance, that even atheistic evolutionists are espousing “form” in a similar sense to St. Thomas Aquinas today in regard to man’s nature. These philosophical foundations are becoming important to express, and recently Rome submitted a document that did just that.
The position of the Church is at times perceived to be solely based upon some appeal to biblical authority. Gnostics do not operate in the notion that ethics and design can be sciences; rather these matters are merely reduced to some personal abstraction and conviction. It may be rooted simply in their own experience of the affections they uphold, or convictions that exist as a biproduct of the culture they belong. This is often what is stated as “my truth.” Such a statement insulates themselves from any body of reason that might hold one’s personal concept of themselves and the world accountable to reason.
I do not have a problem with the position that the Bible is an authority, and I understand why those without faith would reject it as a source of wisdom. I would completely disagree with such an assessment, but how can scripture really be understood without a hermeneutic of faith? I would say, however, that the Church accompanies the biblical wisdom with a systematic philosophical approach, which ought to be proposed and addressed. Thus, as I write on the subject of sexual anthropology, I think its important to submit the findings of the Thomistic Tradition as they offer some helpful distinctions, to those who are open to a non-gnostic approach.
The Spiritual Problem with Gnosticism
The gnostic approach is a type of prideful side-stepping of reason and science. It places “my truth” as the ultimate definitive source of judgement above the compositional nature of creation. What I mean by “compositional” is the form and material configuration of things. While it is unpastoral to “side-step” (dismiss) one’s subjective experience of reality, a good philosophy nonetheless will stress the humility that is necessarily involved in allowing one’s subjective experiences and prejudices to be submitted to reality. Our mind is measured by reality, not our mind measuring reality - at least in the Thomistic approach. Thus, it is in that vein, that I would suggest we examine the non-gnostic approach of St. Thomas Aquinas who does just this in regard to human sexuality.
The Philosophical Examination of Gender/Sex
St. Thomas Aquinas did not believe that sexuality could be considered a part of the human person’s “essence.” For many, the term “essence” can mean something like “very important” or “can’t do without it.” But the term essence to St. Thomas Aquinas was far more refined than this. To St. Thomas Aquinas, the “essence” of a human person was that mankind was a “rational-animal.” These two terms encompass all sorts of things that are indeterminate, such as the the type of gender or personality, etc.. So while this definition implies that gender exists, it does not define male or female as part of the definition of human-being. In this sense, whether you were male or female, you were nonetheless a “rational-animal.” Many people hear the term “rational” and conflate it with some impersonal activity of thinking and knowing. To St. Thomas Aquinas it meant a lot more than that - it implied love, relationship, voluntary behavior, and friendship.
Today, the Church exists in a time where people actively disparage the Church’s position on human sexuality as unintelligible, and unloving. So it may be helpful to examine St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical principles about sexuality (not his underdeveloped biology), as they tend to place human sexuality in its proper context.
Contrary Positions: Sexual Relativism
What we see in the realm of sexual relativism is an excessive deepening of one’s sexuality. That is to say, sexuality as perceived by each individual person is internalized as their own essence or their own identity. Labels, in which the letters of the LGBTQ2+ signify identity on the level of essence. Rather than taking the position that humanity’s disposition to know and love are at the center of his identity, one’s affective perception of reality, physiological desires, and the agreement of others in regard to these notions are pivotal. Yet the essence wasn’t based upon composition of matter and form, but subjectivity of the affect (gnosticism).
Responding to this View
St. Thomas Aquinas taught, however, that our human sexuality is “accidental.” He clarified that this was necessary insofar as man and woman do not belong to a different species. Yet, when we examine each person in a distinct category without the foundation of humanity as the essence, we end up fracturing the human family. Rather than allowing the composition of a human-being and its configuration to reveal its relational union with other human beings, private gnostic knowledge isolates individuals into camps. This ultimately generates a type of radical individualism. Yet as such individualism is radicalized, it forms a community around this false value - a type of liberation from nature, and a celebration of undisciplined subjectivity. There is something important to dwell on here; first St. Thomas is expressing an intimate unity between men and women - we belong to the same family. The state of human-nature is not “war” but rather a type of difference that ends up being complimentary. What unites us is our spiritual/rational-soul, enabling us to share the same purpose, and essential nature. Sexuality as something non-essential, therefore is seated and understood properly in this context.
To St. Thomas Aquinas there were three types of “accidents” that could apply: 1) Proper Accidents, 2) Inseparable Accidents, and 3) Separable Accidents.
A “proper” accident is defined as something that is necessary in every instance of that being. For instance, the essence of a Triangle is that it is a three-sided, enclosed object. Its property is that as a result of it being a three-sided, enclosed object, it has a sum of 180 degrees. As such, the 180 degree of angle does not cause the Triangle to be a triangle, but follows directly from the “form” of a Triangle. To St. Thomas Aquinas, this simply wasn’t the case for human sexuality (male or female). That man would be male or female is necessary, but whether man is female or male is a separate question. And its that question that implies man’s sexuality is not a property of his being.
A “separable” accident is something that can at any moment be “separated” from a being. For instance, I can change a triangle’s color by simply painting it or on my computer, configuring it differently. In either case, it is still a Triangle, and it is still 180 degrees in the sum of its angles. To St. Thomas Aquinas, this didn’t describe human sexuality because it would suggest one’s sex was as simple the color of skin, the length or color of one’s hair. In other words, sexuality is something fixed, not something that changes. Perhaps the argument can be asserted by appealing to the genetic make up of most humans which is XY/XX.
An “inseparable” accident seemed to be the best category for human sexuality to St. Thomas Aquinas. While it wasn’t a property, it also was not something that could be changed. Once the sex was determined, it could not be changed, as it concretely manifests in the particular configuration of the body, with specific operations/designated ends. This would also be determined at conception because at the moment of “individuation” (that is when a thing becomes its own thing), it would have a very specific configuration. Such a configuration wasn’t without purpose, but it would be a purpose integrated into the whole of a thing. I.e. human sexuality is meant to be integrated into the rational dimension of man, as well as his senses, and generative nature.
This certainly seems insufficient in exploring the beauty and goodness of human sexuality. St. John Paul II builds off of this notion of human sexuality, in integrating the theological implications of the Body; and its Trinitarian, social configuration, which in part entails humanity’s sexuality.
The point remains, though, that today it would seem as if people would suggest that our sexuality is a matter of both being “essential” and “separable.” It would be essential according to one’s “truth” (‘gender’/subjective perception/disposition/self-concept), but it would be separable in so far as one is addressing the bodily configuration (sex). In both cases, this anthropology finds itself in absurdity.
If one’s essential nature is determined by a self-concept, it implies that our mental state determines “what” I am. This reverses the order of scientific discovery, which is not rationalistic, nor gnostic. There is also a disconnect between the material configuration of one’s self, and one’s actual identity. No longer is “what I am” as body an important question. The “self-concept” is not subordinate to “composite” reality, nor is one called to surrender to the operations that are tangibly noted. While there is a dimension where this notion of identity may not be voluntary, there is nonetheless the capacity to respond to an affectual disposition with science to hold it accountable. This is not sought in sexual relativism, because that which dictates “my truth” is the affect, rather than composite reality.
Ultimately this means that a person who rejects their sexual operations, actually rejects a dimension of their “whatness” in two respects. First, a rejection of “what they are” as a composite being occurs by denying the designation or end of the various accidental dimensions of one’s sexual complimentary nature. This would apply to individuals who use contraception, as in that very act they would be suspending the natural operation of their procreative dimension. If procreation is considered a dimension of one’s identity as an “animal” contraception thereby actually rejects that dimension of the self. While that particular gender becomes individuated in the person, we can understand it as relating as a determinate dimension of one’s animal-identity. Thus where contraception is used in an act of sexual intimacy, one is actually rejecting themselves. Yet that rejection is not merely a matter of rejecting an accidental dimension. Additionally, it is an affront to something more essential to the human person: veracity.
The human person is made for union with truth; and the deepest harm here is not necessarily one’s sexual identity, but rather the uprooting of one’s most basic and fundamental call to be docile to truth. When considering that man is an “animal” alone, we lose sight of man’s rational dimension, which is the specific difference between animals and man. This additional dimension, essential to mankind, implies that man has a dimension which ontologically is fixed to the truth. Where sexual relativism applies, the human person puts their affect at the center of the universe and makes composite being “bend” by way of simply willing. This approach to knowledge thereby contradicts the rational dimension of man’s nature. This is why we see people insisting, to a vulgar degree, that others accept their own personal narrative of identity, because what they will, they expect others to submit to. In this way, man does not place truth at the center to which we bend, but rather reality is meant to bend to our wills, rather than ratio. Classically this is the definition of the deadly sin of pride whereby man unreasonably seeks greatness. In this sense, man becomes the author of truth, rather than its discoverer. My mind measures (determines reality), rather than reality correcting and teaching my mind.
Pastorally, care and concern should accompany those individuals who struggle with a conflict between their bodily identity, and their affectual divergencies from that composite configuration. Accompaniment, however, cannot enable a false narrative, but must stress the essence of the person, who is dignified. This is the classical distinction between the “law of gradualism” and the “gradualism of the law.” The natural law always applies, but the Church recognizes that for all of us, it often involves a patient and understanding process to understand, apprehend, and surrender to in a positive and joyful manner. In this way, sexuality is not the starting point, but rather veracity. And as such, veracity involves friendship, whereby in community we seek the Logos together. Without friendship, regardless of one’s fallen-dispositions, it becomes a miserable and impossible task to align ourselves to the reality about ourselves, God and others. This seems to all imply that the Church should encourage speculative virtues to be taught before examining sexual identity, or any ethical matter. In the classical education, speculative virtues should be taught prior to any ethical application. Today we would simply call this critical thinking or Aristotelian logic. This will also help children learn to regulate their emotions in a manner that asks, “Does this emotion match reality, or do I have an attitude that requires adjustment?”
Further, where this foundation is established, one ought to seek the alignment of one’s voluntary dimension of “self-concept” as far as possible to the composite reality for specific motives. First, for the glory and justice of God. God has created us wonderfully, and to reject His creation and its designated ends is to rip up, rearrange, and desecrate the incredible gift of our good nature. We fail to internalize who we actually are, and internalize an erroneous subjective identity. For those who love God, they will understand the heart breaking dimension of rejecting God’s order and loving work of creation. Second, this is sought for the good of the community. There are practical dimensions which support the community in embracing one’s sexual designation and operations, whereby civilization and healthy relationships are restored. But further, it aligns civilization to a docile approach to Truth rather than the hubris of a dictatorship of relativism. Such a dictatorship places the will, disjointed from the supremacy of ratio in the ordering of the will’s operation. This seeking of truth, alternatively preserves the temperament of a culture which is seated in veracity. To say that one cooperates with their inborn nature to be oriented toward truth is more essentially what it means “to be human.” This existentialist position which submits composite reality to one’s will is ultimately the opposite of cooperating with veracity. Finally, it is relevant and good for the individual, whereby they will come to embrace and accept themselves as they truly are. Thus, a genuine acceptance of God, creation and the individual is the agenda of the Church here, despite what the doctrine is accused of.
There needs to be an integration of these “three purposes” for promoting a humble sexual anthropology. As believers we begin from the standpoint of a relationship with God. If we cannot honor Him first, our honor of human beings will be selective and unjust. God intends that we honor Him, by respecting those to whom He has created in His likeness. Thus we cannot find ourselves honoring God without honoring those in Him image. The individual needs particular care, and should not be reduced to some mere vehicle for societal change. In doing so, we end up “using individuals” in a pastoral effort to make a political point. In this way we fail to accomplish the common good, where our will is oriented towards the good of all, including God’s glory. This all inclusive approach is the Catholic approach, whereby we seek the objective good for the sake of all.
“Gnostics largely eschew reason and rely on the secret knowledge they claim to possess to understand and evaluate reality and truth. Some humans have a spark of the divine (spirit) trapped within them that is capable of redemption….”
John Grabowski, Unraveling Gender: The Battle over Sexual Difference, pg. 111.