Making sense of sex and gender, continued
A Pillar Interview - Part II
Gender has become simultaneously one of the most talked about and most taboo subjects in our culture.
The rise of the transgender-rights movement as a social and political force, together with a rise in the number of young people identifying themselves as outside the “gender binary” has left many people and institutions struggling to make sense of where we are, and how we got here.
To address those questions, Charlie Camosy spoke recently with two academics about gender, sex, and the Church’s pastoral ministry.
Abigail Favale, Ph.D., is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.
A Catholic convert with an academic background in gender studies, Favale is a frequent writer and speaker on topics related to women and gender from a Catholic perspective. Her latest book is “The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory,” released in June.
John Grabowski, Ph.D., teaches moral theology at The Catholic University of America, specializing in theological anthropology, virtue ethics, marriage, and sexuality.
His latest book, “Unravelling Gender: The Battle over Sexual Difference” was published in March.
This week, they talked with Charlie Camosy about how they’ve decided to navigate some cultural issues surrounding gender identity.
In thinking about how to respond to what we discussed last week, I wonder if we can pick up on Dr. Favale’s focus on “positive accounts of what it looks like to flourish as a man or as a woman, accounts that resist stereotypes and show the manifold ways to live out one’s sex meaningfully in the world.”
Can you both offer more specifics about this?
Maybe particularly in light of your experiences teaching young people who are likely to be skeptical of your point of view?
For me a key point of reference in thinking about this question is an important clarification that Pope Francis offers in Amoris laetitia, no. 56: “It needs to be emphasized that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’”
So, there is validity in recognizing gender as culturally informed variation in expressing biological sex. Different cultures and different historical moments have diverse expectations for what it means to live out the reality of being a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, and that’s okay. Most of these cultures also have some room for individual variation.
What we can’t do is introduce a hard separation between the sexed body and this cultural expression. That is exactly what gender ideology calls for—a disconnect or hard separation between a self-articulated gender identity and the body.
I think an immediate application of Pope Francis’s point is apparent in the language which the Church uses. When Church teaching speaks about living the reality of sexual difference it generally speaks of specific vocations which actualize distinct gifts (or a unique genius) possessed by each sex. In other words, only men can be husbands or fathers (both biological or spiritual). Only women can be wives and mothers (whether physical or spiritual).
For example, both John Paul II and Pope Francis have pointed out that motherhood is a specific actualization of women’s distinctive gift of person-centeredness—though, obviously, women have other distinctive gifts as well. We have more work to do in identifying and encouraging men to live out their genius as fathers.
Where this gets distorted, and where the college students whom I teach rightly become skeptical, is when this language of vocations and gifts gets collapsed into rigidly defined cultural assumptions about gender roles. This collapse can be seen among some more fundamentalist Protestant Christians or some Catholic trads.
In this view there are sharp, biblically mandated gender roles and any deviation from them—like families with working mothers or stay at home fathers—is a capitulation to the culture or to secular feminism. Ultimately, this approach does not offer a good reading of scripture or a very informed reading of history.
I agree with John about the danger of translating the mystery of sexual difference into rigidly defined gender roles. There is a reactionary backlash against feminism in some Catholic circles right now. I regularly critique the flaws of feminism in my own work, but the answer isn’t a retreat into regressive stereotypes and norms that go above and beyond Church teaching into a kind of pharisaical fundamentalism.
I find the work of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a.k.a Edith Stein, to be very helpful here. She discusses the relationship between nature and vocation along three dimensions. First, the human dimension: men and women are both fully human, and thus together share in the full range of human gifts and potentialities. Both are fully rational; each can acquire the same virtues. On this level, there is great similarity and overlap between the sexes.
The second dimension is sexual difference: along this plane, men and women differ. They are not complete opposites, but asymmetrical. This asymmetry is rooted in sexed embodiment. A man and a woman are distinct incarnations of being-human. It’s possible to have conversations here about sex differences in general, keeping in mind, again, that the sexes are not cartoonish opposites. Our biological capacities for motherhood (and for men, fatherhood) do have spiritual implications, because we are both material and spiritual beings. But how that singular wisdom is cultivated and lived out in the world will differ from person to person.
This brings us to the third dimension: the nature of the individual; an individual woman’s femininity might be lived out in a way that is not typical for women in general, and that’s just fine. Keeping these three dimensions in mind allows us to hold onto both sameness (our shared human nature) and difference (differences between men and women, and differences among men and women).
Catholics who want to honor the truth about sex and gender, but who also want to be sensitive to the needs and perspectives of our brothers and sisters who identify as trans, often need to walk a tricky path.
In everything from virtual calls and name tags which ask for your pronouns, to formal requests from a trans-identifying person (or an administrative power acting on their behalf) to speak and behave as if something you believe to be false is true, there are new and fraught decisions which didn’t exist even just a few years ago.
How do you navigate these decisions?
While I think there is some room for prudential judgment, especially in pastoral settings—in general, I think it is important to use reality-based language.
The more I have studied “gender identity theory,” (the belief that gender is based on subjective self-perception, rather than rooted in the sexed body), the clearer it becomes that the scaffolding of this framework is linguistic.
It requires us to use words in a way that conflicts with material reality. That is why there is so much emphasis on linguistic conformity; the plausibility of gender identity theory depends upon our linguistic participation. And because social affirmation can be a gateway to invasive, irreversible medicalization, the stakes are high, especially when we’re talking about young people. I think the prospect of our complicity should weigh on us.
Because of this, I often opt for quiet non-conformity. If asked to put pronouns on a name tag, or in a Zoom meeting, etc., I will simply neglect to do so. If asked directly and pointedly, I might explain that I have a conscientious objection to the claim that my gender is a “preference,” but in case anyone’s confused, I am a “she.”
In interpersonal interactions, it’s actually pretty easy just to use someone’s name and avoid pronouns altogether. And I’m happy to use any name someone gives me, in most situations.
An exception to this would be if I were the parent of a young person who wanted to socially transition and asked me to adopt his or her chosen name and pronouns. In this instance, I think it is crucial for parents to maintain reality-based boundaries.
Adolescents need to push against boundaries; they need to explore and question and wrestle. But parents need to lovingly and patiently hold certain boundaries during that process of exploration, and keep some guard rails up.
Results from a 2020 study of the psychological effects of social affirmation found that the quality of family and peer relationships, but not social transition status, was predictive of psychological functioning.
In other words, providing gender-questioning young people with love and support does not require affirming their perceived gender identity per se. These findings corroborate a study from 2019 that compared socially transitioned children with gender non-conforming children who had not socially transitioned.
I’ve gotten phone calls from former doctoral students I’ve taught who are now teaching at different Catholic institutions around the country asking this question. I think that the key is responding to the person or the situation with both charity and truth.
For me this means if a student shows up in my class and asks to be called by some other name than the one on their official student record, I will happily do that. After all, I invite all my students to let me know if they have a preferred name or nickname. Many names can be applied to both sexes even if one usage is more common.
However, I will not use pronouns that obviously contradict the bodily reality of the person in front of me. I think that would be participating in a falsehood and that would be wrong on my part and not charitable to the person making the request—no matter how sincere.
I also will not use one of the newly invented sets of pronouns favored by some trans persons (e.g., Ze/Zir/Zirs, Ey/Em/Eirs, Mx) for similar reasons. But the basic point is that words are meant to convey reality and to do so truthfully. Doing violence to language and reality is not a good way to address the pain of someone struggling with gender dysphoria.
The Church as an institution also has a tricky path to walk here as well.
Again, we need to honor all with the love of Christ, a love which privileges those who are suffering, those on the margins, and especially those who are suffering on the margins.
How can Catholic institutions–and in particular Catholic schools–both honor our duty to love as Christ did, while also honoring the truth about sex and gender?
Catholic institutions can’t just say “no” to gender identity theory. They also have to articulate a positive vision of human personhood and commit to a path of accompaniment with people who experience gender incongruence.
In response to “gender affirmation,” we must offer whole-person affirmation. We must clearly and emphatically and repeatedly affirm the belovedness of each human person: you are infinitely loved. Everyone needs to hear this. We also need to affirm the goodness and gift of the human body, even in the context of physical suffering and limits, which signal our interdependence on one another and our ultimate dependence upon God.
We also need to affirm the unique gift of each individual, and foster the development of each person’s singular personality. We need to listen, with compassion, to the complex experience of the individual–especially the desires and needs that have brought them to accept gender identity theory.
We need to walk alongside the person, with patience and humility, and a sense of reverence for the mystery within each person that is only known by God. Yet we also need to listen, as Edith Stein puts it, to the voice of nature and the voice of God.
The process of accompaniment, Pope Francis makes clear, is a pilgrimage, not a circular path of self-absorption–-it’s a journey with a destination, into deeper knowledge of God, and that requires walking with fidelity to Christ, who accompanies us, even as we are accompanying one another.
I think Pope Francis once again provides some key insights here. If you read his teaching, you will find both warnings against weaponizing Church teaching against individual persons by turning it into “dead stones” to be hurled at others (Amoris Laetitia, no. 49; cf. no. 38) and long and very pointed critiques of current expressions of ancient heresies like Pelagianism (see Gaudette et exsultate, nos. 47-62) or Gnosticism (Gaudette et exsultate, nos. 36-46).
In other words, persons need to be encountered with love and mercy. False and destructive sets of ideas need to be opposed and defeated.
People struggling with gender discordance need people of faith to encounter them, listen to them, and accompany them in love and friendship grounded in truth. Gender ideology, as a 21st century expression of Gnosticism, needs to be exposed for the false and illusory path to human flourishing that it is.
At the same time, scripture and the teaching of the Church have a rich and beautiful articulation of the meaning of the sexed body to offer — one which coheres well with contemporary science and medicine. This is nowhere more evident than in the theology of the body catecheses articulated by Saint John Paul II.
These reflections teach us that the body is not a screen on which to project an identity, but a window into the depths of the person. Since the body’s meaning is disclosed fully in self-gift, its deepest meaning is spousal, pointing us toward the communion of love in whatever state in life to which we are called.
It is crucial that Catholic schools communicate this vision in all of its fullness because it offers a life-giving alternative to the many competing distortions to which children and young people are exposed. But that vision is meant to be an invitation to mercy and healing for all who hear it—not a weapon to be deployed against those who are hurting.
It takes courage to express some of these views. In so many contexts – from a high school or college classroom, to a morning meeting with the sales team – publicly affirming views like the ones you’ve articulated in these two interviews can make one an immediate pariah.
Any advice for those who would like to follow your lead?
In particular, have you found any best spiritual practices for building up this kind of courage?
That’s an interesting question and for me somewhat surprising. This is in spite of writing about our very fraught gender politics and efforts to “cancel” people who speak out against gender ideology in the book. And the book has gotten a bit of a backlash: The publisher has been afraid to list it on Amazon, and the company’s efforts to buy advertising on social media sites or tech platforms have been rejected.
Nonetheless, I don't see taking on this topic primarily as a demonstration of courage.
For me, doing this book now was more about obedience. This was the area of my dissertation research 30+ years ago and I had always intended to go back to it in book form. I was actually planning to write a book on another subject when one day in prayer I felt the Lord nudge me and say, “this is the time to revisit that topic.”
Looking at the continued trajectory of the culture seems to confirm the discernment in terms of the book’s timing. So, for best spiritual practices, I would say just to pray and “do whatever He tells you.” Trying to speak truthfully about the Christian message and give witness to the hope it provides, is always countercultural–a “sign of contradiction.” It’s just that now we are experiencing this pushback in offering a Christian vision of the body person.
This is such a good question—one that I am actively learning how to navigate. So I am not yet a seasoned expert. When writing and speaking about this topic, I feel like I’m walking a narrow ridge, trying to balance compassion with truth-telling.
For the truth-telling, I draw on my inner contrarian, my rebel feminist self that gets a thrill out of swimming upstream. For the compassion, I draw on my mama-heart, the heart that can see every single human person as precious and deserving of love. I need to keep these forces in balance, but I’m constantly wobbling and making missteps.
I also get discouraged regularly, overwhelmed with the sense that this is too big for me, I’m not strong enough to take this on.
This happened to me this past weekend, so after Mass, I went up to this side altar to light a candle and offer an angsty prayer. It was my first time at this particular altar (new parish); I kneel down and look up to see Mary looming over me, looking down with tenderness, and she’s flanked by St. Agnes on her right and St. Rita to her left. Near St. Agnes is an icon of St. Catherine of Alexandria. They’re all just staring at me, and I suddenly feel surrounded by my mothers in the faith—all these incredible, valiant, recklessly devoted women who have faced far greater adversity than I ever have.
So I entrust myself to their intercession and above all to Mary. That’s my main spiritual practice: entrustment to Mary.
I also got a big tattoo of Joan of Arc on my arm, but that’s not for everyone.