“Gender” was a term that was once confined to academic circles but is now part of our vernacular. What Pope Francis terms an aggressive “gender ideology” is not merely a polite synonym for “sex” but is a powerful weapon used in the present global war on marriage and Christian understandings of human anthropology. As an academic who has published in the field of gender studies, I would like to discuss my initial understandings of gender and my personal spiritual journey toward embracing the more integrative Catholic view of sexual differences and complementarity. I have prayerfully reflected on this journey and would like to share some of these insights with the hope that they have implications for the new evangelization.
My sustained interest in gender issues is deeply personal and connected to my own background. My sister and I were raised by a single mother until she remarried when we were in elementary school. My mother served as the main family provider and entered public school administration in order to provide for us. I grew up in a family where my mother performed the “masculine” roles of family breadwinner and school administrator, but she was also a nurturant, compassionate caregiver. Perhaps due to my family environment, I was never drawn to the typically masculine pursuits of participation in team sports and dating, but preferred reading, horseback riding, and involvement in my local parish.
My family environment provided the basis for questioning the naturalness of the roles and behaviors that men and women perform in society. Why is it that certain roles and professions are associated with men and masculinity and not women and femininity? Why is horseback riding considered “feminine” in the United States, but is an acceptably masculine activity in the United Kingdom?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I decided to write my dissertation for a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics on the topic of femininity in Japan. I selected this topic because my impression was that while motherhood and the family are valued in Japan, women are still not regarded as equal to men. For example, women are often objectified in various media and youth and appearance are emphasized over the dignity of their humanity. I conducted interviews with a sample of Japanese women about gender roles in order to gain some insight about gender norms. I won’t go into the details of the research, but the study demonstrates the challenges that Japanese women face as they struggle to balance the often competing demands posed by their professional and domestic roles.
My initial understandings of gender reflect the dominant “gender constructionism” paradigm. This theory distinguishes between biological sex and sociocultural gender and proposes that gender is “performed” or “done” over the course of our lifetimes rather than being stable and innate. Most scholars who subscribe to the framework ignore or diminish sexual differences and instead advocate a position that gender is created in specific social contexts, subject to changes over time, and detachable from biological sex. A dominant trend in the field is to disprove the so-called myth of sexual difference and complementarity and instead demonstrate how individuals are active agents in the creation of their own gender identities, which are not necessarily a reflection of biological sex.
Gender constructionism or “gender ideology” significantly diverges from the Church’s teachings on these matters. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis reminds us that while biological sex and sociocultural sex or “gender” can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. Therefore, while gender norms can vary by culture and shift over time, we can definitively affirm the existence of two sexes and corresponding genders and one form of normative opposite-sex attraction as universal, unchangeable phenomena. Men and women are complementary opposites who unite as “one flesh” in sacramental marriage. They are complementary opposites in the sense that their natural differences make them compatible and thus able to fulfill their own unique vocations as husband, wife, father, and mother.
The dualistic view of human nature stands in sharp contrast to the much more integrative human anthropology taught by Catholicism. Many of us are unaware that we are dualists and thus make a clear demarcation between body and soul. Dualism particularly resonates in American culture because our culture values the quest for self-discovery and manipulation of nature to serve human purposes. For many Americans, the body and human sexuality are not co-existent and complementary, but can be modified and manipulated for the purpose of self-expression. This view is on display in discussions about how biological sex and “gender identity” misalign. An argument is then rendered that this misalignment can be corrected either through surgery (“transsexuals”) or the free expression of one’s “true” gender identity (“transgender”/“queer” individuals). In dualistic anthropology, the interior /spiritual takes precedence over the exterior/material, so one alters and manipulates the exterior to more fully express the interior.
Catholicism proposes a strikingly different and much more holistic anthropology. Bishop Robert Barron uses the term “vibrant paradoxes” in reference to the seemingly inconsistent truths expressed by Catholicism. Most fundamentally, the Incarnation demonstrates how Jesus’ divinity and humanity are not fundamentally separable and incoherent but completely integrative and coherent. Saint Thomas Aquinas famously stated that “the soul is in the body, not as contained by it, but containing it.” Catholicism teaches that gender is not malleable, but is a natural expression of one’s biological sex that is engraved into our being by our Creator. The most fundamental and natural expression of gender unity and complementarity is the fusing of a man and woman as “one flesh” enshrined within sacramental matrimony (Gen 2:24; Matt 19:6). Furthermore, marriages blessed with the gift of new life are a further manifestation of how God inscribes sexual difference and complementarity into our very humanity. In this way, the vocations of marriage and parenthood epitomize Saint John Paul II’s “law of the gift,” a form of selfless, sacrificial love. Jesus Christ offered the most complete expression of self-sacrificial love through offering his life for our redemption (Jn 15:13).
An encounter with a Catholic priest became the catalyst that led me to discover the gap that existed between my own understandings of gender and sex and the truths conveyed by Catholic teachings on these matters. I believe this encounter was an act of grace because it ignited a desire in me not only to recalibrate my own understandings on these matters but also deepen my faith. I came to the realization that personal faith formation should become an integral part of my own prayer life. Since I live in Japan, the most feasible way to increase my knowledge of Catholicism was through prayerful self-study.
In the process of this journey, I have come to the realization that we also need to provide today’s youth with solid Christian role models. The celebrity role models valorized by secular America promote materialistic consumption, self-centeredness, and immoral behavior. These avatars of secularism stand in sharp contrast to the models of manhood and womanhood found in the Bible. In the Holy Family we see a model of self-giving parental love and model response to one’s vocational mission. Saint Joseph and Saint Mary were not concerned about wealth, social status, and material matters but deeply devoted to their faith and fulfilling their roles in God’s divine plan. We need to present our youths with role models that live authentic Christian lives and in the process radiate joy.
One major implication of my personal journey is that while formal faith formation often ends in high school, it is a lifelong process. Despite our busy lives, many of us manage to spend time and energy cultivating physical and mental wellness, but the even more important spiritual dimension of our lives is often neglected. Therefore, I firmly believe that providing future generations of Catholics with solid faith formation is critical in an era that is regrettably becoming post-Christian in many ways. We should praise American individualism for valorizing the uniqueness of individuals. However, we also need to criticize forms of individualism and moral relativism that provide people with the illusion that humans possess the power to define their own existence. Justice Anthony Kennedy once pronounced that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of the human life.” This generation is coming of age in a time when “gender identity” is a choice rather than preordained by God. Public school students are especially susceptible to this erroneous view because their exposure to riches of the Church’s teachings on these matters is confined to weekly religious education classes that often cease after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation.
All faithful Catholics need to mobilize the spiritual weaponry of personal witness and apologetics to fight against these deleterious forces and evangelize our culture. I believe that the best defense against the dominant secular view is not to present this generation with an uncompelling, watered-down version of Catholicism but provide in-depth exposure to the wisdom of the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition. I am convinced that a combination of strong faith formation and solid Catholic role models are pivotal components of evangelization. Through faith formation and living the Gospel, we can convince the youth that the “treasures” of this world are ephemeral rather than eternal. As Saint Augustine famously proclaimed, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. It is only through living a life focused on fostering an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that we can weather the storms of life and satisfy the deepest yearnings of our hearts and souls.
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