Identity and Catholicism

If you don’t believe in essential human nature, why believe human beings are something special? Why not make the way you treat them, like everything else, a matter of power and expediency?

IImage: Jan Kopřiva/Unsplash.com)

Identity pervades Catholic thought. Things are what they are, and that doesn’t change when our way of thinking changes.

A human being is either male or female, and whichever it is stays that way. Similarly, baptism, ordination, and matrimony each have a specific nature that in turn requires (for example) those receiving the sacrament to have a particular identity. I can’t marry another man or the Rock of Gibraltar, and neither the Ford Motor Company nor my niece can be ordained to the priesthood.

Also, the effect of these sacraments becomes part of what a person is. They help define his identity, and that identity sticks. If you’re ordained a priest you become a priest in aeternum, and it doesn’t wear off or depend on changing views or intentions.

Identity likewise pervades Catholic moral thought. When we speak of an act as “intrinsically evil” we mean that it has an intrinsic identity that doesn’t depend on its setting, how someone looks at it, or what he’s trying ultimately to achieve. If someone is trying to get a job and decides to clinch the deal by having a competitor whacked, it’s murder. That’s true even if he intends to do wonderful things in his new career and engages a licensed physician to do the killing. He can’t take a Hollywood actress as his model, and reclassify the act as a praiseworthy vindication of his right “to make a life of [his] own making” in spite of human obstacles by “employing [his] right … to choose when to have [competition], and with whom.”

The principle of identity is not of course limited to Catholicism. It’s part of common sense, and is sometimes stronger in secular than in Catholic thought. And like other basic principles, it sometimes has ambiguities and difficulties of application.

For example, private property is closely connected to identity. To say something is private property is to identify it with its owner, so that its ownership becomes one of its basic features. That is why most people recoil at the notion of theft even when they think they would use the property better than its owner. It seems a violation.

But it also works the other way: when someone is very rich, for example, his property becomes basic to how people think of him, to the extent that it becomes part of his social identity. That’s hard to avoid, just as it’s hard to avoid thinking of someone’s social position as part of who he is if he’s a celebrity or the cop who just pulled you over for speeding.

Catholics mostly go along with such identifications as a practical matter, because they help structure the social world we share with other people. The Bible tells us, for example, to avoid stealing and to honor the king, even when the king is Nero. But we often mitigate them, because we have our own standard for what things and people ultimately are.

So we do not identify material goods so entirely with their owner as to make it theft for a starving man with no other resource to grab and eat a sandwich. And our understanding of human nature does not make wealth and social position part of who we truly are. The Bible warns against respect of persons, and sometimes identity really is a social construction of limited usefulness.

Today the principle of identity has notoriously run into trouble. People don’t know who they are, not even whether they are male or female, and sensitivities on a topic that goes so deep but seems impossible to resolve have multiplied acrimony without much benefit.

One reason for the confusion is that identity has a philosophical dimension: it’s pretty much the same as the Aristotelian idea of essential qualities, the qualities that make something what it is.

Modern thought, as reflected for example in modern technology, rejects essential qualities and thus intrinsic identity and nature as a real feature of objects in the world. Things are what thinking, social convention, practical effects, and the actor’s purposes make them, and it makes no sense to ask what they “really” are.

That change in thought is supported by changes in how life is carried on. To take personal identity seriously is to take your position seriously in a system of loyalties and relationships that you view as basic to your way of life.

Americans usually take the identification of property with its owner rather seriously because the system is basic to our way of life. Similarly, they usually take their citizenship seriously, because the United States government and legal system is also basic for us. When we say “I am an American” we usually mean something by it.

An Afghan might not take his citizenship nearly so seriously, since he might not care about his government. It keeps changing, and his important ties are to his village, clan, and relatives, so why should he feel special loyalty to some people in Kabul?

It’s not just state citizenship that people sometimes reject as part of their identity. Western people today go much farther. They have become convinced that the distinction of male and female should have no significant social consequences. That belief has led many to the belief that it has no ultimate reality and should be left to individual choice. So if I say, “I’m a man”, I’m a man, and if I say, “I’m nonbinary”, I’m nonbinary.

But if the distinction between male and female, which goes back—depending on point of view—to the first days of Eden or the pre-Cambrian seas, lacks objective reality, then all human distinctions lack objective reality. And that seems to be the way people look at things in a bureaucratic and industrial society that treats everything—including human beings—as neutral resources to be managed, classified, and used in accordance with technical criteria and the specific purpose at hand.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that anti-identitarian views have infiltrated the Church. There they play a destructive role. They are dissolving the sacraments, for example, into customs serving particular goals, so that marriage becomes an arrangement to promote goods such as mutual aid. As such, it becomes nonbinding when other ways of advancing those goods seem better, or goods that are more wanted become available.

That view is still excluded as doctrine, but increasingly accepted as a “pastoral” matter. People moralize in its favor: man was not meant for the sacraments but the sacraments for man, so we should go with whatever works for those involved. Any other view would be pharisaical.

But such views go nowhere, if only because treating sacraments as useful fictions destroys their usefulness. A basic function of marriage is reliable mutual assistance. But if it’s a fiction—a way of talking about living together until something else seems better—how can people rely on it?

Other implications of rejecting settled identity are even more alarming. It tells us that—depending on what we want and how we look at things—a man can be a man, an annoyance, or a mass of carbon compounds and water. Within living memory that line of thought has led civilized nations literally to treat human beings as trash or vermin to be disposed of.

After all, if you don’t believe in essential human nature, why believe human beings are something special? Why not make the way you treat them, like everything else, a matter of power and expediency?

Rejection of settled identities that trump considerations of usefulness may seem sensible to moderns but it’s not. Sometimes, as with identification of someone with his social position, it can make sense to be skeptical. But on more fundamental points, like sex and marriage, it’s destructive. And on the most fundamental points, like what is human, it can be altogether catastrophic.

The basic issue is that rationality requires settled categories, so rejecting them means madness. Crazy people can’t run their own lives, so it also means that someone else has to tell us what to do. So we should never follow someone who tells us that two plus two can equal five. He’s either very confused, or he’s trying to destroy our ability to tell truth from falsity and good from evil. Either way, he’s not promoting our good.


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About James Kalb 118 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

15 Comments

  1. Thanks for this well thought-out article. Identity confusion is a serious matter. I hear the the House is now banning gender terms like father, mother, uncle, aunt, grandfather etc. When our legislators lose their collective rational minds, then impose laws to support them, we Catholic citizens are in trouble. I applaud your speaking out in such a sensible, reasonable manner.

  2. Thank you Mr. Kalb for a superb essay, and the truthful statement that man is made for the sacraments.

    And thank you for the truthful statement that men (like “Rev.” Spadaro, SJ, etc etc) who declare that “2 plus 2 = 5” are NOT promoting our good.

    Indeed they are not, which was evidenced by Spadaro’s client, the Pontiff Francis, when he orchestrated and presided over idolatry in Rome in October 2019.

    As to identity, the Pontiff Francis does not identify with Jesus. For men such as him, Jesus and His Church are treated as their personal property, useful to “other” purposes.

  3. Reclaiming Identity
    The Restoration of Self Identity in Christ
    By Todd Cotts

    Self-identity is basically the way one perceives and defines one’s sense of self based on inputs from the world one experiences over time, including inputs from family, media, school, religious institutions, friends, relationships, etc. Self-identity is the way we think about who we are and even what we are, including how we view of our place in the world, how others perceive us, our meaning and purpose, our bodies and minds, our spirituality, our relations with others and society as a whole, our moral values, and everything else that defines “Who and what I am”. Self-identity not only defines who we are, it ultimately determines the way we behave (toward ourselves and others), speak, dress, walk, purchase, etc.

    Our self-identity also determines how we view others, leading us to seek out associations and relationships with others and groups who are most like how we perceive ourselves. This becomes our group identity. It is interesting to observe the power of group identity, which is especially evident in what one purchases, where one shops, how one dresses, the vehicle one drives, the bumper stickers we place on our vehicles, etc. Want to know what one’s self and group identity is? Just check out the bumper stickers on their vehicles, the music they listen to, the color in their hair, the brands and styles of clothing, etc.

    Like all things in the sphere of fallen humanity, identity has been damaged by original sin, and even continues to be stained by sin (concupiscence) when one becomes a Christian through conversion by repentance, faith in Christ and the sacrament of baptism.

    God’s original plan for humanity is revealed in the creation of male and female in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, before the fall, possessed perfect self and group identities. Their perceptions of self were based on their relationship with God and His commandments. Their identity was based on a perfect relationship with God where they experienced His presence and voice in their lives (Genesis 2:8-10). Their identity was based on being made in the image of God, after God’s likeness (Genesis 1:26), of being a living being formed by God and filled with the breath of God (Genesis 2:7-8). It was based on them being created “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), being man and woman (Genesis 2:21-23), and becoming one flesh (Genesis 2:24). It was based on viewing their bodies as created by God, as holy, as good, therefore not being ashamed of their bodies as man and wife (Genesis 2:24). It was based on them being commanded to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). It was based on being given the task of tilling and keeping the garden of Eden that God created (Genesis 2:15). Their identity was based on dietary restrictions as well (Genesis 1:29). Their identity was also shaped by their ability to see all that God created as pleasing and good (Genesis 2:9). Finally, their identity was shaped by the freedom to choose, and their ability to comprehend the commandment of God forbidding them to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and their ability to understand the consequences of disobedience to God’s commandment (Genesis 2:15-17).

    Based on the creation account in Genesis, we find the perfect identity of man and woman to be based on God’s plan for marriage, marital relationship and structure, family, sexual relations, gender, body, diet, labor, laws (especially divine laws), the power of choices (including disobedience to divine laws) and their consequences, and even relationship to creation and other creatures. Are not these the very aspects of identity we see so severely distorted by sin today? The damage done to self-identity (the soul’s view of itself and its relation to the world around it) by sin has led to a distortion and disfiguration of the person’s view one’s relationship to God and His laws, of freedom, of one’s body, one’s gender, marriage, sexual relations, birth, family relationships and structure, obedience and law and order, children, and even the earth.

    Only when the soul is healed through the sanctifying grace of God imparted through conversion, faith in Jesus Christ and the sacrament of baptism, can the old self-identity be healed, that old self. However, although the soul is healed, it must undergo a continual transformation through renewal of the mind and the operation of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1-2), whereby the old nature (identity) is replaced by a new identity in Christ (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9). This continual transformation is a process whereby the damage to identity done by sin is transformed in Christ toward the perfect identity possessed by Adam and Eve before the fall, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). This transformation of identity comes about by new inputs and experiences, aided by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit. These inputs and experiences necessary to transform one’s identity are those we see in the response of the faith of the first Christians in Acts 2:42-47. They include a devotion to the teachings of Scripture and law of God, sacred tradition, and the magisterium of the Church. They include a devotion to fellowship with the Church, a unity with the leaders of the Church and with one another. Central to those inputs and experiences necessary to transform one’s identity is the breaking of bread, a devotion to participate in the Holy Eucharist at Mass at minimum on the Lord’s Day, for it is the Bread of Life that sustains our soul and transforms us as we remember the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ who is the Bread of Life. For the identity to be transformed into that which God originally intended, as we saw in the Genesis account of creation, it is necessary that one be devoted to prayer, for it is through prayer that we commune with God, that we walk with God in the garden of Eden and experience His presence and voice. And finally, for identity to continue transformation, it is necessary to be devoted to community with others who are devoted to the teachings, to fellowship, to Mass, and to prayer, through loving service of one another, looking after the needs of one another, caring for one another as a family of God. When these devotional practices are missing in one’s life, self-identity remains distorted by the former life or becomes tainted and distorted by the inputs of a godless world damaged by original sin, a world that lives according to a distorted perception of self, a humanity that has, in effect, lost its identity.

    Only in Christ can self-identity be healed and restored. Only through a constant relationship with Christ and His body, the Church, is self-identity transformed. Only through the Word of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit can self-identity be renewed into a perception of one’s self as being a child of God, a child of light, a child of righteousness. Only in Christ is self-identity transformed in such a way that how one views one’s self and the world, and behaves toward one’s self and the world, is transformed. Through this transformation, one’s view of his or her relationship with God and His law is transformed, one’s view of his or her body is transformed, one’s view of marriage is transformed, one’s view of family is transformed, one’s view of sexual relations is transformed, one’s view of gender is transformed, one’s view of creation is transformed, one’s view of what is pleasing and good is transformed, one’s view of labor is transformed, one’s view of procreation and children is transformed, one’s view of human dignity and life is transformed, one’s view of freedom is transformed. As our self-identity is healed and transformed in Christ, so shall be the world.

  4. The “rejection of settled identities” is both simple and complicated….The French philosopher, Peguy, linked Christian “identity” doubly, to both human nature (as does Kalb), AND to “rootedness” in human history (“enracinement”)–namely the Classical tradition within which Aristotle discovered (did not simply invent) our underlying AND universal human nature.

    The problem with the modernday, amnesiac Big Lie is not simply that it rejects “categories,” but that it reduces all to quantification and then in place of human nature indoctrinates one all-encompassing, grand-bargain “category”: Evolution!

    But (writes Peguy): “Neither life nor death, neither love nor hate, neither law nor morals [!], neither homeland nor family [!], neither marriage nor children [!], neither salvation nor suffering, and above all neither destitution nor poverty have declined in market value.”

    The abuse de jour–the Big Lie–is to reject BOTH historical rootedness and human nature, finally by redefining Peguy’s real categories (especially anto-binary gender-theory versus male-and-female) with Devolutionary, tribalized, graffitied, half-truth narratives or worse (unsettling/Marxist “categories”).

    This current humanity-abuse is best evidenced by the forked-tongued Supreme Court Justice Kennedy when he FIRST postured that “[t]his definition [traditional marriage] has been with us for millennia, and it’s very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better;” and THEN by issued the courtroom fatwa imposing oxymoronic/gay “marriage” as the ersatz new dispensation while also branding the traditional understanding of marriage, of past millennia (!), as rooted in “homophobia” (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). The lunatics are in charge of the asylum.

    • Rootedness is indeed basic, and so is our relation to God (as Mr. Cotts notes). But one column can only scratch the surface! Thanks for the comments, and maybe another time I’ll say more.

    • Superb observation.

      The “Supreme Court” as “supreme legislature” is a repulsive, tyrannical “self-licking-ice-cream-cone.”

  5. Does identity require tolerance of injustice? “Retired Justice Anthony Kennedy tells David Rubenstein that his majority opinion in the landmark case legalizing gay marriage ‘surprised’ even himself because it went against his religious beliefs. ‘If you make up your mind in advance, you are not following [your] oath,’ Kennedy says on the latest episode of The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” (Interview the University of Virginia Law School 2018 Bloomberg). Kennedy added that you can’t perceive injustice at the time you’re in prophetically referencing today’s ‘systemic racism’ theory. Kennedy known as the man in the middle replaced associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor as the swing vote [a role that Chief Justice Roberts has assumed apparently not on the ground of just deliberation rather on keeping up appearances] perceived justice as the rule in his opinions on homosexual relationships. As a catholic he felt inhibited, as a justice he believed he had to rule in favor of the humiliated tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. James Kalb identifies what identity means for a Catholic, “Identity likewise pervades Catholic moral thought. When we speak of an act as ‘intrinsically evil’ we mean that it has an intrinsic identity that doesn’t depend on its setting, how someone looks at it, or what he’s trying ultimately to achieve”. The counter argument is that this is indeed a justice issue and injustice is evil. Quandary? An insoluble quandary unless the term justice is not defined as a right to introduce social mores that repudiate long standing cultural judgments on right or wrong [as referenced within common law i.e. the Common Law of England]. Kennedy believes the negative judgment [on same sex marriage] is simply historical, whereas Catholics believe [at least should, although most today are devoid of any meaningful catechetical education] same sex is an intrinsic injustice against God’s ordaining of human nature [that ordination of nature imputed as righteousness in common law]. We’re living in a pluralistic democratic society Kennedy forming his opinions in that context. The juridical stance of many Catholics. Nevertheless if Justice is the hallmark of implementation of the civil law that law cannot justifiably abrogate divine law. Our quandary is that we no longer live in a Christian society. Divine law must take precedence. Justice is not a question of equal rights, rather it centers on what is just and right in accord with the Author of justice and right.

    • Government exists to promote the common good. The “gay marriage” ruling attempts to define out of existence a natural and fundamental institution that precedes the state and thus the Supreme Court itself.

      That seems to me a gross injustice that affects everyone. I don’t think we have to talk about any special Catholic, Christian, or cultural rule. We just need human nature and natural law, which all government is bound to respect.

      • Agreed James. Justice Kennedy mistakenly assessed the case as a religious conscience v justice issue. Whereas it’s his Catholicism that should have alerted him to the preeminence of the traditional family, not a same sex relationship as beneficial for the welfare of society. As such the case was instead a justice issue because the State has a compelling interest precisely in protecting the integrity of the traditional family, the primary institution for effecting societal cohesion. And for the mental welfare of the children.

      • Also, if by “cultural rule” you refer to the Common Law I don’t believe you’re correct. The Common Law of England was adopted by most states following independence as their basis for jurisprudence. What we have in England’s Common Law are principles such as habeus corpus, and extensive legal precedent. “An insoluble quandary unless the term justice is not defined as a right to introduce social mores that repudiate long standing cultural judgments on right or wrong, as referenced within common law i.e. the Common Law of England”. Social mores such as sanction levied against abortion, suicide are appealed to in many cases as precedent found in Common Law based judicial rulings. Justice Robert Beezer wrote extensively on the subject of Common Law as legal precedent in Compassion in Dying v The State of Washington. That case argued for physician assisted suicide against the State Washington proscription.

      • A clear grasp and succinct expression of what is at stake in re-defining marriage. The task remains of how to combat most effectively ‘woke’ and postmodernist commitment to irrationality and the disruption of rational discourse promoted in much so-called current education throughout the West.

  6. “We should never follow someone who tells us that two plus two can equal five. He’s either very confused, or he’s trying to destroy our ability to tell truth from falsity and good from evil”. An interesting matter is raised by James Kalb on Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ and his mind boggling 2 + 2 can equal 5. Kalb is right in most cases, although not all. Spadaro qualifies his proposition as within ‘theological discourse’. For example, logical sequence is the universal rule for language, math. Except in moral theology there are exceptions to the rule. Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia refers to mitigation that can change the sequence leading to moral evil. Although I disagree that it can be applied as suggested by Kalb to blur the distinction between good and evil. Let’s look at another instance in moral theology, stealing. Taking from another’s excess unknowingly to the owner – when there is dire need, for example subsistence is not stealing. Although logically the taking conforms with 2+2 = stealing. The principle of the Common Good referred to by Kalb in his response to me applies here as held by Thomas Aquinas and Alphonse Ligouri. Then take the Common Good when exercised with Marxist socialism as it was in the USSR. If the Common Good were at stake Marxist ideologues the rights of the individual can be ignored, or violated. Now within a Democracy consider eminent domain, the [inviolable?] right to own property. Although considered a fundamental principle of natural law, the common good in instances removes that right [for example highway construction]. This is what Spadaro meant. Although as shown, exception can be applied as an unjust rule, as we find in the inevitable conflation of the exception indicated in footnote 351 Amoris.

  7. The artist Isamu Noguchi is a great study in Modernism. The sad human story of Isamu is one of constant alienation and loneliness, his work reflected a deep sublime longing to belong. But like his great lifetime body of works the artistic and cultural roads he explored and his final triumph in understanding his own uniqueness and authenticity as both an artist and a person were revealed to him. So I wonder if in addition to Gen. 1:26 we should also frame our current state of societal schizophrenia as per our Lord’s demonstration of love and patience in Luke 15:11-32? As Noguchi said at the end of his life and career, “The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity {is} not what might be imposed but something closer to its being”. I continue to pray for this world to find its way back to being in the likeness of God, soon.

  8. A clear grasp and succinct expression of what is at stake in re-defining marriage. The task remains of how to combat most effectively ‘woke’ and postmodernist commitment to irrationality and the disruption of rational discourse promoted in much so-called current education throughout the West.

  9. tHIS IS FRESH AIR! We need more minds of this calibre in the contemporary theological arena. This conversation died long time to the extent that our catholic literature no longer write about. Thank you so much.

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