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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