The French Revolution began in 1789 inspired by the noble ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and in the first months of revolutionary fervor many old injustices were redressed, including not a few caused or excused by the Church. But in short order things began to go badly wrong, and grave new injustices soon replaced the old ones.
What started as a search for freedom degenerated into totalitarian repression enforced with violent brutality against anyone with the temerity to question the dictates of the revolutionary government, a regime which proclaimed itself to be based on pure reason but which was in fact too often grounded in the basest corruptions of the human heart.
And one of the reasons for the Revolution’s tragic descent into barbarism is that the intellectual architects of the French Enlightenment, despite their earnest search for true knowledge, had also embraced several falsehoods about the human person, in part because of their visceral contempt for biblical religion. The enlightened sages taught mistaken ideas about human nature which in turn shaped revolutionary policies that eventually organized society against man by attempting to organize society without God.
And that, in part, is why what began with idealism ended with savagery.
For example, one of the fathers of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot, expressed his contempt for Christianity with candor: Men will never be free, he said, until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. And the eminent philosopher Voltaire sought to destroy the Church by encouraging his countrymen, as he put it, to crush the infamous thing.
And so Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was desecrated and turned into a temple for the veneration of the goddess of reason, and Christianity was officially replaced in the French Republic by the Cult of Reason. And as a further sign of contempt for biblical religion, the seven day week derived from the creation account of Genesis was replaced with a scheme of decimal time based on a ten day week in which each day had 10 hours and every hour had 100 minutes.
All of the Church’s property was confiscated, and where religion was permitted at all, it was only as a department of the state. The de-Christianization of France was enforced with murderous ferocity, and to this day the public life of France is marked by the continuing struggle to come to terms with the explosion of hatred for the God of the Bible which was at the heart of the French Revolution.
I begin with these thoughts today because last week in Washington, the United States House of Representatives passed something called the Equality Act by a margin of eighteen votes. If passed by the Senate, this legislation will amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gender identity among the personal qualities protected by law. And contained in the Equality Act is a provision that prevents the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act from allowing religious communities or persons to insist on exceptions to the new law to guarantee our natural human right to religious liberty, acknowledged and protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Equality of persons before the law is a noble ideal to which all reasonable people should aspire, but when false ideas about the human person are embedded in law, then terrible injustice will follow just as it did in the French Revolution. And in the case of the Equality Act, the falsehood in question is found in the novel claim that the human person is a disembodied intellect and will possessing a bundle of desires which can determine the gender identity of the individual and then define the meaning of the body with the force of law, both for oneself and for everyone else, without any reference to biological sex.
If this construal of human nature is enshrined in law by the Equality Act, then any custom or practice anywhere in the United States which connects human identity or activity to biological sex will become illegal,. Activists will immediately begin to use the judicial branch of government to enforce obedience to the claim that God did not create the human race male and female and that the objective genetic differences of male and female are entirely irrelevant to human life.
In a very short time, every religious institution in this country could find itself forbidden by the state to run schools, hospitals, or charitable activities of any kind unless we are willing to agree that men can become women, that women can become men, and that girls should be permitted even before puberty to change themselves with surgery and chemicals into boys and vice versa. In due course, single sex bathrooms and locker rooms will be illegal, and if the revolutionaries prevail, then even celebrating the sacraments such that only one man and one woman can make a marriage or that only a baptized man can become a priest or bishop will become civil crimes.
If this sounds like science fiction to you, then think how hard it would have been to convince the Archbishop of Paris in 1788 that the Catholic Church in France, which had shaped the life of that nation for more than a thousand years, was just about to be nearly wiped out of existence. And yet so it was. In the explosive riots of last summer we saw graphic evidence of what the revolutionary Left will do to have its way, and the Equality Act is no less a tool of the revolutionary Left than a Molotov cocktail.
Replacing the seven day week with decimal time will seem calm and reasonable by comparison to surgically altered men competing with biological women in every sport. And desecrating churches and cathedrals, which is already happening in too many places, will be insignificant next to the desecration of the temple of the body which will first be enabled for minor children and then required even against the opposition of their parents.
Now, make no mistake: gender dysphoria is real, and for the those who experience it, life can be miserable. Professionals of every relevant discipline should help those with gender dysphoria to find a path to peace in their lives, and we should all be compassionate, patient, and understanding of those who feel existentially out of place in their own bodies and extend to them the same respect we give to all persons, every one of whom should be protected by law from genuine injustice.
But compassion, understanding, and respect cannot include our agreement to the false claim that gender is a purely personal preference and cultural construct disconnected from the biological sex of the body, and so the Church must oppose the so-called Equality Act not because this legislation seeks equality of persons before the law but because it denies an essential truth of human nature and does so in a way that seeks to compel everyone to accept the claim that the emperor’s new clothes are magnificent or else face the wrath of the state’s awesome power to compel obedience by the threat of financial ruination or even imprisonment.
Now given that we have come to this moment only after centuries of civilizational change spanning the globe and involving the radical transformation of religion, philosophy, law, politics, and the very idea of what it is to be human, what can we possibly do to resist this new injustice? Well, we can live in the truth. To be disciples of Jesus Christ we must abide in the Word of God; we must know the truth, and love the truth, and live the truth, and speak the truth to others. Only in this way does the truth set us free from slavery to sin and death, and precisely for this freedom, Christ set us free by his suffering, death, and Resurrection.
The things I have just said are already condemned as hate speech by the mandarins of academic life, journalism, entertainment, Big Tech, woke corporations, and political activism, and this false charge of hate speech makes it all the more urgent that Christians always speak the truth in love and never from anger, resentment, arrogance, or contempt for other people, no matter what their opinion of Christianity may be.
But speak the truth we must, no matter the cost.
We must proclaim the truth of the eternal Word of God, the Word who was made flesh, the Word who united our human nature to his divine nature in the womb of his virgin Mother Mary and was made man so that he could take upon himself the weight of all human misery and selfishness and then liberate us from the everlasting death of all the lies told by the father of lies.
Although I have attempted to speak today with charity and with clarity, there are some who will be wounded or enraged by my words, and to them I say this: the only hope of the human race for the perfect peace and eternal freedom which our hearts crave is found in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. He and he alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and by living in the light of his Gospel, we find the strength to endure the often painful struggle to understand our bodies and affirm their goodness even as we learn to govern their passions and transcend their limits, including in the midst of suffering. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and in the Lord Jesus, in the Eternal Word made flesh, we lose nothing authentically human. Open your hearts to Christ, and find the healing you seek.
At the Transfiguration of Christ about which we read today, the uncreated light of divine glory shone forth from the human body of the rabbi from Nazareth to give courage in the darkness to all who follow him in the Way of the Cross on the road to his Resurrection. And as with Peter, James, and John after the Passover of the Lord, we are called to proclaim with our words and with our lives, with our minds and with our bodies, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
(Note: This essay was originally given in slightly different form as a homily on February 28, 2021, the Second Sunday of Lent.)
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