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This, Too, Reveals God: Sex and the Body in Catholic Theology

The Church on January 6 celebrates the great feast of the Epiphany of the Lord (or Theophany, as our Byzantine brethren call it [i]): the revelation of God to the nations and peoples of the world, represented by the three wise men who, guided by divine Providence, walked from the darkness of paganism to the Light of the one and only Savior of mankind. In this Epiphany scene, we see the diversity of the Church in nucleo: mother, father, baby, and their extended family; queen, guardian, king, and courtiers; Jews and Gentiles, paupers and princes, the lowly and the lofty. At the most basic level, we see human beings, men and women, whose identities and functions were not assigned at random and cannot be exchanged ad libitum.

Looking at the familiar scene of the Holy Family, we might ask an unexpected question: how does God reveal Himself to us in masculinity and femininity themselves?

In recent years, Catholic and secular schools alike have hosted endless on-campus discussions of “gender expression” and the so-called “gender binary.” These are not obscure institutions, but big-name places like Notre Dame, Villanova, and the University of San Diego. The assumption behind such discussions is that “gender” is a fluid thing, capable of many different forms and even allowing a person to shift from one form to another. Since the whole concept of “fluid gender” is new, even faithful Catholics may feel at a loss for a response. What does a Catholic believe about the importance of masculinity and femininity? How do we speak to a secular world that has lost its bearings on sexuality [ii]?

The Catholic Church bases her view of masculinity and femininity on Scripture, which places man and woman at the center of every stage of Salvation History. A brief tour of the story, beginning at the very beginning, will make manifest the consistency and depth of its message as well as the reason its central protagonists could never be redefined without undermining the message in its entirety — something, I think, that the more intelligent opponents of Christianity are perfectly aware of. After that I’ll look at why the culture around us makes it hard to understand Scripture’s teaching, and I’ll offer a few thoughts about how to speak effectively to a secularized world. But first, a look at Salvation History.

Creation

In the story of creation, the human body makes invisible things visible. When God created the first man, He said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). The Creator knows that he made human beings to live with other human beings; as the Catechism puts it, we were created to be a “communion of persons” (CCC 372). But as Genesis tells it, this “communion of persons” was written directly into our bodies through masculinity and femininity. The woman was made from the man as a “helper fit for him,” and when the man sees her, he rejoices: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23). The male and the female are “fit” for one another. Their complementary bodies make outwardly visible what is true of their inmost being.

Together, the man and the woman are commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Just as their masculine and feminine bodies show that they are meant for one another, their bodies also show that they are meant to serve others — their children first, and eventually the worldwide society founded on their procreative love. The human spirit’s calling to community is made visible through the sexed body [iii].

But this is only the beginning. Ultimately, we have a calling to community because we are made in the image of the Trinity, the communion-in-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Genesis may even hint at this when it says “male and female He created them; in the image of God He created them.” What the human body makes visible, in its basic dimorphism, is ultimately a divine reality that transcends the body but is capable of being echoed in it. It is a masterwork of God’s art.

Redemption

Masculinity and femininity become even more important after the fall of our first parents. Already in the Old Testament, the prophets speak of God as Israel’s husband and of the chosen people as His bride: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hos. 2:19–20). In the New Testament, this “marriage” of God and man takes on a far deeper meaning because “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), bringing God and humanity into a literal one-flesh union. In Genesis the male and female bodies made the human person outwardly visible, but in the Gospels the body of Jesus makes outwardly visible the very person of God!

For Catholics, the Incarnation fills the human body with meaning. We feel the significance of our union with God’s own body every time we approach the Holy Eucharist, about which Jesus said: “This is my body, which is given up for you” (Lk. 22:19). This body of Christ, crucified at Calvary and glorified in Heaven, is God’s greatest work of art. This body is his definitive self-portrait! And the Incarnation also brings us Mary, the Mother of God, the most exalted human person in all the universe, who received her high calling precisely as a woman.

Life in Christ

After Christ’s ascension into Heaven, his Incarnation continues to give meaning to our bodies. Baptism sanctifies our souls and our bodies by the power of His Cross. Christ’s mystical marriage to the Church means that our bodies are His members: speaking to Christians caught in fornication, St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” (1 Cor. 6:15). He goes on to challenge them, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19). It is a challenge to live up to the holiness of the Christian body!

By the same token, Christians’ bodily actions are powerful. Because their bodies are members of Christ and temples of the Spirit, the bodily union in marriage of Christians is even a sacrament, a sign and source of supernatural grace. St. Paul appeals to the Romans to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). This is the most basic reason we are liturgical beings: God has given us not just a mind with which to think of Him, but a body in and through which to adore and praise Him. Liturgy is thoroughly wrapped up with bodiliness, and specifically, the one-flesh communion of Christ the bridegroom and His bridal Church [iv].

Consummation

The story of Salvation History ends with a strong emphasis on the human body when all the dead rise for judgment. The resurrection demonstrates once and for all the eternal significance of the body in God’s plan, because without saving the body, God’s victory would be incomplete. The book of Revelation describes that last day as the “marriage of the Lamb,” in which Christ finally and forever takes his “bride,” the Church (Rev. 19:7).

This way of describing the end unlocks a puzzle. Although men and women will rise in their masculine and feminine bodies, Jesus tells us that they no longer “marry or are given in marriage” (Lk. 20:35). Does this imply that masculinity and femininity are no longer important? No, it shows that the natural meaning of the human body will be entirely fulfilled when we see God “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:2) in a “marriage” to our Maker. The fact that we were made for communion means not only that we are in the image of the Trinitarian communion, but ultimately that we were made for communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even now, in this world, we see that ultimate meaning of the human body in those who have chosen virginity “for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12).

A Secular Worldview

So we see that the story of our salvation is not just about the salvation of souls; it is about the human body, too — from beginning to end! But even though the Catholic faith has a lot to say about the human body, speaking to a secular world is not as easy as quoting a lot of Scripture. Bad philosophy has permeated our culture, creating a roadblock that prevents even good-willed people from understanding what the Church has to offer. It has to do with how the modern world views the human body.

According to the Catechism, “[t]he unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body: … spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC 365). Americans generally understand that human beings are free and have rights just by being humans; we can’t just do whatever we want to a human being. The Catholic Church holds that human bodies are also human, and so we can’t just do whatever we want to human bodies, either.

But the modern age has come to see the world in mechanical terms. We tend to imagine that there is no more “nature” in the human body than there is “nature” in an automobile. People rebel at the idea that “mere” biology can decide how we should live, because they do not see the biological realm as inherently meaningful. Why should having a female body involve a calling to motherhood? Why should having a male body involve responsibility to a family?

Consequently, our culture sees the human body not as God’s masterwork of art, but as a blank canvas on which to paint: what shall I make of my body? Shall I make it male, or female, or something else? Shall I make my body fertile or sterile? What shall I do? And so for a long time now, our culture has promoted birth control as a way of separating the body from a vocation. Abortion has been pushed as a woman’s control over her body. All of this springs from the same root: people speak of “expressing themselves” through their bodies because they have stopped believing that the body already naturally does express them. In the end, we have “fluid gender” and “gender expression.”

As we saw above, the natural meaning of the body is that the human person was made for community. But when our culture abandoned the idea of any “nature” of the body, it also abandoned the idea that society is “natural” [v]. Individuals are seen as absolute and autonomous, while society is something artificial we make for the sake of convenience. Even the family, the most obviously natural society, goes out the window when the natural meaning of the body is lost. The result is a radically individualistic idea of human rights in which each person has a “right” to decide his or her or its own bodily and spiritual meaning, even if this decision is bad for society as a whole — and in fact bad for the individual in rebellion against human personhood.

Speaking to a Secular World

If we are going to speak successfully to the secular world, we need to remove the philosophical and emotional roadblocks as well as we can. There is no quick and easy way to fix a broken worldview, but three rules of thumb will prove useful.

First, stay positive and work on the fundamentals. Before we get to all the “Thou shalt not” business, we need to say again and again, in as many ways as we can, that the human body is a wonderful thing deserving of respect. We need to stress the basic truth that the human body is not just mechanical: it means something. It has a nature, an intrinsic principle of identity and operation, that comes before anything we think about it. This nature is not a result of the interplay of atoms or molecules, but actually comes even before the particles, and uses them to make itself visible. And it is part of a greater whole known as a person, who is this body (though also more than merely it), and communicates himself in and through the body.

Second, don’t make thundering disapproval your primary modus operandi. Our nature is a fallen one, wounded as a result of sin. We all experience tendencies and desires that contradict the real meaning of our bodies, no matter what our “orientation” or state in life. Often a young person inherits a broken situation from parents or other mentors, and confusion follows. Sometimes that confusion leads to “straight” sexual deviancy and sometimes it leads to “gay” or “other” sexual deviancy, but the point is that gender confusion is part of that general brokenness of sexuality we all experience to one degree or another. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8) — this is surely true of disordered concupiscence, which afflicts one and all. Our own experience of temptation or struggle should keep us humble, compassionate, and capable of offering good advice that we ourselves have tested before we give it.

Lastly, emphasize courage. The holiness Christ brought to the body through His own wounded and risen body is for everyone, no matter what tendencies they experience, but it takes courage and conviction to live up to our high calling. Sexual morality is not about following a list of rules, but about the arduous path to becoming what we are and who we are called to be in Christ. Pretending it’s easy for “good” people helps no one. If we focus on the true nature of chastity, which is not about staying in a safe box but winning a battle to wholeness, self-mastery, and the ability to love, I think we will see a response from that tiny spark of our country’s heritage that still hungers for greatness.


[i] In this article, I encourage celebrating Epiphany as it deserves, on the twelfth day of Christmas, as has always been the case in Christian tradition, East and West — and criticize how it has been shuffled off to the nearest Sunday, in a manner incongruous with the very mystery it celebrates.

[ii] This article owes its genesis and substance to the wise musings of a close friend, who encouraged me to take up his ideas, develop them, and publish them. I am only too glad to do so: truth is truth and deserves to be shared. I do not believe in the Enlightenment myth of seeking originality at all costs.

[iii] It is true that nowadays most people would say “gendered body,” but we must be very clear about this: sex is a biological and personal phenomenon, while gender is a grammatical one. Many languages have “masculine, feminine, and neuter” genders for nouns and adjectives, but animals come in only two sexes: male and female.

[iv] For more on this angle, see my article “Incarnate Realism and the Catholic Priesthood.”

[v] Here we can see the profound connection between the early modern revolt against Aristotelian natural philosophy, with its emphasis on form and finality, and the subsequent development of “social contract” political philosophy, which also rejects the idea of society as having an inherent form and finality. It is a material conglomerate of parts on which some order is extrinsically imposed, for the private ends of the parts that compose it and/or of the orderer.

Image: Jason Pratt via Flickr.

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