We have certainly felt some dramatic shifts in the cultural tectonic plates for the United States and for the world in the last few months. The following headlines and developments from celebrities to Supreme Court justices will give us a picture of how these shifts are changing the landscape of what it means to be a human person and of the definition of marriage and family.
On April 24, 2015, in a two-hour interview, former Olympian, athletic icon, and reality TV star Bruce Jenner told ABC’s Diane Sawyer “Yes… I am a woman… It’s hard for people to understand but that’s what my soul is.” On June 1, 2015, the new image of 65 year old grandfather Bruce Jenner appeared online; he was wearing makeup, hair extensions and a white corset. The words on the cover of the online magazine, Vanity Fair, conveyed an imperative tone: “Call me Caitlyn.” He had breast implants and a reconstructed face from a 10-hour facial feminization surgery. Body hair had been removed, his Adam’s apple had been shaved. (Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel, a Boston-based plastic surgeon who specializes in facial feminization surgery describes what procedures are available for men like this man, who feel that they are in the wrong body. “They tell me what parts of their face that they’ve been bothered by and I will go through and do an analysis and discuss what parts of the face I think are sending masculine messages,” he said. “Based on that, we’ll figure out a treatment plan.”) Jenner accumulated millions of twitter followers within hours of the announcement, most of which sent congrats and affirmations.
Also on June 1, 2015, the United States Department of Labor published the following: “…All employees, including transgender employees, should have access to restrooms that correspond to their gender identity” (Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels). In other words, if you are biologically born a male but identify yourself as a woman, you should be able to use the women’s bathroom.
On June 4, the Washington Post reported that Barnard College will admit transgender students beginning in the fall, the last of the elite “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges to do so. (The Seven Sisters colleges are a loose grouping of seven liberal arts colleges in the Northeast United States that are historically colleges for women.) It was in conjunction with the high-profile transition of Bruce Jenner to “Caitlyn” that Barnard announced its change in policy, beginning with the class of 2020. This means a person who is biologically born male but identifies as a woman may apply to the college for women.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court decided by a 5/4 vote to redefine marriage in the United States. After the ruling, over 26 million people draped their Facebook profile pictures with the LGBT rainbow and dozens of companies from Cheerios to Chipotle created rainbows out of their products or tweeted #LoveWins. On the evening of the ruling, the White House, one of the most iconic and identifiable pieces of architecture in America, was suddenly no longer white but awash with the colors of the rainbow.
Let’s imagine being a young person today, growing up in this maelstrom of an amorphous and ever changing concept of human sexuality. Even that initial proclamation at our birth – “It’s a boy!” “It’s a girl!” – seemingly so definitive and so clear is being challenged. Presently, the Human Rights Tribunal of British Columbia is debating whether or not it is discriminatory to assign a baby’s gender at birth. Opponents claim it gives “false information about people and characterizes them in a way that is actually wrong” says Morgan Oger, chair of the Trans Alliance Society.
For the person trying to live attentively and intentionally in the midst of these shifting sands, the questions raised might be “Where do we stand? Is our sexual identity always in flux, something whose course we can alter at will?” A further question raised could be the very one asked by Justice Roberts, one of the four dissenting judges of the recent SCOTUS decision; “Just who do we think we are?”
According to the Supreme Court, we are the arbiters of our own destiny, the makers of our own reality: “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 human life.” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992)
Now for the listening heart. These radical changes in cultural norms are happening at such a rapid rate, it is difficult to process. For direction and for clarity, we should first take a long, deep breath. The listening heart is a heart that doesn’t allow the reverberations and coruscations of the surface to distract or distort its reflection. The listening heart goes deeper. Deep below the surface of things the water is clear, steady, still. Perhaps this is why the late St. John Paul the Great called us out “into the deep.”
Catholics have always turned to their faith for direction and clarity. That faith is one which meets at the crossroads of spirit and flesh, of revelation and the reality we encounter through science and the senses. As St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” (FR, introduction)
These radical changes in just the past several months do have at their core a pursuit of what people deem as a truth. However, that truth is not one received from the objective reality of the person, but rather it’s one constructed (or deconstructed) by the persons themselves.
Pope Benedict XVI once said “We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly… Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is…” (Address, Reichstag Building, Berlin, September 2011)
The further afield we go in our attempts to find ourselves, the more real, the more relevant, the more heartfelt becomes this loving call of the Church. Like a mother she calls to us “Come home!” Our Holy Father, Pope Francis speaks to our world, so steeped in confusion, in his latest encyclical, Laudato Si: “The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” (LS, 155)
The truly humble, listening heart never grasps at this power. Rather, the listening heart accepts, receives, and believes that God has a plan, inscribed into the flesh and blood and bone of men and women. Here is where we actually discover our true power. The power to image the Triune God of Love in the visible world through the one flesh union of a sacramental marriage! The listening heart hears in the swirling dance of man and woman the music of creation, the power of procreation, and sees the fruit of unique and unrepeatable human lives birthed into the world from that great dance. Pope Francis continues; “Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.'” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 155)
As we move forward on the shifting ground of these cultural changes, may the Lord of Love and Mercy help us to keep our balance. May He give us that stable, steady, and loving gaze so that our encounters with others might restore that equilibrium so essential for the true flourishing of human sexuality and identity, of married love, and of civilization itself.
Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their three children.