“The Incarnation is the hinge of salvation” and “Iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation is the summation of all heresies.”
The first quotation is from the second-century apologist Tertullian and the latter was penned by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. These two statements can well be applied to our present cultural crisis; namely, the rise of transgenderism signaling the end of the sacramental order.
In the first century, Christianity quickly spread from the Middle East into the Greco-Roman world. There the Church was confronted by its first heresy—namely, the Docetist doctrine that denied the reality of the material world. Docetism taught that Jesus was pure spirit, His body a mere illusion. St. John already needed to condemn this heresy. He taught: “Many false prophets have appeared in the world…every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, while every spirit that fails to acknowledge him does not belong to God. Such is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:1-3).
All of this, of course, is rooted in Gnosticism that splits the world between spirit and matter. Whatever is on the side of matter is evil—the material realm opposed to the good of the invisible spirit. The goal of religion is to flee the world of matter, that world that must be overcome and ultimately cease to exist.
Judeo/Christianity presents the very opposite worldview. Beginning with Genesis, Chapter One, God declares seven times that the world of matter is good. In a revolutionary optimism, the text proclaims that God and the material world are in harmony—distinct, yet united. This is the cornerstone of Catholic doctrine that indeed the material world reveals, even mediates the grace-filled presence of God. The sacramental order of God’s good creation is affirmed.
This sacramental order of reality means that the world of matter, from the Beginning, is imbued with a God-given meaning. The orderliness, purpose, direction, and beauty of creation are evident even in the very fact that the God of Genesis wills the world to exist. The material world is shot-through with intention. It is not random, not arbitrary, not an accident. The climax of this orderly universe is the creation of the human person: “Then God said, let us make man in our image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”
This doctrine of the good creation is also affirmed in Genesis, Chapter Two: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Thus, God resolves what John Paul II called “the problem of original solitude” in creating woman—Eve, who saves Adam from the “not good” of radical isolation. The first speech of the human race is Adam’s celebration of the other who is different from him, yet in union with him: “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
The engendered unity of man and woman is not a mere biological/functional reality. Rather, male and female sexuality are, from the Beginning, sacramental truths. This is unequivocally affirmed by a remarkable teaching of St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians. What it means to be man and woman, husband and wife, rests upon and is related to the unity between Christ and His Church. In Ephesians 5:31 Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 directly: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” There is no announcement. No introduction. Paul takes the ancient Genesis passage, pulls it forward, and drops it into the text. The concluding verse is the final and definitive revelation of what is given in the Beginning—with the Pauline declaration: “This is a great mystery—I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church.”
What exactly is the “this” of the verse: “This is a great mystery”? The this is none other than the engendered, marital, spousal unity of man and woman. Certainly, here we have the ultimate statement that tells us male and female sexuality cannot, indeed must not, be reduced to simple biological functionality. Human sexuality is not a mere social construct. God created male and female sexuality as transcendent signs that speak another truth—namely, the unity of Jesus and His people—and this unity, indeed the very order of redemption itself is a martially ordered nuptial covenant. The meaning of gender, first discovered through natural law, serves the supernatural Covenant of Redemption and is a participation in this reality.
A great lesson is taught here regarding what it means to be embodied. The human body, male and female, has a sacred, even liturgical dimension. Thus to deny the body, in that ancient pagan gnostic pessimism and to mutilate one’s gender, is to mangle a sacred language God Himself created to speak and make present the covenant of redemption. If there was ever a timely, significant lesson taught in the Book of Genesis it is here: culturally, morally, socially, psychologically, anthropologically, spiritually, and even politically significant—gender is God-given. The sacramental dimension of male and female sexuality rests on the goodness of the created order itself—again, that the natural world is imbued with a God-given meaning—a God-given sense. The human person’s physical sexual embodiment is sacred. Male and female gender is constitutive of one’s personal identity.
Gnosticism is the heresy that never dies. It is very much with us today. And this Neo-gnostic doctrine is the foundation for transgenderism. Joseph Fletcher, known as the father of situation ethics, articulated this dualist doctrine in no uncertain terms:
Physical nature—the body and its members, our organs and their functions—all of these things are part of “what is over against us,” and if we live by the rules and the conditions set in physiology or another it we are not thou…Freedom, knowledge, choice, responsibility—all these things of personal or moral nature are in us, not out there. Physical nature is what is over against us, out there. It represents the world of its. (Morals and Medicine)
Transgenderism is the direct result of this Fletcherian worldview. Sex and gender first exist in the mind, it is a matter of the will—those invisible realities that alone define the true self. According to a Neo-gnostic world view, one may literally reshape oneself, even going so far as to mutilate the body in order to force the physical world to conform to the mind. According to Neo-Gnosticism as the foundation of transgenderism, the human body has no inherent meaning, a philosophy that reduces biological gender to raw impersonal material. The soul or mind must reform the senseless world of matter, literally rearranging its parts to suit one’s personal likes and dislikes in which human liberty is the ultimate value.
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, already saw that contraception was based on the human “domination of the forces of nature” now extended to humanity’s “own total being: to the body, to physical life.” John Paul II addressed the false conflict between freedom and nature. Certain moralists in their exaltation of freedom:
…frequently conceive of freedom as somehow in opposition to or in conflict with material and biological nature, over which it must progressively assert itself. Here various approaches are at one in overlooking the created dimension of nature and in misunderstanding its integrity. For some, “nature” becomes reduced to raw material for human activity and for its power: thus nature needs to be profoundly transformed, and indeed overcome by freedom, inasmuch as it represents a limitation and denial of freedom. …[N]ature would thus come to mean everything found in man and the world apart from freedom. In such an understanding, nature would include in the first place the human body, its make-up and its processes: against this physical datum would be opposed whatever is “constructed,” in other words “culture,” seen as the product and result of freedom. Human nature, understood in this way, could be reduced to and treated as a readily available biological or social material. …Indeed, when all is said and done man would not even have a nature; he would be his own personal life-project. Man would be nothing more than his own freedom! (Veritatis Splendor, Art. 46)
Transgenderism and the denial of the sexual ontological order is the end of the good creation and the sacramental order that speaks an optimism about the world God has made. It is also the end of the “great mystery” of human sexual union affirmed in Ephesians 5 that male and female sexuality is a transcendent, sacramental, God-designed liturgical language that mediates the reality of God’s covenant with His people. To deny the truth of what it means to be male and female is to desecrate the holy—to violate the original sacramental order given in the Beginning.
That the human body is actually intrinsically related to the self of the person is proven by a post-resurrection episode in the Gospel of Luke. Christ appears to His apostles and “In their panic and fright they thought they were seeing a ghost.” Jesus quickly corrects them: “Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is really I. Touch me and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do” (Luke 24: 38-39).
The weight of this passage crushes the gnostic heresy that the body is unrelated to, hostile to, the soul—foreign to the self. Jesus says plainly that His body is Him—“It is really I”! Moreover, the apostles, contrary to gnostic pessimism, are told to engage their senses in identifying Christ—the senses of sight and touch. The physical senses may be trusted to mediate truth to the mind, to the soul. Christ doesn’t instruct them to close their eyes and receive the gnosis though disembodied meditation. The truth of the physical world is affirmed as it is the good creation of God.
Not only does Christ identify His body with His Person, but the Church has radically affirmed that Christ’s male gender is forever constitutive of Christ’s personal self. A remarkable, if not startling statement is made about Jesus in the 1976 Vatican declaration Inter Insigniores. In defense of the all-male priesthood, the document states: “Christ himself was and remains a man.” The word “man” in the Latin text is “vir”—meaning “male.” The startling conclusion is that even in Christ’s heavenly existence, since the Incarnation, Jesus is eternally male! Christ did not shed, slough-off, His body as if it were a snakeskin to be discarded when no longer useful. The Vatican declaration provides the definitive affirmation that one’s gender is constitutive of the self—and is now even a fact for the Second Person of the Holy Trinity!
The Catholic Church, historically, adopted some aspects of dualist philosophy, notably Neo-Platonism in her early centuries. Nevertheless, she had to abandon those negative dualist concepts when they did not comport with the Christian sacramental life that affirms the goodness of the physical world. Even St. Augustine dropped his own Neo-Platonist principles in defense of the resurrection of the body. Against those principles, Augustine had to fend off those who denied the resurrection of the body, especially the resurrection of the female body, as women were more associated with the corrupt world of matter than men.
For my part, they seem to be wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise. …nature shall be preserved. And the sex of woman is not a vice, but nature. …the female members shall remain adapted not to the old uses, but to a new beauty…For at the beginning of the human race the woman was made of a rib taken from the side of the man while he slept; for it seemed fit that even then Christ and His Church should be foreshadowed in this event. For that sleep of the man was the death of Christ, whose side, as He hung lifeless upon the cross, was pierced with a spear, and there flowed from it blood and water, and these we know to be the sacraments by which the Church is built up. …The woman, therefore, is a creature of God even as the man; but by her creation from man unity is commended; and the manner of her creation prefigured, as has been said, Christ and the Church. He, then, who created both sexes will restore both. (City of God, 22, 17)
Women will rise as women! Moreover, according to Augustine, the body, male and female, are sacramental—as the unity of the two from the Beginning prefigure, speak the truth of the unity between Christ, the New Adam and His Bride the Church.
Those who defend transgenderism may argue that indeed the body is important to personal identity—so important that the flesh must be altered to achieve conformity with the mind. However, since transgenderism requires the deformation of one’s sex to achieve conformity with the mind, the fact cannot be escaped that the physical world has no inherent meaning—except on a purely physicalist/functional level—as the philosophical principles of transgenderism would support the abolition of sexual gender altogether.
If the physical body—male and female—has no inherent, God-given sense, then nothing in the world of matter bears any inner truth—absolutely nothing! One cannot claim that male and female sex is ontologically meaningless and yet affirm that other physical substances put to the use of worship maintain their value—such as water, wine, bread, and holy oils. Transgenderism marks the end of the sacramental order because it marks the end of the ontological order. The good creation upon which the sacramental order of the world depends has fallen apart. Of all the world religions, it is Catholicism that takes this world seriously. Thus the Church holds the spiritual and philosophical keys to overcome the present iconoclasm that smashes the icon of human sexuality.