The age of Jenner, Obergefell, and #BlackLivesMatter puts issues of identity at the center of public life. As Catholics and citizens we need to understand what that means.
Personal identity orients us in the world. As such, it has both individual and social functions. It enables us to order our lives by telling us what we are and how we fit into the world. And it greatly eases social functioning by telling people how they connect to institutions and what they owe them.
For a Catholic his identity includes Catholicism—his membership in the Church and orientation toward God and the world. It also includes his sex, state in life as married, ordained, or vowed, and basic family connections such as parentage. We can’t rightly abandon such things, they are fundamental to who we are, and they determine our most basic relationships and duties, thereby supporting the Church and the natural family as fundamental social institutions.
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Other aspects of identity are less basic and more dependent on social conditions. More distant family relationships and the cultural networks into which we are born, for example, are less important today than in the past. Instead of relying on them for learning how to live and dealing with the practical problems of life, people rely on markets, bureaucracies, formal education, and mass culture. If Pete Muldoon goes to Harvard, people identify him more as a Harvard man and someone of his generation than as Irish and a Muldoon. They think those things account for more of his social position and how he acts.
Many people have come to view traditional dimensions of identity as irrational and oppressive and want their suppression: to give weight to family is seen as snobbish, and to do so with inherited cultural community is thought racist and therefore downright evil. That view contrasts with a more traditional Catholic view that sees traditional connections as valuable within limits.
The reason for wanting to suppress such things is that promoting some elements of identity means suppressing others. If your school becomes more important, your family becomes less so. The result is that identity and institutions go hand-in-hand. National identity provides an example. It became important because of its usefulness in strengthening the state at the expense of local and religious ties. In pre-revolutionary Europe a man living in France was more likely to think of himself as a Picard than a Frenchman, and Russian peasants habitually called themselves simply “Christians.” Events such as the Tudor break with Rome and the great modern secular revolutions changed that situation, radically enhancing national identity at the expense of local and universal attachments.
Its importance reached a climax in the years leading up to the Second World War. After that the emphasis shifted in the more advanced countries to the construction of a supranational political and economic order, and nationality tended to get pushed into the background, although outside the West it continues strong as a way of resisting foreign domination and overcoming tribalism, regionalism, and confessional divisions.
The current attempt to construct a universal order capable of dealing rationally and effectively with all aspects of life has meant a growing suspicion of traditional identities, which are seen as limiting. That has taken two forms: an emphasis on identities that are oppositional in character, and on identities that are understood as fluid and chosen, or at least determined by each individual for himself. The effect is to undermine local, cultural, familial, and religious connections, thereby enhancing the power of a supranational order that claims to replace oppressive particular connections with a more just, rational, and universal scheme that allows people to do and be what they wish.
Oppositional identities include the identity of women and of minority ethnic and sexual groups, as those things are understood by social liberals: as classes defined largely by their opposition to sexually normal white Christian men. For rhetorical purposes such identities are usually presented today as innate and unchangeable: you should let me be what I am, and give me equal status, because I was “born that way,” and to deny equality to my identity—which means deprive it of function and significance—would be to treat me as less than a full human being. Hence current liberation movements, up to and including “gay marriage.”
At a more principled level the tendency is to treat such identities as fluid or at least chosen and constructed by someone. There aren’t any natural classifications, or so it is thought. They’re all man-made, so even something as fundamental as sex becomes a social construction. The approach was pioneered by Jean-Paul Sartre with respect to Jewish identity: in itself it means nothing, he thought, but is a classification fixed on Jews by anti-semites and designed to limit them. The most effective response, since social classifications can’t simply be ignored, is to subvert them: to embrace the imposed identity, take charge of it, and assert its value, and thereby overthrow the system that invented it as a tool of oppression. That is the line of thought behind such oddities as slutwalks.
Once the system of oppression is overthrown we are expected to enter a realm of freedom, in which each of us has an equal right of self-definition, and the rights of self-determined identity play the role once played by freedom of religion. The substitution of the rights of self-determined identity for the rights of religious commitment is logical, given other current assumptions. From a human standpoint, religion crystallizes our deepest understanding of the world and the meaning of life. Self-determined identity is thought to do the same for an individual’s understanding of himself and his relation to the world. So in place of the right of Catholics to live as Catholics we get the right of Bruce to live as Caitlyn.
The reason for the shift is that people have come to believe that the nature and order of the world are subjective creations each of us determines for himself rather than something objective we all should aspire to discover and accept. That view has become part of American law and public thought, and motivates our current abortion and marriage regimes. Justice Kennedy gave it its classic formulation in an abortion case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, in which he said “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.” Whatever that concept is, it must have equal status with other possible concepts. The result is that whether a baby is a baby depends on the mother’s wishes, a relationship is a marriage if those involved consider it one, and Bruce Jenner is a woman if that’s his thing.
There are of course big problems with the current view. It expresses the modern attempt to deny human nature and its goods in favor of choice. As such, it’s subject to the usual objection to relativism, that it contradicts itself: it can be justified only by reference to an objective nature of things, but it denies that any such nature exists. And it refuses to take the claims of religion seriously, so it’s vulnerable to the usual arguments for religion, for example that transcendent ordering intelligence and purpose is needed to account for the world as we find it.
More importantly as a practical matter, the current view fails on its own terms, since it claims to promote the flourishing of identity, but its actual effect is to make it endlessly contestable by depriving it of an objective standard. Identity thus becomes anxious, uncertain, and fragile on the one hand, an object of infinite manipulation, and on the other crude and violent, a matter of obsession, compulsiveness, and aggressive unreasoning assertion. Hence the ever-changing sensitivities of political correctness, and the viciousness of the attacks on those who infringe them.
Like the rest of liberal modernity, the current understanding of identity won’t last because it’s ultimately irrational and self-defeating. Until it goes, the obligation of Catholics is to know what they are, to live in the truth as best they can, to present it to the world, and to wait for better things. And that requires, among other things, a critical understanding of our situation. In the years to come the Church must develop and emphasize such an understanding.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 4, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above depicts the top portion of a Vanity Fair magazine cover featuring Bruce Jenner.