Peter died a criminal’s death sometime around Anno Domini 64; three short centuries later, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the midst of a controversy pitting bishop against bishop and bishop against emperor; the papacy eventually grew into a princely power, one that subsequently was narrowly circumscribed by its secular rivals; in the modern era, the charismatic and sainted Pope John Paul II emerged as one of the world’s three most important political figures in the confrontation with Communism and made the Kremlin shake in spite of his having the command of not a single division of men at arms and operating with a budget roughly comparable to that of a mid-size state university. From these events and others the Catholic Church’s intellectual apparatus has concluded that ideas matter, and that for the Church in the world, political ideas matter.
For this reason, the Catholic Church’s education committee, the Congregation for Catholic Education, formally, has turned its attention to one of the peculiar and destructive ideas of our time, what it describes as “the theory of a radical separation between gender and sex, with the former having priority over the latter.” The Church has made a statement on this notion in “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” The stakes here are high, as the Church sees it, employing language that will be entirely familiar to American conservatives: “Similar theories aim to annihilate the concept of nature,” the document reads, “that is, everything we have been given as a preexisting foundation of our being and action in the world.”
Naturally, the New York Times is outraged, uncritically quoting demonstrably untrue claims from activists that the statement “encourages hatred, bigotry, and violence” against transgender people, a very strange claim to make about a document that speaks of “the need to educate children and young people to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.). Essentially, this involves educating for active and responsible citizenship, which is marked by the ability to welcome all legitimate expressions of human personhood with respect.” If only this were how the world expressed its “bigotry and violence,” what a happy world it would be.
There is a very interesting book to be written — a century from now, or two — about the strange and unlikely career of the word gender, a grammatical term and concept that somehow managed to displace, in much of the modern mind, the self-evident facts of sexual dimorphism in the species H. sap., partly in the service of a set of political ideas and tendencies that we call, for lack of a better term, progressivism. One of the remarkable characteristics of progressivism is that its adherents claim to be partisans of “science,” rationally and empirically following the evidence where it leads — and then retreating into rank mysticism and half-baked metaphysics when the facts prove unappealing or discommoding. This is why in the matter of abortion progressives prefer to traffic in vague metaphysical claims regarding “personhood” rather than the facts of what happens in an abortion. And it is why we now speak more about “gender” than about “sex.”
(Because “gender” is an infinitely plastic concept, it can be put to almost any end. For example, there is a sub-entry discussing the issue of “gender” in the Wikipedia article about Nepalese sorghum.)
Because I am a conservative, I find it impossible to take seriously the notion, heard so frequently in 2016, that the state of this or that “couldn’t be any worse.” Things could always be worse, and so I am not very eager to fast-forward through the next 200 years of political and intellectual development (or decadence) to see where things end up. But the optimist in me suspects that the ridiculous mysticism of our contemporary gender ideology eventually will be understood as a foray into an especially contemptible kind of mysticism to be classed alongside phrenology, “scientific racism,” astrology, etc. That the Catholic Church should have acted as one of the brakes on that daft mysticism will perhaps perplex the Bill Mahers of the world, who understand so little about it.
I am optimistic on that front because I believe in the value of experimentation, and because I believe — to repeat — that ideas matter. Ideas have real-world consequences, some of which are immediate and dramatic enough that they can instruct even the citizens of democracies, who are so often so immune to learning. The choices we make about the kinds of lives we live, the kinds of families we have, the kinds of communities we have, the ways in which we raise children, the assumptions and concepts and limitations we associate with sex and child-bearing (which are, the Catholic Church would remind us, related), our intellectual models of childhood and parenthood — the intelligence and value of all these should, over time, show up in the data.
As, of course, they already do. The delusional partisans of the so-called sexual revolution held out their utopia as a freedom-based, autonomy-maximizing exercise in enlightened hedonism. But our real-world 21st-century sexual techno-dystopia is another thing entirely, not at all what the prophets of free love promised. The price will be high for many of us, and it will be tragically high for some of us, for instance those who are mutilated as children in service of certain high utopian precepts.
They’ll wonder about us, one day, about how an apparently enlightened and technologically sophisticated people allowed their friends and neighbors, and sick people, and children, to be used as laboratory rats in a grand experiment. But this is familiar territory to the Catholic Church, which is old enough to remember many stranger things that have come and gone.