Typically, as human beings, we begin in our mother’s body. We begin when our bodies begin—be they male or female. We are shaped by the genes we inherit from our parents, and, typically, our parents nurture and educate us too. As members of the human species, our existence is possible because of the existence of the species from which we were born. Our biological relationship with our parents ties us to that species. We bear a family resemblance to our parents that is no mere “social construction.”
From our first moments of existence, we were sons or daughters. We entered the world through a family, a pre-political entity. Through our family, we learned the value of our embodied existence—assuming nothing went wrong along the way.
Human bodies aim toward the good of health, understood as the harmonious functioning of the human body and its ability to achieve its natural ends. Yet our culture increasingly treats human bodies, sex, reproduction, and family structures as malleable to a radical degree. That’s a serious problem.
How Liberalism Harms the Family—and the Individual
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
Most modern political philosophy views the committed, monogamous biological family—the natural institution that makes sense of sex and the body—as in some way “problematic.” Liberal individualism rejects the idea of the family as a natural unit, foundational to all other human associations that make up a civilization. The paradigm of the autonomous individual as the fundamental cell of society makes the family something secondary and contingent.
The Enlightenment roots of such a conception saw my freedom as distinct from my bodily form, a form that carries within it a familial meaning. As Pope John Paul II writes in his greatest encyclical, Veritatis Splendor:
A freedom which claims to be absolute ends up treating the human body as a raw datum, devoid of any meaning and moral values until freedom has shaped it in accordance with its design. Consequently, human nature and the body appear as presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act.
Such a view arose partly because it seemed we could no longer talk about “purpose” and man’s final end according to his nature or essence. Human form and nature were eliminated from this worldview as somehow “unscientific.” Championed by liberalism, the idea of the autonomous individual is attractive precisely because, by neglecting the dignity of the human body and everything implied in its inherent meanings, it gives approval to any desires an individual happens to have, including sexual desires.
From Contraception to Transgender
Sexual questions of all kinds create a conflict between liberalism and views of the dignity of human embodiment. Consider the question of contraception, a social phenomenon that has world-changing results.
Justifying contraceptive acts removes the idea that the sexual act has an inherent marital meaning. If sexual acts are not understood as having an essentially marital-procreative meaning, it becomes harder to see how the male or female human body itself has any inherent meaning and function apart from what the person feels or chooses. Such thinking has led to confusions surrounding both the nature of marriage and the nature of sexual differentiation. Some view pregnancy as a disadvantage for women, compared to the autonomous male who is not similarly constrained. Rather than honoring the inherently marital bodily meaning of the male and female, and the inherently maternal character of pregnancy, our society treats all these things as contingent on individual choices and feelings. In a sense, the autonomous individual of liberalism is androgynous.
Those who sought to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception did so by claiming that the marital act had no essence in itself, at least in terms of any naturally fertile structure. The marital act was not to be seen as unitive because it was procreative (in kind if not always in effect). Instead, the meaning and purpose of sex could be defined in terms of the desires and commitments of individuals, not in terms of our nature as created beings, male and female.
As a result, more and more people began understanding themselves by means of a label describing their sexual attractions, rather than through the innate bodily orientation to the opposite sex that makes them male or female. Once contracepted sex was normalized, it became difficult to see why there should be any distinction between heterosexual and homosexual sex, or between same-sex “marriage” and natural marriage. If sex of any approved kind is simply about what we project onto our sexual actions and urges, sexual differentiation plays no inherent natural part in the meanings of those acts. The irony, of course, is that our very biological differentiation is what makes sexual activity possible.
We are now faced with an explosion of gender dysphoria—an unprecedented number of people, including children, registering deep unease with their own male or female bodies and claiming that these bodies and their current social expression do not accord with who they really are. A child may move very quickly from thinking he or she is not a typical girl or boy to thinking he or she is not a girl or boy at all. Anxious parents may quickly comply with the child’s wish to present socially as someone of the other sex, particularly if they are not in contact with more questioning parents or health professionals. In the meantine, the narratives of adults who transitioned in response to strong and painful feelings of gender dysphoria, but subsequently detransitioned and were able to accept their own sexed bodies, may go unheard.
Liberalism shapes us to believe that, although I am incarnate, my personality is somehow distinct from my bodily form. The locus of my rights and status is my freedom. Nothing can stop me from presenting as a female even if I know I am biologically a male. Indeed, within the academy, it is widely accepted not only that our bodies contain no inherent meanings, but that truth itself is merely something produced by discourses of power. In other words, all our notions of maleness, femaleness, and everything else are mere ideological constructs. There is no truth, but only convenient fictions.
Made in the Image of God
A world deliberately fragmented into opposing self-created “identity tribes” is, ultimately, a result of diabolical ideas that aim only to “tear apart.” We live in an era when the family has been displaced from its rightful position. As David Crawford has rightly pointed out,
the family reveals the identity and nature of the person who is the subject and doer of justice. The family is the ordering principle of justice . . . in the sense that it is inscribed in the identity and structure of the human person . . . If juridical forms and civil institutions are not to be alienating and fragmenting, they need to anticipate and support the concrete person as he really is, rather than a hypothetical and denatured person . . . The family is the “foundation of justice” and is antecedently organic to society in the sense that it informs the nature of the person who is or should be presupposed by those institutions.
We are born into human families, which form our natural habitat. Ultimately though our identity is that of children of God. The story of the Nativity reminds us of the Holy Family, into which God himself chose to be born. The Incarnation was a particular and universal event, an event that identifies us most fully with the incarnate Logos who was revealed to all tribes so that they might transcend whatever degraded and divided them. Reflecting on the Incarnation should help us recognize that the human body was chosen by God, in whose image and likeness we are made.