By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Children are increasingly growing up among adults in politics, entertainment and academia who encourage them, even well before puberty, to adopt sexual profiles that conflict with Church teaching, such as transgenderism. This is confusing for those who trust the Biblical understanding of God’s design for human sexuality, according to which the only normative sexual relationship is the one between a husband and a wife who lovingly unite their complementary identities for lasting friendship, collaboration and new life.
How should Catholics navigate this shift? I’m still trying to figure that out myself, but here are two important principles.
The first is to see that it is possible, and often necessary, to love someone without affirming everything about him or her. Indeed, we do this in all sorts of ways, beginning with ourselves and extending to all those we love and want to help grow. For, who could say he affirms everything he does? We all err and sin, of course. We all still need to grow into what is authentically beautiful, good and true. We are all pilgrims, and loving ourselves therefore involves being willing to critique and call ourselves to greater heights. If we truly love each other, then we should look for peaceful and constructive ways to speak honestly to one other; we should, of course, also see that sometimes the best way to communicate successfully is to bear a quiet and compassionate witness to the truth, always respecting the rights of others to disagree, and standing in solidarity with them as they walk their pilgrim way. It never makes sense to cast anyone away entirely. Jesus certainly never did.
The second principle is to find a way to speak the truth that is most likely to be understood. One language helpful for communicating Catholic teaching is the language of nature. Nature offers categories and appeals to sympathies that many folks today find attractive, even those who express little regard for Catholicism.
Nature is a mysterious reality whose sacredness and wisdom many people, even those who are not formally religious, want to respect. Passionate conservationists can be found across social and political divides. They believe nature has intrinsic value and therefore that we should not treat it as a totally formless resource for whatever purpose we choose. Moreover, they often like to point out how little we understand nature, and therefore how easily we can do damage if we hubristically try to dominate its mystery.
Consider, for example, the history of our national parks. In the early 20th century, we thought wolves were an obstacle to the flourishing of desirable species, and so we hunted them out of the lower 48 states. But later we realized that they were an essential part of ecosystems, and so in the 1990’s we began reintroducing them into Yellowstone. Similarly, we used to think that forest fires were always bad, and so at first we tried to enact a policy of total fire suppression. Later, we recognized the ecological role played by periodic fires in revitalizing soil and consuming the fallen timber that — if left to accumulate — could lead to truly catastrophic fires. In these and so many other ways, we see that enjoying nature often means just letting it be, since even our efforts to help it can prove to be intrusions upon its mystery.
John Muir once observed that “Nothing dollarable is safe … In the absence of a deep regard for the land, everything becomes a number, a commodity, a utility. Everything is grist to the mill. Trees become board feet. Rivers become gradients and flow volumes” (The National Parks: An Illustrated History, 34). In today’s medical-industrial complex, our self-images and bodies have become like trees and rivers through new psychological techniques, pharmaceuticals and surgeries designed to subjugate our sexual ecology. If a ban on wolves and fires proved terribly misguided, should we not be suspicious about the new and highly experimental bans being placed upon natural sexuality, as young boys and girls, for example, are given puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to frustrate their bodies by delaying and potentially diminishing permanently their physical, emotional and cognitive development?
Of course, respecting human nature does not always look exactly like respecting our natural environment. For, we can respect our environment even as we alter it somewhat, so long as we do not alter it in a way that constitutes a rejection of creation itself. But while we may, for example, cut down or move a tree without sin, we cannot attempt to remake our sexuality — that is, to redefine our human nature such that we disconnect being a man or a woman from bodily reality — without offending our Creator.
Let us work and pray that we all would cherish every dimension of creation, our “common home” (as Pope Francis puts it). Let us support our medical community by encouraging it to adopt a more conservationist mindset – to define itself in service of nature and health, and so to be ready to sacrifice the financial and social rewards of putting their scientific expertise toward an attempt to remake ourselves. This cultural shift may well prove to be very temporary. After all, the wolves are howling again in Yellowstone.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.