North Carolina’s bathroom laws have received no small amount of attention. But before such controversies arrived in North Carolina, they were already known here in Virginia. Stafford, Fairfax, and Gloucester counties have all had debates on this matter. Now the controversy has escalated since the Obama administration has sued the State of North Carolina and has at the same time interpreted the Title IX ban on “sex” discrimination to include discrimination on the basis of “gender identity.” Clearly, Catholics in the public square will have to address this matter in some manner – and to do so properly they must be clear on what the Church teaches. In this post, I would like to reflect first on the role of the Church’s teachings in the public square. In the next post I will consider the content of the Church’s teaching on this particular issue.
To begin, we should clarify what the issue really is. Although it comes to us by way of legal and political debates, the fundamental question raised by “gender identity” is about the human person – about man and woman, male and female, the human body, human sexuality, etc. Debates about homosexuality already engaged these questions; the transgendered controversy does so even more. The issue, then, is first philosophical, and only later legal and political.
In a sense, this kind of debate plays to the Church’s strength, because the Church has clear doctrine on the human person, the meaning of the body, sexuality, etc. Her teaching begins with creation — “Male and female He created them” — and extends to the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ. As Vatican II taught, and Pope Saint John Paul II tirelessly proclaimed, “Christ fully reveals man to himself.” Central to the Church’s gospel message is the full truth of the human person. For this reason Blessed Pope Paul VI called the Church “an expert in humanity.” The Church, then, has a great deal to contribute to a discussion about the human person and human sexuality. It is central to her mission.
The situation before us now is also an occasion to recall the Church’s proper role in the public square. Pope Benedict taught that faith serves as a “purifying force for reason” and that the Church’s social doctrine has as its aim “simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.” In the context of “gender identity,” faith purifies reason from its errors and enables us to see the truth of human sexuality.
This role of faith and the Church’s social doctrine must be kept in mind, since Catholics may be accused of imposing their beliefs on others. In fact, what the Church proposes in the public square is not something out of reason’s reach. It is not a uniquely Catholic doctrine but in fact the common understanding of the human person that faith enables the Church to preserve. One need not be Catholic, Christian, or a believer of any stripe to grasp the Church’s teaching on these matters. The Catholic faith simply serves, at this juncture in history, as the keeper of and witness to this patrimony of human reason: the truth about human sexuality.