As Catholics, we believe in the sacraments: if you come to me, tell me all your sins, and then I say “I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”; your sins are completely washed away. A sacramental viewpoint, however, goes beyond the sacraments – it means that things here in the physical world have a spiritual significance. There would be no point in my absolution restoring your friendship with God if it hadn’t been broken by your sins – your sins have real consequences. We even believe in this scandalous thing called merit – if any of us go downtown and spend two hours serving those less fortunate, we actually make ourselves closer to God.
In recent years new “gender rights” have popped up. We are asked now not only to accept homosexuality but transgenderism and genders beyond male and female. I believe that many of the arguments offered in defense of a traditional view will ultimately fail. I want to propose a sacramental viewpoint as the best way to defend the Church’s view. Before applying it to “gender rights,” I want to explain the sacramental viewpoint.
Without a sacramental viewpoint, much of what we do as Catholics doesn’t make any sense. This viewpoint is the basis for our beliefs. Yet today, this viewpoint is uncommon. In fact, in my opinion, convincing people of this is probably the biggest step in converting them to Catholicism. Once you understand a sacramental viewpoint, you still have to believe in the Eucharist, but it actually makes sense. Without a sacramental viewpoint it’s nonsense.
Many Protestants don’t share this sacramental viewpoint. For example, if you go to a Franklin Graham Crusade, he will preach for 45 minutes and then asked you to come down and say you believe in Jesus, and if you do, you’re saved. (In University, I attended multiple nights of the crusade in my town.) Once you’ve been to a Crusade, even if you sin, there is no way you can lose your salvation. That isn’t a sacramental viewpoint! First of all salvation is based on interior belief which you are not asked to manifest through external action (generally, they ask you to say the Sinners’ Prayer but there’s no action required). Second, what you do with your body doesn’t matter because sin doesn’t matter. In this viewpoint, the body and salvation are separate.
Theology of the Body of St. John Paul II is a great explanation of the sacramental viewpoint. What’s probably my favorite line reads: “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.” Our body is completely unlike an animal body because a spiritual soul gives the body spiritual meaning. Now, most of you probably already know the theology of body is not principally about expressing the sacramental viewpoint, but applying this viewpoint to sexual ethics.
God created us as gift. Man finds his happiness and giving himself to others: both to God in prayer, and to others in charity. The sacramental viewpoint understands that our sexual organs stamp this “being made as gift” onto our body. St John Paul II expresses this more theologically in at least two places in Theology of the Body. “Masculinity-femininity – namely, sex – is the original sign of creative donation and at the same time the sign of the gift that man, male-female, becomes aware of as a gift lived so to speak in an original way.” “The human body – the naked human body in all the truth of its masculinity and femininity – has the meaning of gift of the person to the person. Due to the dignity of the personal subject, the ethos of the body, that is the ethical order of its nakedness, is closely related to that system of reference, understood as a spousal system, in which giving by one party encourages the appropriate and adequate response to the gift by the other. This response is decisive for the reciprocity of the gift.”
Now, some of you can guess why this is important for “gender rights.” If we have a sacramental viewpoint, where our body’s actions matter, it matters whether it’s a male body or a female body doing the action. Because marriage is about being a gift to the other and the type of gift is stamped in your body, gay marriage makes no sense from the sacramental viewpoint. As well, a sacramental viewpoint answers further “gender rights” with clear reasoning: they go against the true spiritual meaning of the body, in fact they deny this meeting. (I’m not arguing that sodomy should become illegal again because the evil produced by prosecution would be greater than the good that might come from that prosecution – giving specific rights is a positive active government instead of government choosing not to interfere with sinful acts.)
“But,” I can hear you saying, “There are so many other arguments against gay marriage and rights for various non-binary genders.” Okay, let me go through a few arguments. Commonly, people just refer to the Bible or to Christian morality; however, lacking a sacramental view anybody can interpret the Bible any way they please and can claim passages regarding homosexuality only refer to relationships of differential power as ancient homosexuality often did, plus not everybody believes the Bible.
The Family Research Council gives 10 Arguments from Social Science against Same-Sex Marriage but most of them presuppose a sacramental understanding of reality. Their only arguments not directly based on a sacramental view of reality, regard homosexual parenting versus heterosexual parenting – although the differences are notable, without a sacramental viewpoint it is hard to argue against homosexual marriage on this point alone: then marriage lacks an intrinsic link to children and there are other groups of people (this can be moral like divorce or alcoholism, or amoral like a dad who’s a long-haul trucker) who are also on average less than ideal parents. (Another list of 10 reasons against gay marriage ends up falling into similar issues.)
The arguments over transgender rights are slowly heating up. From a sacramental viewpoint – which comes from the Bible – it’s far easier to explain why an adult can’t go downtown and change their legal gender, or why an adult can’t get surgery and take hormones to function as the opposite gender. Other issues such as teen boys claiming they were teen girls to enter the girls’ bathroom can be argued against by their direct side effects but I any argument against an adult changing their legal or functional gender will stand up except those based on a sacramental outlook on reality. I know many of our Protestant friends who may not share a sacramental outlook will argue against “gender rights” without this viewpoint: but their arguments often assume it even though they theoretically deny it, or their arguments will likely fall under scrutiny.
Once we view reality sacramentally, reality is far richer. Our actions are not just physical actions but even a physical action is always spiritual. From this perspective, our bodies actually matter, and whether they are male or female actually matters too. The best arguments against gay marriage or transgender rights are based on such a viewpoint. Let’s help everyone see the world this way.