I recently met a man who cross-dressed for eight years. For four years, he identified as “non-binary,” and for the four following years, he identified exclusively as a woman. He is now a baptized, practicing Christian man living a full sacramental and liturgical life.
What happened? To make a long story short, a friend invited him to attend Mass. He was an atheist, and his parents lamented his atheism. He started attending Mass, started studying the Faith, and was eventually baptized (while presenting himself as a woman!). After receiving the sacraments, and regularly receiving the Eucharist and going to confession for about a year, he embraced his biological sex. Now his parents lament his traditional Catholicism. Parents can be hard to please sometimes.
When I think of his story, I can’t help but recall Pope Benedict XVI’s introductory remarks in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love):
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
This man didn’t convert because of the Church’s moral teachings, primarily. He didn’t convert because of our wonderfully systematic and cohesive philosophical and theological system, primarily. Both of those aspects were fundamental and helpful, but what “worked” was the invitation from his friend; the liturgy; and, to use his words, the mystical body of Christ: “For me,” he told me, “it’s all about the body of Christ, the community.”
Being a Christian is more than just a good idea, or the truest idea, or the most beautiful idea—although it is all those things. But more, it is the idea that works in real life.
My story isn’t as dramatic, but it is similar in that my own encounter with authentic Christian community did two things: it clarified the gospel for me, and it kept me in the Church. You can live off good ideas alone for only so long.
I had my intellectual conversion to the Faith (in large part, thanks to Catholic Answers, praise the Lord!) as a young adult, but the idea of the Faith is quite a different thing from the sort of life the Faith generates. I would go so far as to say I didn’t really know what being a Christian meant and how to be one until “the encounter” happened to me.
To make another long story short, I met Christians who embodied and communicated to me in friendship (not in words) the gratuitous and unconditional love of God. They showed me that he is a personal God who cares about my happiness—not just eternally, but temporally as well. And then they taught me how to identify traces of his love in my life—in my real life, not in my head.
Father Giussani, the Italian priest who founded Communion and Liberation, the lay ecclesial movement of the Church (it sounds like Liberation Theology, but it is not!), spoke often about the two reductions of the gospel so prevalent in our current ecclesial climate: moralism, on the one hand, and sentimentalism, on the other.
A moralistic reduction of the gospel is what Pope Benedict is referring to when he says being a Christian is not primarily about ethics. This does not in any way downplay the Church’s essential moral teachings. Jesus was explicit when he said, “He who loves me keeps my commandments” (John 14:15). But the point isn’t about the rules; the point is about love and life . . . he who loves me, etc. The origin of our morality is love and love alone.
On the other extreme, we see the reduction of the gospel to sentimentalism. Regarding this, in a later encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), Benedict wrote, “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance.”
Again, Christianity is the idea that works in real life. It changes life. It makes things new. It gives life “a decisive direction.” It certainly did that for my former trans friend! And it did and continues to do that for me.
When the actual Christian “thing” is done, the “Christian thing” works. If it’s not working now, it’s because it’s not the gospel. This is why the popes have called for a “New Evangelization.” In other words, Christians themselves need to be re-evangelized in order to be able to propose the authentic gospel to an unbelieving world.
Before the end of the Second Vatican Council, in 1964, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (the now late Pope Benedict XVI) preached to Christians:
How far we are from a world in which people no longer need to be taught about God because He is present within us. It has been asserted that our century is characterized by an entirely new phenomenon: the appearance of people incapable of relating to God.
In the twenty-first century, this phenomenon is still with us. For my friend, one of the primary draws to the trans community was the affirmation and friendship it advertised. We know from the research of journalist Abigail Shrier that the current transgender movement is less about gender dysphoria and more about social contagion. Why? The promise of an encounter with an accepting community. Shrier notes that this problem manifests especially in teenage girls. That’s easy to believe when teenage depression in America has reached a breaking point. The loneliest demographic? Teenage girls.
The intellectual life of the Church convinced me of the truth. The encounter with the communal life of the Church brought the truth to life and kept me in the Faith. C.S. Lewis characterized the work of the New Evangelization (without knowing or using that phrase) more like trying to “win a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage” than “wooing a maiden.” The stakes are high, but that is our call.
All the time and emotional energy we spend on shallow politics and the outrage of the day can better be spent living out our personal vocations as witnesses, and friends, and the community that others can encounter as provocations to the newness and life-changing power of the Christian faith. But we can get there only if what we are witnessing is the actual gospel. Because despite all the good ideas out there, there’s only one idea that actually and truly works.