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Magazine • Humanae Vitae at 50

Gender Confusion: The Unforeseen Offspring of Contraception

Most every societal scourge in the sexual arena can be traced to the separation of sex—and eventually the family—from their intended purposes

On the contemporary scene, there are few subjects more apt to confuse than gender confusion. The subject itself is confusing because by its very nature it is amorphous—shifting and impossible to define.

Various websites publish a range of different attitudes and opinions about sex and gender, some outrageously arcane, argumentative, and agenda- driven, others sane and balanced. One article begins to explain the current transgender agenda simply by separating the concept of sex from the concept of gender. Sex is biological and gender is psychological. Or, as a celebrity transgendered person put it, “Sex is between your legs. Gender is between your ears.”

However, other proponents explain to the bewildered that even the biological characteristics of sex are ambiguous. Physical androgyny exists, levels of female and male hormones are on a continuum, and socially acceptable male and female behaviors are blurred, contradictory, and confusing. If the biology of sex is ambiguous, the gender options seem endless. One website suggests there are sixty-three different genders, and another says they cannot be numbered because each person must define his or her own gender as he or she sees fit.

It must be admitted that there are biological anomalies in both the formation of genitalia and in hormonal levels; and it must also be acknowledged that the authority of family, religion, education, peer pressure, and society in general help to form a person’s self awareness as a man or woman. Those who wish to impose the concept of gender fluidity on our society emphasize this latter point. “Gender is a societal construct!” they trumpet.

While they have a point, they should understand that this argument is a two-way street. What I would like to explore is the theory that gender fluidity is itself a societal construct and that it is one of the results of the universal acceptance of artificial contraception that has followed in the wake of Humanae Vitae.

A hesitation

First of all, I am not a sociologist, biologist, psychologist, or sexologist. I am a Catholic priest. Therefore, the argument I am putting forth is not one that is backed up by scientific data, the results of sociological studies, psychological research, or sexual surveys. Nevertheless, as a Catholic priest, I do have experience in considering the larger issues about the meaning of human life, the challenges of learning how to love within the family, and the struggles people of all ages have in the area of sexuality.

A person interested in theology often can see the bigger trends and the larger picture than an expert whose vision must naturally be narrowed so he may focus on his particular area of research. Therefore, my musings on this topic will be of a general and broad nature, allowing others who may wish to continue the discussion to bring their own skills and expertise to the table.

I also hesitate because the subject of human sexuality takes us into territory that is not only intimate but also vulnerable. There are few areas of our lives that are tenderer and more easily damaged than our sexuality. This is because that is the part of our lives that is also part of our loves. I hesitate not only because I am tiptoeing through a minefield of emotions but also because I am going where angels fear to tread. I hesitate because I do not wish to offend, and this is not because I wish to be politically correct but because I wish to be pastorally compassionate.

Finally, I hesitate because, with the current trend of gender confusion, we are in new territory. People ask me, “Father, what does the Church teach about transgender issues?” I have to answer that I really don’t know. We are living in a brave new world where all the time-tested verities are being trashed. For many complicated reasons, people are confused about gender, and they are confused about being confused. I do not think there are quick and easy answers that are not also curt and condemnatory.

So I hesitate.

Contraception contra ecclesiam

We have to face the reality that the majority of humans today accept without demur the goodness of artificial contraception. When the Anglican Church made its fateful decision in 1930 to allow artificial contraception, most Christian churches soon followed.

The Catholic Church held out, and the astounding decision of Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1968 to resist the rising tide in favor of artificial contraception has ended in a battle that might be called “Contraception vs. the Church”—and contraception has won. In the non-Catholic world, very few would dare to suggest that there is anything wrong with artificial contraception; and today, even though the Church officially prohibits artificial contraception, the majority of Catholics (even some of those who agree with Church teaching) disobey the Church’s rules.

Now, half a century on, we are seeing the results. Other commentators have observed that Paul VI’s warnings have not only come true but also that they were not apocalyptic enough. He gave four general warnings:

  • There would be increased infidelity and moral decadence
  • Respect for women would decline
  • Medical engineers would abuse the power to exert forced population control
  • Mankind would claim total dominion over the procreative process and thus dehumanize humanity

All of this has come to pass and much more. In fulfillment of the fourth warning, alongside artificial contraception we have artificial conception and procreation. With cloning, egg and sperm donation, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, artificial wombs, gender transitioning, genetic engineering, and human-animal chimeras, virtually anything is possible. The effect is a culture in which conception has been effectively separated from the sexual act, and gender confusion is one of the logical societal results.

On the broader perspective, what is gender confusion? It is a widespread misunderstanding and bewilderment not only about what it means to be a man or a woman but also what it means to be a human being. Our identity as individual humans is inextricably linked to our individual identity as male or female, and when that foundation of the personality becomes shaky, the entire edifice of identity as human beings starts to tremble.

What is a man? Or a woman?

If we are to see the big picture, we must start at the beginning. The Genesis story tells us that God created male and female and that his first command to them was “be fruitful and multiply.” In this creation, God established the identity of the human person as complementary male and female. In his first commandment (“Be fruitful and multiply”) he was also teaching the man and the woman what it means to be a man and a woman. Put simply, a man is a father and a woman is a mother.

This seems so simple and obvious that it should not need stating. Indeed, the fact that it needs to be asserted is what is so worrying. These truths are written so deeply in our biology, our humanity, and our culture that virtually every human being in every society everywhere and in every age has understood that to be a man is to be a father and to be a woman is to be a mother. That is not only what their reproductive organs were for, that is what they were for. They were created to procreate.

This truth is written so deeply into our self-awareness that we know it to be true, even when a particular man or a particular woman did not happen to be a mother or a father. For whatever reasons, a man may never have become a father, or a woman a mother, but we still understood that, even in that absence, they were a potential father and a potential mother. Where, because of religion, a man or woman chose the path of celibacy, we still used those familiar, familial terms and referred to the priest as “Father” the abbess as “Mother” and the religious as “Brother” and “Sister.” Even the terms brother and sister affirmed a family relationship that interfaced with mother and father.

To be a man was to be a father, and to be a woman was to be a mother, and if because of a biological abnormality, same-sex attraction, or some psychological disposition they were not able to be a mother or a father, we considered that person to be wounded in some way. Society considered them abnormal.

It is true that because of human nature and the dynamics of society, such people were sometimes excluded and ostracized. However, very often they were welcomed as part of the family, and a place was made for them at the table. Whether they were accepted or ostracized, the point remains that they were considered to be unusual men and women, because they were not able (for whatever reasons) to become mothers and fathers.

The breakage and the breakdown

If to be a man meant being a father, and to be a woman meant being a mother, then it was also obvious what sex and marriage were for. Sex and marriage were not only for making babies; they were also for making fathers out of men and mothers out of women. This natural process was, therefore, not only a way to bring new life into the world. It was also a way for a man’s masculinity to be fulfilled and for a woman to become fully a woman.

It is easy to see that artificial contraception and sterilization break this natural dynamic. Of course, the argument of difficult cases arises. There are always difficult cases, but I am concerned here with the big picture and the general trends, and the general trend that has come to prevail is that the sexual act has nothing to do with making babies. To use a hackneyed phrase, “Sex is now about recreation, not procreation.” Or, as G.K. Chesterton quipped, “Birth control? No birth. No control.” If sex was no longer about having babies, several things follow logically.

First, marriage is automatically redefined. Instead of being a life-giving sacrament of self-sacrifice, marriage becomes a sacrament of self-satisfaction. If married sex is only about the unity between the man and woman, then even this is ultimately only about mutual satisfaction and pleasure. It then follows that when the satisfaction and pleasure ceases, a particular marriage is no longer fulfilling its pur-pose and might as well be ended so the partners can search for their satisfaction elsewhere.

Second, if sex is only about satisfaction, then same-sex relationships are licit. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex must, by their definition, be closed to the procreation of life, and, like contraceptive sex, can only therefore be about satisfaction. A distorted self-fulfillment is also at play here. Homosexuality also becomes an attempt for a man to affirm his masculinity, in this case not by becoming a father but by forging a bond and sexual union with another man. The creation of life by homosexuals through sperm donation and surrogacy is therefore a bizarre twist—as if the homosexual man still needs to affirm his masculinity by becoming a father, but through the exploitation of a woman surrogate and procreative technology of Frankensteinian proportions.

Third, radical feminism and lesbianism follow logically from the rupture between the sexual act and procreation. If the woman no longer needs to fulfill her female identity by becoming a mother, she may seek to nurture her female identity by bonding with another female. She may also, through a feminist ideology, seek a feminine identity through the pursuit of power, asserting her power most effectively by not only choosing her own sexual partners but also by insisting on “reproductive choice”—including the abortion of her unborn children and so the extermination of her motherhood. In another bizarre twist, therefore, the woman asserts her feminine identity not by becoming a mother but by becoming a kind of anti-mother.

The transgender agenda

The transgender phenomenon is complex and doubtless has many sources. But in the general view, gender confusion is simply the logical outcome of a societal break with the traditional understanding not only of sexual roles but also of the meaning of the sexual act itself—and therefore the meaning of masculinity and femininity.

The human person is a complex unity, and to be uncertain about the meaning of the sexual act is to be uncertain about the meaning of marriage, and to be uncertain about the meaning of marriage is to be uncertain about the meaning of man and woman, and to be uncertain about masculinity and femininity is to be confused about gender. Put very simply: when the sexual act was no longer about becoming a father and a mother, it also stopped being about a man and a woman.

So what does it mean to be a man or to be a woman? What does it mean to be male or female? What does it mean to be a mother or a father? The formation of a child’s sexual identity is rooted in his early years in the family and consolidated by his experience of adolescence. In the past, young men were formed as men and potential fathers, and young women were formed as women and potential mothers, within the secure certainty of the extended family. Ideally, this formation was accomplished by loving and caring mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, and aunts and uncles who were themselves secure in their identity as women and men and mothers and fathers.

As the contraceptive culture spread like a cancer through society, it contributed (along with many other factors) to the breakdown of these family units. As a generation of men and women used artificial contraception, the strength of their identity and purpose as mothers and fathers was weakened, and their self-identity as men and women was gradually, imperceptibly weakened. Bit by bit, even in good and stable families, what it meant to be a successful man or woman deteriorated from being strong fathers and mothers to being about sexual pleasure, satisfaction, and material success. This disintegration of the family, caused partially by the contraceptive mentality, also contributed to the rising confusion about gender identity.

If there were no mothers and fathers present, or there were multiple mothers and fathers, children naturally became confused about not only mothers and fathers but also about what it means to be male or female. If their mother was feminist, or their father homosexual, or a stepfather or stepmother was distant or abusive, the problems of clear and unambiguous sexual identities were further complicated.

Those who would argue that the traditional gender roles of man and woman as father and mother are merely social constructs should admit that transgenderism is also largely a social construct. Those who argue for a phenomenon being a social construct would admit that the social construct is, for the most part, unconscious and unintentional. People in societies try to form their children according to certain basic assumptions. They build their world on underlying realities they consider to be unassailable—simply and undeniably true.

If this is true about traditional gender roles, then it is also true of the current transgender agenda. If they abide by the rules of logic, those who argue for umpteen different genders and who would dispute my thesis that to be a man is to be father and to be a woman is to be a mother must admit that their own agenda is rooted in basic assumptions and certain realities they consider to be undeniably true. If they use biological, sociological, psychological, and sexual data, they must see that they are doing so in precisely the same way those who have argued for the essential truths of the traditional model.

The only difference is this: the traditional model is one that has been part of not only human biology but also of human culture in every place and in every culture at every time down through the ages. It is no exaggeration to say that the traditional model not only defined the meaning of the sexual act rooted in biological reality, it also defined the what it means to be male and female—and therefore what it means to be human.

All revolutions are violent, and the sexual revolution has been no exception. The invention and introduction of artificial contraception brought about a revolution never before seen in the history of humanity. Along with the other dire predictions of Paul VI, gender confusion is a result of this rupture, and the role of Christians in the midst of a revolution has always been to suffer as martyrs but also to shelter the victims—and eventually to emerge into the aftermath, rebuild, and find new life and new love in the ruins.

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