Parsing the “T”

George Weigel

About five years ago, a friend took her son with her when she went to a beauty shop to get her hair cut. The hairdresser was snipping away and the boy was engrossed in reading on his Kindle when another mother came into the shop with her daughter in tow. The daughter was carrying an American Girls doll, and the mother announced to the entire beauty shop, “We’re here to get the doll’s hair cut. We’re transgendering her!”

Thankfully, my friend’s son, a big-time reader, missed all this. But if her seven-year old had asked, “Mommy, what’s ‘transgendering’?” what, my friend asked me, was she supposed to say?

What, indeed?

Many people seem tongue-tied when it comes to the “T” in “LGBT.” The virtue-signaling mother in that beauty shop notwithstanding, there’s an intuitive understanding that we’re dealing here with real psychological distress – “gender dysphoria” in the technical vocabulary – and that this and similar problems ought not be political ping-pong balls, because lives are at stake. Unfortunately, that reticence to discuss the “T” storm inside the broader “LGBT” tsunami leaves the field to partisans of “gender reassignment” in all its forms, which now include prescribing puberty-blocking drugs to pre-pubescent children claiming to be something other than what they are. Moreover, nine states, the District of Columbia, and thirty-three local jurisdictions have laws banning mental health professionals from offering “conversion therapies” to minors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. California, leading the Gadarene rush over the cliff as usual, now provides state-funded “sex-reassignment surgery” to prisoners; the first recipient of this “benefit” was Shiloh Heavenly Quine, a first-degree murderer/kidnapper serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

No one familiar with the relevant literature denies that gender dysphoria is real, or that the formation of gender identity is sometimes a complicated and tortuous business. In today’s cultural and political climate, however, to suggest that the current stampede to accept claims that a decade ago would have been regarded as signs of serious psychological disturbance – and that are still regarded as such by eminent psychiatrists – is to risk being shamed and cast to the margins of society as a bigot. Like the rest of the “LGBT” phenomenon, the “T” has become thoroughly politicized, indeed weaponized.

For those concerned that men, women, children, and their future happiness are being seriously wounded in all this – and that grave damage is being done to medical ethics and law – a good place to begin examining the whole “T” phenomenon is Ryan T. Anderson’s recently published study, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books).

Anderson (whose accomplishments include playing the hammered dulcimer) is one of America’s most engaging young intellectuals. And his virtues as a scholar – solid research, rigorous thinking, careful judgment, and a profound compassion for troubled human beings – are on full display in his book. So is his courage, having taken a public bludgeoning for his defense of marriage rightly understood prior to the Supreme Court’s imposition of “same-sex marriage” on the entire country. Ryan Anderson has now tackled another fevered social issue from what today’s cultural tastemakers and enforcers regard as the wrong side of a red line. He did it, he tells us, because of stories “from people who had detransitioned” (i.e., had recognized that their “sex-reassignment” was a terrible mistake). Those stories, he writes, “are heartbreaking. I had to do what I could to prevent more people from suffering the same way.”

Would that a medical profession increasingly cowed by politically-correct bullying would display a similar compassion. Or a similar integrity, for, as Anderson writes, “the largest and most rigorous academic study on the results of hormonal and surgical transitioning . . . found strong evidence of poor psychological outcomes.” But as on euthanasia, as first on abortion and now on “transgendering,” the Hippocratic Oath seems to have fallen into the dustbin of history.

Lent is a good season to reflect on the givens of life, and how denying those givens inevitably leads to unhappiness, sorrow, and even self-destruction. The revolt against Things-As-They-Are began in Eden; it continues today, and it always leads us away from the beatitude for which we were created. Ryan Anderson’s book is a thoughtful reminder of that hard, but ultimately redeeming truth, and an oasis of sense in a desert of nonsense.

COMING UP: Forming mind and heart in faith

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.