The Catholic doctrine of the imago Dei – that man is made in the very ‘image of God’ – looks perhaps simple at first glance, yet in reality its nuances are critical to the discussion of the human person. The imago Dei situates man as an “in-between” creature, a rational animal, higher than the beasts but lower than the angels. He exists as a spiritualised body and an embodied spirit; body and soul are intimately connected. Further, God the Trinity is a communion of persons; thus man, as His image, must similarly be made for relationship. Indeed, the person cannot be fulfilled without communion. “Only by opening himself to the other,” states Benedict XVI, “does [man] discover the breadth of humanity”; without relationship, “essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.” At the same time, man is poised not only towards his fellow man but also towards God. These truths bring out two points which are vital to a discussion of transgender ideology. First, body and soul are integrated and equal aspects of humanity. Second, man is made for communion with both God and man. The philosophy of transgender activists today, however, sits in direct opposition to both these truths.
‘Transgender’ ontology may be summed up as “the belief that an internal sense of gender determines a person’s sex.” The influence of atheistic existentialism, the belief that each individual determines his own nature, is clear in this belief. Furthermore, activists claim that gender identity is not fixed but fluid, that it “can change every day or even every few hours.” Following Sartre, they believe that humans are not bound to one lifelong choice but have freedom to continuously choose their identity. “People are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence,” even whilst their claims may vary at any given moment with no loss of credibility. In this perspective of gender, transitioning to the opposite sex is not seen as a change from one sex to another, but as becoming who one truly is. Biological sex is re-branded as “sex assigned at birth,” an outside imposition, and transgender expression is considered “a healthy, appropriate and typical aspect of human development.” Thus mind and body are opposed; the body is maligned as a social construct while the mind alone determines sex. A transgender woman never was a man, because her “internal sense of gender” was always female.
Such an existentialist philosophy applied to the human person leads necessarily to a deep misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. Freedom to create oneself accompanies the denial of a Creator, but denying a Creator strips man of his status and dignity as the image of God. Without insight into man’s spiritual nature, humans become mere matter, endlessly manipulable. In this utilitarian perspective, nothing is off limits if it brings pleasure to many. Furthermore, freedom from God implies freedom from human relationships, and radical autonomy comes to be deified. As Rousseau stated in the eighteenth century, the natural state of man is to be alone. Transgender activists take their cue from the French philosophe, denying that the rights of transgender individuals answer in any respect to the rights of others. In the recent controversy over whether transgender individuals may use bathrooms belonging to the sex as which they identify, activists argued that forcing them to use separate bathrooms impeaches upon their rights. The parallel rights of an individual who might be uncomfortable sharing facilities with a biological member of the opposite sex were summarily dismissed: “to insist that a transgender individual use a separate restroom … no matter the policy justification in terms of other people’s privacy or safety, is unacceptable.” In this somewhat contradictory view of human freedom, individual rights would seem to be paramount, yet activists extend such freedom only to transgender individuals, dismissing any resultant infringement upon others’ rights.
Conversely, Cardinal Ratzinger describes freedom as existing within the framework of human ‘relationality’. Stating that an unborn child is “a very graphic depiction of the essence of human existence in general,” he observes that it is impossible for anyone to possess radical autonomy. By man’s very nature, he is being-from, being-with, and being-for: he has parents, is oriented in his body towards the opposite sex, so being himself a potential parent. Such relationality is inescapable, for it is obviously fundamental to human nature; human beings cannot come into existence without it. Rights, therefore, exist not in a vacuum but within a society, and for the same reason rights presuppose duties and responsibilities. Furthermore, man is made for a specific purpose and end, unity with God, leading the Catholic Church to define freedom not as radical autonomy or the right to define one’s own nature, but as the gift of choosing communion with God. Such freedom is not unlimited or radical; rather, it is curbed by natural law and human nature. These limits, however, should not be understood as ‘God the rule-giver’ imposing arbitrary decrees, but as God the loving Father guiding man to his greatest good: salvation.
Yet gender activists view the body as “a problematic limit to freedom,” that is, “freedom conceived as pure self-initiating self-determination.” Rather than allotting the body dignity as an integral part of the human person, they follow Descartes in dividing man into a thinking substance (mind) and an extended substance (body). The true self lies in the former whilst the body simply “serves at the pleasure of the conscious self, to which it is subject.” So activists can justify their statement that encouraging a gender-dysphoric child to “feel more comfortable in his or her body is unethical and likely to be harmful,” because the “real” person is the one within the child’s mind, and the body must be subjugated. No more has sexual difference, which lies in the body, anything to do with the “real” person. Sexual difference creates inferiority; it is a harmful social construct which must be eliminated. In this ontology, the human person is utterly unintegrated, for gender, sex, and sexuality are all distinct. The Gender Unicorn, an educational gimmick employed in schools, distinguishes them in the following manner: gender identity, existing in the mind, defines the person, whilst biological sex is redefined as the insignificant “sex assigned at birth”, and both physical and emotional attraction – sexuality – are located in the heart. None of these rely on or relate to any of the others; a person assigned as female might well identify as a man whilst being attracted to men, and any other mix-and-match combination of gender, sex, and sexuality would also be perfectly normal.
Catholic teaching once again counters this philosophy, acclaiming the body as essential to personal identity. The body communicates the self to others and allows one to demonstrate love; it is the part of man which makes communion possible. Without the body, therefore, human fulfilment would be unattainable. Sexual difference, moreover, is a fundamental part of the body, for sex orders man and woman to communion in different ways. Scripture highlights the integrality of sex to the human person, stating, “So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The male-female distinction is as fundamental to humanity as the imago Dei, for sexual difference reveals that man is meant for the revelation of his person in a life-giving self-gift that mirrors Trinitarian love and communion. “Only in self-giving,” says Benedict XVI, “does man find himself.” Nor is gender separate from sex as the Gender Unicorn would have one believe. The root of “gender”, gen, is also found in words like “engendered, gendered, and generous,” drawing attention back to the fact that human nature necessarily entails being-from, being-with, and being-for.
Without such a proper theological anthropology, activists lose all sense of man’s exceptional calling as imago Dei and of his transcendence beyond the material. But in reality, man is more than matter; he is a unity of body and spirit made in the image of God. Man is unfulfilled as a person until he images God in his relationships not only with God but also with his fellow man, which includes accepting and celebrating sexual difference as a vital element of human identity. When an individual mutilates his body in an attempt to become the opposite sex, he mutilates an essential part of who God created him to be. He does not become himself; he destroys himself. A 2018 New York Times op-ed implicitly and unintentionally acknowledges this truth in its depiction of deep pain, which suggests that perhaps matter is indeed not so dispensable as activists believe. Andrea Long Chu writes, “Dysphoria feels like being unable to get warm, no matter how many layers you put on… It feels like grieving. It feels like having nothing to grieve.” Man is not meant to live in such existential misery. Rather, he is meant to discover his unique identity as a member of a human community and a beloved child of God, created for eternal joy in union with God.
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Ratzinger, J. (1996, Spring). Truth and Freedom. Communio 23.
 Meilaender, G. (2009). Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. New York, NY: New Atlantis Books, 4.
 John Paul II (1994). Letter to Families, § 19. Vatican Website, retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_02021994_families.html
 International Theological Commission. Communion and Stewardship, § 25. Vatican Website, retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html
 Benedict XVI (2012). Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia. Vatican Website, retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2012/december/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20121221_auguri-curia.html
 Communion and Stewardship, § 10.
 Anderson, R.T. (2019). When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. New York, NY: Encounter Books, 34.
 Booker, L. (2016, April 13). What it means to be gender-fluid. CNN, quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 39.
 When Harry Became Sally, 29.
 Cf. Rude, M. (2014, June 5). It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of ‘Biological Sex’ to Defend Their Transmisogny. Autostraddle, quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 31.
 Human Rights Campaign. Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools, http://assets.hrc.org//files/assets/resources/Schools-In-Transition.pdf, 3, quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 38.
 McCarthy, M. (2016, Summer). Gender Ideology and the Humanum. Communio 43, 283-4.
 Munro, A. State of nature. Encyclopaedia Britannica, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/state-of-nature-political-theory
 Declaration of Randi Ettner, Ph.D., U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina, Case 1:16-cv-236-TDS-JEP, 5, quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 42. Emphasis added.
 Ratzinger, J. (1996, Spring). Truth and Freedom. Communio 23, 27.
 Benedict XVI (2009). Caritas in Veritate, § 43. Vatican Website, retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html
 Communion and Stewardship, § 44.
 Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2004). Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, § 135-6. Vatican Website, retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html
 Gender Ideology and the Humanum, 284.
 George, R.P. (2016, December). Gnostic Liberalism. First Things, quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 105.
 When Harry Became Sally, 38.
 Cf. When Harry Became Sally, 151-2 and Gender Ideology and the Humanum, 283-4.
 When Harry Became Sally, 32-3.
 Communion and Stewardship, § 32-3.
 Gen. 1:27
 Communion and Stewardship, § 38.
 Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia.
 McCarthy, M.H. The Emperor’s (New) Clothes: A Look at the logic of the (not so) new ‘gender ideology’. Catholic Women’s Forum, confidential working paper (on file with author), 18. Quoted in When Harry Became Sally, 160.
 Chu, A.L. (2018, November 24). My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy. The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/opinion/sunday/vaginoplasty-transgender-medicine.html