John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Last Sunday’s Second Reading focused upon diversity in the Mystical Body of Christ: just as each part of the body contributes something to the whole without which the whole would be impoverished, so each member of the Body of Christ makes an irreplaceable contribution because each person is unique and has his own vocation appointed by God.
The human body is an organic, functioning whole. That is the image St. Paul builds on in this text from First Corinthians. For the body to be what it is supposed to be, each part of the body must play its role, and that role is irreplaceable and non-substitutable. Eyes can’t be ears, legs can’t be hands, and ears can’t be noses.
It’s not just pretty poetry, either. Any competent doctor knows that if one part of the body is not working right, others will try to compensate, usually to their own detriment. If the humble teeth are missing or misaligned, food will not be properly chewed, meaning that without proper mastication, the stomach will have to work harder (and often not as successfully) to digest what it receives. If the fat tissues are allowed to blossom, the heart must increase its activity to maintain proper bodily function until, under the pressure of heightened workload, it gives out.
Even diseases follow courses. Oncologists know that cancer progresses through various stages: even pathology generally follows a certain order or trend. Nobody says: “Wow! He has colon cancer. Wonder what’s gonna happen next?”
Our bodies are integrated, functioning wholes. Each bodily part and each bodily system does something that others cannot do to maintain the total equilibrium and purpose of the body. As long as integrated functioning is there, so is life; when integration breaks down, death ensues. (Since we are marking 50 years this year in the attempt to shift from the classic heart-lung stoppage definition of death to “brain death” definitions of death, it’s worth remembering that, for most of human history, one “died” when the body was no longer capable of functioning as a whole. Philosophically, this also made sense, because if the soul is the integrating and animating principle of the body, the separation of body and soul would occur when the soul was no longer capable of maintaining integrated corporeal function).
All of this should seem undeniable. So why is it, when we try to apply these principles to pet preferences of modernity, do we want to start denying them?
We hear St. Paul say that an eye cannot ignore an ear nor a foot a hand and we say “true.” So why do we think that we can ignore our fertility?
Yes, fertility is part of the body. It is normally a part of integrated bodily function. A normal human being, developing normally, will become a sexually fertile being with the onset of puberty and will remain fertile, periodically until menopause for women, constantly until old age for men. That is normal bodily development.
Yet ours is a culture that accepts and even promotes contraception. Contraception is not normal. It treats fertility not as a natural and normal aspect of bodily being but as a disease. Medication is normally taken to suppress pathologies, not natural functions. And, let’s be honest: most people use contraceptives out of convenience. Their fertility is not a pathology — it’s just not wanted.
Indeed, let’s consider the current trend to promote “sexual transition” among “transgender” minors. It involves saying that not just normal functions like fertility, but whole normal developmental phases like puberty should be medically suppressed. It involves saying, in girls, that healthy breasts should be removed.
As Ryan Anderson points out in his masterful book, When Harry Became Sally, it involves destroying real body parts to make fake and unworkable ones. Real vaginas can become real birth canals; orifices carved out of amputated penises are not vaginas. Last November, a man thinking he’s a woman, Andrea Long Chu, wrote honestly in the New York Times: “Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. [But t]his is what I want ….” At least his body is honest.
So if eyes can’t be ears without doing injustice to the integrated functioning of the body, why do we think sterilized pseudo-sexual “organs” can substitute for the real thing?
That brings me to a second point in Paul’s reading. In discussing the ordering of the body, he writes: “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.”
The Psalmist reminds us that “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). For the Catholic, our body is not just a set of blind potentialities, some sub-personal set of rhythms and pulses devoid of meaning until the mind gives them one. As Catholics, since we believe that man is the product of God’s creation (irrespective of how He carried out the work of creation) means that there is meaning and purpose in how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” that is normative, that reflects the Creator’s Will, and that does not depend on my will.
Therefore, fertility is not something sub-personal, just a “biological rhythm” whose utility (or inconvenience) is open to determination by my will. Fertility is God’s gift to man, part of the integrated functioning of the human person as a social being, as a member of the species. It is a paradox of modernity that, even as we profess our concern for the environment and man’s place within it, we fail to reckon with the fact that being part of a species means having a role in the preservation and continuation of that species. This is perfectly comprehensible to natural reason.
Where biblical revelation comes into the picture is that fertility, part of the created endowment of humanity given to men and women by the Creator is also a blessing. Indeed, it is God’s first blessing to humanity: after creating mankind male and female (and not fifty shades of “gender”), God’s first act is to bless them to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
The modern world is progressively destroying the notion of the body as an integrated whole, and has even longer lost the concept that the bodily integration represents the Creator’s Will. Instead, it embraces a body that is some sub-personal clay that the “I” (understood as will) can mold as it wants to whatever end I want. So, we can be all eye if we want or define what is normative as we wish. If biological reality has no controlling value (as the transgender argument contends) then, as one commentator noted, if a person really believes he is paraplegic “caught” in a “differently abled” body, can he morally freeze his limbs to disable his hands or feet to match his mental idea of “himself?”
Would that make sense to Paul?
Or to Him who placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as He intended?