When I was sidewalk counseling outside of a Pittsburgh abortion clinic week after week in college, I began to ponder what the root cause of women rushing past me truly was. Attempting to hand out a pamphlet about baby development or local resources is important, but is it really good enough?
At the time, I was led to a paragraph in St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, in which he wrote about the root cause of the culture of death as the “eclipse of the sense of God and of man.” If our vision of God is obscured, so too is our understanding of the human person. Similarly, when we don’t know who we are, we have a difficult time glimpsing God in whose image we are created.
Fast-forward more than a decade to the confusion and morass surrounding issues of gender identity. So many of us feel absolutely paralyzed to discuss these issues or to be confronted at home, work, parish or school with questions that might lead to labels of bigotry or accusations of hatred.
As ever-pragmatic Americans, the new Vatican document Male and Female He Created Them might initially disappoint. It doesn’t offer concrete policy directives or easy answers.
What the document does best is to remind us of what is at root. We do not understand our true nature – Christian anthropology – and therefore we think we can make ourselves. Male and Female is an invitation, maybe even a command, to go beyond Band-Aids and quick fixes and instead to aim for the foundation.
In a particularly prescient passage, the Vatican points to philosophical errors undergirding gender confusion today. One such underlying presupposition is the “combination of physicalism and voluntarism [which] gives rise to relativism.” In other words, our separation of the body from the soul, combined with the idea that meaning is extrinsically injected into things by our will (instead of having an inherent, given purpose or structure), leads to the possibility of a man or a woman attempting to change their sexual identity.
These are the concepts, ideas and presuppositions that must be delved into in order adequately to understand the nature of sexual difference. Love, freedom, truth, givenness, relationality are concepts that need to be explored in age-appropriate ways from birth.
Seven years ago I embarked on the adventure of writing an eight-semester high school Theology of the Body curriculum. “Called to be More,” which was released in full last fall, is the high-school portion of ROOTED, Ruah Woods Press’ K-12 supplemental curriculum on St. John Paul II’s work.
For every grade level of the curriculum, a few unique principles were kept in mind. First was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s phrase, “Beauty will save the world.” From the artwork chosen to the stories shared, the writers, editors and designer wanted beauty to capture the hearts of the students and to invite them into something more. The curriculum is not against something but for authentic truth and goodness.
Secondly, each grade level shares continuity with the others in exploring foundational concepts at the heart of the identity of the human person. It’s not a “chastity program,” but perhaps more aptly, an opportunity for human formation.
Finally, the writing team wanted a curriculum that didn’t just teach the content of the Theology of the Body, but also relied on a method faithful to St. John Paul II and the dignity of the person. For kindergarten-5th grade that method involves rich children’s literature – the power of story to engage and transform us. In 6th-8th grade, students are challenged to reflect on their own human experiences and how these echo the work of God in their hearts. High-school students are engaged with thoughtful discussion questions, mirroring the late Holy Father’s gift for speaking to young people by thinking with them.
Even the method of the ROOTED curriculum seems to be affirmed in Male and Female, which suggests adopting the approach of listening, reasoning and proposing when educating young people in matters pertaining to sexual identity.
Are we truly present to those we are teaching, entering into conversation and not simply lecturing? Do we offer logical explanations instead of relying on cop-out answers (“That’s just the way God made it”) that suggest that sexual difference is arbitrary? Do we invite others to see the beauty and truth of sexual difference or are we imposing in a confrontational way?
Another striking element of Male and Female is the call for the “formation of formators” to be communal. When we are (or even simply feel) isolated, the challenges of articulating the true vision of the human person are particularly overwhelming. Not only is the support and mutual sharing of educators helpful, but it also is another match between content and method.
When we share with our students that the human person is uniquely “for” another and is inherently relational, the witness of living in community with others bears this out. It’s an example of the words of St. Paul VI quoted by the document: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
The promulgation of Male and Female offers an invitation to enter into a communal experience with other educators, priests, mothers and fathers in order to discuss together how we can receive the Church’s advice and enter the minefield of gender theory. It might involve attending a workshop dedicated to the topic or grabbing coffee with friends. However we begin, we know we need to do so together.