The Emperor’s New Body
I’m sure we’re all becoming a little tired of hearing about Bruce Jenner and Caitlyn, his new female identity, but I can’t simply ignore a cultural (well, maybe “pop-cultural”) event that is both so large and so perfectly captures the spirit of the age. I’m not speaking so much of Jenner himself, however (except to offer the suggestion, as others have done, that he is very much in need of our prayers), I’m more interested in the reaction from the elite opinion makers, the media, and society at large. They remind me of the well-known story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, but with an important difference. Most of us are familiar with the old fable of the foppish monarch deceived by con-men who exploit his vanity to convince him that he is wearing a splendid new set of clothes, when in fact he is strutting about stark naked. None of his subjects dare to say anything other than agree that his new “clothes” are indeed magnificent, except for one innocent little boy who blurts out the truth that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That breaks the spell, and the emperor and his subjects, realizing how foolish they have been, come to new wisdom.
The first part rings true. The news media and the arbiters of the conventional wisdom are falling over themselves to call Bruce Jenner “she” and tout his purported bravery, even though he is not really a woman at all, but a man whose outward appearance has been altered by plastic surgery and breast implants. So far, life imitates art. But back to the story: imagine that, instead of sheepishly admitting their foolishness, the emperor’s subjects instead grab the little boy by the scruff of the neck, throw him over the town wall into the moat, and then go back to congratulating the deluded emperor. That’s how it works in our world. Anyone who does not publicly affirm that Jenner has indeed become a woman, and that this is a marvelous thing, risks being castigated as a “hater” by the cultural elites, and suffering the same treatment as, for instance, the various business executives, bakers, photographers, etc., who have had the temerity to support marriage as it has been traditionally understood. Such are the times in which we live.
Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss
And those are curious times indeed, an era that only someone with a keen sense of irony can truly appreciate. The two chief ironies that dominate our age both spring from the widespread rejection of God. The first is that, taking our Lord to be a tyrant, we sought freedom from His laws, and as result find ourselves instead enmeshed in an endlessly growing tangle of man-made rules that are no less oppressive than the old laws, and in fact much more so, because they lack the clarity and consistency of the old ways. More importantly, they are not founded, as are God’s laws, on a perfect understanding of what our human nature requires. On our college campuses, for instance, the simple and straightforward (not to mention commonsensical) mandate that young men and women are not to fornicate has been abolished; in its place has sprung up an excruciatingly byzantine welter of regulations governing what constitutes consent for said fornication, when and how often such consent must be given, and so on. It is near impossible to keep up with each new embellishment, but woe to the unhappy individual (invariably a young man) who runs afoul of the newest dictate. By the same logic, our freedom to express our opinions on the matter of human sexuality must defer to the freedom of Bruce Jenner (or whoever) to declare themselves whatever gender they claim to be, even if it’s a “gender” we’ve never heard of before.
“What About Women Who Are Male?”
The second irony, closely connected to the first, is best summed up in the remark often attributed to G.K. Chesterton (although the actual source is unknown) that when people cease to believe in God they don’t believe in nothing . . . they believe in anything. And so we see that the secular world, having dismissed God as an “unscientific” fantasy, has itself lost any grounding in reality. For example, we somehow don't see the immense damage to both individuals and society as a whole that continues to be wrought by the so-called "sexual revolution", and pretend that the manifest differences between men and women are really just a "social construct", in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary. Many of us are familiar with the quote from Fr. Henri de Lubac, that "It is not true, as it is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man." Now we can see that the Godless organize the world not only against man, but against plain common sense, and against reality itself. In a recent piece columnist Jonah Goldberg explores the sort of mental ju-jitsu that necessarily results from trying to process something like the Jenner phenomenon through the current cultural assumptions:
But the most fascinating argument comes from those who have no problem with Jenner changing genders, but have serious misgivings about the word “woman.”
On a recent MSNBC panel celebrating the “Jenner Effect,” The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg (no relation), noted that many young feminists “no longer want to use the word ‘woman’ in relation to abortion because it excludes trans men.” There’s a lot of “conceptual murk to clear away,” she added with admirable understatement, “but among younger people that I’ve talked to, it almost seems amazing to them that anybody would question the need to have gender-neutral language.”
In a fascinating piece for The New Yorker, Goldberg wrote about this growing schism. Rachel Ivey, a young feminist told Goldberg, “If I were to say in a typical women’s-studies class today, ‘Female people are oppressed on the basis of reproduction,’ I would get called out.”
Some students, she explained, would ask, “What about women who are male?”
Limits? What Limits?
Such extravagant absurdity seems like the stuff of parody, but the stakes are too high to laugh. They are certainly high for individual transsexuals themselves, whose lives are no happier after their bodies have been mutilated. A long-term study in Sweden of all the individuals who underwent sex reassignment surgery in that country from 1973 to 2003 concluded:
Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behavior, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population.
A recent study in the United States found that 41% of transsexuals reported attempting suicide, many time the rate of the rest of the population. In spite of that, it is now illegal in some states (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey) for therapists to try to help transgendered young people to resolve their feelings in favor of their actual sex . . . you can lose your license to practice if you criticize the emperor’s new clothes..
There are broader implications for society beyond the issues of transgenderism and transsexualism. Their public celebration is a sign of a culture that has already lost a sense of the sacredness of the human person. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Bl. Paul VI said
. . . we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions . . . (Humanae Vitae 17)
But why accept limits, when we think that there is no God above us to whom we are answerable? And so we have abortion, lab experiments on human embryos and even the creation of human/animal chimeras at the beginning of life, Euthanasia and socially sanctioned suicide at the end, and in between more and more ways in which human beings and their bodies are reduced to playthings. And now, apparently, there are advocates for the “trans-abled” who say that we should applaud and assist those who feel a desperate need to sever perfectly good limbs, and that to do otherwise would be judgmental and discriminatory.
The Truth In Love
The prognosis is not good for a society that so eagerly embraces such self-destructive insanity, and is at the same time so desperately determined to shut down anyone who dares to point out the obvious truth. The logical end of it all is total disintegration unless there is a collective return to reason, of which there seems to be little chance any time soon unless people start turning back to God. We who profess to be Christians must continue to pray for the conversion of society (as well as for unhappy victims of its craziness, such as Bruce Jenner), and we should take very seriously our need to model a different, more Godly way. But we should also not be afraid to speak the truth about the human person, lovingly but forthrightly, remembering that true compassion means trying to prevent people from harming themselves and others, not in encouraging them to do so or congratulating them after the fact. After all, if those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ can’t or won’t be witnesses to His Gospel, who will?