Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Original sin: "It is a fact"

In his 3 December Wednesday audience, the Holy Father, teaching on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans 5:12-21, said this about original sin:

"However, as people of today we must ask ourselves: what is this original sin? What does St Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still sustainable today? Many think that in light of the history of evolution, there is no longer room for the doctrine of a first sin that then would have permeated the whole of human history. And, as a result, the matter of Redemption and of the Redeemer would also lose its foundation. Therefore, does original sin exist or not? In order to respond, we must distinguish between two aspects of the doctrine on original sin. There exists an empirical aspect, that is, a reality that is concrete, visible, I would say tangible to all. And an aspect of mystery concerning the ontological foundation of this event. The empirical fact is that a contradiction exists in our being. On the one hand every person knows that he must do good and intimately wants to do it. Yet at the same time he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of selfishness and violence, to do only what pleases him, while also knowing that in this way he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbour. In his Letter to the Romans St Paul expressed this contradiction in our being in this way: 'I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want' (7: 18-19). This inner contradiction of our being is not a theory. Each one of us experiences it every day. And above all we always see around us the prevalence of this second will. It is enough to think of the daily news of injustice, violence, falsehood and lust. We see it every day. It is a fact.
In his Christmas speech to the members of the Roman Curia, delivered yesterday, the Holy Father addressed a plethora of issues, among which he offered this his insight:

"What is often expressed and signified with the word 'gender' leads to the human auto-emancipation from creation and from the Creator. The human being wants to make himself on his own and to decide always and exclusively by himself about what concerns him.

"But, in so doing, the human being lives against the truth and against the Spirit creator. Rain forests deserve, yes, our protection but the human being - as a creature which contains a message that is not in contradiction with his freedom but is the condition of his freedom - does not deserve it less."
Predictably, some groups that encourage people to assert themselves against reality are upset. I especially appreciate the magisterium of the BBC's instruction, which seeks to answer the question What does the Bible actually say about being gay? Yes, that last remark was a sarcastic one, but what ridiculous pretension on the part of the secular media, a not uncommon occurence.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.


  1. Okay, setting aside the lunacy that is Catholicism, let me just ask you one thing: is gender a meaningful concept or not? Because dude never said it wasn't reflective of reality, just that it led to ungodliness. There are some of us, after all, who will take truth over holiness every time, so your opinion on this would be nice.

  2. Dear Larry:

    My opinion is that it is a very poor way to engage in dialogue by dismissing someone's point of view as "lunacy" up-front. For what it is worth, I will also point out that gender is not a concept because a concept is something abstract and unreal.
    Besides, I don't know who "dude" is.

  3. Whooooa boy, looks like I'm going to have to take it slow with you. First things first, if the pope can come out and say that a state of being - not a theory, mind you, but an actual quality of a person's psyche - is an unnatural mental illness, I feel entitled to say that his theory is lunacy. Unless, of course, you mean to say that the pope doesn't care about entering into dialog with homosexuals?

    I think, if I understand you correctly, you mean to say that gender is real but concepts are not: care to elaborate on that? "Cold" is a concept, but I'm pretty sure cold actually exists - in fact, anything we can talk about corresponds to a concept, and almost all the things we talk about actually exist. So I'm not totally sure where you're going with that. Furthermore, it seems to me that you're now saying the opposite of what the pope ("dude") said, namely, "gender" is at best a convenient excuse to get out of God's whatever (design, maybe?). But perhaps this is not what you're saying - it's not clear to me, yet, that you know what you're saying.

  4. Anything that exists is in a state of being.

    Neither the Pope nor Catholic morality states that being homosexual is a mental illness. In other words, intrinsically disordered does not equate to mentally ill, it does equate to being unnatural. Besides, you did not merely call "this theory" lunacy you called "Catholicism" "lunacy". If you think that, what's the point of discussing the matter further?

    What sex or gender one is is not merely a concept, but constitutive of our personhood and a concrete part of our existence, not an abstraction. Gender, while it is certainly culturally constructed to a certain extent, cannot be reduced to cultural constructs. Rather, it is the other way around; the real differences between females and males are the building material of cultural constructs, and their complementarity is the reason there are human cultures at all. In other words, gender is not something plastic, malleable, or accidental. To conceive of it as such is to employ it as a concept, a theory, an abstraction, as is done in a lot of literature that goes under the heading gender studies.

    Our disagreement is far more fundamental than sexuality and goes to what we might call our differing, or, stated politically, competing anthropologies, that is, our respective views on what it is and means to be human.

    I think George Wiegel captured what I am trying to say quite well when he wrote about a meeting he had with Dr. Rowan Williams shortly after the latter was named Abp. of Canterbury. The two described these differing views on the human person by distinguishing them as "sacramental" and "gnostic" respectively, the difference being that "[t]he former insists that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it; gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable, all changeable."

  5. Yes - by "this theory" I mean Catholicism. Catholicism is a theory, you realize. Further, though they may or may not have used the words "mental illness" as such, what else does it mean to say that someone has a mental condition (a desire) that results from a flaw in one's being? To me, that means "mental illness" - what would you call it?

    About gender, it seems you meant to say gender is not just a concept. It can be a concept and other things, yes? But the real question is, what do you take to be fundamentally male (e.g.)? It's really easy to say, yeah, something or other is absolutely a male attribute, but without an example, it's just you saying it. Also, what do you think the pope's talking about? Because he and you may mean totally different attributes.

  6. We do not need to discuss attributes. As interesting as that might be, they are not terribly relevant to the issue we are discussing. Stated simply, the differences between men and women are quite obvious in the vast, vast majority of cases. Even the deviations that occur naturally depend on maleness and femaleness to even be described as deviations, even if they do present some difficult moral questions.

    The "flaw in one's being" we are discussing, in Catholic moral teaching, is described as an intrinsic disorder. As it pertains to the post, all human beings are "flawed" in some way (i.e., original sin). Being homosexual is not the only intrinsic disorder. Hence, there is a huge difference between being intrinsically disorderd in some way and mentally ill, if we are using metal illness with any precision.

    As far as your use of the term theory, you're mistaken about what you wrote. In your second post you quite clearly applied "theory" to what you mistakenly desribed as the pope's (i.e., "his") view that homosexuality is "an unnatural mental illness", not to Catholicism in general. Besides, Catholic teaching cannot be reduced to a mere theory, just as Jewish, Islamic, Buddhistic, et. al. religious thought cannot be reduced to just so many theories. Besides, equivocation is a logical fallacy.

    I think the Pope and I are in synch when we are talking/writing about gender. It goes without saying that I do not speak/write for the Pope.

  7. Well, it looks like maybe you've given up. Can't say as I'm surprised, but at least hopefully you've learned something - like, for instance, that I damn well can successfully engage someone in dialogue after having labeled their view lunacy from the outset. It'd also be nice if you learned to think critically about what you believe, but I won't hold my breath on that one.

  8. "that I damn well can successfully engage someone in dialogue after having labeled their view lunacy from the outset"

    I am sorry, but shrill, insulting, and self-congratulatory monologues don't qualify.

  9. Are you joking? Let's review your argument to this point. You constructed a false dilemma about concepts and real things; you (intentionally?) misinterpreted my remarks; you made arguments from ignorance ("I don't know what the pope says or what I'm saying, but they're the same thing") and you shifted the goalposts ("we don't need to talk about attributes"); you invented this thing called a "mere theory" in apparent ignorance of the English language; and now you're arbitrarily throwing accusations of fallacies at me without coming even close to hitting the mark - have I missed anything? Your efforts have wholly been directed at attacking me as a person, not establishing anything on the order of a workable worldview. You're closer to a sophist than anything else, if this is the way you really think.

  10. ...and now we can add the wholly predictable straw man: "male" and "female" are biological terms, not sociological ones. Gender studies is concerned with manliness and womanliness, neither of which is biologically determined. I think the pope already knows this, but clearly you're having some trouble figuring it out.

  11. Larry:

    I'll let your last comment stand as your monument to dialogue. There is no straw man here. You have finally gotten around to understanding the Holy Father's point, a point on which I sought to build, namely that man and woman, male and female, manliness and womanliness are not primarily social or cultural constructs, but that, on the whole, social and cultural constructs arise from the natural differences, which are biological and, metaphysically-speaking, ontological, between women and men. Not only is this not a straw man (which means positing a weaker argument and refuting that instead of the one articulated), it is what I have been saying all along and it is what the Pope was saying in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia. So, he and I are talking about same thing here.

    Anyone who is interested can read our comments for themselves. Your reinvention of my line of reasoning is quite astounding, really. To wit: whether one is male or female is not a theory, but a fact that is constitutive of who we are. Confusion about who we are, which can never be reduced to our sexuality (i.e., I am more than my libido), is the cause of tremendous unhappiness and confusion.

    Like all facts, the fact of human persons being male and female certainly requires interrogation and interrogation produces theories. Theories have to account for the whole of the reality, which is where they tend to struggle and become ideological. In that regard, many academic theories about gender tend to prescind from exceptions, that is, from difficult cases. This is a fundamentally flawed manner of proceeding, regardless of what is being discussed.

    To get across what the Holy Father was trying to get across about gender, we do not need to discuss attributes. He is referring to something far more fundamental, something that arises from our biology, from nature, hence his call for something like "a new ecology of man".

  12. "man and woman, male and female, manliness and womanliness..."

    ...aren't the same thing. Nobody's saying that there aren't natural differences between people with XX chromosomes and XY chromosomes, but that only determines maleness or femaleness, not manliness or womanliness. You need to understand this or else you'll continue - yes, continue - to produce straw men.

    The pope, on the other hand, just has his facts wrong - manliness and womanliness are social constructs, period, and neither you nor the pope has yet to specify what, exactly, either of those is supposed to mean in your objective, metaphysical view. If you did, this would be a much easier argument...from my side, anyway. Oh - and let's not forget, this was all in the context of sexual orientation, but you have yet to make a point that could even approach relevance in that context. Care to start, or are you just going to give me some more glowing generalities with no content?

  13. The com box of a blog has its limitations. Your first paragraph will suffice to show the point the pope was trying to make and to which you initially responded. To assert that gender is an exclusively a social contruct, apparently taking no cues whatsoever from the natural differences between females and males, is a radical claim, even the realm of gender studies. Given radical and glowingly general nature of a such a claim, which flies in the face of fact and smacks of ideological presupposition, it seems you're the one who has explaining to do.

  14. This would be funny if it weren't so sad:


    Etc., etc., etc. You call it "radical" out of simple ignorance, of course, but also because you have no other way to dispute it. If you think that gender has biology as its basis, why can you not provide one single example about an inherently gendered trait? It shouldn't be this difficult for you to disprove my theory - all you have to do is give one example.

    And, again, what does this have to do with sexual orientation?

  15. While one can hardly posit Wikipedia as a serious source, the article lays out the problematic we are discussing quite well:

    "The idea that differences in gender roles originate in differences in biology has found support in parts of the scientific community."

    "More recently, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have explained those differences in social roles by treating them as adaptations.[who?"- this "who?" question is bracketed in the original article because the author has no citation]This approach, too, is considered controversial" (emboldening emphasis mine).

    So, the controversy we are discussing is hardly resolved by what you introduce from Wiki world, it is merely re-stated and the fact there is no consensus is highlighted. Hence, in both the natural and social sciences it remains a live question.

    The rest of the article begs the question brought up by the Pope when he said: "When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender', results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator."

    In other words, you still have a long row to hoe to prove your assertion that what we are by nature has no bearing on traditional social expressions of gender. The logical inconsistency of this assertion seems to escape you. It is somewhat analogus to saying that what one thinks has no bearing on what one does, but then again, from a logical perspective, analogies limp.

  16. Uh...no? What I posted were sociological sources who agreed with me, and then what you posted were scientific sources who disagreed - and whose disagreement is under fire. This is hardly the same as your earlier assertion that my position is radical. Anyway, wikipedia is certainly a more reliable source of information than, you know, the Bible. But look: what does your point have to do with sexual orientation?

    "...your assertion that what we are by nature has no bearing on traditional social expressions of gender"

    See, here you go again making straw men. This is emphatically not what I said (but even if it were, you quoting the pope at me isn't a counter-argument). I said that gender - the idea of what counts as masculine or feminine - is determined by societies, not that these ideas aren't influenced by real sexual dimorphisms. For instance, women tend to be shorter than men, and since humans (often wrongly) associate physical size with power, weakness is a traditionally womanly attribute. But - and here is the point - that is still a socially constructed idea. It makes no more sense to say that a strong woman is less womanly than a weak one than vice versa, so weakness (e.g.) is not an objectively female quality, despite that idea being based on a biological (i.e., sexual) reality. Comprende?

  17. The scientific sources that I quoted which disagreed with you were from the sources you posted, not something else I went and found. Judging from your last post, we're not as far apart as you'd like to think, though there is a distance. Again, I don't know where you get this straw man idea. If it is not the case that you believe nature plays no role in determining gender, using gender as a social construct, which is, to cite your own source, "controversial", then just say so. In that way we can at least narrow the discussion to addressing the question of how much of a role nature plays in forming gender.

    Even so, we'll soon hit a barrier not easily surmounted, that of our respective metaphysics, which makes having such a discussion in the virtual realm practically useless because it will remain hopelessly acrimonious.

    So, happy new year.

  18. So you think that these two positions are not so far apart:

    *Gender is a static, objective, universal truth. Acting against one's gender is harmful not only to oneself but also to the whole human species, somehow or other, despite all evidence to the contrary. Also, this somehow has something or other to do with sexual orientation.

    *Gender is the result of a category error on the part of humans who mistook statistical sexual differences for metaphysically inherent traits. Acting against one's gender is harmful only to the extent that one's society strictly enforces gender roles and, in the long run, only helps humans as a species. Gender and sexual orientation are related only in that sexual orientation is one of the statistical sexual dimorphisms that led to a mistaken idea about gender (namely, that it's masculine to be attracted to women and vice versa).

    If you honestly don't see any significant differences between those two positions, you're beyond help.

  19. I didn't write or imply that there is no difference between our positions. I merely stated that it is not as big a difference as you'd like to think. You mischaracterize my position by asserting that I believe gender roles in society are static. This is not my belief at all. I would distinguish between static and objective. No doubt there has been an evolution of gender roles in Western society that amount to a more just society. This is a positive thing, but let's not mistake motion for progress, all change is not progress.

    There is, however, an objective difference between men and women that has be to considered and respected. It is being confused about whether you are a man or a woman, or the belief that there is no objective difference between the two, that leads human beings to see nature as something from which we need to be self-liberated.

    That men are attracted to women and vice-versa is not a social construct. Only in this way, on a purely natural level, can our species continue. Nothing could be less socially constructed than that and this is precisely where all the talk about respecting the order of creation enters in. If this were not the case, there would be no human societies in which questions about gender roles could arise. Arising from this basic fact is the family, mother, father, daughter, son. Arising from this basic social unit is society. So, to speak of gender as having no rootedness in nature is to get things upside down.

  20. I believe you mean to say,

    "That some men are attracted to women and vice-versa is not a social construct."

    Because that is true. What you said, on the other hand, could have been read as saying that all men are attracted to women, or perhaps that all men start out attracted to women, and those ideas are just silly.

    This, however, is very interesting, for two reasons:

    "You mischaracterize my position by asserting that I believe gender roles in society are static. This is not my belief at all. I would distinguish between static and objective."

    If societies can change gender roles, then how are they objective? If x is objective, that means the status of x can't be changed by the opinions of individual people or groups of people (like, you know, societies). Plus, what the pope said - if I understand him at all - is that gender is a static concept, so in fact you and the pope are not talking about the same thing.

    Anyway, returning to the gay/straight thing:

    "Only in this way, on a purely natural level, can our species continue."

    Actually, that's not true anymore, if it ever was. First and foremost, attraction is not a prerequisite for intercourse, so to say that the only way for the species to continue is if people are straight is to conflate a few different notions. But also, there are lots and lots of non-intercourse ways to have kids, now - I'm sure you know this, so this assertion is a bit puzzling.

    "...the family, mother, father, daughter, son. Arising from this basic social unit is society."

    Actually, this is only the basic social unit in our modern society. Most (probably all) societies have or had a notion of family, but rarely was it exactly this combination. Some societies include grandparents as well, some replace the biological mother or father with other relatives, such as a biological uncle or aunt, some don't require any particular biological relationship but rather a tribal one, and so on. But now, again, we're totally off the subject of gender - are you saying a man can't fulfill the gender roles we assign to mothers, or women the roles we assign to fathers? Because if all you're saying is that a man cannot, say, get pregnant, then you are not talking about gender at all and you have changed the subject entirely. So which is it: is this talk about the family irrelevant, or based on falsehoods?

  21. No, I wrote what I meant to write and it refers back to an earlier point in our discussion, it is natural for men to be attracted to women and vice-versa.

    I'll forgo the Wikipedia- sourced discussion on anthropology.