One of the most traumatic, terrifying, and disruptive ideas of our Catholic faith—one that the secular culture pushes against fiercely—is an idea that we may overlook…precisely because it is so close to us.
It is the idea that certain things are given—not choices for us to accept or reject, but reality with which we must come to terms. Our existence is a given: we did not make ourselves, and had no say over whether or not we came into being. Other given things flow from this beginning: being human; being male or female; having a particular biological mother and father; being born in a particular time and place.
Obvious—yet, the fundamental given-ness of our existence becomes obscured over time. Each passing year draws us more fully into a world of choices. We can change the color and cut of our hair, the style of our clothes; we make decisions about our jobs, friends, places to live; we decide what we believe about God. Our consumer culture teaches us that choices are good in themselves, and that the more options we have, the better. We are taught that even our identity is malleable and subject to our own preferences.
The message comes not just from the companies that profit from our restless search to express our identity, but also from well-intentioned parents and teachers. I recall a set of college career-center posters depicting students in implausibly mixed outfits: “I will be an Astronaut-Musician-Biologist!” It was a humorous way to encourage students to develop their talents and to consider a variety of careers—but it also subtly endorsed the idea that you can do anything. Never mind the limits of a mere twenty-four hours per day; never mind that different disciplines may conflict with each other, or that one might not have the skills or aptitudes for all the things that one finds appealing. No: you can be whatever you want. Invent yourself.
The message is strong and pervasive. I felt it, and gave my best shot to being a Professor-Writer-Fencer. I managed it for a while: teaching full-time, publishing a book, and making it (briefly) onto the National Points list of the top fencers in the nation. In the process, I developed many injuries, including one that made me unable to use my right arm for months, but I stubbornly believed that if I just worked harder, I could be a top Division 1 fencer. But I eventually discovered that the women who defeated me had something I lacked. Not strength, intelligence, or a good coach: I had all those. Rather, it was a certain mental skill: the ability to make tactical decisions at split-second speed. Those who were at the top had it…and I didn’t have it. Here was a distressing ‘given’ that I had to face. I could either be bitter and frustrated, or rejoice in what I had achieved and recognize that my limits are not a reflection on my value as a person. A year or so later, when I retired from fencing in order to put more of my energy into writing, I knew it was the right decision. I am called to glorify God by using, to the best of my ability, the gifts that He has given me—which means accepting those gifts, and not pining after ones I would rather have.
Later, becoming a Catholic brought me to a deeper understanding of the given, as I came to realize that my identity as a woman is not dependent on marrying or having children, or fitting into a certain set of cultural expectations in which there’s a conflict between being feminine and being an intellectual. I am a woman in all the fullness of my femininity because that is how God made me.
I share these experiences because I want to emphasize that our culture’s obsession with personal choice affects us all, whether we realize it or not. We are all being told, day in and day out, to reject the given and embrace choice as a virtue in itself.
Our culture is soaked with the idea that limits are bad and options are good. At any moment, an infinite array of consumer choices is available on television, Netflix, social media, YouTube, you name it…The simple task of grocery shopping means confronting a multiplicity of choices for even ordinary things. (The other day I was nearly paralyzed by trying to select some instant oatmeal for travel.) To choose is to live; to live is to choose.
No wonder, then, that women and men raised in an environment in which any limitation of personal choice is felt as an imposition, would implicitly accept that restrictions on abortion are ‘anti-choice’ and therefore wrong. It is why even people who personally oppose abortion often find it difficult to say that it is always, objectively wrong. Recognizing abortion as an intrinsic evil means recognizing that personal choice has limits. A woman does, indeed, have the right to make choices about her body. But what happens when more than one person is involved? If a woman is pregnant, but does not wish to have the baby, we have to judge which takes precedence: the child’s right to life, or the mother’s right to total personal autonomy. In a culture where choosing is itself considered a moral act, regardless of the choice, the idea of simply accepting the unplanned and unwanted child is deeply shocking.
We are seeing the consequences of a generation or more who have been taught, relentlessly and thoroughly, that choice is everything. We told them that they could be who they wanted to be—and they believed us. With this in mind, it is less of a surprise that assisted suicide and transgenderism have leaped to the forefront of cultural issues in recent years, for in these two issues we see a particularly dramatic rejection of the given.
A terminal diagnosis or a life-altering disease or disability brings the given-ness of our being clearly into view; just as we did not choose to begin to exist in the first place, we did not choose to experience suffering and dependence on others. In the face of the ‘given’ of pain and weakness, suicide becomes a way to assert choice one final time—over the end of our life, if not over its beginning. In our choice-obsessed culture, personal dignity and personal autonomy are inextricably intertwined; hence the idea that suicide enables a person to have ‘death with dignity’ in a way that accepting suffering does not.
Transgenderism also forces us to confront the trauma of the given: this time, one’s biological sex. To be sure, there have always been some individuals who have felt uncomfortable with gendered expectations, or even with their own bodies, but we are facing something new, even within the past few decades. How is it that a person today can experience such a disjunction between the inner experience of self and his or her physical, male or female body as to experience severe psychological trauma, to the point that major physical modification seems not just desirable, but necessary? We should accept that people with gender dysphoria are genuinely suffering; they are not evil or stupid (nor are the people who believe that the best way to ameliorate this suffering is to ‘transition’ from one gender to another).
I would suggest that part of the problem is the loss of maleness or femaleness as a given. In a culture where all else is subject to personal choice—including one’s choice of sexual partner—a man must confront the fact that he has a chromosomal makeup of XY, and that this naturally exhibits itself in certain ways in his physical body. Likewise a woman must confront the fact that she has a chromosomal makeup of XX. He is capable of begetting children; she is capable of bearing children. Neither of them chose this; it was given to them—and this givenness is what becomes traumatic. For a non-Christian in particular, one’s body can feel arbitrary: why am I a woman and not a man? But every attempt to enable choice here only serves to highlight the inescapability of the given. No matter how sophisticated the surgery or hormonal treatments, a man can ‘become’ a woman only on the surface; his chromosomal makeup remains XY; he cannot bear a child. Even if we imagine a science-fictional treatment that would effect a complete biological transformation, he could never be what every woman is: conceived and born a woman. The givenness of one’s original biological sex remains, whatever one may do to it afterwards—just as the givenness of one’s existence remains, even if one commits suicide.
Our culture’s rejection of the given creates a tragic dilemma for those who suffer. On the one hand, the emphasis on choice has left us with very few resources for understanding how to accept what is given to us. We have become confused about the difference between arbitrary, unjust limits, and natural, good limits; we do not know how to come to terms with our own selves. On the other hand, if we believe that we can change anything and everything, then we are adrift in a sea of potential. We cannot learn how to live as a man or a woman if that is always subject to change. We cannot learn how to suffer well, if ending one’s suffering by suicide is a genuine option.
What does this mean for us as Catholics, doing the work of evangelization?
For people steeped in our culture of choice, the idea of the given is itself a trauma. As a result, when we share the good news of God in Christ, we are often challenging people’s beliefs at a deeper level than we realize. We are asking them to reject the idea that personal autonomy is the highest good; we are asserting a whole set of fundamental and frankly rather alarming givens: that God exists (whether we like the idea or not); that there are moral absolutes (whether or not we find them comfortable); that we are creatures made by God; that He made us male and female; that we are designed by God to flourish in certain ways and not in others; that He instituted a Church to teach us on these matters. To people in our culture, God the Father may seem a lot like the Godfather: we are suggesting that He is making them an offer they can’t refuse.
There are no easy solutions to a problem that is rooted so deeply in our culture. Nonetheless, we are not helpless. Let me offer a few suggestions for how we can respond effectively and graciously to this issue.
First, let us have compassion for those who find our Catholic faith disquieting and its implications terrifying. We are asking people to accept the unraveling of many of their fundamental assumptions and habits of mind. By the grace of God, people can and do make this journey; we can encourage them by recognizing that it’s difficult.
Second, we need to be witnesses to the beauty of accepting what God has given us. Here, we face the requirement of evangelizing our own churches, because far too many Christians (both Catholic and non-Catholic) have accepted the basic assumptions of the secular world, and live lives indistinguishable from the rest of the world.
We have no credibility if we accept only the givens that we find easy to bear, but the witness of accepting genuine limitations and painful difficulties out of fidelity to Christ is a powerful one indeed. In our current sexually confused culture, there is special value in the examples of married couples who reject contraception and are open to life—and who also accept childlessness without resorting to IVF or surrogacy; in single people who are chaste as they await marriage; and in the joyful witness of those who are celibate, whether lay people or priests and religious. All this is deeply counter-cultural! On a day-to-day level, we can strive to live out our Faith and bear our crosses in all the little details, from fulfilling the Sunday Mass obligation consistently and cheerfully (even if it interferes with other plans), to following the Church’s seasons with its feasts and fasts. If the practice of our Faith is never even inconvenient, we may well wonder if we’re missing something. We need to model for the world that we need not fear what is given to us, because we know the Giver, and we know that He is Good.
Third, and most importantly, we should point to Christ’s humility in the Incarnation. Here is the ultimate ‘given’: the fact that God became Man for our sake; that Christ, through whom all things were made, humbled himself to take on human flesh in his mother Mary’s womb. At Christmas this is present to us vividly as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, when the King of Kings appeared as a newborn infant, wordless, helpless, utterly dependent on his mother. Our Savior accepted all that came with being human—all the weakness, the limitation, and ultimately the agony of torture and death—for our sake.
And in his Incarnation we see that the given is, truly, a gift.