The Catholic Thing
Cartesian Gender Confusions (Continued) Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 19 December 2013

Editor’s Note:
I received an odd message from PayPal yesterday. I’m quite used to the daily emails the company sends me every time one of you makes a contribution. But this one arrived in an odd format and, in these days of pfishing and Chinese cyber attacks, I was at first quite skeptical. But to my great surprise, a generous soul had chosen to make a monthly contribution to our work via the online service. That’s a first. I’ve never thought much about that in this space, but I want to encourage those of you who may be in circumstances that make a monthly contribution more convenient. From what I see, PayPal can make that easy. We get other monthly stipends – via checks – from other readers. The lesson: There are various ways that you can help that may be easier at your end as well. Whatever your circumstances, our need is real. Whether some online our traditional check-writing contribution is best for you, we really need you to be as creative with your generosity as we try to be with our columns. Think about it. And then act – to help The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

In a previous column, I suggested that much of our confusion about “gender” comes from our modern tendency to separate the mind from the body in ways suggested by the French thinker René Descartes. Whereas some people think of gender solely in terms of the body or certain body parts, others consider it to be solely a function of the mind, whereby if I think I’m a woman, then I’m a woman – no matter what my body says.

The Catholic tradition, and Thomas Aquinas in particular, takes a very different approach. Because of the Genesis creation account, in which all of creation, including the material parts, is proclaimed “good, very good”; because of the Incarnation, in which the uncreated Word becomes “flesh”; and because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, the Catholic faith has always been a very “bodily,” very “fleshy,” religion. The Catholic tradition has worked very hard to avoid the constant gnostic temptation to vilify the body. But it has also had to work very hard to avoid the modern temptation to reduce all spiritual realities to nothing but matter.

When we associate “mind” only with the brain, we tend to forget about the importance of things like our passions, appetites, and emotions, because they are so clearly associated with our bodies.  And yet when we associate our personalities too exclusively with our bodies or with specific functions of the brain, we tend to forget about the importance of things like “meaning,” “purpose” and “value,” and we become all levers and pulleys: mechanisms to be manipulated with drugs or other psycho-therapeutic “fixes.”

Aquinas’s special genius, following the insights of the philosopher Aristotle, is to recognize that the human person is a substantial unity of both body and soul – indeed, that the soul is the substantial form of the body. 

What this means concretely is that, whereas the modern tendency since Descartes has been to see “the mind” solely in relation to the brain, Thomas would claim, rather, that there is not a cell of the living human body from which the soul is absent. Although we are made up of various parts, we are not simply a “heap” of cells. We have an integrated, organic unity and wholeness. And what integrates the whole living person is precisely the human soul. 

One particularly important power of the human soul, which is absent from the integrating principles (or “souls”) of plants or animals, is that we humans are self-aware and have the powers of intellect. But the claim that one of the identifying or defining characteristics of the human person is our power of intellect (as Thomas Aquinas does) is very different from Descartes’ idea that what I am is essentially a “thinking thing” inhabiting (as a sort of foreign “host”) this particular material body. 

           In her God-made body

Whereas for Descartes, the mind and the body are two essentially different sorts of things that come together in some odd way in the brain, Thomas affirms a fundamental unity between the two. I am not essentially a mind inhabiting a random body, nor am I a body with a brain that does things we call “mind.” I am an incarnate mind and spirit.

Since the soul is the form of the body and the soul is not absent from any living part of the body, it is not possible, on this view, to say that I have a certain soul, but the wrong body. Only a man missing a foot who accidentally picked up the wrong artificial foot at the hospital can truly say: “I have the wrong foot.” But a man cannot look at his own living foot and say: “I have the wrong foot.” Still less can he look at his own body in the mirror and say: “I have the wrong body.”

I should not say that I have my body in the same way that I say that I have a particular wallet or coat or pair of pants. The man who is getting an artificial limb can point to the new model he’s just bought and say: “I have a foot!” But he doesn’t mean the same thing as the child who points to his own living foot and says to his mother: “I have a foot.” The child’s foot is his not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense that he is pointing at an organic part of himself. So too I do not own my body; it is my body in the sense that it is a part of me.

Modern forms of marketing tempt people to believe that by changing their style of clothing or shaving cream, they can become a different “person,” indeed a better person. But this is adolescent foolishness. I don’t change who I am merely by changing my brand of cologne or my style of shirt. Companies have made a lot of money from teens by selling them this idea. 

The culture that has encouraged teens to think that they can become a different person by changing their brand of clothing is now encouraging them to believe that they can become a different person by changing their sexual organs like you’d change a coat. Will teens be any better off with this newly-minted “freedom” than they have been with the “freedom” to re-make their “personalities” every year or so with new shoes and jeans? Not likely.

The end is not likely to be a good one when your primary goal is to rid yourself of your self – of all the things that make you you – in order that you can finally be someone else, indeed anyone else, other than yourself. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this refusal to be oneself as “the sickness unto death.” Its natural end is suicide and despair.

Only God can say simply: “I am who I am.” We must say in faithfulness: “I must become who God made me to be.”

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Ib, December 19, 2013
Another great and insightful column from Dr. Smith! Keep 'em coming!

One thing that Dr. smith elides a bit here in this column is the relation of what today's psychologists call the "personality" (as in the DSM phrase "personality disorder") and the soul. Clearly they are not equivalent. But what is the relationship between them? They soul is fundamental to being human, I.e., having a human nature, but not so "personality". Obviously the concept of "personality" arises from the late Enlightenment, with probable roots in Kant's development of the aperceptive 'I', then refracted through the vagaries of Romanticism. But the sense that the "personality" IS who we "really are" looms large in many contemporary moral discussions, including those of gender.
written by Rich in MN, December 19, 2013
One question that has always perplexed me: if we are an inseparable symbiosis in which the notion of a body without a soul makes no more sense than the notion of a physical object without a shape, what exactly is happening in the interim between death and the resurrection of the body? If one tries to extrapolate from so-called "near death experiences," it seems that the consciousness exists in some capacity over "a period" (whatever that means) in which the physical body no longer lives.
written by Ted Seeber, December 19, 2013
I struggle with this teaching of the church, for I am ashamed of my gluttony, am attacked by autism and am an MRSA carrier, which means my skin erupts into lesions every once in a while when stimming causes an infection.

I don't want this body back at the resurrection- it is corrupt and imperfect.
written by william manley, December 19, 2013
I'm confused by your assertion that Catholicism is a "fleshly" religion. If so how do you reconcile chapter 5 of Galatians. Paul writes: "Live by the spirit and do not gratify the desires of he flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want." He goes on to write: "The works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these." And then..."By contrast the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. " Finally..."And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh." Please explain. Thanks!
written by Brad Miner, December 19, 2013
@ Ted Seeber: This from the Catechism (999): "Christ 'will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,' into a 'spiritual body'" -- a "perfected" body it's sometimes said.
written by Karen Byrnes, December 19, 2013
Very rich. To be "enfleshed" is the meaning of the Incarnation.
written by Randall B. Smith, December 19, 2013
Rich asks an excellent question, one which is in some respects one of the most difficult in theology: What is the status of the soul after the death of the body? Answering this question in any way adequately would require another post (or two or three).

Allow me here merely to suggest two points for further reflection. First, classic Catholic teaching suggests something like this: that the soul might be able to exist apart from the body for a time, but only in (as it were) a state of "waiting for" the body. In other words, it is not yet reached its full realization, in a way analogous to the way in which a crystal-clear idea of a chair in your mind has not yet reached its full realization until you build it.

Second consideration: There is a big difference between our perception of the "end of time," living as we do in time, and God's perception of the "end of time," existing as He does, outside of time. When we die, we enter into God's presence. To the extent that we enjoy His eternity, there is no separation between now and the "end of time" when we are re-unified with our bodies.

These comments are meant as no more than a first stab at thinking through a more thorough answer.

I'm confused by William Manley's confusion. As I said, the central, key Christian doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection of the body suggest that Christianity is a very "fleshy" religion. Paul makes clear that he is not talking about "flesh" as if he were a neo-Platonist vilifying matter. He is using a term that refers (in the manner in which he uses it) to what Thomas Aquinas would call our concupiscible and irascible appetites that draw us away from reason and from true human flourishing in the selfless love of God and neighbor. The Scriptures contain not only Paul's letters, but the Gospel of John as well, in which we read that "the Word became flesh." Must we not read both texts together and reconcile the two? Or will we allow our first (and usually anachronistic) readings of Paul's text color our perceptions of all the rest?

As for Ted Seeber's complaint, yes, I understand the problems. But please understand: your body is you. It is both the cross that God gives you to bear and the sacrament by which you make your love present to the world. Bear the cross, and it will bear you up. Be the sacrament God made you to be.

And yet, as I write the phrase, I am deeply aware how much easier it is to SAY than to DO faithfully. I share the experiences you shared. And I have much less experience of or wisdom regarding the advice I just gave you, other than that I know it must be true and that both you and I must embrace it in faith. What we are is clear to us. What we will become requires faith, "the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things unseen."
written by ballesterj, December 19, 2013
William, I am not a Thomistic scholar but see if this makes sense. Paul is using the term "flesh" in the sense of the body dominated by the passions. But the body is "ontologically" good; that is, in itself, in its very being. Matter is good because it was created by God as you can read in Genesis 1 "It was good". However, after the Fall Man (both male and female) became dominated by his appetites which overcame his Will and Reason. In other words, our will is weakened and our reason is darkened after Adam's disobedience. So, "flesh" in the sense of "body" is always good because it was created by God as was all of matter. But "flesh" in Paul's sense of "the body as subject to disordered desire" is not. The flesh in that sense is a result of Man's (male and female) disobedience in the Garden, where he lost the gift of divine life that God had bestowed on him at his creation. With the strengthening of the Spirit, the Christian is rendered capable of right thinking and acting. However, he is always subject to concupiscence (Romans 7)
Hope I am not too far off the mark here.
written by william manley, December 19, 2013
Mr. Smith...thank you for the follow-up to my question. Your answer raises a question and a comment. First, where does "Paul make clear that he is not talking about flesh as if he were a neo-Platonist vilifying matter." A reference here would really help me get a better understanding of Paul, a writer I always struggle to completely understand. Thanks. Also, yes, the Word became flesh but the Word was also divine and not prone to the abuses of the flesh that Paul refers to. How would you answer that. I'm not trying to argue with you. I just want to get a better understanding of your post. Thanks again.
written by ballesterj, December 19, 2013
An additional comment: I should have written "intellect" in place of "reason" above. Hence the concepts should be Will and Intellect.
written by Rich in MN, December 20, 2013
Professor Smith, thank you for your answer. It is a fascinating topic. I accept that death will provide us all with a "new sense" that will make clear that reality which we currently struggle to understand by analogy through reason and our five senses.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

-- Rich

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters