Gender and a Sacramental View of the Body

In a previous column, I pointed out that our culture, which 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 body’s sexual organs – like you’d change a coat.

The way advertisers sell things to emerging adults is by associating their product with a certain persona:  beer with a certain easy-going, hip college kid persona; perfume or clothing with a certain sort of thin, urban socialite persona; a car with a certain sort of manly, well-dressed, sophisticated, urban persona.         

Ironically, emerging adults will often describe themselves as “expressing their individuality” with the things they buy when of course nothing could be further from the truth.  Making certain consumer choices rather than others is usually motivated by the desire to become more like the “hip” or “cool” model persona one aspires to be.  Thus, far from becoming “more individualistic,” teens are usually seeking to become more like others.

Such cultural practices reinforce the modern illusion that our identity is not something we receive (from nature, God, culture, or tradition), but something we create individually by ourselves alone.

Whereas in the past, young people might have seen themselves as being from (and thus, in certain respects, beholden to) a certain family, cultural or religious tradition, now, given the influences of modernism, young people tend to see themselves as self-creating.  Whatever their past, wherever they’re from, no matter who their parents were, they can make themselves anew: they can “be whatever they choose to be.”  It is their constant duty to be creating themselves, seemingly ex nihilo.

There is much that is good in this view, of course, given that the Church has always emphasized the importance of human free will. In a certain sense, we do make ourselves by the choices we make.

And yet something can be lost on this view as well: namely, the notion of one’s connectedness to and responsibility for others.  If I create myself ex nihilo, I am beholden to no one.  I am responsible only for myself and my own project of self-creation.  Granted, this might induce me to leave others alone to engage in their own projects of “self-creation” (although the cruelties of contemporary teen life would suggest otherwise), it might also (and this is more likely) cause me to disavow any responsibility to or for others.

When I teach about the way marketers appeal to America’s emerging adults, not infrequently one of my students will say something like this: “But Prof. Smith, you have to wear something.”  “Yes, you do,” I reply.  “But it would be better if, instead of seeing our consumer choices as expressions of a radical individuality, we could see them rather as expressions of sociability.  That is to say, I choose the clothes I do precisely in order to allow me to mix easily in various social situations.  I wear a suit and tie when it is appropriate to wear a suit and tie, but more casual clothing when the people around me would be made more comfortable by that.  My clothing is not meant to ‘define me’ precisely as being apart from and different from others.  It would be better seen as something I can use to help unite me with them.”

What, then, if we took a “sacramental” view of things, including the human body?  What if I saw my body (or my clothing) as something meant to serve as an instrument of my love of God and neighbor

John Paul II frequently pointed out that I cannot love others – I cannot reveal myself to them or make myself present to them – except through my body.  On this view, my body and all that which goes together to make up my “personality” is understood to be distinctly “mine” in one sense, but also from others and for others.  I shape my character in certain ways because I want to be of service to and able to care for others.

Just as modernity has caused us to adopt a notion of property as something essentially “mine” – something set apart from others solely for my use – so too we now have a notion of our bodies and identities as something that sets me apart from others not to be trespassed upon by others.  It’s telling that people now often speak of their bodies as though they were their “property,” to be used however they wish.

John Paul II suggested, to the contrary, that since we are made in the image of the Triune God, we find ourselves by a sincere gift of ourselves to others.  So he proposed that when we work, we work for ourselves, but also with and for others. And he also insisted on a notion of “private” property that is both “mine,” but also always for others.

The bohemian world of sexual license has always been tied ineluctably to the bourgeois world of laissez-faire capitalism.  Both are based on a notion of radical individualism and self-creation that the Church has always rejected.  It is for this reason that the Church’s authentic teachings on both sexual morality and social justice are always offending one side or another in the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum debates between conservative individualists and liberal individualists in this country.  This is why “conservatives” and “liberals” are always trying to affirm one side of the Church’s teaching while avoiding the other, even though an authentic understanding of both sexual morality and social justice would insist that both are based on the same “sacramental” view of all created reality in which all created things, including our bodies and ourselves, are meant to be seen as “instruments” of God’s self-giving love.

“The real fall of man,” the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once wrote, is to live “a noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.