Preaching About Bruce Jenner?

Over at First Things, Presbyterian Peter Leithart ponders whether or not Bruce Jenner’s sex change should be addressed from the pulpit. While acknowledging that “[t]here are good arguments for ignoring the whole thing,” Leithart maintains that doing so is a “pastoral mistake.” I agree.

There is a certain mentality in the Church that thinks (believes? hopes? wishes?) that by ignoring a problem it will go away. Perhaps in an earlier era (one might be tempted to say “more innocent,” but I don’t buy that), absent the influence of contemporary means of instantaneous and practically worldwide communications, one could think that saying nothing about something would spare others scandal. The fact is, however, that it’s not nothing that’s being said. Plenty is being said, but it’s the Church that’s saying nothing. And that silence is taken by some as assent and by others as sheepishness in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandal. But silence leaves most people behind, bereft of counterarguments to understand what the Judaeo-Christian view of sexuality is and why it is what it is. So yes, Peter, Catholic priests should also mention Bruce Jenner from the pulpit.

 And what should they say?

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Well, first of all, a certain position will emerge to say that a “homily” is no place to talk about this, anyway. Before Vatican II, when “sermons” occasionally doubled as refresher catechesis, such a stretch might have occurred. But in a “homily,” which should break open the Word, how do you reach Bruce Jenner?

Let me suggest that Pope Francis shows the way. His daily homilies at St. Martha’s are good illustrations of the Jesuit style of homiletics that, picking up and repeating certain key trajectories of the reading, ends up by offering a practical reference and application of that text to today. The Bible is not, after all, a dead book whose meaning two millennia ago should be explored primarily by ever-more-esoteric exegetes. It is the living Word of God, active in the Church today, speaking his Word to the living and breathing Christian here and now.

So what does Jenner have to do with Scripture?

Well, perhaps the first thing is from the first page of the Bible. “God made man in His Image: male and female He created them.”

Sexual differentiation is not just a matter of “identity,” still less of “feeling” or “belief.” God created the difference between the sexes. Now, Genesis is not a science textbook but science corroborates that basic insight, because sexual identity is inscribed in every cell of our bodies. One is male or female down to the chromosomal structure of every cell: XX females or XY males. That is scientific fact.

So we should be abundantly clear: those railing against the “rigid gender binary” (i.e., there are men and there are women) are asking us to reject—along with scientific fact—the whole Genesis heritage of Judaeo-Christian civilization, that God made them “male and female”

For all the noise of various modern “liberations” and their votaries, however, we should make it clear that it was the Genesis heritage that truly liberated women. When Israel declared that “God made them male and female,” it was right in the face of Greek dualism (including of such elite opinion makers as Aristotle). Female was not, pace Aristotle, a “misbegotten male,” a man with parts missing, but intended by God himself as a complete human being because she was a woman.

Even if ancient patriarchy has been replaced by modern liberated matriarchy, it still does change the fact that God made male humans and female humans, not generic humans whose sexual identity is some accidental overlay. Whether the latter mindset originates from Aristotelian “misbegotten males” or Jenner’s reverse version of the same, Jonah Goldberg bluntly identifies the error common to both (as well as Michel Foucault’s whole sexual theory): “removing the spigot won’t change the rest of the plumbing,” even if we pretend the plumbing is not there.

Second, Genesis presents the sexual complementarity of the male and female humans as essentially related to the first blessing God bestows on the couple: fertility. As male and female, God “blesses” and simultaneously commands them: “be fruitful and multiply.” Sexuality in the Divine version, therefore, is intrinsically connected with fecundity, with participating in the ongoing and “good” Divine work of creation.

Sexuality in the Jenner version, however, is inherently sterile. No matter how many anatomical parts Bruce amputates or enhances, no matter how many hormones he takes, he will never be fertile. He has become a “woman” who can never bear a child and a man who can no longer create one. “The plumbing is not there,” and every cell of his body denies what his external appearance attempts to feign. The modern world want to amputate sex from parenthood, but the sterile mentality that justifies it ineluctably leads to amputating body parts to “make” women.

Finally, the amputation question. I deliberately chose that term, because classical Catholic moral theology has always addressed the question of mutilation. Mutilating God’s creation has always been seen as an offense against the Creator: that is why when Peter Leithart asked Rabbi David Novak how to preach about Bruce Jenner, Novak immediately noted that “Torah forbids castration.” Because the Lord excluded the castrate from the qahal Israel (Dt 23:1), the Christian can better understand just how profoundly the New Testament presents the power of the Evil One: when Mark writes the account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5: 1-17)[1], he emphasizes how he is cut off from the community of Israel.[2] The quasi-naked man dwelt among tombs (v. 5)—a place of impurity, defilement, and lack of life/sterility—where he mutilated himself (“gashing himself with stones” – v.5b). When Jesus prepares to expel the Evil One who is the cause of this distressed state, the demons ask to be driven into the adjacent pig herd (another place of impurity and defilement for the Jew) which, after being possessed, kill themselves.

To mutilate one’s self is, to most people, a sign of a problem, not of liberation. In the wake of the Bruce Jenner story, for example, Ian Tuttle asked why we would not celebrate the young man who packed his legs in dry ice to force their subsequent amputation because he felt his ambulatory body was “wrong” for him?

To mutilate one’s self is, in the Biblical view, a sign of sinfulness because “you are not your own; you were bought, and at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies” because your “bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19-20). And there is no more powerful attestation to just how seriously God takes the body than the Incarnation—et habitavit in nobis—which is inherently then tied up with His remaining bodily presence with us in the Eucharist until the day of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”

To ignore the Jenner story, then, is to concede its frontal challenge to the whole of the Judaeo-Christian vision of the human person, made in God’s image male and female. As beneficiaries of the incredibly rich “theology of the body” St. John Paul II gave us just thirty years ago, we would be incredibly negligent to make that concession.

[1] Luke presents a similar, but briefing account of the incident in 8:26-37. In the Old Testament self-mutiliation—along with child sacrifice—is associated with the pagan cult of Baal: I Kings 18:28.

[2] Both Mark and Luke clearly have Isaiah 64 (especially v. 4) in mind, which refers to behaviors that cut one off from the community of Israel. Gerasa itself was in the Decapolis, i.e., pagan territory beyond the Jordan.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “John Chrysostom and Aelia Eudoxia” was painted by Jean-Paul Laurens in the nineteenth century.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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