What’s in a Name?

What do The New York Times, transgender activists, the German bishops, and liturgy have in common?

Let me tell you.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, who writes for The New York Times on “family life, parenting, LGBT issues,” launched into a screed against Ryan Anderson’s new book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. The column denounced the book as “abundant in junk science,” suggesting it was the result of his “many minutes of meticulous research” and filled with a multitude of “things to break your heart in this book.”

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Why pursue a reasoned argument when a few derisive comments and ad hominem attacks will do? Why ask how “scientific” it is to deny that a person is constituted sexually down to every single cell in his body when you have philosophically concluded that “gender” is but a state of mind? Why discuss the ethical nature of administering drugs to suppress puberty, whose effects on developing teenage bodies cannot be known unless you are first willing to experiment on the subject to find out? (Or unless you have decided that, since somatic functioning can be trumped by a state of mind, it doesn’t matter?) Why ask whether allowing a minor to have a mastectomy of healthy breasts and mutilation of healthy genitalia represents good medicine, unless you have first decided that any intervention in the reproductive system is justified by wish fulfillment, not any objective standard of healthy somatic function?

These questions implicate science: the pervasive reality of biology, the notion of objective standards of health and normal integrated somatic function. But we’re not interested in that kind of common-sense science. We want “peer-reviewed” literature, preferably done by the right kind of peer-reviewers. Perhaps a study like “The Conceptual Penis,” which appeared in peer-reviewed Cogent Social Sciences. Oh, right, the author later admitted the article was a hoax intended to expose the scientific standards of “gender studies,” and that he really didn’t believe the male sex organ is but a “social construct.”

Why bother with all that? Answering those questions in an honest debate might take more than “many minutes” if let out of Pandora’s Box. Better to wrap up your non-argument—like Boylan does—by invoking Robert F. Kennedy, even if you have no evidence that RFK would have subscribed to your position. I hope Boylan, whose other day job is teaching English at Barnard College, excels better at that than at logic.

What I found most offensive about Boylan’s column, however, was the author’s refusal to name Anderson’s book! Boylan simply declares that the book has “a particularly insulting title that I’m not going to put into print here.”

What’s so insulting about Anderson’s frankly clever play on the title of the 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally? Transgender activists contend, after all, that there may very well be a “Sally” somehow smothered away inside “Harry,” waiting to be outed. “Harry” indeed may be a false identity, the caterpillar waiting to emerge as a “Sally” butterfly. Like Bruce/Caitlin Jenner. Or maybe James/Jennifer Finney Boylan.

I raise this name issue not just because Boylan did, but also because Darton, Longman, and Todd has just published a new book, Transfaith. The book is a collection of seven experimental liturgies composed by a Church of England priestess and a Metropolitan-Community-Church-retrained-United Reformed Church minister. (Oh, by the way, the dustjacket has a big butterfly on it.)

Among the new rites in this “pastoral resource” is a “Renaming Ceremony.” It is theologically bizarre.

The rite is essentially a parody of Baptism, seizing on the themes of “rebirth” and the tradition of conferring a name in Christian Initiation. Scripture is selectively plucked and employed eisegetically. And, in the end, the objection Ryan Anderson notes in his book is on full display.

Since James can become Jennifer and Bruce Caitlin (though, apparently not Harry Sally), the liturgy assembles the Christian community “to mark a change of name.” We are told there are “echoes in the Bible” for such practice, as when Abram became Abraham, Sarai Sarah, Jacob Israel, and Saul Paul. Presumably, these liturgists did not notice that Abram did not become Sarah nor Jacob Rachel.

The name-change is justified because it “is a recognition of a pre-existing truth that has been obscured.” Transgender ideology puts huge weight upon culture, but in this instance, the “pre-existing truth” also encompasses the very biological reality by which God created this person: “male and female He created them.” Apparently, even God is complicit in the obscuring.

What is particularly interesting in this rite is the use of clothes. The rubric provides that candidates are to be “dressed in gender neutral clothing but bearing symbols of their natal gender.” Symbols of their “natal gender” will be put under a cloth and something like a baptismal candle is then extinguished. Symbols of their newly assumed “gender” (wherever it happens to be among the fifty shades) will then be taken up and a new candle lit.

As Ryan Anderson asks, if gender is a state of mind independent of a sexual biological foundation, if I am a simmering Sally waiting to burst forth from bodily Harry, then what exactly does it mean to be a “female” or a “male” without a body? How am I male or female independently of a body?

For the social sciences and some philosophies, the answer is an unresolved contradiction: it seems one has to rely on “gender stereotypes” such as “natal” and re-natal clothing to embody (that word, again!) a gendering that has no (necessary) sexual bodily foundation.

For Christian theology (with which, frankly, both the United Reformed and Anglican Churches are having less and less in common) sexual differentiation is precisely a bodily feature. Persons without bodies do not have sex: God is not male or female, nor are angels. But neither is man an angel, a spirit trapped in matter: he is a body-soul unity, which means sex is part of his identity. (Maritain had once defined the problem of angelism well.) Human beings, in heaven or hell, will in the end be men and women.

So, if naming/renaming is so essential to creating a “gender” identity unsupported by sex, then what is so “particularly insulting” about Harry becoming Sally?

Which leads me back to the German bishops. The trial balloon floated by Osnabrück bishop Bode and Munich archbishop Marx, to create a “blessing” for homosexual “marriages,” recognizes the principle of liturgical theology, lex orandi, lex credendi—roughly put, how we pray says what we believe. That is why, in the end, attempts to separate pastoral theology from its dogmatic, moral, and liturgical foundations is flawed and dishonest: we do not “accompany” people by a wink and a nod to our theological commitments, only to jettison them when applied in the “existential” situation.

Neither Bode nor Marx can be so theologically naïve as to expect that their ruminations—in a secular newspaper or on state radio—would not likely become a pressure campaign to change Catholic teaching. So, they must understand that their attempts to create some “pastoral accompaniment” in the form of a “blessing” is intended to incorporate into the Church’s ritual an acknowledgement of behaviors that the Church has previously taught as sinful.

In some ways, it all comes back to nominalism: does a name acknowledge a pre-existing reality or impose my will on “reality”? That’s why control of language is so paramount for the new nominalists and their political correctness: neologisms and the “personal pronoun” wars are just symptoms of the larger phenomenon of what Paul Greenberg once called “verbicide”—killing off language is prerequisite to killing off reality. It’s why names matter.


  • 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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