Original Personhood: Identity & Theology of the Body
This week I changed login information for one of my many online applications. In one section, I could select a new update.
Male. Female. I prefer not to say.
How do you identify? “Identity politics” has gotten a lot of play across the red-blue spectrum in recent years. While it may appear as if the human person is the recipient of an upheaval heretofore unseen, this is not a new question. At the outset of St. John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them, the late holy father notes: “The created man finds himself from the first moment of his existence before God in search of his own being, as it were … today one would say, in search of his own ‘identity’” (TOB 5:5).
The topic of same sex desires and sexual identity brings with it many complicated questions, some designed intentionally to entangle the faithful defender of sexuality into contradictory or controversial statements. It’s easy to be lured down the rabbit trail of controversy. John Paul II recognized this and presents an alternative – the approach of Christ himself.
“I think that among the answers Christ would give to the people of our times and to their questions, often so impatient, fundamental would still be the one he gave to the Pharisees. In answering these questions, Christ would appeal first of all to the ‘beginning.’ He would perhaps do so all the more decidedly and essentially, inasmuch as man’s inner and simultaneously cultural situation seems to move away from that beginning and assume forms and dimensions that diverge from the biblical image of the ‘beginning’ to points that are evidently even more distant. At any rate, Christ would not be ‘surprised’ by any of these situations, and I suppose he would continue to refer above all to the ‘beginning’” (TOB 23:2).
Who were we there, in that beatifying beginning? What characterized our existence? The writings of St. John Paul II offer insight into our original identity and personhood.
First and foremost, the person is created by God out of love and “willed for his own sake.” (Gaudium et Spes 22). This creation first occurred in original solitude, where the person is unmistakably called to God first. “The desire for God is written in the human heart…only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).
Unfortunately, this search and discovery has been obscured by the fall. The experience of solitude ceases to be an encounter with God and becomes a space to be avoided at all costs. For many, the flight manifests in the pursuit of earthly goods or human relationships. People of faith recognize the folly of this chase and, in spiritual maturity, pursue God’s design for discipleship and vocation. However, for those of us experiencing same sex attraction, our state of life vocational discernment is a bit more complicated, which can exacerbate the existential loneliness of the human condition. The reclaiming this first element of original identity – willed, beloved child of God – in prayerful solitude becomes all the more essential.
Our identity is also uniquely our own. From the beginning we are made to be at home in our own bodies, as “being[s] at once corporeal and spiritual … willed by God” (CCC 362). This original integrity of embodiment “passes through masculinity and femininity, which are, as it were, two ‘incarnations’ of the same metaphysical solitude” (TOB 10.1).
St. John Paul II respectfully recognizes that “when we speak about the full meaning of the body … we also include every effective experience of the body in its masculinity and femininity” (TOB 31.5). Same sex desires or dissociation with one’s maleness or femaleness are acknowledged as valid experiences of the human person. However, such an experience “does not modify the reality itself, that is, that which the human body is and does not cease to be in the sexuality that belongs to it, independently of the states of our consciousness or experiences” (TOB 31.5). In other words, we are who we are before God. It is the work of chaste, holy integration to grow in understanding and acceptance of what our bodies mean as they were intentionally designed.
Only when we affirm our solitude before God and our own bodily integrity can we move to the third element of our original personhood. Original unity is rooted in masculine and feminine complementarity. While there is a spousal reality to this, John Paul II emphasizes that the implications are much broader. “Man and woman were in a particular way ‘given’ to one another by the Creator … in the whole perspective of the existence of the human race” (TOB 18.4).
But what of romantic desires that fall outside this realm of embodied complementarity? There lies within the person an inevitable impulse back to the beginning, to union and self-gift. We can see this quest for affirmation in the LGBT movement, with its “love is love” slogans, or in media portrayals of “boundary-breaking” LGBT romances. John Paul anticipates this tendency, albeit perhaps a different way, when he writes: “does not man sense, together with concupiscence, a deep need to preserve the dignity of the reciprocal relations that find their expression in the body … does he not feel the need to confer on them the supreme value, which is love?” (TOB 46:5).
In light of this cultural situation, it is all the more imperative to present an attractive counter-narrative. Because, regardless of one’s experience of attraction, every person faces down that same reality jarringly expressed in Adam and Eve: original choice. The Second Vatican Council fathers note that within the person “many elements wrestle with one another … pulled by manifold attractions [the person] is constantly forced to choose among them and renounce some” (Gaudium et Spes 10). The human person is called to freedom and truth, called to “restore to creation all its original value” (Christifidelis Laici 14). The choice for the good is a continual one, involving “the discovery of a new order of values … which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good and beautiful” (TOB 48:1).
Our freedom is the result choice, and difficult ones at that. It demands that each person “reach a more mature and complete evaluation … of his own heart” (TOB 48:4). It requires chastity in all walks of life. It is this process, this gradual self-awareness, these rightly ordered relationships, that enable “the persons deepest and yet most real possibilities and dispositions [to] show themselves” (TOB 49:6).
As this complexity unfolds, we can understand the personalist-inspired words of St. John Paul II’s dear friend, Pope Benedict XVI:
The human person, made in the image image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Everyone living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents, and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, His child and heir to eternal life.(Pastoral Care 16).
Anna Carter lives and works in Milwaukee, WI. Since graduating from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Anna has worked for NET Ministries and in local catechetical ministry with youth and young adults. Anna is the Co-Founder of Eden Invitation, an evangelistic outreach to millennial Catholics experiencing same sex attraction.