This was a question posed to me by a person on Facebook in response to my articles Lust Leads to Atheism and Sex: the best proof for God’s existence. I began responding to her and once my response turned into the length of an article I decided to post it on the website. I also thought it was a very interesting question and felt that others may benefit from it being posted here.
Question: “What does the church say, in your opinion, about relationships like marriage or sex between two individuals when one of them is intersex? I have asked several persons in the Catholic faith about this and have never received a response. To me, sex is biological, however, gender is socially constructed. I guess I can’t read your blog with a means for understanding until I acquire some context for how intersexism is viewed.”
Thanks for the question. That’s a great question and it’s one that I wasn’t really prepared to give a sufficient answer to so if you would have asked me in person I would have probably said “I don’t know. Let me get back to you on that”. That’s just to say that this is probably something many people don’t have a good grasp on so I can understand the difficulty of answering this without prior research – even if one knows the Church’s teachings. That’s why I am glad that you asked this question because this wasn’t even on my radar so you gave me something to research and think about.
Of course, I have heard of the term intersex many times before and I know a good amount about Church teaching. However, I didn’t respond right away because even though I can somewhat speak confidently on Church teaching – I don’t really know enough about current scientific intersex research to speak confidently from a biological point of view. I’m not a biologist. I am open to learning more about the issue from experts so if you can point me to any studies or reliable sources on the issue I would appreciate that.
I do, however, consider myself somewhat of a contender in the field of Philosophy and Theology so what I can do is give you my opinion. From what I have read, so far, this is a very complex issue and it is likely that each case will have to be treated independently rather than as a whole. I’ll explain this in a second.
The first thing I would say in response to your question/comment concerns your statement that “sex is biological, however, gender is socially constructed”. If I can respectfully disagree – I don’t believe that is the case. The Catholic Church teaches that the body and spirit are one. We are not souls trapped in a body. We are body-persons. The soul and body are totally integrated and are what makes up the person. This is why death is so abhorrent. If you’ve ever seen a dead body than you know that the body without the soul is a horrible sight to bear. We know instinctively that something is wrong with that picture and it’s because death is an abomination – something that we were never intended to experience but do as a result of sin. So to say that sex is simply biological is to reduce the body to something of a shell or a container that keeps our soul from spilling out all over the place. Of course, I’m somewhat joking but the point is that it does reduce the part that the body, and sex, play in the life of the human person and the purpose of their existence. Additionally, you say that gender is socially constructed. Why do you think that is the case? By it’s original definition sex and gender are the same thing. It’s like saying fingers are biological but pinkies (or pinky’s?… I don’t know) are socially constructed. It’s just another word to describe the same thing. I assume what you are getting at is the “boy likes blue and girl likes pink” thing and that’s a totally different subject.
Concerning intersexism/hermaphroditism (I know that intersex is the preferred term but just in case anyone else didn’t make the connection), here’s what I found out from reading a couple things here and there: First, there’s a lot of convoluted information on the matter because so many people seem to be using the terms incorrectly. It might be that they are using the term incorrectly or that they are just loosely using the word “intersex” or “hermaphrodite” to encompass all types of situations when really there are very different situations that shouldn’t be grouped together. For example, most cases concern a male having some incomplete or undeveloped female parts or vise versa. The gender of the person is usually established by a majority of one sex and some incomplete parts of another sex. The research I found on true, or perfect, hermaphroditism where there is such a mix of gonads and chromosomes that the sex cannot be determined at birth is something that occurs in plants and animals and is extremely rare in humans (I read in various places that it was extremely rare but didn’t find any documented cases – just people saying “I knew this person who had that”). If you can find me some that would be helpful. The issue of a person being fully established as a male or female and later getting a “sex change” because they identified more with the opposite sex is a psychological issue and not a biological one. That’s a totally different issue that I don’t believe should be grouped in with the term intersexism. Identity issues, whether they deal with gender or not, are shared by various types of people for a variety of reasons and can usually be linked to mental or social disorders. However, I did also read of some extremely rare cases of hermaphroditism where the sex could not be determined at birth but then around the stage of puberty the person fully established the biological traits of a male (I read that this is more the case that a male develops later on). A female was incorrectly raised as a female. That’s a complex situation that requires individual attention and, again, I didn’t find any documented cases of such – just hearsay stories. My main sources of information: http://www.who.int/genomics/gender/en/index1.html and http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001669.htm
Each person is an individual and should be treated as such. Each person is unique and has a dignity that is not based on who they are and what they do but rather that they are a child of God. I think I need to write another article to make sure people don’t read in to what I’m saying on the issue of sex and marriage. I believe sex was designed to portray the image of God but a person’s dignity is not based on their sex (gender) or whether or not they are even married. Sex isn’t the only way we image God. We have celibate priests and religious women who image God in a way that is, in fact, superior to marriage and is considered the closest thing we have to a Heavenly marriage (or the marriage we will experience in Heaven). The reason I wrote the article and made the statement that “sex is the best proof for God’s existence” is because I believe that since our culture is obsessed with sex and saturated with the wrong image of sex we are somewhat poisoned and unable to see clearly the message that God intended to convey through our sexuality. Therefore, the greatest antidote is to meditate on God’s original plan for our sexuality. I never said that would lead to marriage. It could lead some to a single life or celibate life. It’s just a sign that points to something greater than itself.
The bottom line is that just because there are people born with defects or because there are anomaly’s in creation – doesn’t mean that the teaching needs to change. Let me give an example of a “fake Church teaching” (just so there is no confusion this is made up by me to make a point). If the Church taught that hands and arms were created by God to give people the ability to build stuff, plant gardens and hold their babies – that wouldn’t have to change when a person is born without arms. Actually, a better example is that God gave us an intellect to be able to know him through the use of prayer and reason (this is a real teaching). Does this mean that this teaching must be false since persons who are born with mental disabilities may not have the capacity to contemplate the mystery of God on a mature level? Just because there are defects doesn’t mean that there isn’t a design or that the design is flawed. Why God allows evil, people to be born with mental or physical disabilities, or to be born as intersex persons is a mystery. Mysteries are not something that we cannot know anything about. They are just something that we cannot definitively know. If a person is born with an ambiguous sex makeup I would view that as a birth defect. Each individual case would have to be treated as an individual case.
The beauty of Church teaching is that every person has a vocation or a calling. Each person is a product of loving creation and made in the image of God. Sometimes we don’t see this right away but the Catholic Church is filled with stories of saints of unfounded courage and unlikely heroic qualities in spite of their weakness. Christianity is based on the story of a King who was prophesied to be a savior but doubted by his own people due to apparent weakness. He gave his self up willingly to be crucified and he did all this to be an example of holiness for us. God uses the weak to do his work.
St. Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
All this is to say that persons born into very difficult situations sometimes have the greatest opportunity to witness to the world what it means to be a true Christian. Just because they can’t marry doesn’t mean they cannot proclaim the same truth proclaimed through marriage. In fact, much like celibate single persons or celibate religious – they have the ability to speak that message even louder then those who are married.
Finally, to answer your question directly: what does the Church say in regards to marriage? The Church defines marriage as the union of two persons, male and female, who have the ability to consummate that marriage. Those two persons must 1) come to the altar of their own free will 2) plan to give a total gift of themselves to the other and reserve nothing 3) they must plan to be faithful to the other person until death do them part and 4) they must be open to children from God. Each case should be handled individually but I can try to give some general guidelines based on the above Church teaching. I would say that the biological sex of the person must be established definitively by medical science for them to be able to consider marriage with someone of the opposite sex. If it cannot be determined than that person will likely not be allowed to marry in the Church. Similarly, someone who considers themselves male (or identifies more as male) when they are definitively, and unquestionably, biologically female will not be allowed to marry a male.
I hope you read the articles to get a better idea of why that is the Church teaching. Marriage isn’t just a lifelong partnership. The Catholic Church views it as something eternally greater than that and proclaims that the design of marriage is one that has a purpose greater than the two people who are marrying. The two persons that are marrying will speak volumes to the world through their marriage and the message that they convey can either testify to God’s existence or proclaim the exact opposite. That should give you a better context in which to read the two articles.