Cardinal Sarah on Freedom and Transgenderism
The confluence of the age of social media, and the meteoric rise of transgender ideology, has produced a wave of deeply distressing images and video content.
One need not look far on social media sites like TikTok or Instagram to find young transgender “influencers” documenting their “gender transition” journeys. At other times, it is so-called health care experts who use social media to boast about their successes, posting pictures of themselves with the patients they claim to have helped.
And what does this “help” look like? In short, healthy bodies butchered, or medically manipulated into disquieting and often-cartoonish likenesses of the opposite sex. Typical of this genre are photos of young girls with ghoulish scars on their chests. These are the results of completely medically unnecessary and irreversible double mastectomies, conducted by surgeons in pursuit of the literally impossible goal of turning girls into boys.
In other cases, self-evidently male individuals cavort about in dresses and lipstick, with hormonally-induced or surgically-created breasts, behaving in ways that they evidently take to be “feminine,” but which in reality simply ape the cardboard stereotypes of femininity that feminists claimed to have dethroned decades ago.
To those with any common sense left, one question insistently presents itself: how or why did these people come to hate their own bodies, their own identities, their own God-given sex, so much, that they would go to such drastic lengths to fashion themselves into something that, alas, is not only unconvincing, but often deeply unsettling.
Relatedly, why didn’t the adults and doctors in these people’s lives, instead of so promptly pumping them full of drugs or putting them under the knife for expensive surgeries, help them to learn to love their God-given bodies, and so live at peace with who and what they are?
Cardinal Sarah: Hatred of Man
There are no easy answers to these questions. However, one of the best responses I have ever read is found in Cardinal Robert Sarah’s prophetic book The Day is Now Far Spent.
Cardinal Sarah’s analysis of the phenomenon of transgenderism (sex-identity confusion) arguably reaches down to the very root cause of this modern phenomenon. Importantly, however, it also touches on the root of so many of the moral and social evils which we in the pro-life and pro-family movements spend our days fighting: divorce, pornography, the freefall in marriage rates, euthanasia, assisted suicide, transhumanism, and the explosion in loneliness and social disintegration.
In a chapter entitled “Hatred of Man,” Cardinal Sarah begins:
I would like to go back to the origin of this hatred that modern men seem to devote to themselves as well as to their own nature. At the root of this mysterious process there is fear. Our contemporaries have been convinced that in order to be free, it is necessary for them not to depend on anyone.
As Cardinal Sarah goes on to note, for modern man this fear springs from the fact that the assumed ideal state is one of being “radically autonomous and independent.” This state is assumed to be the state of ultimate freedom: one in which nothing and nobody impinges upon an individual’s pursuit of radical self-creation.
Ultimately, argues Cardinal Sarah, this rejection of all ties is expressed most critically in a rejection of God as Father, the Creator with whom we are in a relationship of sonship merely by virtue of our dependency upon Him for the fact of our creation. Modern man thus has no room for even the concept of God, which is viewed as inherently constraining, to the extent that man has received, and thus is in a fundamental sense obligated towards something other than himself.
In taking this stance, Cardinal Sarah is only repeating and deepening our understanding of a theme repeatedly emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI. In a homily on December 8, 2005, for instance, the late pope noted that modern human beings live “in suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence” and that “he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself.”
In other words, modern man has taken it for granted that “freedom” requires the complete absence of any constraints whatsoever on his will, even be in the constraint of love given, which demands reciprocation. Rather, in order for an act to be considered free, our individual, isolated wills must be the sole determining factor. Such things as relationships, responsibilities, duties of love, ethical norms, and even the biological facts of our bodies, are things to be surmounted and overcome. To the extent that they limit our possibilities, or demand anything from us, they are to be resisted.
The Tragic Consequences
Cardinal Sarah describes the triumph of this definition of freed as a “tragic error.” This is because the practical consequences are far-reaching, and profoundly harmful.
As Cardinal Sarah rightly notes, if you begin with the assumption that ties of dependency are inherently constraining, then you will come to view all normal relationships of love as threatening, since all love implies some level of dependency. “[I]f depending on another person is perceived as a negation of freedom, then every true and lasting relationship appears dangerous. The other person always becomes a potential enemy.”
Understood this way, relationships that can and should be the sources of the greatest satisfaction in life, become instead thought of as prisons. “We do not choose our parents,” notes the cardinal, “we receive them. This first experience is unbearable for contemporary man, and of all that he is.” Thus, modern man first expresses his “freedom” and “creativity,” in rejecting the given ties of family, including the normative and often-healthy expectations of parents, who educate and train their children so that they might live happy and healthy lives.
And while romantic relationships, and even the children that come of them, can be chosen, and thus be thought of as an expression of one’s freedom, to the extent that those relationships come with obligations, they are viewed as constraining. So long as a couple “chooses” to be in love, then romantic ties are defensible: however, those ties can never be thought of as having any reality or holding power apart from our choice.
The minute either member of a couple feels the need to “free” themselves from the freely chosen tie, it is (and must be, if it is to be “free”) dissolved. And so, the modern family is held together by nothing any weightier or more reliable than fickle human feelings and choice. The consequence is the frequent disintegration of the family, with this very disintegration viewed as a positive good, insofar as this disintegration is an expression of “freedom.”
The practical result, however, far from anything like “freedom” is instead ubiquitous loneliness. Without ties that bind, humans wander from relationship to relationship. Where an acceptance of givenness and obligation might have offered the opportunity to deepen love into something enriching, we instead feel constrained by the very thing that offers the greatest possibilities of freedom. Love is a tie that binds. Without the binding, there is no love. And yet it is within the parameters of love that our nature flourishes into its fullest expression.
As Cardinal Sarah righty notes, however, this disgust in the face of givenness and dependency not only robs modern man of the possibility of deep human relationships, but it also causes him to recoil in the face of the givenness of his own body and nature. “[T]he idea of receiving our nature as man and woman from a Creator-God becomes humiliating and alienating. In this way of thinking, it is necessary to deny the very notion of human nature or the reality of a sex that has not been chosen,” notes the cardinal.
Transgenderism, in other words, is simply the logical endpoint of the acceptance of the belief that freedom is not freedom, unless it is expressed in a context without any constraints, including any kind of givenness. Ultimately, this view leads to the conviction that freedom is most truly freedom when it is rebellion. Thus, while one could in a sense accept that which is given (including the givenness of one’s own body), ultimately, one is freer if one successfully rejects any hint of givenness.
This view, of course, explains the strange and quasi-religions valorization of transgenderism as something that is inherently braver and more admirable than accepting one’s biological sex. To be sexually normal is denigrated by our brave new transgender ideologues with belittling terms such as “cisgender” (in other words, accepting that one is what one is). To be “cisgender” is to be boring or “square”: or, even worst, to be inherently an oppressor since it is the “cisgender” people who for so long have restricted the “freedom” of “queer” folk to manifest the creative act of their wills in choosing from the ever-multiplying list of alternative sexual identities.
The Gift of Givenness
Both Cardinal Sarah and Pope Benedict XVI emphasize the need for a radical conversion in our way of thinking about givenness and dependency, one which reflects the reality of the limitedness of our nature, and how that nature achieves fulfillment.
The paradox of modern man is that in seeking to become a god unto himself, rather than enlarging himself, he has debased himself. Rather than finding freedom and peace, he has rejected love, and missed the opportunity to seek the fullness of his nature. In rejecting his nature, he has normalized grotesque forms of self-harm and self-mutilation.
As Pope Benedict XVI put it in that homily:
Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom: only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.
Ultimately, as Pope Benedict XVI prophetically notes, this rebellion against givenness is really only a repetition of the first sin: the eating of the forbidden fruit. “[Man] wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts,” he writes.
I will conclude with this beautiful meditation from Cardinal Sarah, which eloquently shows modern man the path out of this prison of his own making:
Man’s dignity consists of being fundamentally a debtor and an heir. How beautiful and freeing it is to know that I exist because I have been loved! I am the product of a free decision by God, who, from all eternity, willed my existence. How sweet it is to know that one is the heir of a human lineage in which children are born as the most beautiful fruit of their parents’ love. How productive it is to know that one is indebted to a history, to a country, to a civilization. I do not think that it is necessary to be born an orphan in order to be truly free. Our freedom has meaning only if other persons give substance to it for us, gratuitously and through their love. What would we be if our parents did not teach us to walk and to talk? To inherit is the condition for any true freedom.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.