April 12, 2024

Men and women couples holding hand happily at sunset

Q. There seems to be so much controversy about the Church’s teaching about gender, sexual morality and so on. How can I explain these teachings when so many people seem to take issue with it?

Of all of the questions I get—both for this column and in my work for the diocese in general—this is easily among the most pressing. As the question indicates, the Church’s teachings on these topics are very controversial, not just for those who aren’t Catholic, but even for many Catholics as well.

But not only are these teachings controversial, they are also incredibly significant. For all of these topics relate to one single issue: what does it mean to be human? What is the human being, and what is the human being for?

Because of the significance of this topic, I’m going to take a few months to unpack the Church’s answer to this question. In essence, I’m going to offer a brief summary of the Church’s teaching on the human person, to briefly present Jesus’ answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” So let’s begin.

First, it’s worth noting that this is a somewhat “abstract” question. That is, it is a highly philosophical and theological question, and oftentimes, philosophy, theology and doctrine can seem irrelevant to and removed from the concerns of everyday life for individuals, families, schools, parishes and pastorates.

Just the opposite is in fact the case: ideas do have consequences, and many of the issues we are dealing with today illustrate that truth. Why? Because many of the issues that have arisen today, issues like gay marriage and transgenderism, result from differing ideas and conflicting answers to that question: “What does it mean to be human?” and, even more specifically, to the question of “What is the meaning of human sexuality?”

These questions are ones to which the Church has given great attention in our time. At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church notably taught that in Jesus Christ, God has fully revealed man to man himself: in Jesus—who he is and what he teaches—we come to understand both who and what we are and who and what we are called to be.

Pope St. John Paul II focused deeply on this teaching of Vatican II, most notably presenting the Church’s teaching—Jesus’ teaching—on the human person in his five years’ worth of weekly addresses, which have become known as the “Theology of the Body.” And in all sorts of other ways and places, the Church has sought to present anew Jesus’ answer to the question: What does it mean to be human?

Dr. Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

Unfortunately, as noted at the beginning of this column, the reality is that this teaching has not been deeply absorbed into the minds and hearts of many Catholics today, let alone our fellow Americans. In fact, just the opposite is often the case. As study after study indicates, many American Catholics have only a superficial grasp of the Church’s teaching on the human person, specifically in areas of human sexuality. The result of this is that they are unable to deeply embrace this teaching themselves and therefore do not give vibrant and effective witness to that teaching to others. And in some cases, that lack of understanding even results in outright opposition to Church teaching.

It needn’t be this way. As my own experience and the experience of countless Catholics across our diocese, our nation and around the world attests, the Church’s answer—Jesus’ answer—to this question truly is Good News. Once it is understood and embraced, it is both transformative and empowering; it changes lives in an attractive and winsome way, and in so doing, draws others in. And the better we understand this teaching ourselves, the more effectively we can bear witness to it in our own lives, and the more easily we can hand that understanding on to others as missionary disciples.

In next month’s column, we’ll begin to look at three key aspects of the Church’s teaching on this topic, starting with this one: the Church’s teaching isn’t a matter of opinion, but of truth, and, as such, it is transformative.