How to talk to your kids about gender issues

Even if it were possible to head for the hills, circle the wagons and live in a Catholic ghetto, I wouldn’t want to. Catholics are supposed to love our neighbors, not hide from them.

Yet we can’t be naive about it. Our culture is changing fast, and there are genuine pitfalls out there. Pope Francis, rightly known for his pastoral mercy and patience with individuals, told a gathering of Church workers during his pastoral visit to Georgia in October 2016 that, “Today there is a world war to destroy marriage. Today there are ideological colonizations which destroy, not with weapons, but with ideas. Therefore, there is a need to defend ourselves ... .”

In other words, if we don’t evangelize our sons and daughters, then the sexual revolution will. And to make matters more challenging, Catholic moms and dads don’t always get to pick our moments.

One day we were at a neighborhood swimming pool. Splashing around in the shallows, my 5-year-old started playing happily with another little girl the same age. I introduced myself to our new friend’s mom, who, in turn, began telling me about her “wife.”

Another day we were watching a football game on TV. A jewelry store ran a commercial about engagement rings, and a montage of couples flashed across the screen, including some prominent lesbian brides.

Our 11-year-old has a subscription to National Geographic magazine. It’s something we’ve enjoyed together: astronomy, animals and expeditions to beautiful places. But the January 2017 issue featured pediatric sex-change surgery.

Strong foundation

So how do we as parents respond? In general, we try to play the long game. A rhythm of family devotions is the foundation. Our children will encounter challenges to the Faith. So do our children know Jesus, and can we nurture in them the habit of thinking with the Church?

On the evening of the football commercial, my wife and I sat with our older daughters at bedtime. We took a little extra time to review Daniel’s story from the Old Testament. Daniel and his Jewish friends worked in the court of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Clearly, faithful people are called to live and serve almost anywhere.

But, we pointed out, the Bible makes a point of telling us that these Jews were faithful about having a prayer life. And by only eating kosher food, Daniel and his friends made a statement: We’re here and intend to help, but we’re not afraid to be different either.

Daniel must have had to negotiate a dozen daily compromises. Not every Babylonian moment needed to escalate into the lion’s den or the fiery furnace. But Daniel knew the story of Israel. He knew to whom he belonged. When faced with a non-negotiable invitation to bow down to an idol, he had the fortitude to resist.

Calmly, cheerfully and with lots of pauses for questions, my wife and I drew the analogy clearly for our girls: That’s what Catholic life is like today. We Catholics are always, always called to be kind and hospitable to everyone, we said, but that doesn’t mean we believe the same things. Catholics know the truth about how God made men and women, but not everyone we meet has heard or remembers that story. And then we told them (again) that beautiful story.

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God’s plan for us

If we’re talking about sex and gender, we’re talking about human nature. What does it mean to be a person, to have a body, to be created in the image of God?

To tell that story, we have to begin at the beginning, meaning Genesis. Created male and female in the image of a God who loves us, God’s plan has always been, one way or another, to create communion with us.

Gathering a people to himself, working through Israel and later the Body of Christ, overcoming sin and persevering through suffering, God is always on a mission to shape us into people who are capable of loving him and each other.

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Church teaching on gender begins with the scriptural story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Shutterstock

The two sexes belong with all the other glories of creation as integral parts of God’s plan. There’s a reason why Scripture bursts with images of gardens and nature, and why marriage is a recurring Old Testament allegory for God’s love. Jesus himself affirms the goodness of the material world, taking human flesh to feast, heal and even suffer among us. St. Paul tells us that Christ loves the Church like a groom loves a bride (Eph 5:25). No matter where you begin, biblical spirituality is inescapably earthy.

Everything flows from our commitment to embodiment. Our bodies are who we are. There is no hidden, secret self apart from the body. We are all either male or female. To live chastely in community with other men and women means a vocation to either marriage or celibacy. Both are calls to solidarity and self-sacrifice. Both involve both suffering and joy.

To mature as a Catholic man or woman means embracing a mission: to offer our bodies to God, to place our masculinity and femininity at the service of God’s work in the world.

Catholic teaching

On this basis, we can start to take our bearings for Catholic teaching on sex and gender. We can also see why Catholic and secular versions of sexual ethics begin to part ways. If you listen to modern arguments, they tend to be framed in terms of privacy, autonomy and entitlement: “My body, my choice”; “I don’t want to be a burden on other people”; “I have a right to my own self-expression”; “I may have a boy’s body, but on the inside, I feel like a girl.”

A Catholic account of sex and gender can never be built on these individualistic foundations. A Catholic sexual ethic will always have to account for more than just consent, personal experience, feelings or health and safety.

Catholics believe that to be a male or a female comes with a calling, and that implies accountability to something greater than ourselves. We believe that what the body means theologically is not always the same as our own desires. We believe we’re made for interdependence and bearing each other’s burdens, even when it hurts. We believe holiness is a long-term project, reliant on sacrifice and self-control, but also mercy and forgiveness.

Which means, when talking with a 5-year-old about somebody who has two mommies, or with a tween about transgender issues, you’ve hopefully already told the basic story before the crisis hits. When something confusing comes up, you want to be reminding them of what they already know. You want to remind them that Catholics march to a different drummer. You remind them that God gave them a girl body or a boy body for a reason and that growing up to be a woman or a man is beautiful and exciting. And if some people forget that, or get a little confused about that, we Catholics aren’t going to fudge the truth, and we are always respectful.

Another point: Just like the pro-life movement is about more than picking Supreme Court justices — also requiring us to support adoption and moms in difficult pregnancies — a Catholic witness on sexuality demands that we find ways to support those who are struggling. Every person has a drive to give and receive love, including those who struggle with same-sex attraction or gender identity. We need to befriend these neighbors and show that aspiring for chastity is not a recipe for loneliness.

‘Be not afraid’

There’s another important refrain in Catholicism that parents should hear: Do not be afraid, for the Lord is with us. Isaiah proclaims “do not fear … I have called you by name: you are mine” (Is 43:1). Jesus tells his disciples to “fear not” nearly half a dozen times in the Gospels. Pope St. John Paul II, who was well-acquainted with suffering in a culture hostile to the Faith, made “be not afraid” the theme of his first homily as pope.

Catholic parenting is art, not science. For our children to embrace the Faith, God will have to send grace, and our children will have to cooperate with it, and we can do neither of those things for them. The gift of Catholic faith is something we can only offer and propose, or else we sabotage the very gift we’re trying to give.

Let us pray for one another and with St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. ... For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:18, 38-39).

Christopher C. Roberts is the author of “Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage” (Bloomsbury T&T Clark).

Additional Resources
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A good Catholic witness on sexuality is much more than insisting on a few rules and hoping they stick. To pass along the Faith, we have to pass along the rationale and beauty behind the Church’s teaching. Fortunately, we also live in a time with many fantastic resources to help us think with the Church at all stages of life. Here are some books and websites, all of them suitable for use at home or in parish and school groups: