Common gender questions

“Be not afraid” were the first words of Pope St. John Paul’s pontificate. He was echoing Jesus. Parents should not fear, for the body itself is a teacher. Here are some hypotheticals for you to adapt to your family’s circumstances. Catholic life should be an invitation — not a condemnation, an invitation — to experience the fullness of life created in God’s image.

1. A 5-year-old asks why his friend, Julie, has two mommies.
The body tells the truth: A person can only come from one mommy. Look at this sonogram: Your body was inside mommy’s body! A person can only have one daddy, too — I’m your dad and will always be your dad. It’s good to have secure love from both a mom and a dad.

So why does Julie say she has two mommies? Sometimes people forget or don’t know even important things. It’s not really true to say a person has two mommies. Maybe a kind way to look at it is to say that the two women who say they are both Julie’s mommies mean that they both love Julie. Think about Aunt Ann — she is like a mom to you.

2. A 7-year-old asks why some ladies in a magazine at the dentist’s office aren’t wearing pants.
God made some body parts so good that they only are for sharing in special situations. Our private parts are not supposed to be shown to everyone. Too bad these women forgot that their bodies are sacred. Let’s say a prayer for them: “Dear God, help those women to realize how special their bodies are. Amen.”

3. An 8-year-old asks how her baby cousin could appear in Uncle Joe and Aunt Katy’s wedding photos. Don’t you have to be married to have a baby?
A baby is always a gift. Babies usually go to mommies and daddies who are married. Sometimes, though, God gives babies to people who aren’t married. Life is harder when that happens, but isn’t it great that we have your cousin, and that Uncle Joe and Aunt Katy are now married?

4. A 10-year-old heard a news report about a famous athlete and asks what “sexual assault” is.
The body teaches us we are meant for love. I’m hugging you now — my body embraces your body with a bear hug! Unfortunately, some people fear they will not be loved. Instead of waiting to be happily married, a man might despair and try to force love. He doesn’t let a woman freely hug him. He acts mean and forces her to touch him, which is sad. Such an action shows that we all want love, but to force people’s bodies to do something is not love at all.

5. An 11-year-old says his public school teacher “came out” as transgender over Christmas vacation. “Mr. Smith” is now asking to be called “Mrs. Smith.”
Our bodies are like a teacher, so isn’t it strange that your teacher forgets his body is a teacher, too. Remember the sonogram I showed you? We knew when you were inside Mom’s body that you were a boy because you have a boy’s body.

Mr. Smith somewhere got the idea that his body is not a teacher. He thinks there’s an invisible “real person” inside him, somehow separate from his body. But our bodies are who we really are. He can only pretend to be a woman, and that makes me sad. This may be hard, but perhaps you can say “good morning” or “I have a question” and not use his name. You are used to “Mr. Smith,” so if you forget sometimes, that’s OK. But the body is our guide. Please don’t call him “Mrs. Smith.” If he gets angry, Mom and Dad will talk with him. Even though this is confusing, we are always meant to love others. Love has to be grounded in the truth.

6. A 13-year-old discovers masturbation and asks about it.
As a teenager, you’re growing up. It’s exciting. The time will come one day to discern a vocation for your life. That means right now, you want to create good habits, habits that will someday make you good at either marriage or mature celibacy.

It’s normal at puberty to discover the body’s pleasurable feelings. These feelings are designed to be part of marriage. With masturbation, however, instead of the body being directed to serve another body (a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband, or a celibate person redirecting sexual energy into service), a person is saying: “I can take pleasure for myself.” People addicted to masturbation tend to imagine in their minds another person to use. But Pope St. John Paul II said that the opposite of loving a person is using a person. So a masturbation habit sets a person up for problems later in life. Instead of patiently waiting for someone and learning self-mastery, one gets hooked on pleasure. Pleasure is part of married love, but we shouldn’t chase it at the expense of learning the virtues we need for real intimacy.

One other thing: Because of God’s mercy, it’s always possible to start again. Let’s set up a time to go to confession. And if you fall again, get up, go to confession and start again. Jesus’ Eucharistic body can eventually free anyone of any bad habit. Be not afraid.

7. A 14-year-old asks whether our family will attend her cousin’s gay wedding.
Most things that a body does, we do on our own. You don’t need anyone else to breathe, digest, circulate blood, etc. The only time God lets us know we need another is procreation. It’s God’s way of saying, “Love in truth, and form a family!” God speaks to us through the truth and meaning of the body.

As they become older, children are more likely to experience situations that will cause them to ask questions regarding gender and sexuality. Shutterstock

Two male bodies are not complementary that way. Nor are two female bodies. Does this mean that those who say they are homosexual can’t love? Not at all! Everyone needs to give and receive love. But true love isn’t always sexual. Society has a tendency to sexualize everything, but we don’t need sex. We need love.

There are good groups that support those struggling with homosexuality, like Courage or the Spiritual Friendship blog. This weekend, let’s watch the documentaries “The Third Way” and “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills” and keep talking about your cousin.

Let’s also think about ways to show our cousin that we love her and want to remain close. But we can’t support an event that means she is saying no to her own body, and to the Body of Christ (since, as the Catechism says, heterosexual or homosexual intimacy outside of marriage is a grave and probably mortal sin).

8. A 15-year-old asks why women can’t be priests.
A lot of times, the question reflects a desire for women to share in what we perceive to be a priest’s power in the Church as an organization. If that’s our motive, then we need to correct the way power works in the Church and remind ourselves what priests really do. We have priests so they can offer the sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments. Men and woman are called to sacrifice in different ways. One of the ways men sacrifice is by being priests. When the priest stands at the altar in the person of Christ, he has to have a male body, for he stands in the place of Jesus Christ offering himself as a sacrifice.

There’s also a sense in which a Mass is like a wedding. Jesus is the groom, and the Church is the bride. A male priest enables us to see this. Like a groom coming to a bride, Jesus give his body when he comes into our bodies. That’s the closest we can be to God on earth.

9. A 17-year-old asks why the Church doesn’t allow contraception.
Contraceptive sex is a bit like mutual masturbation. It is two people agreeing to use each other’s bodies to satisfy romantic feelings. Like all counterfeits, it might resemble the real thing if we don’t look too close, but it will lead to problems. If the basis of sex is romance, then you can see where we get the idea of same-sex marriage. Also, since feelings will be fickle, you can see why people want sex without commitment, and where we get the idea of divorce. Society talks as if contraception is good, but in the long run, it takes us to the wrong place. Real sexual intimacy means a husband and wife making a complete gift of themselves to each other, in their full masculinity and femininity. When a husband and wife make a complete and open gift of themselves, a new spiritual horizon can open, and the body is sacramental. When a husband and wife prayerfully discern they need to space their children’s births, the Church encourages natural family planning. NFP works with the woman’s body, discerning fertility and helping couples learn the patient habits that actually deepen a marriage.

Christopher C. Roberts is studying for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Monica Ashour is the president of the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team.