A tool for dialogue on gender


By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today


The recently published diocesan Guidelines for Pastoral Accompaniment of Gender and Sexual Minorities has prompted much dialogue. What follows is intended to aid dialogue as we reflect as a diocesan community on welcoming and belonging this year. It is a summary of a journal article published in “Theological Studies” in 2019, entitled, Statistically Ordered: Gender, Sexual Identity, and the Metaphysics of “Normal,” by Jonathan Heaps and Neil Ormerod. I will use the substance and vocabulary of their article.

At present, two positions dominate the conversation around gender: gender essentialism and gender fluidity. Gender essentialism holds that a gender binary is rooted in biology, while gender fluidity holds that gender is merely a “social construction.” In the everyday life of the Church, over several years, I have heard adherents of both positions unwilling to engage the other position charitably. Caricatures, belittling, indifference and even hostility mark attitudes towards the other side. This is not what it looks like to be the body of Christ. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to mediate the conflict.

Let’s start with metaphysics. Where ethics concerns morality and aesthetics concerns beauty, metaphysics concerns truth — knowledge of reality. What motivates metaphysics is the human desire to know. Two further concepts help us understand reality: “classical” structures and “statistical” structures. Classical structures apply every time, such as how the law of falling bodies (x=at2) always applies to gravity on earth. Statistical structures apply where we find randomness and probabilities, such as in the causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Both classical and statistical structures help us understand the world around us.


Statistics helps us understand probability, dealing in frequencies and likelihood. In a way that neither the gender essentialist nor the gender fluidity positions recognize, biological sex and sexual orientation are parts of statistical processes. One such process is biological but another is cultural.

Biologically, sexual differences are not a matter of precise mechanical levers. They emerge from a statistical process. A strict binary (“there are only males and females”), for example, does not biologically account for all the relevant data. Some small proportion of babies are born “intersexed.” Furthermore, on the level of sexual orientation, while genes determine eye and hair color, no specific gene determines sexual attraction. It may be that many genes relate to make a given sexual orientation more or less likely, but, some proportion of people in fact experience same-sex attraction. They do not choose this attraction, it’s just a given in their life.

Culturally, a statistical process is at work as well. The above biological realities constrain what human communities believe and value in common. That is, the biological realities make certain beliefs and values more likely. Because most people in a population are heterosexual, the cultures that are likely to emerge reflect that. Cultural practices, symbols, social systems and interpersonal roles are likely to emerge that make our biological differences meaningful to us, much like rituals around food and drink emerge to make eating culturally meaningful (e.g. birthday cakes, champagne toasts, the presentation of food on a plate). But because sexual orientation is statistically governed, we expect some minority population of people will not find the cultural expressions of a largely heterosexual culture meaningful and resonant with their experience of themselves. The dominant culture may “other” or it may welcome those who do not fit within what the culture defined as “normal.” Dominant cultures may have difficulty incorporating marginalized people because those marginalized people were excluded from the culture-making process.

This article tries to give a tool for understanding reality (metaphysics). It doesn’t tell us what kind of culture to make with that knowledge (ethics). But I think it is worth heeding the article’s one ethical warning: if we don’t think about it, the experience of heterosexual people will dominate what kind of culture we make together, thereby excluding others. Cultures likely reflect the values of the greatest portion of the population. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to includes those on the margins in that process. As people called to make peace, we have a responsibility to help mediate the present conflict. Mediation, in this case, requires understanding the embodiment and enculturation of gender and sexuality in our own time and in our personal lives. I offer this tool for dialogue as part of my own journey to understand, and like all such journeys, probably only goes deeper.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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