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Identity and relationship

Sexual fluidity and the anthropological crisis, its causes and consequences. From the January issue of Tracce, a dialogue with Alberto Frigerio, priest, doctor, and professor of Ethics.
Paola Ronconi

Fifty years have passed since 1968, but sexuality continues to be a crucial matter, which ties together deep cultural questions, affecting the very conception of the person, their identity, with effects at both a social and family level. "The uncertainty about one’s own identity that underlies identity politics testifies to the incipient crisis of the postmodern subject, who feels a certain unease in answering the question, ‘Who am I?’" says Fr. Alberto Frigerio, an Ambrosian priest and professor of Ethics at the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences in Milan. We spoke with him about his recent book, L’enigma della sessualità umana [The Enigma of Human Sexuality] which delves into this subject from a scientific, psychological point of view, but also from philosophical and theological perspectives.

The issue of identity runs through many topics of today’s cultural debate. Where does it come from? And how does it connect to sexual fluidity?
At this moment in time we are witnessing the wide spread of identity politics where various groups are making politico-legal claims, especially in matters of race and sexuality, for example the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ groups. The uncertainty about one’s own identity testifies to the incipient crisis of the postmodern subject, who feels a certain unease in answering the question, ‘Who am I?’ "Identity liquefaction," as defined by Zygmunt Bauman, is due, among other things, to the radical changes in the historical-cultural references in which personal identity matures. Pope Francis often speaks of an "epochal change." One thinks of globalization, which entails ethnic, cultural and religious mixing; this is an opportunity for mutual enrichment, but is also a reason for displacement, disconnection, disorientation and estrangement, and for the crisis of the family, related to loneliness and difficulties in socializing, which undermine the primary identification mechanisms. The sphere in which the contemporary subject's evanescent experience of self-construction is most vividly evident is that of sexuality. Several legislations already establish the so-called self-id, according to which a simple self-declaration allows the subject to change sex in the civil registry; of the alias career in schools, which allows for an alternative and temporary profile for those who do not recognize themselves in the gender assigned on the basis of biological sex; and of the newly coined formulas: gender fluidity and sexual fluidity, which refer to the subject whose gender identity and sexual orientation vary over time.

Is the fluid view of sexuality a consequence of gender theory? What exactly does it consist of? And how do you explain its rapid spread?

Yes, the fluid conception of sexuality is linked to gender theories that promote the de-naturalization of human sexuality in favor of a merely cultural understanding of it, as documented in an memorable statement by the anthropologist Gayle Rubin, dating back to 1975: "The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love." Gender theory – it should be pointed out – reveals the complexity of human sexuality and accurately affirms that not everything in sexuality is biologically determined. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not inevitable extensions of biological sex, as the transgender and homosexual states demonstrate. On the other hand, as phenomenology points out, the subject both possesses and is their body, through which they open themselves to the world and the world opens itself to them. In this sense, being male or female gives way to becoming a man or a woman (what psychoanalysis calls the process of sexuation). Evidence of this is the fact that any imbalance in the levels of sexuality (sex, gender, orientation), which undermines the unity of the person, is linked to the risk of mental health disorders, which persists in culturally and legally favorable contexts of the so-called sexual minorities. For this reason, it cannot induce discrimination, stigma or social stress, which, if ascertained, should be deplored and removed (see the 2016 report of The New Atlantis magazine). With regard to the broad consensus enjoyed by gender theory, attested to by the increase in the number of individuals experiencing sexuality in a way that differs from the heterosexual binary (cf. surveys by The William Institute: 2.2-5.6 percent in 2014, 9 percent in 2022), it might be attributed to a plurality of causes: permissive cultural environment, inclined to promote a fluid view of sexuality; models of sexual ambiguity conveyed by the mass media, which exert a disorienting effect on the young; a tendency to attenuate the natural differences between the male and female sexes; family crisis, which complicates self-understanding; the spread of the capitalist mentality, which perceives the subject as plastic, flexible and fungible, and reduces it to a commodity of exchange (cf. I. Illich, M. Onfray); an understanding of freedom as absolute, which could dispose of everything, even corporeality, inaugurating the "new anthropological question" (C. Ruini), which tends not only to interpret the person but also to transform them, and this not just in economic and social relations in the manner of Marxism, but in their very biological and psychic reality.

How should the issue of gender be addressed? What is the Church’s position?
Communitarian philosophy shows that the person accesses the truth of goodness through practices of good living. In matters of sexuality, the subject also learns the craft of living by experiencing it. In this sense, the key to address the issue is to build places of ecclesial friendship, where to communicate the reasons for living in both words and deeds, in the style of Christ, who told the first disciples "come and see" (Jn. 1:39). As Fr. Luigi Giussani teaches, an authentically lived faith generates a cultural stance, that is, it elicits a vision and suggests a way of dealing with reality. This is crucial in the area of sexuality, as it is decisive for personal maturation and social life. For this reason, the Church and Christians have the task of promoting instruments and occasions for judgment and dialogue on the issue of gender, to avoid hasty reactions and to develop a wise and prudent way of addressing the topic, capable of communicating with reason and clarity. To this end, it is worth noting that the 2019 document Male and Female He Created Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education of the Congregation for Catholic Education, which calls for welcoming and listening to people, protecting their absolute dignity, regardless of their sexual outlook and practice, but rejecting gender ideology and the lifestyles it promotes. The document recognize the centrality of the family, a natural society that precedes the socio-political order and that has the right to be recognized as a primary pedagogical space; the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother, which constitutes the appropriate environment for psycho-affective development; and freedom of education, allowing schools to promote their own vision of sexuality based on an integral anthropology, also because the democratic state cannot reduce the educational proposal to a single thought, especially in such a delicate matter. Finally, in the face of those who, especially at a young age, express their difficulties on a sexual level, great caution is required; with the onset of puberty, the person becomes determined by their sexuality, which ushers in a new way of living relationships. Therefore, it is appropriate to urge those who experience emotional and/or cognitive discomfort with their gender, or confusion about their sexual orientation, not to define themselves ipso facto as a transgender or homosexual person, but to invite them to participate in places of life where they can discover the meaning of sexuality. Of course, should such a sexual attitude be deeply rooted, the Church proposes the strenuous but fruitful path of chastity. This virtue is not limited to continence, i.e., abstention from sexual intercourse, to which everyone is called outside the context of marriage (this is another matter, which deserves a separate reflection), but is also and above all configured in positive terms, as a virtue that integrates the person and guarantees the wholeness of the gift of self.

The relationship between man and woman expresses the need for the other, who is different, to complete oneself. But this is where we experience that "not enough". It is like the culmination of the longing for the infinite, for an Other. Is this the meaning of sexuality to which we must be educated?
As Cardinal Angelo Scola teaches in the text The Nuptial Mystery, being characterized as masculine or feminine itself says that male and female are not the whole of the human being: both have before them the other way – inaccessible to themselves – of being. In this sense, sexual difference constitutes an invitation to open oneself to the other, who is different from me, in order to achieve what we cannot pursue alone: a generative communion. This allows us to glimpse the structural lack of the homosexual couple, where apart from possible positive elements (friendship, affection, support, sharing), the other is not different but similar, which is why "in the homo, the couple lacks, in addition to the biological fecundity of the couple, the radical openness, which is that to the hetero" (M. Fornaro). But this also hints at possible perversions of the man-woman relationship, where both conceive the relationship in terms of fusion, as happens in couples who adopt an attitude of closure to life, that is, to generation, and as happens to lovers who delude themselves or pretend that the loved one, fragile and finite, fills their own infinite desire. In reality, the loving relationship is truly lived to the extent that one recognizes the other as a sign of the Other, who in the call of sex calls to the fulfillment of one's destiny, in the gift of self, which is love. This is expressed in the words of Manzoni's The Betrothed, which Fr. Christopher addresses to Renzo, after having released Lucia from her vow of chastity: "Remember, my son, that if the Church restores to you this companion, she does it not to procure for you a temporal and earthly pleasure, which, even could it be complete, and free from all intermixture of sorrow, must end in one great affliction at the moment of leaving you; but she does it to lead you both forward in that way of pleasantness which shall have no end. Love each other as companions in a journey, with the thought that you will have to part from one another, and with the hope of being reunited for ever.”