The Truth About the Sexes: Competing Magisteria in Modern Britain

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

The Catholic writer and broadcaster Joanna Bogle contrasts increasingly fashionable assertions concerning the lack of meaning to male and female with the perennial and profound affirmation of such meaning within the Christian tradition.

A new reading scheme has been launched for boys (Times, January 7th 2009) with books emphasising action, adventure, and a team of young people battling against danger. The books are published by the Oxford University Press as a direct response to something that has been worrying educationalists for some while - the fact that boys vastly outnumber girls in illiteracy rates, and that many start secondary schools with very poor reading skills and no apparent interest in acquiring any. The new books form a "reading tree", each book a little more challenging than the one before, and feature stories about three boys and one girl who are fighting a Dr Evil and his schemes for attempting to shrink the world.

Now this is particularly significant because for years and years - I first recall writing about this in the late 1970s -the policy foisted on schools has been exactly the reverse. The Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission, EHR) spent a great deal of your money and mine in telling schools to ban books which showed boys taking the lead or doing adventurous things, on the grounds that such books were "sexist". The Commission urged that books should be used to convey important social messages: for instance one book which it urged school libraries to acquire, and this writer personally got to see as a governor, was about a boy wearing a pink dress.

The Commission did not do this in order to help more children to read - on the contrary. It was known, even back in the early 1970s, that boys found reading less easy and less congenial than did girls, and were over-represented in remedial reading classes. But this information was ignored, downplayed or dismissed as irrelevant: what mattered was not education, or children's needs, but feminist ideology.

The Commission was fanatical throughout the 70s and 80s in urging schools to re-write history and, where it deemed this important, biology. Female Red Indian chiefs - although historically inaccurate - had to be shown in history materials, and wall-charts depicting "parenting activities" had to show men and women alike engaged in every aspect of child-care, "including feeding the baby" (my emphasis).

It would be pleasant to think that the new approach on boys' books - reflecting a genuine panic over the fact that boys lag behind girls in reading, and have been doing so at an increasing rate for these three decades - shows a fresh determination to base future educational policies on truth. We must hope for this. But alas meanwhile the EHR Commission is busy in this and other fields, hammering away.

Transgender and work - your rights in employment and training is among the latest publications produced by the Commission: "This leaflet provides advice to individuals who are undergoing gender reassignment. It may also be a useful source of information for people who are not familiar with transgender issues" declares the Commission's website. 'Gender reassignment' is the new official term for people who decide to have themselves mutilated and given hormonal drugs because they believe they ought to belong to the opposite sex to the one they have been biologically "assigned".

And there's more. "Unlawful sexual orientation discrimination happens when someone is treated less favourably due to their sexual orientation, their perceived sexual orientation, or the sexual orientation of those they associate with", announces the Commission with great magisterial aplomb. This means, essentially, that if a woman announces herself to be a lesbian, this means that she must be deemed to have been conceived that way by the proper, ordered processes of nature in such a way as to want to be sexually intimate with other women. Even though there is no biological evidence for this, we must all act as if it is true. Any suggestion of genetic or psychological wounding (let alone Original Sin) in those with homosexual temptations will be treated as insulting and with increasinglikelihood illegal.

Now the problem here is that this is an officially-funded Government body insisting on a particular approach. Even if it is clearly wandering into highly disputed territory and making pronouncements that will quite likely look extremely stupid in the years to come, we have to live and work under its magisterial rulings concerning human nature.

In this, as in so many other instances in the present time and down the centuries, the Church is a voice of sanity and truth. As Catholics, we are allowed to know the truth about human nature - and to rejoice in the fact that medical science is revealing more and more to us about it all the time. We are aware that in this extraordinarily interesting and interdependent world, there is a great deal that we still do not know about human life and about the planet we humans inhabit. But we are conscious that it is an ordered world and that in a mysterious sense it obeys its own laws - thus we are able to see how it is possible to harness energy to provide people with heat and light, how it is possible to grow, cook, and preserve food, how we can heal diseases, and so on.

The notion, fashionable in Government circles for the past three decades, that men and women are alike and - apart from a few trifling differences of internal plumbing - essentially interchangeable - is one that the Catholic Church rejects. The Church - which ushered into existence the great universities of Europe, which established hospitals and schools, which pioneered work in medicine and literature and art and music and the exploration of all the natural sciences - is interested in truth. "Male and female he created them" is not merely a statement from Scripture but a reflection on the physical and spiritual reality of things, and in the modern era we are coming to understand just how very interesting it is that we are male and female, how different and complementary we are, howsignificant this might be, and how much we need to study and reflect on it.

Catholics have always recognised that the differences between men and women are a physical reality that conveys important truths: that human marriage is a symbol - a living, life-giving, and procreative one - of the relationship between the ultimate Bridegroom, Christ, and his Bride, the Church. In recent years, and especially in the teaching and writing of Pope John Paul II on this subject, we can see a deepening of understanding and perhaps even a development of the doctrine. As has happened so often in the history of the Church, it is when something is attacked (in this instance male/female marriage, a male priesthood, the notion of God as a Father, to name just three things routinely savaged) that deeper insights are perceived and richer truths revealed.

It is not going to be easy discussing these things over the next years. "But what has having children got to do with sexuality?" a TV interviewer asked me recently, with what appeared to be genuine incredulity. She had apparently got to the point where she honestly did not know that a child is the natural fruit of a union between a man and a woman: in her understanding "sex" is something done for pleasure, according to one's desires, whether lesbian or homosexual or whatever, and procreation an entirely different matter connected with options presented at various times, possibly involving in-vitro fertilization and test-tubes.

Young people in schools and colleges struggle with all of this. They are aware of their own physical and psychological realities. They talk among themselves about relationships and about their hopes and expectations. Many suffer through parental divorce or through the emotional instability produced by a variety of complicated cohabitation arrangements ("I am the possessor of three ex-stepmothers" one young man - himself also now divorced - told me sadly recently). Many worry about their own "sexual orientation" especially in a culture saturated with pornographic images and obsessed with discussions which assume a contraceptive mentality in which sex and procreation are wholly separated. But they are searching for the truth, and for a life grounded in love and in the deep, life-givingrealities for which we were made, in God's image.

"Most girls, actually, do want to get married and have families" one young student told me. "And when we are together, it's one of the main things that we talk about. Of course, we want jobs and interesting careers - and we want to do things that will make a difference for good in the world. We want to do that. But getting married and having children is also something that is big on everyone's wish-list."

At present, the Equality and Human Rights Commission isn't helping. For all the talk of justice and of opportunities, it doesn't really help young men and women who want to marry and have families - in other words, to ensure the future of the human race in stability and affection. Today's young women do want to talk about the realities and tensions that have emerged from the feminist debates of recent years. They know perfectly well that this is not the 1900s: certain battles for justice (the right of women to vote, to hold public office, to receive University degrees and professional qualifications) have been won and we are all grateful for that. But there are new issues, and they have a right to tackle these, not to be stifled by a sense that to raise them is unacceptable: how men andwomen can help and support one another, how to sustain a lifelong marriage, where sexual morality fits into all this, and the practicalities of home and children and mutual care.

It may be that, in the coming years, the Church will be the sole repository of wisdom on this as on so many other things, and will be a place of sanctuary in which forthright and honest discussions can take place which are not really permitted or encouraged elsewhere. We should be prepared for this. While the straightjacket of stifled debate limits progress within society (with banning of topics deemed "sexist" or "homophobic"), the Church can offer something better.

People do somehow expect the Church to take on this role - of protecting truth, encouraging learning, accepting with honesty a vision of human beings as they really are. Some day, if we take on our responsibility for passing on wisdom and sharing knowledge, for honouring what is true, we may find that officialdom has caught up with us, rejoicing with our fellow-citizens at the rediscovery that marriage can only be between a man and woman, that the two sexes are different and complementary, that there is a meaning and purpose in all this. We even may find an official Government Commission discovering what publishers have just restated and parents and teachers have always noticed: boys and girls prefer different sorts of books, and school reading schemes could and should reflect this.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2009