Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Arc of History -- How 19th and 20th Century Trends led to Joan of Arc's Canonization

 An interesting element of canonization is that it is the result not just of the Church's assessment that someone is now in heaven, but also that the person has a significant following among Catholics. There are, thus, people who are unquestionably holy, but who are unlikely to ever be canonized because they are obscure. Such obscurity can result from various things, and one potential source is simply that the life of a particular person does not speak to the specific concerns of the age.

An even more fascinating aspect of this can be how a saint becomes more relevant to another age, long after his or her life, and thus is canonized long after death. A fascinating example of this, to me, is the story of St. Joan of Arc, who was canonized in 1920, almost 500 years after her death in 1431.

Inspired by the suggestion of my sister-in-law Annie, I got the chance to write about this topic today for The Pillar.  Have a look!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Stopping and Not Stopping

Tonight we stage at our house: three families, seventeen children, to caravan across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to attend Josh's wake on Friday and funeral on Saturday. 

I say seventeen children, but my two oldest are not minors anymore, and indeed, my oldest daughter just turned 21 and could drink if she felt the least desire to consume an alcoholic beverage. We are cousin-heavy on the younger side. I had four children before any of my siblings were married, and so my oldest ones are a bloc, sometimes included with the grown-ups, sometimes shunted off with the babies. My second daughter is the only one of the cousins to have ever seen little Joshua, when she went out to Philadelphia to help the family during his tracheostomy, and then only for a brief moment, long enough to capture a photo of him as he lay in his mother's lap.

It is hard to write about a grief that is not primarily your own. My brother and sister-in-law bear the hardest burden of all, and Joshua's story is rightly theirs to tell, in their own words. But all of us have been praying for him from a distance, and poring over every photo, and waiting through nights for updates to the family text. On Sunday, we were all avidly following the updates as his vital signs gently but inexorably dropped: heart rate 90, heart rate 30. Heart beat was not detected; in the arms of the Lord now. I had thought, somehow, that I would be at home when the message came, ready to receive it, but I was out in public, in the bright sunshine. Joshua never saw the sun in his 4 1/2 months of life, except perhaps as he was being airlifted to Children's in Philadelphia. Except for the moment of his birth, he was never free of wires or IVs or tubes. He was held once by his parents when he was conscious, as a bright-eyed newborn.

Even trying to find a place to grieve is difficult in a busy house. As I sat in the rocking chair in my bedroom (with the door that does not latch, with the lock that's fallen off and now lives on the mantel) trying to cry somewhere out of the public eye, kids kept coming in, looking for something or wanting to use my bathroom. Darwin had been off on a scout canoe trip. Some older daughters were leaving for work, or getting home from work -- I can't keep straight who's coming or going at what time, no matter how often they tell me their shifting schedules. Life keeps going on.

Even right now, in the silence of the morning (the only time when it is silent), it doesn't seem real that people are descending here tonight, or that we're leaving in the morning. Suits have been mostly acquired for young men, with one holdout who stubbornly falls into a window in which the old First Communion suits are too small, and the Confirmation suit too large. Daughters have taken each other shopping for funeral blacks in their different style essences. I do not have a pair of black dress shoes to go with my dress, having put off looking at Zappos until it was too late, and am pondering whether it's worth it to stage a trip to the mall in the few hours remaining for action. Piano lessons start in half an hour, and no one is stirring. 

It's going to be another beautiful late spring day in Ohio, and Joshua will be buried on Saturday in New Jersey. And then we're into rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof -- did I tell you I'm playing Golde? Maybe we'll stop to breathe in July, after the show, after the Boy Scout canoe trip. Joshua is not breathing, never breathed on his own after January. Life doesn't stop, except for those for whom it has stopped. And even that is only the start of something larger.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Joshua George Egan

 Josh passed away yesterday, very gently as all the medications left his system. His vital signs dropped slowly but inexorably over the course of the weekend until there was no heartbeat detectable.

From my sister-in-law:

2 Timothy 4:7

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

St. Joshua George, pray for us!


Friday, May 19, 2023

Josh on the Verge

From my sister-in-law:

Please pray with us today… we believe Joshua to be actively dying. We will sit vigil with him today and possibly into the weekend.

Joshua 1:9

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

A Baby Josh Update

From my sister-in-law Gail, an update on my nephew Josh from his GoFundMe page:

"This journey with Joshua has had so many ups and downs, sometimes it just feels too exhausting to put an update together.

I apologize for not posting more frequently. The past month has had just that - ups and downs. It seems like just when we were getting to a good spot and Joshua was more stable, a new concern would arise… which brings me the reason for this post.

We have been so eternally grateful for the overwhelming support we have experienced through all this. The care and love we experienced from our friends and family when Joshua first got sick has persisted. Even now - 4.5 months later - we feel just as carried by your prayers and support. And, to be honest, we need them now more than ever.

Last week, Joshua had an adrenal crisis - meaning a chain of events caused his adrenal system to shut down. His blood pressure dropped extremely low, he stopped urinating, and his potassium levels shot super high causing him to have heart arrhythmias. John and I were both in Nj with the kids and the doctor called at 1am and told us Josh had gotten very sick, very fast and she was “very worried his heart could stop at any moment”. We woke the kids at 2am and drove down to Philly to be with him. The days following were scary and unpredictable. They needed to give him an extraordinary amount of different medications to help him. As he stabilized (still on a lot of meds), he started to fight to regulate his body temperature again and his stomach was not responding well to his feeds. Finally over the weekend, he was almost completely at his baseline again and John and I were hopeful.  

I drove the kids home to NJ and John was going to stay with Joshua. By Monday morning, Joshua was having some of these same issues reoccurring. He was showing signs of a potential adrenal crisis again… with his blood pressure dangerously low and his GI tract backing up again, they started him on hydrocortisone again. This has caused him to have dangerously high blood pressure.

The doctors believe that the various systems in his body just might simply be shutting down - a result of the progression of his brain injury. They are running out of options to treat him and we think he may be going home to be with Jesus soon.

We will be having some significant conversations with the doctors tomorrow to determine if any future treatment can help being Joshua to a place of stability or not. We are also meeting with a priest tomorrow so Joshua can be anointed and we can discuss any potential end of life issues that may arise.

Please pray first and foremost for Joshua’s healing. If God’s will is to heal his body earthside, we will joyfully be the recipients of this miracle. Fr. Kapaun pray for us. But if it be God's will that Joshua receive total healing by being reunited to Christ in heaven, then our prayer is just that. To be at peace."

Thursday, May 11, 2023

More Next Things

The Darwins after Saturday's Confirmation, plus Grandma

Today, this very afternoon, we are going to the lake. I have to keep telling myself this, because it seems unreal, and thus the vast list of things that need to be done before the van can pull out of the driveway also seems unreal.

Why am I so tired and checked out? I ask myself. And then I think about my day yesterday.

3:00 -- the previously-unafflicted child dashes into my bathroom and throws up. We blow up the air mattress, only just stowed away from the last bout, and pull out all the bedding that had been laundered the day before.

4:00 -- someone replies to a group text, which I'd slept through at 2:30, which reveals some potentially very bad news.

4:30 -- the child throws up again, but I am attuned to the sounds a sleeping child makes before throwing up suddenly, and am also up saying a rosary (badly), and get there in time with a bowl.

6:00 -- the bad news is somewhat ameliorated, but I haven't been sleeping anyway.

7:30 -- the community college child leaves somberly for her final.

9:00 -- Darwin leaves to pick up the private college girl, who is also the birthday, turning 21! We'd been looking forward to six hours in the car together (three there, three back), but now I need to stay home with the child, who, if the previous pattern holds, will be lethargic, lightheaded, and prone to sudden projectile vomiting.

Morning -- Laundry and Dishes, always. Also, I mopped the kitchen floor, or did I do that the day before? Also, I scrub all the toilets, and the appalling attic shower, or did I do that the day before? I turn off the the TV several times and kick people to various tasks. Darwin's mother and brother, who now live close enough to walk over, drop by to deliver a present for the birthday girl.

12:30 -- Young Mister has not thrown up since 4:30, has slept many hours since then, and is cheerfully quarreling with his brother. I take them both to the store and the car wash. There is minor sadness at the store when it turns out we are NOT buying a package of Spider-Man masks for sister's birthday party, but the car wash is a success. The group text is still active, and worrying.

2:30 -- An older child comes to talk to me privately about a friend facing a life-changing crisis. We keep having to throw out younger siblings who wander in to say irrelevant things. I refuse to let people have computer time because it is a beautiful day.

4:30 -- I start dinner, but I've timed it wrong, so a child goes to work before everything is ready, and another must be run to drama club with a sandwich.

5:30 -- Darwin arrives home with the birthday girl, and the car must be quickly unpacked in the driveway because at 

6:00 -- Drama Club. I get home and have dinner quickly with the family before

7:00 -- I run out to a script reading for a new play that a few of the community theater gang are workshopping for the playwright.

9:00 -- Pick up from drama, home to birthday party. After delightful family fun (everyone is home! At the same time!), Darwin and I walk his mother home and take our own stroll, the first time we've had all day to talk. 

11:00 -- the bed has been cleared of laundry, Miss Chat has finally betaken herself to bed, an insurance situation has been discussed, the private college child has arranged her next semester with her advisor, next Monday's auditions for Fiddler on the Roof have been gamed out, the laptop has been acquired from the attic child, the vacation house has been discovered to come with towels, Darwin has planned to mow his mom's lawn in the morning, the college child's belongings have been tripped over in the hall, the air mattress is left up just in case. One daughter will take another to get a haircut in the morning, and tell the stylist exactly what needs to happen. The birthday child will go renew her driver's license. Piano will be practiced, because the teacher is coming tomorrow at 10:00.

(This is not a comprehensive list of the day, because there are also plenty of situations, small and large, that children would not care to have discussed online --nothing bad, but just life shaking itself out.)

For once, I sleep all night, and no one interrupts me. The Lord be thankit!

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

The Next Thing

I breathed deeply as I looked through the diamond pane window at the washed sky, fresh after last night's storm. The houses across the street showed charmingly through the branches of the big tree down by the sidewalk, and neatly tucked by its trunk were the blue bins ready for this morning's pickup: two recycling bins, and a sturdy square trash can, lid hanging open to accommodate the living room rug folded so that it mostly fit inside.

The rug was the final casualty and culmination of a stomach bug that swept through and threatened to disrail this weekend's Confirmation. When I called up our DRE Saturday morning, after the Confirmand spent all night throwing up, she said ruefully that there were three options: find another parish having Confirmation later, wait until next year, or muscle it out. We muscled it out, the correct option as Miss Confirmand was on the way up. But her brother spent all evening throwing up, and subject to diarrhea. As he slept it off, another brother succumbed, more violently than the other two, and lightheaded to boot. But even he began to recover, finally fortified with a sleeve of crackers, and 7-Up, and Gatorade, and was well enough to come down to the living room, where he sat watching Wild Kratts with the subtitles on, as the sound remote wasn't working and no one felt compelled to walk over to the speaker and turn it physically, like we had to do back in my day. And then he sat up and vomited explosively all over the living room rug, and the afghan, and a library book, and his sister's shoes. The afghan could be washed, and the shoes, at the outskirts of the blast zone, wiped down, but the library book will have to be paid for, and the rug -- well, I'd been thinking about replacing it anyway.

There was no warning, and hence no saving the library book, but my reflexes were slow anyway because I'd been awake all night, listening to the child on the air mattress in my bedroom for the first sounds of retching. We'd run three loads of bedding already, and the last was the worst, since the boy had sneaked a portion of mac and cheese from his cousin's first communion party in Cincinnati and had eaten it in the car on the way home. We'd arrived home at midnight, and by 1:30 Darwin was in the back yard, shaking the chunks out of the comforter and sheets while I scrubbed the groggy, weeping boy. I was determined not to miss the next bout, especially as the child was now on the air mattress, and so I turned on the lamp and read Georgette Heyer all night, pausing at intervals to hold the bowl for the heaving lad. This was a three book illness, spanning Cotillion (quite good) and The Unknown Ajax (highly recommended, one of her finest), and The Grand Sophy (an enjoyable lark), though the last was a recovery read throughout Monday as I slogged through my day in pajamas and ran laundry. 

Monday had been slated for preparations. We're going on vacation this weekend! to a lakehouse! a block from Lake Erie! The eldest Miss Darwin is coming home from college on Wednesday, which also happens to be her 21st birthday. Then Thursday it's off to the lake with the whole family plus the boyfriend of the second Miss Darwin, a fine fellow who is living and working in town for the summer. Living, I say, in our attic in a bachelor pad with the eldest Mr. Darwin, a strapping lad of 14. These living arrangements were all settled out shortly before the Confirmation, but they weren't the only moving-in we were assisting. Darwin's mother and brother have just moved a block away from us, relocating from Los Angeles, and so the last month has been prep work on their new house, and getting settled, and waiting for the moving truck to arrive, and introducing to town and such. They arrived in town a week and a half after our final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, just as we'd finished sorting the costumes and moving all the tech equipment up to storage in the attic. 

All of which is to explain why there hasn't been much posting here lately. Life seems to keep happening, one thing after another, all good things (except vomit maybe, but that's not evil, just chaotic). Stillwater, by the way, is out with a proofreader, and we hope to make strides on that front over the summer. And I've just learned that our parish is changing up the way it does Confirmation prep, making it a two-year program, which means that next year I won't be needed to run 7th-grade Bible Study. Every year I pray, "Lord, give me a sign that I can stop teaching," and here we are! I'll only have two children in religious education, and they'll be in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which has other volunteers. And no one is making sacraments next year! 

Darwin and I have promised ourselves to do more writing than is physically possible over our three days at the lake. What will really happen is that we'll read our books some, and walk by the lake some, and spend lots of time chatting with the kids. As soon as we get back, it's auditions for the summer musical (Fiddler on the Roof, July 14-16, be there or be square). After that, perhaps, it will be time to breathe -- until the next thing. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

No, Sex is not a Spectrum

 National Catholic Reporter had a recent piece in which the author tries to pull a big "but ACTUALLY!" on Pope Francis on the topic of what the pope called "gender ideology", and what might be more bluntly called transgender ideology. There's little new ground broken in their piece. The most notable thing about it is that it is so typical a recitation of the claim that modern understandings of biology show that sex is a spectrum not a binary, and that it then goes from there to urger the Church to reassess her understanding of sex in light of this modern biological "insight". However, the NCR piece is a useful jumping off point in that it's claims are so very typical of this line of argumentation, and so it's a good place to start from in showing how these claims simply do not follow.

To extract the piece's line of argument, here are the relevant milestones:

"I was trained to believe that it was. In my college philosophy classes, I was taught that there can only be two sexes, that gender identity was based exclusively in biological sex, and that the male/female distinction was not only about physical characteristics but also about immutable essences of "masculine" and "feminine," rooted in the unchanging mind of God, and informing all of nature.


So I began reading about how maleness, femaleness, sex and reproduction occur across different species and kingdoms in the natural world, and what I found was that the "truth" I had felt obligated to defend was a simplistic fantasy. The categories of male and female, as they exist in nature, are not an either/or, nor an absolute binary. Rather, they reside on a spectrum. Maleness and femaleness manifest in different ways depending on the species. It is difficult to pin down any set of conditions or characteristics we could point to as the sine qua non for identifying an organism as one or the other. Additionally, some species can change sexes. Others are hermaphrodites.

In the human species, male and female categories also exist on a spectrum. There is no singular cluster of necessary or sufficient conditions for male versus female identity. So sex organs can't be used as absolute determinants for gender identity. Chromosomes also won't work as determinants, because individuals can be chromosomally male or female while presenting characteristics typically associated with the opposite sex. Intersex people exist, and some researchers argue that intersex conditions are more common than once believed.

The gender binary I had long considered a way of categorizing all living beings was, I realized, more like a general taxonomical marker signaling a fluctuating set of characteristics on one side of a scale. As a kind of organizational shorthand, it is useful. But this does not mean that "male" and "female" are fixed and immutable metaphysical categories, or even fixed and immutable natural categories. What people refer to today as "gender ideology" is closer to accurately reflecting reality than the traditional binary view I grew up with.

The debate over gender is framed by traditionalist Christians as a struggle between "reality" and "ideology." But the church already has a preferred ideology of gender, which is complementarian, essentialist and committed to a rigid binary view of the entire natural world. The real debate is not over whether gender ideology is bad but over which ideology about gender aligns better with reality.

There's still a lot we don't understand about sex and gender, in the natural world and in humans. But a view of gender as existing on a spectrum and allowing for flux and change more closely corresponds to what we do know."

First off, it's important to note that this piece, performs a subtle change of terms part way through its argument.  First it claims that biological sex is itself a spectrum rather than a binary, saying that this is based in the findings of modern science about the natural world.  Then it introduces another topic which sounds similar but is in fact totally distinct and argues that therefore male and female "identity" are also on a spectrum, and that there is not "gender binary".

Let me start by talking about the question of whether science has broken down the biological sex binary.  Is that true?  No.

Consider how it is that organisms on earth reproduce. There are two models: sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction. 

In asexual reproduction, the animal is capable of splitting off (or being split external forces) into two distinct organisms with the same genetics aside from any copying errors from the process of the split. 

In sexual reproduction, an egg is fertilized by a sperm (to use the relevant terms in human reproduction) with the result that the genetics from both are combined to produce the new organism. 

Some organisms can reproduce both through sexual and asexual reproduction. An example many of us have practical experience with is plants which can both be reproduced through cuttings (which essentially produces a clone of the original plant) or through flowering and politization (one of the plant solutions to the problem human organisms solve with egg and sperm) which results in sexual reproduction and the combination of genetics from both parent plants.

However, although science fiction authors have imagined all kinds of complicated ways in which three or more sexes might exist in some imaginary biology, on earth we find these two basic means of reproduction, asexual and sexual, and sexual reproduction involves the combination of a small (male) sex cell and a large (female) sex cell to produce a single offspring which combines the genetics of the two.

Around this basic duality of sexual reproduction, there is a lot of variation between species. Some organisms can have individuals capable of producing either kind of cell (for example, plants that are self fertilizing) and some individual organisms can produce only one kind of reproductive cell at a time but can change which type they produce over the course of their lives. So while a clown fish or a copperhead snake may at one point in its life produce sperm and at another produce eggs, it always functions as one of the two sexes. There is not spectrum of sex on which they exist. Rather, they oscillate due to time and circumstances between the two binary points.

When we talk theologically and philosophically about how humans interact with sex, we are looking at how the human experience is shaped by the way this sexual reproduction binary is expressed in the human species.  And while there is wider variety in the animal and plant kingdoms, humans do not oscillate between the sexes. Not only does our reproduction follow the same sex binary as other species on Earth, but a given individual will be able to provide only one half of the that sex binary (or in some cases of sexual disability, none at all.)

I think it's useful to think about human sex in terms of what sex actually accomplishes in biology (reproduction) rather than in terms of other characteristics, because it helps us avoid the types of confusion that can spring up.  For instance, a Scientific American piece which the NCR piece links to attempts to obscure the nature of human sexuality with this opening example:

A 46-year-old pregnant woman had visited his clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia to hear the results of an amniocentesis test to screen her baby's chromosomes for abnormalities. The baby was fine—but follow-up tests had revealed something astonishing about the mother. Her body was built of cells from two individuals, probably from twin embryos that had merged in her own mother's womb. And there was more. One set of cells carried two X chromosomes, the complement that typically makes a person female; the other had an X and a Y. Halfway through her fifth decade and pregnant with her third child, the woman learned for the first time that a large part of her body was chromosomally male. “That's kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis,” says James.

This is fascinating in terms of what can happen to a human being over her lifespan, but it's important to note that while the woman in question did carry some cells which had both X and Y chromosomes (and indeed, which had different DNA than her own, being the result of a second embryo which fused with her at a very early stage of development) she was still functioning completely normally as a human female in terms of reproduction.

Saying that human sexuality is a spectrum rather than a binary is somewhat like saying that the number of hands a human has is a spectrum. Yes, there are some human individuals who due to injuries or genetic defects have less than two hands, or perhaps even more than two, but these pretty clearly represent cases where the individual has some injury or disability. Indeed, if anything, in terms of sex the human organisms is even more rigid than in number of eyes or number of limbs. Each human either 1) produces sperm and has the ability to deliver it to a female, 2) has eggs and the ability to carry a pregnancy, or 3) is incapable of reproducing.  Thus, in the blunt terms of biological reality, there are three types of human: male, female, and evolutionary dead end.

And yet all of this is in fact a bit of a sideshow to the real argument. As I noted, the NCR piece slides from one argument to another which appears in some sense to be related but does not in fact follow.  It starts with trying to argue that modern biology has discovered that sex is not a binary but a spectrum, but then moves sideways and asserts that therefore gender identity is also fluid and a spectrum.

But does "gender identity" actually have anything to do with these questions of whether biological sex is on a spectrum?

It does not seem so. When someone claims that they are "gender non-binary" does the person they are consulting proceed to order up medical tests to see if he has some XX and some XY tissue in his body?  Do they check to see if he might have an extra sex chromosome? Do they, indeed, validate the claim with any sort of test of his biological sex?  No. Claims to be non-binary or trans-sexual all have to do with what sexual identity the person feels.

Treatments which are described as "gender affirming" do not successfully transform the patient into a functioning member of the other sex. Rather, they consist of to some degree simulating the appearing of the other sex, while sometimes destroying the person's ability to continue to function as their sex at birth. For instance, a male who seeks surgery and hormone treatment to make him into a female does not become capable of conceiving and bearing children. The treatments can reproduce some of the secondary sexual characteristics of a female, but he remains a male, though a mutilated one who may no longer be capable of fathering children.

Whether it is morally right for a person comport or even modify himself to assume the appearance of the other sex is a question worth pursuing (and the Church provides answers to the question, which the author of the NCR piece perhaps does not like.) But one thing we can say with certainty is that sex itself is not a spectrum, and that the attempt to make it look like a spectrum does not in fact further the argument for transgender identity or for gender reassignment.  Discussions of sexuality which attempt to portray sex as a spectrum rather than a binary are simply a smoke screen deployed to obscure the issues at play and then to slide sideways and assert wholly unrelated claims about gender identity which it not itself a question of biological sex.

Perhaps a more fruitful area of inquiry, and one which would indeed to be rooted in the biological realities which the NCR author purports to consider important, would be to interrogate our notions of gender identity and see to what extent they actually conform to the realities of being a human person who functions either as one sex or the other in the reproductive sphere (or suffers a sexual disability such that he or she is unable to reproduce.)  It may well be the case that much of what people describe as sexual identity does not necessarily relate to being a human with one set of sex organs or the other.

But on the core issue: yes, sex is binary and sex is complementarian. It will only achieve its function of reproduction through the combination of male and female sex cells (sperm and egg).  To claim otherwise is to break with biological reality.