Names are significant to reality
University of Dayton encourages gender-inclusive language for husband and wife
Recently, Breitbart reported that the University of Dayton, which describes itself as a “top-tier Catholic research university… in the Marianist tradition,” has a language resource guide through its Women’s Center that discourages students from using the words “husband and wife” because they are not gender inclusive.
While this research guide supposedly does not represent the university’s policy, nor that of the Women’s Center that produced it, the guide is problematic for the students’ educational development in a number of ways because it ultimately denies the objective reality of marriage within society.
The first difficulty such a guide poses is that it becomes just another piece of literature in the postmodern “tolerance” library, which is becoming increasingly larger and more predominant at universities, even Catholic ones. While it should be noted that Plato does argue in his dialogue, the Cratylus, that names are given by convention and not by nature, this resource guide simply follows the political trends of our postmodern day, which insist upon using tolerant language to avoid offending anyone’s feelings.
This tendency, however, has arisen from the fact that we no longer have a proper definition of marriage within our society, especially since the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which effectively changed the definition of marriage for secular society, allowing same-sex unions to be legally considered marriages. With a change in definition comes a change in terms, which is why there is greater insistence on using gender-inclusive language.
As Josef Pieper explains in Abuse of Language—Abuse of Power, “Words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone” (page 15). This general resource, therefore, is a problem for students because it affirms society’s idea that the definition of marriage can be changed based on cultural norms and tendencies, which is simply not in accord with natural law. To uphold the proper definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, one must also uphold the names assigned to the respective parties, namely, husband and wife.
This first problem leads to a second. As the guide is reported to read, “Generic occupational titles like administrator, doctor, lawyer, nurse and secretary apply to both men and women. It is easier to see that these jobs can be done by a person of any gender when using gender inclusive or gender-neutral language.” No one will deny the usefulness of these terms for jobs. Nevertheless, this guide does not take into account both the natural and supernatural understanding of marriage. First, as we have already described, marriage is naturally designed to be between one man and one woman, which means that gender-inclusive language is unnecessary for describing this institution. As such, it is a natural vocation, given by God in accordance with his created order (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1604).
Second, with the supernatural understanding, as given by the Church, which should (we might add) be supported by the University of Dayton, marriage is a sacrament between two baptized individuals. As the Catechism explains, citing the Code of Canon Law, “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament” (CCC, #1638).
Herein we find the crux of the problem: Marriage is not a “job,” something that can be tossed aside for something better. It is a vocation, given in nature by God, which is meant to be indissoluble and for the procreation and education of children (CCC, #1644, 1652). Marriage is more than just a job, which is why the names we use to describe it are so fundamental and important.
Third and finally, by promulgating a resource guide encouraging gender-inclusive language to describe unions between individuals, the university is not fulfilling its primary purpose, which is to promulgate truth about objective reality. We can know truth because our mind conforms to the reality that exists outside ourselves. We do not invent our own realities, because then we could never say that anyone is experiencing the same reality. How could we communicate if we were not experiencing the same reality, albeit through our own subjectivity? By denying that there is objective reality about the terms “husband and wife,” which is essentially denying that marriage should be between one man and one woman, one is denying the reality of objective truth.
Universities are meant to support and defend truth; a university exists for the sake of giving truth to their students. As Pieper explains in the same work cited above, the university exists for the express reason of protecting and defending truth, when all of society seeks to ignore it (page 37). Thus, instead of promulgating postmodern language for marriage, a university—and especially a Catholic university—should seek to defend and uphold the natural understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, a husband and wife.
We cannot deny that universities experience great challenges and difficulties when determining how to address the postmodern culture in which we live. Nevertheless, universities—especially Catholic ones—should rise to that challenge and uphold objective reality and truth for the sake of the students who will need to be armed with that truth once they enter a society that tries to prevent them from living in truth.
It is especially pertinent that students be firm in the proper understanding of marriage because of its objective basis in nature and in the sacramental understanding of the Church. In this way, Catholic universities should not succumb to the postmodern language of gender inclusivity, but rather uphold the traditional language of “husband and wife.”
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