It would be wrong simply to condemn the cultural ferment of the 1960s. American culture during the 1950s was dominated by a Cartesianism that tended to regard a human being as only a mind and hence to look upon the body as just so much inert matter. As far as sex was concerned, there was a kind of pretense that there was no such thing. TV shows portrayed married couples sleeping in separate beds, for example.

In reaction to this there arose, as part of the 60s counterculture, a widespread but inchoate rejection of the Cartesian view of the body and a demand that the body and sex be acknowledged and given their rightful place in our lives. As might have been expected, these vague but largely just demands on behalf of the body and of sexuality were rapidly transmuted into something very different, into simply a clamor for sex and more sex.

Whatever just philosophical intuitions the counterculture had had about sex were now largely lost in a sea of hedonism, especially as these new attitudes toward sex began to pervade the larger culture in the early seventies. While some of those in the counterculture rightly saw contraceptives as anti-sexual and anti-natural, and actually turned to natural family planning as an alternative, American society as a whole was absolutely uninterested in such questions and embraced the opportunity to parade and indulge its sexual appetites without any consideration given to the deeper issues involved.

Whatever reticence existed in the 1950s with regard to sex and the body is gone. But what has returned, or more probably, never entirely vanished, is the Cartesian attitude toward our bodies. If the 1960s, however confusedly, wanted to give the human body its due, now, fifty years later, instead of valuing the body, we pretty much disregard its significance and are ready to say with Descartes, "But what then am I? A thing which thinks."

If most people, including Christians, in the 1950s looked at the body in a Cartesian manner as so much inert matter, are we not doing the same today when we proclaim that it is primarily our minds that determine our sexuality? If we can speak of "a woman trapped in a man's body" or "a man trapped in a woman's body," are we not assigning the same value to the flesh that, fifty years ago, we derided as anti-natural and anti-sexual? Some have even been willing to physically or chemically mutilate their bodies if their minds demanded it. This is a return to Descartes with a vengeance!

If we can and should celebrate the fact that God made us bodily creatures, then I do not understand how we can think that a body can be simply a biological mistake, merely because our mental attitudes and desires say it is. Certainly instances exist where a body does not neatly fit into one or the other of the two sexes and no one will want to belittle the anguish that persons can undergo because of what they feel is a mismatch between their bodies and their minds.

Moral theology has long recognized these cases and made provision for them. But it did so by assigning priority to the bodily structure in determining whether someone was a male or a female. To do otherwise is to revert to that Cartesian disvaluing of the body which is one of the perennial temptations of modern American culture.

If the body and the mind seem not to agree, why must we reflexively give preference to what the mind seems to want? A human being is more than his mind or his soul, and God created the human body and its actions as good.

Both the insights of centuries of ascetics and spiritual directors, as well as of more than a century of experimental psychology, have taught us that the human mind is a labyrinth, or at least can easily seem like one. Our wishes, like our behavior, are complex and subject to numerous internal and external influences and contingencies. The annals of human behavior contain many examples of psychic abnormalities whose genesis can be impossible to discover and which can manifest themselves in some pretty bizarre desires and actions.

It is simplistic to view a desire expressed by the mind as a fundamental expression of the human personality, merely because one feels it strongly. In light of what we know, as well as what we don't know, about the workings of the mind we should hesitate to make any absolute pronouncements that result in treating our bodies as so much matter to be manipulated at will. To focus solely on what we think we want and ignore the obvious reality of our bodies is to return to that Cartesian trivializing of the body that the counterculture of the 1960s did well to reject.