Benedict XVI: Coded intolerance wilfully ignores value of gays to church’s chain of command
London ~~ Sunday, 28 December 2008
The Pope had a chance to calm fears. Instead, he promoted them
Without gay men, the hierarchy of the Catholic church would collapse, a fact Benedict XVI wilfully ignoresBy Cristina Odone
Pope Benedict XVI can't ignore the consequences of raising the subject of sex. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
Over the past few months, the Vatican has been quietly canvassing Lord Guthrie, the former head of the armed forces, John Studzinski, the millionaire philanthropist, and a handful of other influential British Catholics on who should succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor upon his imminent retirement. From the telephone conversations and one-on-one meetings, it is clear what Pope Benedict XVI expects of the man who will lead Britain's more than four million Catholics: courage, patience, PR nous and an unshakable respect for liturgical tradition. As of last week, we also know one quality the Pope is not seeking in prospective candidates: tolerance towards lesbians and gays.
In his Christmas address to Vatican staff, Benedict XVI inveighed against the harm done by "gender theory" (he likened it to the threat to the planet caused by the destruction of the rainforest), which teaches that the distinction between male and female is down to cultural rather than biological influence. Most of the faithful billion-plus Catholics who pay close attention to every word the Pope utters must have drawn a blank: gender theory, perhaps a familiar concept to some Ivy Leaguers, is unknown in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the slums of Calcutta. The media, however, quickly bridged the knowledge gap and interpreted the papal message as a coded attack on homosexuals. Gender theory questions the patriarchy and sex-based discrimination; its critics, ergo, must support both.
Such flawed logic is perhaps inconceivable to Benedict XVI, a powerful intellect and brilliant theologian. Yet he must have known that to raise the issue of sexual identity was to provoke yet another examination of Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
Gay men and women have for millenniums filled the ranks of the church's holy orders, schools and administration; they have celebrated the Catholic vision in music, paintings and writing. Catholic teaching might condemn sodomy as the sin that cries to the heavens for vengeance, yet Catholic parishes, universities and seminaries would grind to a halt if gays were banned. Church rules might forbid same-sex unions, yet Christ's first and foremost commandment was to love one another.
These contradictions present a tremendous challenge to gay Catholics (lay and ordained) who must somehow fit into a community that views their proclivity as an abomination, and to heterosexual Catholics who wonder how to stay loyal to an intolerant church. It is just the kind of challenge a bold and sophisticated theologian such as Benedict XVI could wrestle with. It is a challenge echoed in every corner of the complex Catholic edifice.
The church offers certainties, but trades in questioning; it holds up virgin births, eternal life and resurrection as unquestionable truths, yet inspires great scholars like Cardinal Newman to pronounce that theology is constantly evolving. Papal infallibility was only introduced 200 years ago, clerical celibacy was unknown among the first Christians and the state of limbo was dumped only last year. No wonder that supporters of women's and gays' ordination, both banned by the church today, hope that Catholic teaching will change.
While critics see in these contradictions nothing but a towering hypocrisy, Catholics - indeed all non-evangelical Christians - believe that these conflicting messages inspire the questioning and prayer that constitute life's journey. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, put it beautifully in his Christmas message when he said that to step into a church is to find a place and silence that make questioning possible. The doubts of questions, as well as the certainty of answers, are the twin pillars of faith. Those who only see the first are tormented and lose heart; those who see only the second risk an odious fundamentalism.
Many Catholics, as they grapple with these dilemmas and await theological enlightenment, adapt church teachings to their own circumstances. Thus, they get a divorce, despite the Vatican's ban, and practise contraception, ignoring Rome's teachings. The constant infraction of such rules makes for a theological evolution of sorts. I remember, when I was editing the Catholic Herald, discussing the pill with a wise, elderly priest: "I haven't heard anyone confessing to using birth control in the past 20 years," he told me. It didn't mean that Catholics had stopped using contraception - they had simply stopped regarding it as a sin.
Bishops and diocesan information officers around the globe have spent a great deal of time over the past few days in damage control. They point out that the Pope never even mentioned the word homosexuality in his address. This is literally true, but smacks of casuistry.
As a sophisticated public figure, Benedict cannot ignore the consequences of raising, even in the most indirect fashion, the subject of sex. The one "S" word in an address of more than 5,000 can hijack the entire message. Yes, this is a sad indictment of our salacious times, but just as in Regensburg two years ago, when Benedict's Muslim audience saw a slight in his quoting a Byzantine emperor's description of Islam's flaws, the western liberal audience last week pounced on the implied attack on homosexuals as unnatural. The papacy cannot be reduced to a PR exercise, but no missionary can afford to ignore the basic rules of presentation.
Even if Benedict XVI never meant to tackle the issue of homosexuality, the timing of the message was spectacularly ill-judged. The world is slumping into an economic downturn that has humbled even financial giants. Millions risk losing their jobs and their homes. For the first time in decades, consumerism seems shaken. Even the most unthinking, bling-crazed WAG must be wondering if there isn't more to life than shopping at Prada and hanging out at Bijou. People in the developed world, infatuated with the here and now, cocksure about the benefits of high-maintenance capitalism, now find themselves having to embrace the same humility and openness that people in the undeveloped world have long adopted as norm.
Here was a golden opportunity for a church leader to invite the frightened, the curious and the confused to sample a different way of life. The Pope could have explained a set of values that have seen out recessions, depressions, bear and bull markets. He could have welcomed outsiders to come and feel for themselves the warmth of a community that believes everyone deserves love - and forgiveness.
Instead, Benedict XVI issued a message that could be, and was, boiled down to a finger-wagging warning against a vulnerable minority. Many Catholics, even among his most devoted disciples, must be issuing a moan of exasperation, none more so than the candidates to succeed Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. These men stand to inherit a position that propels them to the centre of public life in an overwhelmingly secular society that will treat them with suspicion, if not downright hostility. Given the make-up of today's Catholic church, at least some of these men are bound to be gay; given their candidature, their service to the church cannot be doubted.