Pope Benedict’s Xmas message has certainly put the X back in Xmas for me, an x-Catholic and an x-priest.
In his 2012 annual Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia (whose corruption prompted the pope’s butler to leak secret documents to the press, landing him in jail for his trouble–for which the pope granted him a Christmas pardon), Pope Benedict took on academic gender theory and took aim at the Western political movements in support of the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Its salutation gives you an appreciation for the pre-Copernican Great-Chain-of-Being mindset in which the pope resides:
Brother Bishops and Priests,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Well, at least you know where you stand there. This is, after all, a vestigial medieval royal court.
Benedict begins with a classic bait-and switch gambit:
The great joy with which families from all over the world congregated in Milan indicates that, despite all impressions to the contrary, the family is still strong and vibrant today. But there is no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations – especially in the western world.
Uh, oh. Clouds on the horizon. Is that hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen I hear? This foundational threat involves an inability to commit — which I would’ve thought is the lament of heterosexual women about their heterosexual men, but I’m wrong. It’s gender theory and its queer political movement, same-sex marriage.
Citing his new ideological pal, Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, the pope continues his assertion of dualism by insisting on rigidly fixed (and divinely ordained) gender roles. Dismissing three-quarters of a century of feminist and gender discussion, he even bitch-slaps Simone de Beauvoir:
. . . the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious.
This classic rhetorical ploy, of course, is called petitio principii (“begging the question”): whenever you see the word “obvious,” you are about to be conned. It goes without saying that it is also a cartoonish oversimplification of gender theory, which renders this document was one of the more intellectually dishonest pieces that I’ve read. Then the pope continues with what he sees are the implications of the assertion that gender and sexuality are, to some degree, socially constructed realities:
The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.
This is a clever rhetorical move: associating dogmatic Catholicism with the environmental movement. In other words, if you are against the industrial violation of nature, how can you permit the social violation of Nature? But it also prepares his audience for his underlying syllogism: If industrial manipulations of nature are threatening environmental existence with an eco-apocalypse, then social engineering of Nature (gender theory or legalized same-sex marriage) threatens human existence.
Here is the sentimental nub of the argument:
Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain.
Ah, the Child Card! The pope evokes a sinister image of child slavery, the purchase of children as commodities. This from a man who aided and abetted child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, speaking to an audience of the Church officials who covered up their crimes. As we used to say in the seminary: Girls in white dresses shouldn’t throw mud.
The pope closes this theme by asserting:
When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.
Let me unpack this: The understanding of gender and sexuality as socially constructed realities denies God. Denying God destroys human dignity. Defending God by rejecting modern notions of gender and sexuality defends the human.
This lovely holiday message follows on the heels of the pope’s 2013 World Day of Peace message, which was released the week before. The pope cites several threats to justice and peace, beginning with an assertion with which few can disagree: “Anyone who loves peace cannot tolerate attacks and crimes against life.” However, among the “attacks and crimes against life” are those who acknowledge the historically contingent reality of marriage:
There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.
In other words, proponents of same-sex marriage are equivalent to proponents of abortion, and therefore both are the moral equivalent of murder. Here, too, is our rhetorical pal, Begging the Question:
These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity. The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace.
The claims to assert self-evident truths, not religious doctrine, to which any reasonable person (regardless of faith) can assent. Anyone who dissents is irrational.
So let me summarize the main points of the pope’s two recent discourses: Gender theory and its political application in the same-sex marriage movement are existential threats to all humanity. And what do you do with a threat to your existence?
This discourse leverages centuries of argument and rhetoric in which homosexuality is imagined as a global threat, a plague, a incitement of God’s apocalyptic wrath. As I have argued in the essay “Apocalyptus interruptus: Christian Fundamentalists, Sodomy, and The End,” this rhetoric goes back to the medieval theologian Peter Damian (11th century) as well as to one of the more popular medieval texts, the collection of saints lives compiled by Jacobus Voragine, Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), in which we find the charming assertion that on the eve of the first Christmas, all the sodomites committed suicide in order that the world would be pure to receive the Christ Child. The 12th-century theologian Peter the Cantor equated sodomy and murder.
A beloved friend of mine, who remains a Catholic priest (and of whom I have no doubt that he is often the channel for healing for many people), laughed off these papal statements as inconsequential, the last gasps of a dying Vatican Curia. Secular friends are inclined to do the same.
But I remind you: In many places in the US and in many places throughout the world, the pope’s words have real consequences on real people, real lives, and real bodies. In the US, the organized and well funded efforts by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the efforts by bishops in individual dioceses, and the preaching by Catholic pastors will influence political decisions about marriage equality. In Uganda, the so-called Kill the Gays Bill, which would providing two penalties (life imprisonment and execution), has been working its way through that country’s parliament.
For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. The words of the marriage vow remind me of Tony and Bob in Chicago. They remind me of Ron and Art (and their three adopted children, including my goddaughter Anna) in Storrs, Connecticut. How these couples pose an existential threat to humanity, much less to peace and justice, is beyond me. I will defend their humanity, however, against the assaults of religious extremists, by any means necessary.