Benedict’s Latest Attack on Gay Marriage

Previous reports of Benedict’s “attacks” on gay marriage may conceivably have been exaggerated, misrepresentation, or misinterpretation of his dense theological language. There can be no mistaking this one. My response is based on a verbatim English translation by the Catholic news agency Zenit of the transcript carried on the Vatican website, of remarks made to the new German envoy (not to fellow theologians).


Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Eucharist, a ...

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The point of departure was a reflection on the Nazi Holocaust. The English speaking Catholic world right now is focused on the imminent beatification of Cardinal Newman, but the Germans are more interested in their own:

Many Christians in Germany are looking forward with great attention to the imminent celebrations of the beatifications of several martyr priests of the time of the Nazi regime. This Sunday, Sept. 19, Gerhard Hirschfelder will be beatified in Munster. During the coming year ceremonies will follow for Georg Hafner in Wurzburg, in addition to those for Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Eduard Muller in Lubeck. Commemorated also with the chaplains of Lubeck will be Evangelical pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink. The attested friendship of the four ecclesiastics is an impressive testimony of the ecumenism of prayer and suffering, flowering in several places during the dark period of the Nazi terror. We can see these testimonies as luminous indications for a common ecumenical path.

Contemplating the figures of these martyrs, it seems ever clearer and exemplary how certain men are willing, given their Christian conviction, to give their own life for the faith, for the right to exercise freely their own creed and liberty of speech, for peace and human dignity. Today, fortunately, we live in a free and democratic society.


Democratic, that is, except inside the Church itself. It is ironic that he should gives thanks for democracy in the modern world, while absolutely excluding all semblance of it inside his own realm – in spite of his youthful ideals to the contrary. That, however, is not my main theme for this post, and I let it pass, for now.

What bothers me about his remarks is how he follows praise for these men’s principled sacrifice in conscience, and contrasts it with what he calls “permissive” religion, suggesting that those who disagree with his stance do so in defiance of a personal God, preferring instead some abstract conception of deity, more in  keeping with modern values.

At the same time, however, we observe how among our contemporaries, there is no strong attachment to religion, as in the case of these witnesses of the faith. One might ask if there are today Christians that, without compromises, make themselves guarantors of their own faith.

Well, yes, actually, there are: men such as the priest with the pink triangle, who also died in Nazi death camps – but who is unlikely to be beatified any time soon.

On the contrary, many show a general inclination toward permissive religious conceptions also for themselves. Instead of the Christian’s personal God, who reveals himself in the Bible, they posit a supreme, mysterious and indeterminate being, who has only a vague relationship with the human being’s personal life.

Such conceptions increasingly animate discussion within the society, especially in regard to the realm of justice and legislation. However, if one abandons faith in a personal God, the alternative arises of a “god” who does not know, does not listen and does not speak. And, more than ever before, does not have a will. If God does not have his own will, in the end good and evil are not distinguished, good and evil are no longer in contradiction to one another, but are in an opposition in which one is complementary of the other. Thus man loses his moral and spiritual strength, necessary for the complete development of the person. Social action is dominated increasingly by private interest or by the calculation of power, at the expense of society.

Here I have to wonder: has he ever actually spoken in any pastoral capacity to people who see lesbian and gay activism as a religious imperative? My own experience directly contradicts his belief. My personal commitment to speaking up for queer Catholics was born in a remarkable retreat experience nearly eight years ago, an experience described to me by two highly competent spiritual directors as deeply mystical, and in which I certainly experienced a personal God in a way I could never previously have imagined possible.    This was emphatically NOT  a “God who does not listen, does not speak”, but rather one who spoke to me most directly and personally. In this, I know that I am not alone. I also find offensive his observation that “social action is dominated … the calculation of power“. The historical record of the papacy and the Catholic church is dominated by its continuous determination to acquire and maintain power – for many centuries this included temporal power. Today, it continues in the Vatican’s continued monopoly of power within the Church.

However, the Church sees with concern the growing attempt to eliminate the Christian concept of marriage and the family from the conscience of society. Marriage is manifested as a lasting union of love between a man and a woman, which is also directed to the transmission of human life. One of its conditions is the willingness of the spouses to relate one to the other forever. Necessary, because of this, is a certain maturity of the person and a fundamental existential and social attitude: a “culture of the person” as my predecessor John Paul II once said. The existence of this culture of the person depends also on social developments.

Here, he totally ignores the religious importance of also recognising the  “willingness of the spouses to relate one to the other forever”, where these spouses happen to be of the same biological sex. Or does the importance of the “culture of the person” imply that we who have same-sex attraction are not to be considered fully “persons”?

It can be seen that in a society the culture of the person is lowered; often it is derived, paradoxically, from the growth of the standard of life. In the preparation and support of the spouses, it is necessary to create the basic conditions to build-up and develop this culture. At the same time we must be aware that the success of marriages depends on all of us, on the personal culture of each citizen. In this connection, the Church cannot approve legislative initiatives that imply a reappraisal of alternative models of the life of a couple and of the family. These contribute to the weakening of the principles of the Natural Law and thus to relativizing the whole of legislation and also to confusion on the values in society.

In warning against a “reappraisal of alternative models of the life of a couple and of the family”, he totally ignores the lessons of history, and the part that the Church has historically played in reappraising models of the family: for “traditional marriage” as it is now popularly understood is in fact a very modern invention, with minimal resemblance to family patterns in Biblical times, or in the life of the early, medieval and even Renaissance church. The reference to “Natural Law” is also dangerous rhetorical sleight of hand: it does not refer to “nature” as we find it, which plainly contradicts his assertion, but to his theological conception of nature as God intended – which comes dangerously close to the ludicrous argument from biological plumbing. Natural Law, however, is a big subject, which I leave for another day.

In leaving his theme of gay marriage, Benedict went on to discuss the supposing evils of introducing biotechnology to human reproduction. Here he introduces the first of two enormous ironies:

It is a principle of the Christian faith, anchored in Natural Law, that the human person be protected precisely in a situation of weakness.

He is absolutely correct: it is intrinsic to Christian faith, and especially to the Catholic interpretation of faith, that humans should be protected in a situation of weakness. That is precisely the purpose of legislative actions for (civil) gay marriage,  and protections from discrimination – to protect (gay, lesbian and transgendered) persons in “situations of weakness”. But his opposition to to these programmes clearly implies that his concern for this protection simply does not apply to us queers in our own situatations of weakness.

Now here’s the other great irony. The occasion for these remarks was to welcome the new German envoy to the Vatican, Walter Jürgen Schmid. As ambassador of the German state, Herr Schmid’s boss is the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle (who is also the German vice-chancellor). Herr Westerwelle is one of the most senior and influential openly gay politicians in Europe. Will the new ambassador relay to his boss the news that the Vatican is dead against Herr Westerwelle supporting his own equality when Germany gets around to considering full gay marriage -as it surely will, and probably soon?

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