Last Sunday, I picked up a little book at the Soho Masses bookstall called “Christians and Sexuality in the Time of AIDS“, a useful little book, which I bought at a ridiculously low bargain price. Some of the insights have little to do directly with the main theme, and it is one of these that is relevant here, an observation made by James Alison in his introduction, writing about Pope Benedict XVI and the nature of his theology. James has frequently observed that when we respond too quickly or too superficially to the pope’s reported remarks, we often underestimate his thinking, which is substantially more nuanced than we usually recognize. In his position, he argues, Benedict cannot do other than repeat the well-worn, established magisterial positions on topical issues.
The really interesting questions surrounding what a pope is doing are never the politically immediate headline grabbers, but always the small, apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges which are either going to make change possible over time, or try to block it.
When I read these words, they brought into focus for me the speech that Benedict gave to a group of Italian politicians and public officials last Friday, which has been widely interpreted as an attack on gay marriage. This is not the way I interpreted the speech: instead, I wrote (in the post below) that the reference to “marriage between a man and a woman”, and to the forces undermining it, were curiously minor. The main thrust of the speech was more usefully seen as in praise of strong families – which could equally well apply to the families of same sex parents as to any other. After reading James Alison, I thought how perfectly his warning applies to the present case: well, of course he made the obligatory noises about marriage between a man and a woman (how could he not?) – but the headline writers have missed the main points. With just a little “apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges”, this attack on gay marriage can instead be read as a statement in praise of all families – including those which are queer.
I submit my original post below, just as I wrote it Sunday — with profound apologies to my colleague Bart, who very generously responded to my request for preliminary comment with some very useful and helpful suggestions, which I have duly ignored. This is not in any way a reflection on his contribution – but just on my acute lack of time this week. (I am writing this close to midnight, as it is). I will revise and refine this text later, to incorporate the additional links, Bart’s contribution – and possibly later thought as well (both my own and that of readers’ comments).
No, Pope Benedict didn’t come right out and say he supports gay marriage and adoption – nor did he even intend to imply it (quite the reverse). As usual, many headline writers will have a field day stating unequivocally that he has opposed same sex marriage. EWTN, for instance has a headline proclaiming that
As efforts to legalize same-sex “marriage” proceed in the United States and countries around the world, Pope Benedict issued strong remarks on Jan. 14, saying that gay “marriage” perverts the “essence and goal of the family.”
Addressing officials from the city of Rome and the Italian region of Lazio, Pope Benedict said that legislation and policies that promote same-sex unions end up “penalizing” heterosexual couples, “who, not without effort, seek to maintain stable emotional ties which are juridically guaranteed and publicly recognized.”
In fact, he did not say explicitly anything of the sort, although it was the superficial implication. To get to the real significance of the words, we need to get to what he said, not just to what was reported. A close reading of his actual words shows that indirectly, he has contributed to the case in favour.
Thee are the key passages:
the Pope noted how “it is in the family that children learn the human and Christian values which enable constructive and peaceful coexistence. It is in the family that we learn solidarity between generations, respect for rules, forgiveness and acceptance of others”. In this context he also noted how “the family must, then, be supported by policies … which aim at its consolidation and development, accompanied by appropriate educational efforts”.
the Church looks with favour upon all initiatives which seek to educate young people to experience love as a giving of self, with an exalted and oblational view of sexuality. To this end the various components of society must agree on the objectives of education, in order for human love not to be reduced to an article of consumption, but to be seen and lived as a fundamental experience which gives existence meaning and a goal”.
How is this an attack on gay marriage? Well, to be fair, I have so far omitted two key statements of Benedict:
on the subject of the family, which he described as the “the primary cell of society, … founded on marriage between a man and a woman”,
“The approval of forms of union which pervert the essence and goal of the family ends up penalising those people who, not without effort, seek to maintain stable emotional ties which are juridically guaranteed and publicly recognised.
So, the reasoning goes, society is founded on strong families, which spring from marriage between a man and a woman, and that other forms of union pervert the goal and essence of the family, and so must be opposed. This appears to be a case against same sex marriage, but to accept the conclusion, we must also accept all the premises – some of which are patently false. But note how the reference to “a man and a woman” is almost a throwaway line. The bit about other forms of union “penalizing” those who seek to maintain stable emotional ties appears highly offensive and unjustified, unsubstantiated – but wait: are the “other forms of union” necessarily marriages of same-sex couples? Could they not also refer to heterosexual cohabitation, or to conventional civil marriage? And those who seek to maintain stable emotional ties: could they not include some who happen to be of the same sex? Do not we too, aim to maintain stable ties for the good of our children, and wish to have them strengthened by judicial, public (and ecclesiastical) approval?
I accept without reservation that always and everywhere, strong societies have depended on strong families. However, it is simply not true that these are necessarily founded on marriage between “a man and a woman”. That is the primary model in the modern West, but it has not always been so. In earlier times, and in many non-Western societies still, family structures take on a bewildering variety of forms. Polygamous marriages between a man and several women are the best known, but many others are known – including same sex marriages (in classical times and traditional cultures as well as the modern variety), extended families, and gender separated social structures, with young boys and men living separately from the females, and boys receiving their first sexual experiences from older males. When Benedict says that marriage is between a man and a woman, he is stating a social pattern from a single culture (albeit a dominant one), not a fundamental, inviolable rule. Even in Western Europe and associated cultures, forms of marriage have evolved constantly over the centuries, and will no doubt continue to evolve.
Continuing the assumption that Benedict’s statements make a case against marriage for same sex couples, we need to accept also that other forms of union for such couples pervert the essence and goal of the family. Do they? Apart from the false assumption that the essence of the family includes marriage between a man and a woman, he does not spell out quite what this essence is, but from his observations about children, I assume that he is thinking of marriage as an institution in which two adults give each other in mutual love and support, for the purpose of raising children. Does this exclude other forms of union?
The orthodox Catholic view of course, is unequivocally “yes”, because it is obsessed with homosexual acts, which it sees as nothing more than indulgent self-gratification, and is completely blind to the reality of peoples lives, in which same – sex couples are as capable of mutual self-giving in loving commitment as any others. (This was confirmed in recent neurological research, which showed that brain responses of research subjects to their loved partners were essentially the same, irrespective of the gender variations of the couples). There is also an assumption in the orthodox reasoning that same – sex couples are somehow unsuited to raising children. This is hogwash. Adoption and child welfare professionals overwhelmingly agree, and empirical research confirms, that the crucial factor in the quality of childrearing is the quality of the love, not the gender or orientation of the parents. In a recent interview, one noted adoption expert put it succinctly. Those who argue that gay men or lesbians are unsuited to parenthood are either ignorant, or homophobic.
We are repeatedly told by the opponents of gay marriage and gay adoption that the interests of the children must come first. Well, quite. In matters of adoption, the professionals tell us, the beneficiaries of gay adoption are the children. But queer people do not becomes parents only by adoption. Many (like myself) are parents by traditional means. Here, I want to introduce the view of my daughter Robynn, taken from her post on the subject here at QTC:
I was raised mainly by my mother. However, I spent a lot of time (including one full year as a teenager) with my father and his then partner, Bruce, with whom he shared an 18-year relationship. I consider myself entirely unscarred by the experience. In fact, to confirm Dad’s report, I do feel that I was privileged to be part of this unusual family.
It’s hard to explain why, without sounding terribly patronising – not my intention. But in high school, particularly, I was very aware of having a different perspective to my peers. I enjoyed this and I believe it was very valuable in forming my worldview, a view perhaps less limited than that of many suburban kids. My family was unusual, but stable, and very supportive. Gay parents: I recommend them.
(Follow the link for her full post).
So the facts of gay families do not support, but completely contradict the assumptions in Benedict’s thesis that permitting same sex marriage will undermine society. This is the first part of my conclusion that Benedict’s observations on family make a case for, not against, gay marriage. It’s in the best interests of the children, and by supporting the moral formation and education of children, will strengthen society.
There is another strand to the argument which also follows from his observations. To see this, we first need to step back. In the Garden of Eden, we read in Genesis 2, the Lord saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, and so he made for him a companion: “I will make him a helper as his partner” (2:18 NRSV). In the 3rd century, Augustine agreed, and described two of the three goods of marriage as the mutual help and support given to each other by the spouses, and the sacramental value that this represented, as reflecting the marriage between God and God’s people. Much later, Aquinas said much the same thing. In the twentieth century, Pope Pius XI and then Vatican II confirmed that procreation is not the only, nor even the primary reason for marriage: the benefits of marriage are explicitly stated not to form a hierarchy of value. This is confirmed in practice by the encouragement of the early church of virginity even within marriage, and in modern times by the obvious willingness of the church to celebrate marriages of the elderly or sterile, for whom reproduction is impossible.
Mutual love and support – essential human needs of us all, and especially as we grow old and infirm, which the orthodox rules would exclude for gay men and lesbians by denying them the possibility of marriage (even the strictly orthodox Catholics no longer recommend that we should enter heterosexual marriage. It may even be grounds for annulment of a marriage that has been contracted).
In the same audience in which Pope Benedict spoke about the importance of family, he also spoke about other social issues, including the plight of the elderly:
Benedict XVI then went on to explain how
“the ageing population raises new problems. … Although many old people can reply on the support and care of their own families, growing numbers are alone and have need of medical and healthcare assistance”. In this context he also expressed his joy at the collaboration that exists “with the great Catholic healthcare institutions such as, for example, in the field of paediatrics, the ‘Bambino Gesu’ hospital. I hope these structures may continue to collaborate with local organisations in order to guarantee their services to everyone who needs them, at the same time renewing my call to promote a culture of respect for life until its natural end”.
He has noted here the “problem” that growing numbers of people are facing the difficulties of ageing alone, without the benefit of family. Can he not see that he is exacerbating that problem by depriving gay men and lesbians of the possibility of marriage and family?
So it is that I conclude: although the orthodox Catholic commentariat will rejoice at Pope Benedict’s apparent attack on same sex marriage, I welcome his actual words. He will not have intended it, but he has in fact made a strong case in favour of gay marriage and gay adoption. They are in the interests of the children and strengthens families – and so will help to support the elderly in their time of need.
Queer families: they strengthen society.
- Pope Announces that Gay Marriage “Penalizes” Traditional Marriage (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Oz Priest, on the Christian Case for Gay Marriage (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Gay Adoption, Gay Marriage as Moral Obligations: Two Jewish Views (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Gay Marriage – in Church: Sweden (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)