Geoffrey Kirk on how the media so thoroughly and deliberately misheard the careful teaching of Pope Benedict in a recent address
The Today Programme on Radio Four made quite a thing of it, and then the Daily Telegraph rang me about it later in the day. The Pope, it was claimed, had spoken against homosexual practice in a pre-Christmas address to the Papal Household.
In a world where it is news that the Pope is a Catholic, this would, I suppose, have been news of a kind. The BBC managed to get two heavyweights – Cristina Odone and Joanna Bogle – arguing about it, and all the quality dailies carried the story. The only remarkable thing was that it wasn’t true. Benedict had not mentioned homosexuality.
So what was going on? Why had the news media become obsessed by something which had not happened?
First of all it will be useful to review what the Holy Father did say.
In the context of a three-part reflection on pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and its implications for Christian believing and living) he spoke of the Spirit as Creator and of the impact which such a doctrine has on our understanding of ecology. (‘The tropical rain forest deserves our protection, yes, but man does not deserve it less…’) He goes on: ‘Part of the announcement that the Church should bring to men is a testimonial to the Spirit Creator present in all of nature, but specially in the nature of man, who was created in the image of God. One must re-read the encyclical Humanae Vitae with this perspective: the intention of Pope Paul VI was to defend love against consumer sex, the future against the exclusive claims of the moment and human nature against manipulation.’
None of this, of course, is about homosexual activity in any but the most tangential sense. But one phrase clearly resonated with the homosexualists and their liberal supporters, and here it is: ‘That which has come to be expressed and understood with the term gender’ effectively results in man’s self-emancipation from Creation (nature) and from the Creator. Man wants to do everything by himself and to decide always and exclusively about anything that concerns him personally. But this is to live against truth, to live against the Spirit Creator.’
An account of how this theological defence of Humanae Vitae (for that is what it was) came to be read as an attack on same-sex relationships (which explicitly it was not) reveals the internal coherence of both the Christian and the liberal secular positions on sexuality. And the deadly enmity between them. What the Pope was attacking was one of the premises of the secular humanist argument: that gender’ is, exclusively or largely, a social construct. But what the secular world heard was an assault on same-sex partnership.
This was less a function of the over-representation of homosexual activists in the media and more the result of the frequently denied but essential interdependence of the various platforms of the liberal agenda.
Liberal secularists like to portray themselves (especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries) as pragmatists, constantly at war with the dogmatics and metaphysics of Christians (especially Catholics). The opposite is in fact the case. Their own position is hugely dogmatic, founded as it is on a raft of largely unexamined premises masquerading as self-evident truths. In their sexual ethics (or lack of them) the notion of gender’ is primary.
‘Gender’ – originally a linguistic term, denoting relationships of case and declension between nouns – is everything which sex is not. Sex is a biological determinant linked indisseverably with reproduction; gender’ is a human construct with no necessary biological connection. Sex, in every society of which we have record, has been taken in some sense to determine social role (though those roles have differed from society to society and from time to time). Sex, in institutions such as marriage and the family, is among the primary building blocks of human concourse. ‘Gender’, on the contrary, is held to be, not the foundation of society but a construct of it: not given but taught, not natural but contrived.
Sex, because its social implications have historically been interpreted in terms of moral demands (fidelity in marriage and chastity outside it; obligations of nurture toward children, born and unborn) has been portrayed as repressive of the individual. ‘Gender’ has come to express freedom from such institutions, which can only limit and constrict. But there is a paradox here. ‘Gender’, expressed in ‘free love’ and co-operative or state-sponsored child-rearing, has been a feature of totalitarian societies, from Sparta to the Soviets. Sex, expressed in marriage and family, has been the traditional bulwark of individual freedoms and democratic principles.
In his address to the Papal Household, Benedict was summarising the practical consequences of a systematic pneumatology: what does it mean to hold a doctrine that the world was created and is sustained, by Divine Spirit? The secular humanist response to such systematics is always an appeal to an individual circumstance or predicament – to the pain of those who feel repressed or excluded. A close reading of the Pope’s allocution suggests that it might have been more logical for the attack to have been mounted by feminists rather than gays. But women’s issues are no longer the sharp end. The game has moved on. Homosexual equality is currently the presenting predicament, and the Catholic Church is once more the sworn enemy.
To the theology of Benedict the modern secular consensus opposes the primacy of self-fulfilment. To Truth (‘But this is to live against the truth, to live against the Spirit Creator’) it opposes Sentiment (illogically but powerfully expressed in terms of rights: a ‘woman’s right to choose’; the right to have my vocation ‘tested’; the right to enjoy sexual gratification in whatever way I choose).
The Pope said not a word about homosexuality (even the BBC was prepared to admit that). But this did not stop anyone from speaking as though he had. It was all by way of a back-handed compliment. His detractors were only too aware of the strength of his position and the vulnerability of their own. To them – were he not the scholar and the gentleman that he is – he might have said: ‘If the cap fits…’ But there was no need. They were wearing it all the time.