Human Events Blog

Pope Benedict versus gay marriage

Pope Benedict XVI “weighed on a heated debate over gay marriage,” as the UK Telegraph put it, during his year-end speech to the Vatican bureaucracy, which is known as the Curia.  The Pope also “criticized new concepts of the traditional family, and warned that mankind itself was at stake.”  The Telegraph offers a sample of the papal address:

“In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question,” the Pope said in Italian during an end-of-year speech.

The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men,” he said.

The Pope spoke of the “falseness” of gender theories and cited at length France’s chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, who has spoken out against gay marriage.

“Bernheim has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper,” he said.

He cited feminist gender theorist Simone de Beauvoir’s view to the effect that one is not born a woman, but one becomes so – that sex was no longer an element of nature but a social role people chose for themselves.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious,” he said.

The defence of the family, the Pope said, “is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears.”

The Telegraph theorizes that the Vatican’s more aggressive stance against gay marriage might have been prompted by the likelihood of significant political gains by the same-sex marriage movement in France:

On Monday, the Vatican’s newspaper described laws on gay marriage as an attempt at a communist-like “utopia”, a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in France to support legalising both marriages and adoption for gay couples.

France’s parliament is to debate the government-backed “marriage for all” bill early next year.

With President Francois Hollande’s Socialists enjoying a strong majority, the bill is expected to pass despite vehement opposition from the right and religious groups.

Also, while it’s not specifically mentioned in the Telegraph piece, the Vatican would not be unaware of some historic referendum victories for gay marriage in the United States during the 2012 election, with ballot initiatives passing in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State.  A Reuters report portrays the Pope’s favorable reference to Rabbi Bernheim’s work as an effort to “forge alliances with other religions against gay marriage,” although it offers no account of other outreach efforts.

The Pope’s message certainly includes strong opposition to gay marriage… which, of course, media outlets such as USA Today characterize as an “attack” – the kind of terminology they would never apply to even the harshest critique of traditional marriage offered by gay marriage proponents.  Let us proceed to consider Pope Benedict’s words without quibbling over the way other people describe them.  There’s no question that he’s strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, and thinks it is a very bad idea.

But he said a lot more than that during his year-end address, the full text of which is available courtesy of Vatican Radio.  The UK Telegraph excerpts give a fair taste of the overall message: the Pope is deeply concerned about the dissolution of the traditional family, and the effect this has upon the way manhood and womanhood is defined.  Much of this message is, of course, delivered in a religious context that will repulse or annoy those who recognize no authority in Catholic or Christian teaching – he is the Pope, after all.  But if you can take the difficult step of forgetting his official position, Pope Benedict offers a reasonable case that deserves reasoned support or disagreement:

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. It was noticeable that the Synod repeatedly emphasized the significance of the family as the authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint of human existence. This is something we learn by living it with others and suffering it with others. So it became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human.

The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for?

Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.

(Emphases mine.)  The Pope, in the course of quoting Rabbi Bernheim, depicts this dissolution of the family as part of a deliberate effort to redefine humanity in a manner that is more conducive to coercive, collectivist political control:

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes 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. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.

This is a destructive philosophy that leaves the human race trying to ice-skate uphill, as it mistakenly comes to believe fundamental aspects of human nature can be re-defined through political and cultural influence:

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. 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.

Why, I do believe the Vicar of Christ just dropped a zinger on the environmentalist Left!

Naturally, the Pope eloquently weaves religious concepts into these ideas, memorably stating that “it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears… whoever defends God is defending Man.”  But his central point can be understood without deference to religion.  There are some aspects of the human condition that really aren’t subject to cultural or scientific modification, and not even the most astonishing future developments in biological science could rewrite those rules… not without also editing the very definition of humanity.  Among those aspects of the human condition are the positive contributions to society made by the good old nuclear family, which provides economic security, an optimal environment for raising children, and the sort of genuine independence that the Pope takes pains to distinguish from the sort of irresponsible license that is commonly presented to us as the essence of “freedom.”

None of this is threatened by the existence of people who do not, through either choice or nature, participate in the formation and perpetuation of families.  But when considering vast societies covering millions of people, the degree of social emphasis we place upon the importance of marriage and family has profound repercussions.  Creating a family is very difficult to do.  It is not just a commitment forged in the moment that rings are placed upon fingers; it must be renewed across lifetimes, through hard times and dashed expectations, in the face of challenges raised from within and without the walls of the family home.  A healthy society requires a large number of stable families raising two or more kids.  When we back away from celebrating those who accept such a difficult challenge, and prevail across decades of fidelity, there is a price to be paid.  I question whether we have been entirely honest with ourselves about the true price.

Perhaps we’ll have to go ahead and pay it.  Maybe the era of traditional marriage is done.  The elevation of faithful husbands and wives really doesn’t require the denigration of anyone else, from gay couples to lifelong bachelors… but it would seem much of Western society is no longer prepared to see it that way.  And if the joy of celebration is now impossible without the sin of “exclusion,” the process Pope Benedict decried – and which he clearly views as encompassing far more than the re-definition of marriage, although few American media accounts mentioned anything else – may be unstoppable.  Not everyone thinks the re-definition of humanity is a bad idea.  Some will say it’s long overdue.

For my part, as one who has always respected religious tradition but worked to defend traditional marriage on secular grounds, I was impressed by the Pope’s ability to invoke far more than his religious authority in his year-end address.  I don’t suppose all that many people outside the Catholic Church will read his full remarks and see it that way, which is a pity.  As with many of the great social issues, the answer of many Americans to the question of gay marriage depends upon how the question is phrased.  If it’s entirely about discriminating unfairly against gay couples who want to be married, without consideration of the issues Pope Benedict raised, it’s not surprising that many citizens of this kind and generous nation answer in the affirmative.  Personally, when I see photos of same-sex couples celebrating the passage of a gay marriage referendum, I wish them nothing but the best, and hope their happiness lasts more than a lifetime.  What makes me sad is the notion that I can’t disagree with the new definition of marriage without earning their hatred – or, worse, the presumptive judgment that I must hate them.  Those are not the terms of a reasoned discussion… such as the one Pope Benedict XVI, who is clearly not a hateful or thoughtless man, wishes to engage in.

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