Sunday, December 23, 2012

Benedict's Anti-Gay Christmas Statement to the Curia: Theological Reflections

I've now read Benedict's Christmas statement to the Roman Curia, which I mentioned in the concluding section of my posting on Friday, the day on which this statement was delivered. As that posting notes, the themes that persistently preoccupy this pope's attention as Christmas and new year's days come and go tend to remain constant--particularly when the issue is the place of gay and lesbian human beings in church and world.

Though Benedict deliberately avoids--conspicuously so--ever mentioning gay persons directly in any of these statements . . . . He does so because to name those who are gay, to admit that they exist as a distinct and recognizable category of human beings, would be to introduce questions the pope does not intend to entertain about their place in the order of nature and within the human community.

And so, in these persistent turning-of-the-year statements about those who are gay and their place in church and world, Benedict prefers to speak in abstractions. He talks about nature and creation, family and gender, God and state, as if the diktats he delivers have no real human locus, and no implication for any human face in the church he governs and in the wider world that listens to his words.

What Benedict says in this year's Christmas address is thus in continuity with what he has said in previous Christmas and new year's addresses that touch on these grand abstractions of family, gender, nature, creation, and human ecology. As this and previous statements in the same vein make very clear, Benedict is defending a parti pris, a "non-negotiable" position (this is a phrase he actually uses in this year's Curial Christmas statement) about which there is to be no discussion or dialogue.

There is only to be the Successor of Peter handing down truth that has been entrusted into his hands, which is to be received respectfully by all faithful Catholics and by the world at large, since this truth corresponds to truth inscribed by the Maker of the world in nature itself, and the ability of human communities to function in a humane way depends on their recognizing and adhering to that truth. And so when Benedict ends this Curial statement by talking about dialogue, he talks about dialogue between the church and states, between the church and society, and between the church and other religions . . . 

but there is no place at all in his thinking here, it appears, for intra-ecclesial dialogue. To admit the possibility of that kind of dialogue would be to open the door to the recognition that an overwhelming percentage of the people of God reject Benedict's understanding of sexual morality framed by a biologistic notion of natural law, and that an overwhelming percentage of the faithful have important questions to ask about gender roles that Benedict chooses to see as non-negotiable, as handed down by nature and therefore written into the natural world by God.

Benedict's statements about these issues are intended to be received, that is to say, as diktats. They're his enunciation and elaboration of divinely revealed truth for all the faithful, and, perhaps even more importantly when the matter is marriage equality, for secular states.

Here's the heart of Benedict's argument in this Christmas message (and, to repeat, the same argument runs through all of Benedict's preceding Christmas and new year's statements on these themes, to which my posting Friday points):

1. The family is "a reality established by creation."

Family precedes human tinkering. It is given by God. It is rooted in and begins with nature itself, as configured by the Maker of nature. 

This argument, of course, completely overlooks even the biblical evidence itself, which demonstrates that marriage and family had a wide range of meanings over the course of Hebrew history. It completely overlooks the fact that, in key respects, the proclamation of the reign of God by Jesus is anti-family, insofar as that proclamation calls on his followers to understand family in a new way as one's kinship to every other human being in the world, and, in particular, to the excluded and dispossessed.  So that biological family is subsumed under a much broader category of human family, and, in particular, of human family in which we have obligations to those on the margins of society as if they are our brothers and sisters . . . . 

This argument also overlooks the fact that the church was quite slow to develop a sacrament of marriage, that marriage was, in fact, the last sacrament recognized, and that the church relied on the secular understanding of marriage and family within Roman culture for its model of family for many centuries. Benedict's claim that family is "a reality established by creation" that is "non-negotiable," and on which our salvation depends--so that we must absolutely not in any way tinker with this "reality"--seems weak, to say the least, when one looks at how the concept of family has actually operated in biblical history and over the course of the history of the church. 

The concept of family has developed over time. It has shifted in response to many historical conditions. It has had varying importance within the Christian tradition; at times, central aspects of the Christian tradition have even been inimical to the concept of biological family, and have suggested that "real" followers of Jesus must give up father, mother, brother, and sister to follow Jesus.

None of this is even to mention the glaring and obvious fact that, contra Benedict's foundational claim here, no clearly discernible "reality" of family has existed throughout human history from the beginning of time, as his foundational claim implies. The family that Benedict wants us to imagine as "established by creation"--he spells it out as father, mother, and child--is a fiction superimposed by fundamentalist thinking on natural and historical realities far more wildly diverse than he chooses to admit.

It's also mind-boggling that Benedict wants to hammer these lessons home each year at Christmas time, when we who are Christian celebrate the birth of a Messiah born of a mother who conceived her child by divine intervention, and who, according to some longstanding (and dominant) Catholic traditions, remained perpetually a virgin after having given birth to the Christ child without having ruptured her hymen! And whose elderly and somewhat ornamental husband is a shadowy and dispensable feature of the life of the Holy Family in much traditional hagiography. . . .

2. Bolstering the idea that the family "is a reality established by creation" is an assertion about gender complementarity and its centrality to the divine plan for the created world and for salvation: "According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God."

Note that, under the guise of countering contemporary understandings of sexual orientation as rooted in nature--in people's constitutive make-up, in how they experience their own givenness as human beings--Benedict continues to try to argue that it's actually all about gender. And isn't that curious, when anyone with even a modicum of understanding of what the discussion of homosexuality is all about recognizes that this discussion is not about overturning gender? It's about recognizing that some human beings are so constituted (if we're believers, they're so made by God) that they experience a more or less constant natural erotic attraction to members of their own sex over the course of their lives.

In doing so, they don't change genders. They don't deny the biological concept of gender duality--though biology itself is less simplistic than Benedict wants us to imagine, since some people are born intersexed and/or of indeterminate gender. 

The diversionary point about gender that Benedict wants to make muddles the discussion in a quite radical way (and one has to suspect it's intended to muddle it in this way) by suggesting to uninformed people that gay and lesbian people and their supporters want to overturn the notion of biological gender. This is a rhetorical misuse of the notion of homosexuality as an attack on family and on the biological future of the human race that is designed to elicit hostility towards those who are gay, and it's deplorable for that reason.

None of this touches on very important points that should also be made by anyone seeking a well-rounded and biblically-grounded understanding of the concept of gender in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. These points would include the question of whether the notion of gender duality really plays the central role in the scriptures that Benedict wants us to imagine it plays (it doesn't). Or whether the scriptures understand the obligation to respect one's biological gender as a precondition for salvation, as Benedict implies we must (they don't). . . . Or--and this is really the crux of the matter, and is the hidden argument the pope wants to introduce here without stating this in so many words--whether adhering to gender roles as dictated by social and religious conventions is central to one's salvation . . . . 

3. Because, as Benedict insists, it's God who has crafted the world such that things are arranged according to the dualistic scheme of masculinity and femininity, and because everything inheres in that scheme, to deny this scheme is to deny God and nature itself: "Man calls his nature into question" when "he" questions divinely ordained gender duality.

4. And so that strange language that has become such a constant feature now of Benedict's end-of-year statements about these issues: when we "call our nature into question" by denying divinely ordained gender duality, we threaten to destroy the very ecology of the human community: "The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned."

More deplorable scare language designed to elicit hostility towards LGBT people on the part of uninformed people: the gays really do pose a threat to the ecology of human nature equal to the threat posed by the demise of the rain forest, Benedict wants us to think. They're overturning nature itself by overturning the gendered scheme of things God has ordained for the continued nurture of the human community and of the planet itself. 

As many Catholic theologians have noted, though Catholic social teaching has long emphasized that the scriptures call on us as human beings to be divine collaborators with God in shaping and co-creating the world in every other area possible, the Catholic magisterium wants to draw a line around the area of human sexuality and make it a sacred reserve. The magisterium has no problem at all with encouraging us to "manipulate" nature when it comes to matters like inoculating people against deadly diseases, educating people, damming rivers to create electricity, splitting the atom, developing radiology to diagnose and treat illnesses, building viable and humane societies, etc.

But when the issue under consideration is human sexuality and the question of gender roles, nature suddenly dictates. To raise the same kind of critical questions re: human sexuality that we're asked by the church itself to raise about manipulating nature in all other areas of human life is to rebel against God the Maker of nature.

Why, one must ask? Why this sacred reserve exclusively for the area of human sexuality? (For my money, it has everything to do with preserving male power and privilege and thus with keeping female subordination firmly in place, and it has everything to do with labeling male entitlement and female subordination as God's design for the world, to rebel against which is to unravel the fabric of the universe.)

5. A strong underlying concern of the argument that we rebel against God when we "manipulate" nature in the area of gender duality and family is a concern about who is permitted to determine how marriage and family will be defined and will function. In this Curial statement, Benedict is preoccupied with what he regards as an illicit attempt of the state to decide what only God and nature (i.e., only the church) can dictate.  

This concern clearly arises, of course, out of the growing support for marriage equality in one Western nation after another. Benedict is making these statements at the end of a year in which the U.S. Catholic bishops continued to spend tons of money to try to turn back marriage equality, and in which they lost that battle in four more states. He's also making these statements as France is debating the topic of marriage equality, and immediately after a leading French Catholic publication, Témoignage chrétien, has just endorsed marriage equality.

And so there are strong echoes in this part of Benedict's address of an argument commonly advanced in right-wing Catholic (and right-wing political) circles in the U.S.: namely, the argument that rights flow from God the creator and are not granted by the state (though most people of faith who promote human rights from a faith perspective hardly deny that human rights originate with God). And there are also strong echoes of the Osservatore Romano editorial I cited in Friday's posting, which claims that the state's recognition of marriage equality trends towards utopian socialism. 

Only God, and only the church (which is to say, only Benedict) are to issue diktats about these matters.

6. At the very heart of Benedict's argument is a determination that the church and its leaders dictate the nature of marriage and family to the state rather than rather than permit the human communities on behalf of whom states govern to settle these matters.

In the opening section of his statements to the Curia, Benedict recalls in glowing terms how he was received in Mexico earlier in the year: "endless crowds" lined the roadsides cheering and waving flags  as his procession moved along, and young people knelt "respectfully" by the side of the road "to receive the blessing of Peter’s Successor." This is not merely a travelogue: it's a prescription for the modern state in its relationship to the Catholic church and the Catholic hierarchy.

Benedict wants to return church and state to a pre-modern accord, in which the secular state kneels respectfully to receive his blessing. The question of marriage--and of how gay persons are to be treated--is to be left in the hands of Peter's Successor. To suggest otherwise is to rebel against God.

Benedict underscores this backwards-looking, nostalgic configuration of church and state, with its hankering for the Constantinean arrangement in its fullest flourishing, by making a rather astonishing claim in his closing section on dialogue: he maintains that

[t]he Church [i.e., in contrast to the state and the human community] represents the memory of what it means to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness, which knows only itself and its own criteria.

Note what this formula implies: the church stands to learn nothing at all through dialogue with the human community and secular states. The church has the answers. The proper understanding of the relationship of church to world/state is hierarchical: the world and its states are to kneel at the feet of Peter. It bears repeating: To suggest otherwise is to rebel against God

Dialogue between the church and the world/state is, therefore, a one-way street. Such dialogue consists of Peter speaking and the world listening.

I call this notion astonishing because, if Benedict should have learned anything at all from the clerical sexual abuse crisis that has come to shocking light in the past decade, it's that the church most certainly does not have a corner on the market of understanding "what it means to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness." The church can be not merely sinful, but radically so.

The church radically needs the secular state to shove it back onto the gospel path when its belligerent intransigence, when the refusal of its leaders to listen and their demand to be accorded special rights and privileges, cause it to swerve completely from that path. The church needs secular leaders like Enda Kenny informing the members of the Catholic hierarchy that they will be prosecuted if they flaunt the laws of a sovereign secular state designed to protect children. The church needs secular courts like the courts in Philadelphia and Kansas City to call its bishops to accountability when they break laws designed to protect children.

The human community and its secular institutions understand "what it means to be human" every bit as well as Benedict does, and, while the secular sphere is every bit as prone to sin as the church is, the Spirit of God is at work in both church and world, and the church refuses to listen to the Spirit in the world to the peril of the church itself.

It's entirely possible, is it not, that many secular communities today understand better than Benedict does what it means to be humane towards those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered? It's entirely possible that the Spirit is at work in the world to lure the human community towards a greater recognition of the humanity and human rights of the LGBT community, and that the church could learn much about humanity from the human community and the secular sphere.

One of the most baffling (and paradoxical) aspects of Benedict's argument here and in previous end-of-year statements about the gays as a threat to human ecology is that, while Benedict calls on the human community to be true to nature vis-a-vis gender roles and human sexuality, at the same time, he completely obliterates the obligation of gay and lesbian people to find and be true to their nature. In this Curial statement, Benedict chides contemporary human beings as follows: "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves."

And that is precisely the point we who are gay have sought to make over and over again as we deal with fundamentalist thinkers such as Benedict: we experience our gay nature as something given to us, as something (to use the language of faith) established by God. To deny our nature is to deny the God who makes us. When churches tell us to pretend that we are someone other than who God has made us to be by pretending to be heterosexual, they are asking us to rebel against God and to make ourselves anew in a way in which human beings can't remake themselves.

Benedict's fixation on declaring that the world is neatly configured along dualistic male-female lines, with its tacit but very vocal suggestion that it has no room at all for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, asks all of us to participate in a grand fiction, and to call that fiction divine truth.

This is ultimately why many recent statements from the Vatican about the issue of sexual orientation refuse to recognize that there are, in fact, gay people in the world. This is why these statements increasingly focus on homosexuality as a choice--in particular, a choice to do this act or that act. At the bottom of this approach to the question of homosexuality is the intent to set in stone male and female gender roles by arguing that these roles are predetermined by nature and God, and that to reject them is to reject nature and God the Maker.

Though, in this particular Curial statement, Benedict wants us to think he's citing the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, he's actually speaking on behalf of a wide range of conservative religious (and political) groups throughout the Western world, who adamantly resist discussions of shifting gender roles and discussions of how to fit LGBT people into society in more humane ways. His statement that the issues about which he is making declarations here (and in his previous end-of-year musings on the same themes) are "fundamental and non-negotiable" is a dead giveaway about where he's coming from with these statements and with whom he's in alliance: the "non-negotiable" rhetoric was developed in the last decade by leading neocon American Catholic thinkers in collusion with powerful right-wing American interest groups.

Benedict represents and intends reaction here. Just as the American right intends to continue resisting at all cost any and all laws that extend the rights of LGBT persons and of women . . . . It is entirely no accident that the word "love" does not appear a single time in this Christmas statement by Benedict to the Curia, while the word "adore" crops up three times and the word "nature" is repeated ten times.

But the Christian gospel is about love that reshapes nature . . . . And it's about adoring a savior who saves us by emptying himself and taking the form of a servant, not a king . . . .

(Don't miss Colleen Baker's reflection on Benedict's Christmas statement at Enlightened Catholicism, and Terry Weldon's at Queering the Church.)

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