A guest post by Deane Galbraith (University of Otago)
The speech by Joseph Ratzinger on 9 January 2012, delivered to some 180 international diplomats assigned to the Vatican , was widely characterised by the media as the Roman Catholic Pope’s clearest condemnation of gay marriage to date. According to reports, Ratzinger not only spoke against gay marriage, but in alarmist terms described it as ‘a threat to humanity’s future’.
Yet Ratzinger’s condemnation of gay marriage was hardly as clear as most media reports initially suggested. In fact, it was downright cagey. Ratzinger veiled his condemnation of gay marriage in terms of an encomium to heterosexual marriage, an institution which he praised as the ideal setting for the education of youth. Yet by explicating ‘the family’ as that which is ‘based on the marriage of a man and a woman’, and then further commenting that this social structure is ‘not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society’, and in the same breath criticizing those who ‘undermine the [heterosexual] family’, Ratzinger was engaging in some decidedly shrill ‘wolf-whistle politics’—the technique employed by reactionary politicians, at least since the Willie Horton advertisement in the 1988 US Presidential campaign, to communicate racist, sexist, or homophobic messages via covert language recognized by like-minded individuals which nonetheless remains invisible or oblique to the wider public.
Notably, Ratzinger employs here the same ‘pro-family’ language employed by the opponents of the recent legalisation of gay marriage in European countries such as Holland and Spain. These words may form only a minor portion of Ratzinger’s speech, but it is naïve to conclude, as did Andrew Brown writing on his Guardian blog, that the Roman Catholic Pope made no especial reference to gay marriage as the cause of humanity’s imminent destruction.  Thus, Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella was quite right to characterise Ratzinger’s description of those who ‘threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself’ as a condemnation of gay marriage.
Moreover, Ratzinger has been wolf-whistling these anti-gay-marriage proclamations for some years now. Take, for example, his 2011 speech to the same group. Buried in a discussion of ‘principles’ guiding Roman Catholic diplomats assigned to influence various intergovernmental organizations is this vague yet allusive condemnation: ‘Even less justifiable are attempts to counter the right of religious freedom with other alleged new rights which, while actively promoted by certain sectors of society and inserted in national legislation or in international directives, are nonetheless merely the expression of selfish desires lacking a foundation in authentic human nature.’  While even less explicit than the veiled comments against gay marriage contained in his 2012 speech, for the Pope’s more morally conservative listeners the allusions are clear: his reference to a ‘certain sector’ involved in ‘active promotion’ has overtones of that conspiratorial phrase, ‘the gay agenda’; references to ‘new rights’ and ‘legislation’ evoke the recent European gay marriage reforms (and it is no coincidence that this reference follows closely on Ratzinger’s ambiguous mention of ‘certain European countries’); the reference to ‘selfish desires’ reflects the longtime Roman Catholic stereotyping of sexual intercourse which is not for the ultimate purpose of procreation as mere ‘selfish’ concupiscence.
Although these connotations may have been lost on many who listened to Ratzinger’s speeches, they speak with a clear wink and a nod toward conservative Roman Catholics who oppose gay marriage. In addition, Ratzinger’s carefully chosen words allude to the phrasing of other more explicit Catholic pronouncements against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. For example, when Ratzinger indirectly addressed the legalization of gay marriage in Europe, while he appeared to emphasise the right of ‘the family’ to ‘educate the young’, he was employing the same connection between education and heterosexual marriage made in an article within the Catechism of the Catholic Church which deals with ‘marriage’ and ‘adultery’.  When Ratzinger addressed same-sex marriage so indirectly in a passage which may have seemed to most outsiders to simply deal with the right to educate children, he allowed the already-existing connections in the Catechism to fill in the blanks for those who were ‘in the know’. What else does that particular article of the Catechism contain? It also happens to explicitly describe ‘the conjugal love of man and woman’ as the properly ‘ordered’ form of sexuality and, conversely, ‘homosexuality’ as a ‘disorder’. While Andrew Brown’s Guardian blog was correct that gay marriage was not explicitly mentioned in Ratzinger’s 2012 speech, what he misses is the way in which Ratzinger’s allusive wolf-whistle rhetoric speaks all the more forcefully to those Catholics who have a persecution complex that leads them to interpret ‘secular’ developments such as the legalization of same-sex marriage as an attack on their own ‘religious rights’.
Although Ratzinger adopts the guise of ‘human rights’ language, it is here, in what he duplicitously terms ‘religious rights’, that we discover his true concern. Underlying Ratzinger’s speeches to the diplomatic corps is a disingenuous defence of the language of ‘human rights’ to oppose certain human rights. The language of ‘human rights’ pervades the literature produced by the diplomatic service of the Holy See. But what markedly distinguishes the human rights discourse of Ratzinger’s own diplomats (‘nuncios’)—apart from the exclusion of women from their ranks —is their proclamation of what is ‘authentically’ human. According to Ratzinger, the ‘religious rights’ of Roman Catholics can be compromised merely when countries or intergovernmental organizations recognize rights which are contrary to Catholic doctrine, which as such are not properly ‘human’ rights at all. For Ratzinger, the protection of purported ‘religious rights’ demands that the rights of some humans should not be recognised. Foremost among these human rights precluded by religious (Catholic) ‘rights’ is of course the legalisation of gay marriage, which affords all the legal entitlements available in heterosexual marriage to those who want it. For Ratzinger, heterosexual marriage is authentically human; homosexual marriage is inauthentically human.
The use of this rhetoric of dehumanisation to deny certain groups of people their rights has some horrific examples in recent history, including Germany’s holocaust of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals; the Hutu extermination of Tutsi; and the United States’ torture and sexual abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Professor Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite deadpans, ‘to have a rigorous concept of “human rights” you have to see other people as human.’ Thistlethwaite’s Dreaming of Eden sketches how ‘the conservative theological view of “big sinners” and “the innocent people” actually helped in the justification of torture [by the US in Iraq].’  Similarly, Ratzinger’s speeches to the diplomatic corps perpetuates a division of humanity into the ‘authentically’ and ‘inauthentically’ human—those acting in accordance with God’s will for humans and those who do not—as an attempt to justify the denial of legal rights to the latter.
Behind Ratzinger’s opposition to gay marriage is the doctrine that humans were created imago dei (in the image of God), which is how the creation of humankind (both ‘male and female’) is described in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1:27). Although some theologians employ the imago as a basis for according unqualified respect for all humans, Ratzinger’s approach demonstrates how the concept can just as easily be deployed to depreciate actually existing humans and actual human sexual relationships by excluding rights and dignity from those deemed to improperly reflect the divine image, that is, humans who fail to be properly human. Ratzinger, along with his worldwide diplomatic corps, have justified their denial of human rights to a sector of society, while maintaining the guise of being advocates for human rights. Now that is a level of convolution and tendentiousness that truly deserves the name ‘theology’.
 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See’, Vatican: The Holy See, 9 January 2012, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2012/january/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20120109_diplomatic-corps_en.html.
 Philip Pullella, ‘Gay Marriage a Threat to Humanity’s Future: Pope’, Reuters, 9 January 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/09/us-pope-gay-idUSTRE8081RM20120109.
 Andrew Brown, ‘Yes the pope is Catholic. But he didn’t say gay marriage threatens humanity’, Andrew Brown’s Blog; The Guardian, 11 January 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2012/jan/11/pope-catholic-gay-marriage?newsfeed=true. See further the letter sent in reply to Andrew Brown by Philip Pullella, published by Andrew Brown (‘Why I shouldn’t have been upset about the reporting on the pope’s speech’, Andrew Brown’s Blog; The Guardian, 15 January 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2012/jan/15/pope-speech-gay-marriage-dissect).
 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps’, Vatican: The Holy See, 10 January 2011, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2011/january/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20110110_diplomatic-corps_en.html.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, part 3, section 2, chapter 2, article 6, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm.
 Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.