What the Pope Really Thinks about Gay Marriage: Roman Catholic Denial of Human Rights in the Guise of Human Rights Advocacy

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 [1], 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’.[2]

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. [3] 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.’ [4] 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’. [5] 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].’ [6] 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’.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, part 3, section 2, chapter 2, article 6, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm.

[6] Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Deane Galbraith


5 thoughts on “What the Pope Really Thinks about Gay Marriage: Roman Catholic Denial of Human Rights in the Guise of Human Rights Advocacy

  1. Good day to you! This is certainly an interesting read, couldn’t help but comment…

    Would I be right in saying that you think less of the Pope based on his expressed views of others (or perhaps more specifically the actions of others, in his eyes)? Therefore, in your eyes is the Pope somehow less than your ideal human for doing so? Or at best, could I say that the Pope is a human worthy of less respect than some for this? Would I be able, therefore, to class your article as even mildly dehumanising or at best to suggest that it is eating into the Pope’s “dignity” (Article 1)? It is not an attack on his “honour and reputation” (Article 12), is it? In fact, you don’t seem to want to hide your chance to undermine the reputation, albeit tendentiously, of all that may be deemed as ‘theology’.

    Also, to what extent does your use of “dehumanisation” deny or delegitimize the Pope’s human rights to freedom of speech (Article 19) and freedom of religion (Article 18)?

    I don’t necessarily criticise you for this, beyond trying to highlight the fallacy of following the UDHR, in my opinion. Human Rights: the impossible dream! I think it takes more faith to believe that human rights are possible than miracles and God. Many well-meaning people support Human Rights and I don’t suggest this is bad at all. Perhaps it is a little like what the Apostle Paul said about the Law (in a matter of words!), “no no, the law is good… Trying to follow it will kill you because you’ll never manage it!”

    All the best

    • No, my examination of Ratzinger’s views does not in any way infer that he is less than ideally human. Nice try with a tu quoque, but my criticism pertained to Ratzinger’s views, as well as a certain duplicity in conveying those views in public, not to the person. It follows that I do not deny him his freedom of expressing his views (in fact, it is my hope to give those views wider publicity, and to expose his veiled expression of them), and neither is my article in any danger whatsoever of inhibiting Joseph Ratzinger in the practise of his religion.

      You also confuse my criticism of Ratzinger’s views on human rights and his duplicitous way of conveying them with a defence of human rights discourse. Yet I would not use the language of “human rights” as a matter of choice, in particular because they are tied to a naturalistic ethic to which I do not hold, and their use is not nearly so universal as is often claimed. (I do, however, support equal legal and social recognition of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.) My purpose in this article was to expose Ratzinger’s opposition to human rights, and the manner in which he uses the guise of human rights discourse to do so. A criticism of human rights discourse itself is a topic for another day.

      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Thanks for your response. Are you basically just saying that you’d prefer the Pope to “call a spade a spade” then without mentioning anything about human rights?

    I’m just not convinced there is much or any clarity about human rights and quite how they work in practice. It all seems like an excited, hopeful, but confused and unclear mess. Even the legalisation of gay marriage is left in an interesting state with the wording of the articles in the UDHR, because there is nice amount of interpretative work that needs to go into them (or at least arriving at them with an interpretative framework already in mind) to apply them to gay marriage. The specific wording is open to subjective interpretation. I would not be surprised to know that the Pope understands all of the human rights in detail and in his worldview there is no conflict. If you add in the legalisation of gay marriage, which still isn’t the case in the UK (and certainly not internationally), then this raises a problem for him. Is it possible that the Pope actually subscribes fully to human rights (in his head at least), it’s just that you think he is not allowed to undermine homosexuality in practice as it contravenes with your understanding of human rights?

    If the Pope’s understanding of “family” does not include gay relationships, and the UDHR does not prescribe that gay marriage is explicitly part of human rights under the name of “family”, then what can we say about that? Is he not standing within human rights legislation? It is interesting, coming from the UK, because gay marriage does not have an equal legal standing in the UK. Civil partnerships are still not heralded as being quite “equal” to heterosexual relationships, in either law or government support. So how does this apply nationally? What am I locally allowed to interpret the UDHR as?

  3. The expression of Ratzinger’s views could undoubtedly be improved if he did not speak in the circumlocutions he does, which are discussed above. To some extent, what is wrong with Ratzinger’s approach is his veiling of his true views in public regarding gay marriage, etc.

    But even if he were crystal clear, and “called a spade a spade”, so to speak, Ratzinger should still be exposed for his redefinition of human rights – which for him are both subject to what he calls “religious rights” (including the alleged “right” of Roman Catholics not to have national laws allowing gay marriage or other laws opposing their so-called “religious freedom”) and involve a redefinition of what is truly “human” and what is not authentically human behaviour. Both of these moves attempt to oppose the rights of people, and do so in the guise of “human rights” discourse – a discourse which is wider than the Universal Declaration or particular national recognition of rights. The opposition to some rights on the grounds that they are “inathentically human” is particularly worrying, given that it moves debate over treatment of people to a debate over their very being or status as human – the type of rhetoric which has preceded many types of atrocities in history. Whether Ratzinger is consciously aware of these moves or not, these are dangerous reconceptions of human rights which should be identified and criticised.

    • Hi Deane

      Religious people will always admire and honour an authority greater than that of any state, government, society or individual. Any attempt to have religious rights named under the banner of human rights must also take into full consideration the nature of religious freedoms, ideas and ideals. This will always form the central, core, fundamental and most important position in a religious person’s worldview and lifestyle. To expect anything less would be to misunderstand and misrepresent belief, faith, religious fervour, hope, meaning and purpose etc. Or does it take a certain interpretation of what religious belief is to make it palpable and even usable in human rights discourse?

      At the end of the day, any language that tries to speak of what is ideal for human beings or what the potential of human beings is will inevitably attempt to make clear the highest and the lowest forms of action. Whether that is the modern desire that all human beings should be tolerant of everyone else regardless of difference or not, what one ends up with is a discrimination (not necessarily in the entirely negative sense) about what is reaching human potential or not.

      Christianity is built upon the foundation that all people fall short of what God wants; that mankind has stumbled and fallen from what it could be, and what Christians believe it will be. The Pope’s language of what is more or less authentically human may be easily misinterpreted and perhaps is also unhelpful (perhaps he should just call it “ungodly” instead), but it runs to the core of religious belief and to the heart of Christianity: any action that is against God’s will is against God’s plan for humans, and God’s plan for redemption is to make it whole again, to glorify it, and make it perfect and new.

      We do the same thing in society. Murder is seen as being “inhumane” and against the order of humanity. This fits in beautifully with, in fact this is, UN / human rights / UDHR discourse. Human rights discourse has been largely birthed out of the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, precisely because our people stopped to say, “This is not human and we cannot allow humanity to behave like this again.” How is this different from what the Pope is saying? “Inhumane” developed from what was seen as unhuman, which we now speak of in terms of cruelty and a lack of compassion towards those in need. We may use different language superficially but I wonder if the underlying meaning is different at all.

      All the best

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