Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Gay Marriage: What Pope Benedict did NOT Say

A number of news reports this week have stated that Pope Benedict has described gay marriage as a threat to humanity:

Gay marriage a threat to humanity's future — Pope

GMA News - ‎19 hours ago‎
VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict said on Monday that gay marriage was one of several threats to the traditional family that undermined "the future of humanity itself." The Pope made some of his strongest comments against gay marriage in a New Year address ...

Gay marriage is a threat to humanity, claims Pope

Daily Mail - ‎Jan 10, 2012‎
By Graham Smith Gay marriage is one of several threats to the traditional family unit that undermines 'the future of humanity itself', Pope Benedict XVI warned yesterday. The pontiff told diplomats from nearly 180 countries that the education of proper ...

Liberal family values, same-sex marriage a threat to the future of humanity: Pope

National Post (blog) - ‎Jan 9, 2012‎
Pope Benedict XVI attends his annual meeting with Holy See Diplomats at the Hall of the Throne on January 9, 2012 in Vatican City, Vatican. During his speech the Pope pleaded for religious tolerance and an end to discrimination against Christians ...
And plenty more of like ilk. If such a patently and obviously false and malicious statement is really what he said, then the LGBT community, and queer Catholis in particular, would be justified in painting him as public enemy number one.

So - did he say it?

Andrew Brown at the Guardian denies this, and I agree with him.

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican at which he didn't say a single word about gay marriage. Reuters and, following them, many other people reported that he had denounced gay marriage as a threat to western civilisation.  

So far as I can see, Pope Benedict just didn't. 

It's not unusual for news headlines to report as fact statements that the Pope has not made, and I have learned by now that before responding in anger, it is safest first to check his words, reported verbatim at the Vatican website. What did he say?

Well, the first thing to stress, is that  this was just one part of a lengthy, wide-ranging  address on a range of topics. Ignoring the introduction, this address included 2158 words in the English text.  The distinct topics covered were the global economic crisis (164 words), the Arab Spring and its aftermath (314 words), conflict in the rest of the Middle East (160 words), Education of the young (492 words), religious freedom and religious conflict (473 words), and threats to the environment (130 words). So - where was the discussion of "gay marriage", and its threat to humanity?

As Brown claims, it's just not there. What is in the text, is a section on the importance of family as the setting for education of the young. There is also an explicit reference to family as "based on the marriage of a man and a woman". He then went on to the bit that made the headlines:
Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.
It is presumably an assumption that the "policies" that he was referring to, are those to permit same-sex marriage or civil unions that led the press to claim that he said gay marriage is a threat to humanity, but he did not say so. The opportunity was there: he could easily have spoken about political or judicial tussles over marriage, but did not. This is not because he ignored the political process: he made explicit reference to legislative proposals for abortion, and to a court decision on patents for human embryonic stem cells. About comparable legislative or court processes on same-sex unions, and on gay adoption, there was not a word.

We must conclude that while Benedict has clearly expressed concerns about threats to the family, he is not explicitly including gay marriage as one of those threats. He wants to protect the family, which he says is the building block of society. I have no problem there - all societies are built on a fundamental building block of family, but in practice the nature of family is variable, over time and geography. "Family" does not refer only to the modern nuclear family, but in other times and places has also included extended families, polygamous families, religious monastic families and households, and others. There is no reason not to see queer families as included in the general term "family", as many already do.

But, if I am right, what are we to make of the phrase, "family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman" that introduces the passage on family, and the threats to it?

I think there are two important considerations. I accept that Pope Benedict believes that this is so, and is genuinely thinking of the heterosexual variety, when he talks of marriage. I just don't believe that he is so concerned about gay marriage, to include it in his "threats to the family". Those are the threats to unborn life, as in abortion, and stem-cell research. That is what he sees as threatening humanity, not gay marriage.

The second point to bear in mind, when assessing any statement emanating from the papacy, is something I have learned from James Alison. The Vatican is a cauldron of power politics, with many factions constantly jostling for influence and power. Benedict delivers hundreds of speeches a year, but does not write them himself. The speechwriters have to bear in mind the need to balance the demands of all factions, so there are always some things that have to be said, that simply cannot be ignored. There are undoubtedly powerful forces at work strongly opposed to any form of recognition for gay/lesbian relationships, so to simply ignore the topic in a discussion of family is inconceivable - just as it is inconceivable at present for the Pope to publicly approve gay marriage.

US Catholic, focussing on the Reuters wire feed by Philip Pulella which prompted many of the other stories, slams it for sloppy reporting. First, is a discussion of the full content of the papal speech, and then notes:

A lot there, no? He asks for "policies which promote the family and aid social cohesion and dialogue." Something in there as well about not patenting human genetic material, as well as opposition against sex-selective abortion, used almost exclusively to choose males over females. It's true an extensive quote like this isn't feasible for a wire service story, but how about a qualifying sentence?

Pullella undoubtedly did not write his own headline--nor did he edit his piece--but it is utterly incorrect to say that the pope identifed "gay marriage" was a threat to the future of humanity. He did not. He said certain policies that undermined the family were threats to humanity, but identifying them is left open. There is a reason for that--the pope and the his speechwriters are not idiots--and good reporting should acknowledge it.

Reuters, of course, has to sell stories, and plenty of papers picked this one up. Too bad, because it doesn't do the pope or journalism justice.

- US Catholic

In context, the simple phrase "family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman" is as mild an endorsement of "traditional" marriage as he could have gotten away with. For that, we should be thankful.

In the midst of strenuous local battles against marriage equality by some bishops, there are many encouraging signs that in some quarters, influential people are rethinking the issue. We are not yet ready for the day when a newly elected pope will introduce her wife to the crowds in St Peter's Square - but it could still come.

Related Posts:

Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families.

Pope Benedict’s Remarkable Silence on Homosexuality

The Return of the Anti-Gay Crusade, or a More Listening Church?

Polling Evidence: The Gay Marriage Conundrum, for GOP and Catholic Bishops

Queer Families: A Personal, Catholic Case For Gay Marriage

Prejudice, Discrimination Are NOT Catholic Values

The Transformation of Christian Responses to Homoerotic Love

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