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Paul Vallely: Theological point that was lost in translation

The idea the Pope was 'gay-bashing' to celebrate Christmas is seriously ill-informed

Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good. Of no one is this more true than an intellectually-dense theologian who happens to be the leader of the world's billion Catholics. Step forward Pope Benedict XVI.

The hapless pontiff has been reported around the globe as saying that saving humanity from homosexual or trans-sexual behaviour is as important as saving the rainforest. That is not what he said at all. In fact, his end-of-year address to Vatican bureaucrats does not even mention homosexuality. There is nothing even about sexual orientation and certainly no attack on same-sex marriages.

What it does attack, rather opaquely, is gender theory – the idea that gender is not something entirely to do with what we inherit from nature, but something which is also socially constructed. Or, as the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it: "One is not born a woman, one becomes one."

This the Pope sees as part of a wider malaise in which human beings want to control every aspect of life, sometimes paying no respect to the natural God-given order of things. What he actually seems to have in his sights is not homosexuality, but questions of bioethics and reproductive health. His concern is more cloning and whether children born by IVF have a right to a father. What he is resisting is the sense that all manner of advances must be pursued for the glory of science without regard to whether or not they are a good idea ethically.

It's also, inevitably, about abortion. The Pope here is echoing long-standing Vatican concerns that secular visions on women's health issues, as espoused by official bodies such as the UN, are rooted in an errant view which always allows the rights of women to trump the rights of unborn children.

Part of the problem is that because his remarks were an in-house address for his staff, he spoke in impenetrable theological shorthand. They were published only in German and Italian and many of those who have written lurid headlines about attacks on homosexuality have relied on secondhand accounts. There was also just a single paragraph in the end-of-term report that flits across a huge range of subjects over just six pages – and which is most concerned with green issues and fending off traditionalist criticisms of his role in World Youth Day in Sydney earlier this year.

The Catholic Church has some pretty unappetising doctrines on homosexuality, to be sure. But the idea that the Pope was doing a bit of "gay-bashing" to celebrate Christmas is seriously ill-informed.