On the face of it, the lesbian male impersonator Norah Vincent and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI would seem to have little in common. The Pontiff may be slightly camper in his dress-sense - he has recently introduced flaming red shoes, gold trimmings and a fur-lined cape and mantle into the papal wardrobe - while Ms Vincent has been, at least over the past 18 months, less sartorially flamboyant. Passing herself off as a man while researching a book, she dressed soberly, wore fake stubble on her face, had her breasts taped up and went around with a fake lunch-pack pushed down the front of her trousers.
Yet, by one of those freaky coincidences in which our global culture specialises, Norah and Pope Benedict have reached similar conclusions about our contemporary condition, and they have been announced in the same week.
Traipsing around in drag, trussed up and enhanced, Norah became Ned and set out to experience the kind of normal, average things we men like to do - go bowling in all-male gangs, visit lap-dancing clubs, attend group therapy sessions, the usual stuff. At the end of it all, the experience of being a man for a year and a half caused her to crack up (you should try doing it for life, Ned, love), but not before she had reached some significant conclusions for her book Self-Made Man.
Men and women are very different. Awareness of one's own gender is a more powerful influence on behaviour than race, nationality or religion. Men are enslaved to desire, often in a demeaning and trivialising way. "Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man."
Pope Benedict's conclusions, published in Deus caritas est, his first encyclical, are better written than Norah/Ned's, and will be based, one hopes, on less directly personal experience. He writes that love, in the form of charity and a belief in global justice, is a central part of Christianity. As for that between a man and a woman, there is a growing danger that sex is commodified and debased.
Differentiating between agape, the Greek term for a lovely spiritual passion, and eros, the altogether grubbier gratification of the senses, the Pope writes that "eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence."
Stripped down, this pronouncement, like that of Norah/Ned's, is not difficult to summarise. All you need is love. Promiscuity, self-indulgence and hedonism will not bring long-term happiness. The argument for passion and against the trivialising of sex is as valid today is it was when DH Lawrence was proposing it 75 years ago.
Unfortunately, each of these views of contemporary sexuality is as partial and incomplete as the other. Norah/Ned's adventures in the bowling alleys and strip clubs reveal less about male hang-ups than her own, while Deus caritas est turns out to be extolling a very particular kind of divine love - one that excludes, for example, those of the same sex or who are not married.
Yet here the encyclical is surprisingly and alarmingly in step with the public mood. The culture at large may be more sex-crazed then ever, but attitudes towards those in public life suggest an increasing reverence towards domestic life and marriage.
At the most trivial level, this new primness helps explain the merciless way that the press have dealt with Sven-Goran Eriksson, a middle-aged man who dared to live the admittedly shambolic life of an unmarried man. It seems that the worse the rest of us behave, the higher the standards of bourgeois respectability we expect from those with authority.
If that seems an absurd exaggeration, it is worth considering the strange death of liberal values within the Liberal Democrat party. Thirty-one years ago, its leader fought an election while it was known in Westminster that he was embroiled in a homosexual affair. During the early 1990s, another leader confessed to an extra-marital affair and remained cheerfully and successfully in office.
Now, not only is a leader booted out for boozing, but one of the leading candidates to replace him has felt the need to pretend that, with a bit more luck, he would now be a married man.
Surely it is profoundly odd that, we have become hooked on an institution that in millions of lives has proved to be so flawed. Yet, at every turn, leading a conventional domestic family life is held up as an indicator of sobriety, sense and moral fibre. Cherie Blair can embarrassingly boast how many times a night her husband can have sex with her. The press are increasingly preoccupied by the family life of David Cameron or Gordon Brown. On the celebrity circuit, photographs of famous mothers-to-be flaunting their swelling midriffs have become a staple of gossip magazines while, on TV, there are few documentary series that score such high ratings as domestic documentaries of the Supernanny or Wifeswap type.
We might as well admit that the only leaders we can now accept are operating from within a cosy married set-up, preferably with children attached. That, sadly, is the agape to which the Pope is referring, but it has little to do with the universal love to which his church lays claim. Marriage, as Norah/Ned might put it, is now the leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of everyone in public life.Reuse content