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Meditation on gender lands Pope in hot water

Benedict accused of encouraging homophobia among his followers

Peter Popham
Wednesday 24 December 2008 01:00 GMT

Gay rights groups reacted angrily to the Pope's Christmas message yesterday, in which he said preserving traditional gender identities was as important as protecting the tropical rainforests.

The Church, Pope Benedict XVI told cardinals and senior Vatican staff, must not only defend nature as "gifts of creation which belong to all. It must also protect man against destruction by himself. It is necessary for there to be something like an ecology of man... it is not an outdated metaphysics, if the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected." To show disrespect for "the language of creation," he said, would mean "the self-destruction of man and thus the destruction of the work of God itself".

He added: "The tropical forest deserves our protection, but no less so than does man as creation." Man's nature, he said, is "a message that does not signify the contradiction of our freedom, but its condition".

The speech came only a week after the Vatican tried to torpedo a European text intended for the United Nations aimed at de-criminalising homosexuality, which it said went too far. Though carefully nuanced and avoiding rhetoric, the latest declaration by Pope Benedict was seen as another anti-gay broadside by a Pope who has made his refusal to soften the Church's line on sexuality a key theme of his papacy. It was stingingly criticised by gay voices both inside and outside the Christian churches.

The Rev Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said: "It is comments like this that justify the homophobic bullying that goes on in schools, and ... that justify gay-bashing. There are so many instances of people being killed around the world, including in Western society, purely and simply because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.

"When you have religious leaders like that making that sort of statement, then followers feel they are justified in behaving in an aggressive and violent way, because they feel that they are doing God's work in ridding the world of these people."

George Broadhead, of the Pink Triangle Trust, a gay charity, said: "This must be the most outrageous and bizarre claim yet made by the Pope, who has already got a well-deserved reputation as one of the most viciously homophobic world leaders, on a par with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe."

He added: "The Vatican has already reinforced its anti-gay reputation by strongly opposing a UN declaration calling for an end to discrimination against gays, but this latest papal outburst is clear evidence of an obsession about homosexuality which is tantamount to paranoia."

Peter Tatchell, the co-founder of OutRage!, said: "By choosing to highlight homosexuality instead of hunger, war and homelessness, the Pope has lost his moral bearings and sense of priorities. Free-market capitalism, and its culture of greed and consumerism, is a far greater threat to the ecological survival of our planet than homosexuality and trans-sexuality."

In Italy, the initial gay reaction to the speech was more guarded. "We have become an obsession for Ratzinger," said the gay rights organisation Arcigay. Imma Battaglia, the former leader of the Digay Project, said: "Can't we be allowed to enjoy Christmas, too?"

Vladimir Luxuria, Italy's first transsexual MP until her defeat in the general election this year, spoke for others like herself when she commented: "We don't feel like a crazy splinter outside the divine project but people just like everybody else who should not be condemned as sinners purely on account of being transgender.

"To insist that the body is more important than the spirit, as the Church does, seems to me a contradiction of what it always preaches. The alternative is to adapt our body to our spirit. If my interior spirit is feminine, then in reality I am not changing gender. If my emotions and my brain are feminine, I am simply adapting to my own true nature. To refuse to do so seems to me an act both simplistic and egotistical."

In his speech, the Pope, who as an academic theologian has for decades fought modern secularism in all its forms, was apparently taking up arms against the ideas about gender developed by the American post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler. In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, published in 1990, Professor Butler argues that our ideas about the categories of sex, gender and sexuality are not the product of biology but are culturally constructed in accordance with what a given society permits.

For orthodox Christians, however, the "normal" relations between man and woman are divinely ordained. "The life-long ties between a man and a woman," the Pope said in his speech, are "a sacrament of creation, instituted by the Creator."

What he said...

"The church has a responsibility for creation and must demonstrate this responsibility publicly... It must also protect man against destruction by himself. It is necessary for there to be something like an ecology of man. This is not an outdated metaphysics, if the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected.

Here we are dealing with the fact of faith in the Creator and paying attention to the language of creation, the disrespecting of which would be a self-destruction of man and thus destruction of the work of God. What is often understood by the word 'gender' finds its resolution in the auto-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator.

Man wants to... control everything that concerns him. But in this way he lives against the creator. The tropical forest deserves our protection, but no less than man as creation..."

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