Deborah Orr: We've had few words of comfort this year. And the Pope's not helping

It is easy to appeal to prejudice - and to do so is to guarantee instant attention

Wednesday 24 December 2008 01:00

Pope Benedict XVI has declared that while saving the rainforests is important, "gender theory" is just as great a threat to mankind. Well, he hasn't really. But a long speech to the Vatican's Curia has been reported in this fashion, and once again the church has exposed its unparalleled talent for lending itself to opportunistic rabble-rousing.

Perhaps the Pope regrets that his convoluted pronouncements against the intellectual validation of human sexual experience have been seized upon so colourfully. Certainly, they don't stand up to much scrutiny. Benedict believes that "gender studies' encourages people to "choose" homosexuality because it justifies activity that they may otherwise not have been chosen.

Yet even the Catholic Church travels some distance with "gender theory", and at least goes as far as to admit that homosexuality is not "a choice", in conceding that it is not a "sin" to be gay, only to act on gay impulses. Gay Catholics are perfectly at liberty to sign up to this self-denying ordinance if they wish to.

The history of sexual abuse and misconduct within the church is a perfect illustration of how the position is more easily parroted than adhered to. Still, it is worth mentioning that the Catholic Church is not actually as hysterical in its denouncements of homosexuality than some evangelical Protestant churches are, with those in the US so far managing to make the most cultural noise in the west. What is disappointing is the refusal of the Catholic Church to distance itself from those extremes, whatever direct they may come from.

For in reality, the Pope is not very likely to have much regret about the controversy his words have whipped up. Others may on this occasion have done much of his work for him. But in reiterating so trenchantly, once more, the implacable opposition of the Catholic Church to homosexuality, and also – to a lesser degree – the emancipation of women, the headlines have only delivered what the Pope knows, or thinks he knows, is a populist winner.

It is easy to appeal to individual prejudices, and those willing to do so, as Benedict must understand, are guaranteed instant attention. But it is much more difficult to inveigh against widespread and institutionalised folly, particularly when your eye is fixed squarely on the main chance.

There are many lessons to be learned from the events of this momentous year, and few of them are comforting. Pope Benedict, however, appears to have taken a great deal of comfort from one or two of the more dispiriting lessons. He seems particularly to have decided that if there is just one thing his own church can continue to exploit, it is the block-headed, simplistic appeal of religious fundamentalism.

A sensible leader might have looked at the parable of Sarah Palin, and decided that the Christian fundamentalist enthusiasm she ignited was both ugly and limited. Few now view John McCain's recruitment of the rainforest-illiterate Alaskan politician as anything other than the cynical and crude mistake that it was. McCain himself became appalled by the divisive nastiness of the force that he had unleashed, as individuals at Republican rallies disgraced his party and his country, by shouting of Barack Obama: "Kill him." (That's ardent pro-lifers for you.) Yet there was still a significant victory for believers in the cleansing power of the culture wars on US election day. As Obama swept to power in California, the state also warned him that his message of change was not universally endorsed. Obama threw political caution to the wind when he emphasised in his acceptance speech that he stood for all Americans, "gay or straight", and that is very much to his credit. Yet those Californians who chose on that same election day to back Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, now have their sights set on dissolving the partnerships of the 18,000 couples who took advantage of their six months of equality. This retrospective assault is particularly spiteful. Yet its proponents will find the Pope's message to be a vindication of their intrusive and repulsive sexual interfering, whatever church they may or may not belong to.

These are the least among the legislative assaults on gay equality that the Pope tacitly encourages. The Vatican this year refused to back a UN resolution urging the banning of criminal penalties against homosexuality, explaining that while it was against "unjust discrimination", it remained very much in favour of what it sees as "just discrimination".

Homosexuality is still punishable by law in 77 countries, including the US, and in seven of those, including four Muslim states, it is still punishable by death. While the Catholic Church declares itself to be against the active criminalisation of same-sex relationships, the Vatican places more importance on guarding against gay marriage in liberal countries than it does on challenging barbaric practices in draconian ones. In doing so, it shows an unseemly tendency to tolerate anything except toleration.

There may be a big dollop of media spin in the emphasis on "saving the rainforests". But Benedict did prefer to talk fairly elliptically about the twin perils of ecological and economic unsustainability, except for this one specific reference. Significantly, it is in the developing world that fundamental Christianity's recruiting grounds are most fertile. In invoking the rainforests, the Pope made a deliberate reference to those parts of the planet where the schism in the worldwide Anglican Church is most deeply felt.

The convulsions suffered by the Anglican Communion, as its most liberal proponents press ahead with the ordination of gay and female priests, have proved to be a rich motivator of Anglican conversion to Catholicism, especially in Africa. It was widely anticipated that the Anglican Communion would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions this year, as the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a 10-yearly Lambeth Conference that was threatened by a powerful African-led boycott.

Somehow, the riots were averted, and this Christmas Williams has doggedly aimed his own Christmas pronouncements in the direction of those issues that really do threaten humanity. Williams is right in targeting Gordon Brown's logic-defying economic policies, which are all predicated on the impossible assumption that the bubble that has just been burst can somehow be gathered up, mended, and re-inflated (while the rainforests, miraculously, get saved). Williams has even declared that disestablishment would be not be such a bad thing, as it would at least free the Church of England to stand against the Government with greater strength.

But on the global stage, it is Benedict's soundbites that have popular appeal, not Williams's. It would be a luxury if one could dismiss the storm around Benedict's speech as of little importance. Instead it is a nasty reminder that much of organised Christianity is powerful only when it is sanctioning the persecution of individuals, and worse, seems entirely untroubled on the many occasions when it stoops to doing so.

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