Pope Engenders Controversy

From the BBC:

Pope Benedict XVI has said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction…Pope Benedict XVI warned that gender theory blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the “self-destruction” of the human race.

Further details are available from the Vatican Information Service:

While highlighting that the Church “cannot and should not limit herself to transmitting just the message of salvation to her faithful”, the Holy Father said that it must also “protect the human being against self-destruction. It is necessary to have something like an ecology of the human being, understood in the proper manner. It is not a surpassed metaphysics when Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected… That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender’, is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator”.

This is less than a revelation; Ratzinger expressed the same views on gender in his 2004 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World”:

…In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary. The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels. This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality.

…This perspective has many consequences. Above all it strengthens the idea that the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture, which would be seen as handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture. Second, this tendency would consider as lacking in importance and relevance the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form.

No actual texts of gender theory are quoted or discussed; instead, there are ruminations on Biblical texts and citations of other Pontifical documents. The document goes on to extoll women as mothers while also commending virginity:

Although motherhood is a key element of women’s identity, this does not mean that women should be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation…Virginity refutes any attempt to enclose women in mere biological destiny. Just as virginity receives from physical motherhood the insight that there is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to the other, so physical motherhood receives from virginity an insight into its fundamentally spiritual dimension: it is in not being content only to give physical life that the other truly comes into existence. This means that motherhood can find forms of full realization also where there is no physical procreation.

By “virginity”, Ratzinger is doubtless emphasising the church’s ideal alternative to motherhood, although it should be remembered that nuns (and monks and priests for that matter) do not have to be virgins – St. Mary of Egypt, for example, was an ex-prostitute.

The 2004 document was seen as a mixed bag by feminists. Tina Beattie wrote that

The content of the letter is not antithetical to some feminist arguments, and indeed it reveals how many unacknowledged resonances there are between feminism and Catholic theology. It affirms the inherent relationality of women…which, although couched in essentialist terms that feminists might reject, echoes many of the theories found in feminist writings.


But the whole bias of the letter is implicitly anti-feminist. For a start, it is produced in the name of one exclusively male group…and addressed to another exclusively male group…Its title bears little relation to its content, which says hardly anything about men or about collaboration…Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was widely publicized in the secular press as the Vatican’s hardline reaction to feminism. (1)

Meanwhile, gender theory was also attacked in the recent “First European Catholic-Orthodox Forum’s statement on the family”. Interfax has the document:

We acknowledge the positive international documents that support the family. For instance, art. 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Man and woman of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family” and “the family is the natural and fundamental group of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” In the past the family and childbirth were regarded as something sacred. In recent years, however, these notions are questioned. There is an attempt to change language and introduce ambiguity into international documents under the ideological introduction of the gender theory.

Implicit here is the idea that supporting gay rights is somehow undermining true human rights. This is an idea that the Russian Orthodox Church – which is more bombastically authoritarian than the Vatican – has been pushing for a while. Ratzinger’s apocalyptic talk of the “self-destruction” of the human race is of a piece with this, and it will doubtless speed along détente with the Orthodox.


(1) Tina Beattie, New Catholic Feminism, p. 20.