Preservation of man no less important than tropical rainforests, says pontiff
Gay rights groups and activists yesterday condemned passages in Pope Benedict XVI's end-of-year address in which the pontiff spoke about gender and the important distinction between men and women.
Speaking to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration, the pope said that the church viewed the distinction as central to human nature, and "asks that this order, set down by creation, be respected". The church, he said, "should protect man from the destruction of himself". He said a sort of ecology of man was needed, adding: "The tropical forests do deserve our protection; but man, as a creature, does not deserve any less." He attacked what he described as "gender" theories which "lead towards the self-emancipation of man from creation and the creator".
Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, claimed the pope had not wished specifically to attack homosexuality, and had not mentioned gays or lesbians in his text. Nevertheless, the speech provoked anger from campaigners, who interpreted the remarks as a papal call to save mankind from homosexuals and transsexuals.
"What keeps the pope awake at night is the idea that human beings might be able to seek out their own sexual identity to have a happy life," said Franco Grillini, of the Italian association Gaynet. "The speech has no scientific basis," said Aurelio Mancuso, head of Arcigay. "A divine programme for men and women is out of line with nature, where the roles are not so clear."
Although Catholic doctrine is that homosexuality is not a sin, the church does condemn homosexual acts and the former Joseph Ratzinger stated in 1986 before he became pope that homosexuality "is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder".
Father Lombardi insisted, however, that there had been an overreaction to the pope's remarks. "He was speaking more generally about gender theories which overlook the fundamental difference in creation between men and women and focus instead on cultural conditioning."
Italian newspapers widely interpreted the speech as a specific attack on sex change operations. "I would like an audience with the pope and other transgenders in order to get to know each other," said Vladimir Luxuria, a transsexual former member of the Italian parliament. "We do not want to be transgressive or provoke, we only want to pursue our own nature."
Benedict's main target appeared to be same-sex marriages. He claimed that lifelong wedlock between a man and a woman was like "the sacrament of creation".
Mike Egan, chair of the UK-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said the pope's position on homosexuality was a mistake. "There are much greater threats to marriage and family life. There are bishops and clergy who thinks the official line on homosexuality is not true and the more official pronouncements, the deeper the hole the church is digging. I would say to gay Catholics, the man is right on lots of other things and hang on in there."
Catholic bishops in England and Wales are encouraging a more pastoral approach. Last month they issued a leaflet - entitled 'What is life like if you or someone in your family is gay or lesbian in their sexual orientation?' ... and what can your parish family do to make a difference? - urging clergy and parishioners to welcome gay men and lesbians. "As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression, the homosexual community has a particular claim on the concern of the church," it said. The leaflet cited comments received during a survey suggesting the church acknowledged it may have played a role in victimising and marginalising gay Catholics. These included: "The continual message from the church is that homosexuality is so, so dreadful. Our gay son just hasn't stood a chance."