Why I Listen to the Pope

February 24, 2012

Posted on thetyee.ca, February 19, 2012

I’m a gay lapsed Catholic who’s moved on. Yet I allow Benedict XVI to bedevil me.
Here’s why.

By Daniel Gawthrop

On January 9, Pope Benedict XVI made fresh headlines by declaring that gay marriage undermines “the future of humanity itself.” This statement went further than his earlier pronouncements on the subject, which described same-sex unions as merely a threat to the family. Like all his other public statements about sex in general, it prompted the usual frenzy of Twitter and Facebook activity. And it brought my own blood to the boil, hitting too close to home for someone who had celebrated his own same-sex nuptials only months after Benedict became pope.

But why should I have cared? Why should anyone care? The pope has always spoken his mind, more often than not in open defiance of the zeitgeist. And he will again. Since 2005, the world has come to know Benedict in much the same way it knew him as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: as a predictable conservative, a clerical ideologue easy to ignore. Why should we care what he says about gay rights, women’s reproductive health, or stem cell research when we know that social movements, the courts, and even governments continue to nudge forward the inevitable march of progress? Does the pope even matter, given that so many millions of Catholics have not only tuned him out but abandoned their faith altogether?

For most of the last quarter century, I was one of the millions who effectively tuned him out. In 1986, as the Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Ratzinger released a pastoral letter to the world’s bishops declaring that homosexuality was an “objective disorder.” Among other things, he said that people like me were twisted and sick, that our sexuality was a “problem,” and that gay unions were not “complementary” because procreation was neither the purpose nor the possible result of our sex. Thus, to be out and proud I would only be confirming my “disordered” and “essentially self-indulgent” inclination.

Revenge of the Augustinians

On what theological grounds did Cardinal Ratzinger base these claims? And why has the man held onto these ideas ever since, without moving an inch as Pope Benedict? As with his instructions on reproductive health and virtually every other issue, it all comes down to Augustinian theology. Aurelius Augustine (354-430), founder of imperial Catholicism and “original sin”, was the original law-and-order Catholic. His hierarchical understanding of the faith called for the subordination of the individual to the Church as institution. His doctrine of original sin tried to explain the sin of every human being from the biblical story of the fall of Adam, which was based on “primal” or sexual sin. This view saw sexual pleasure for its own sake, rather than exclusively for procreation, as a sin to be suppressed.

Augustinians are fond of quoting the Book of Leviticus to condemn homosexuality. Theirs is a black-and-white theology that sees pluralism as “relativism” and tends to reduce morality to a series of dualistic, us-and-them distinctions—or, as the liberal theologian Hans Kung has put it: “a great clash between belief and unbelief, humility and arrogance, love and the quest for power, salvation and damnation.” Augustine himself believed that violence against heretics could be theologically justified—a carte blanche that would later lead to forcible conversions, the Inquisition, and a Church legacy of holy wars against all forms of deviance.

Ratzinger/Benedict has always been an Augustinian. The political implications of his theology became apparent in the spring of 1968, when campus revolts were sweeping through Europe. Ratzinger, then the chair in dogmatics at Tubingen University, was confronted by left-wing students who denounced Christianity by symbolically defiling a crucifix during one of his lectures. Both the Christian and the anti-communist in him recoiled: from that moment on, his entire mission became a rearguard action against liberalism and socialism. His new theology was all about fear and obedience, deference to authority, and respect for papal infallibility. From 1981, when Pope John Paul II handpicked him as CDF prefect, until 2005, when he succeeded him and became Pope Benedict, Ratzinger had a free hand to mould the Church according to his own Augustinian principles.

By the spring of 1987, the Church’s radical shift to the right on most issues was turning Roman Catholicism into the kind of club to which I had no interest in belonging. Unless I was prepared to commit to a life of self-loathing closetry and self-denial, or accept a futile identity politics of victimhood as a member of the gay Catholic group Dignity, there was only one way to go—and that was out the door. So, after the final mass of spring semester at my campus parish near UVic, I quietly decided to shun the Church before it could shun me. That turned out to be more complicated than it sounds.

Far from the pews

Having grown up in the comforting embrace of Vatican II, I found leaving the Church rather like switching to a low-carb diet: I knew it was the right thing to do but lacked the will power to follow through. My three eldest brothers were raised on the Latin mass, Baltimore catechism, and the cane-wielding nuns of St. Ann’s Convent. But my fourth eldest brother, two sisters and I were raised on the folk mass, priests who dressed like hippies, and the left-wing social justice agenda of Remi De Roo. Among other things, the Bishop of Victoria encouraged his flock to get involved in parish decision-making, support women’s equality, oppose the capitalist greed of Conrad Black, and stand up for Latin American peasants against the whims of U.S. imperialism. Since by doing these things we would all be on the side of the angels, the Church didn’t feel like something I needed to quit. Plus, Catholicism in the 1970s and early 80s made few onerous demands of its flock—especially if one’s parents happened to be liberals.

During my undergrad years, it was the music that kept me involved. Rather than dirge-like hymns accompanied by a clunky old pipe organ, the post-Vatican II liturgy featured bouncy pop and folk melodies that could be sung in multiple harmonies with guitar and piano accompaniment. Earnest? Definitely. But more sophisticated—and less cheesy—than the gag-inducing likes of “Kumbaya” or “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” (Think Crosby, Stills, and Nash, set to the New Testament.) For a couple of years, I enjoyed belting out tenor harmonies as a member of my campus parish’s liturgical ensemble.

But once I had finally left the Church, the trade-off for these comforts was a no-brainer. Finally free to pursue my own life guided by no other authority than instinct, common sense, or the principles of fair play, I enjoyed truckloads of guilt-free sex and romance while taking the next decade and a half to catch up for lost time. Far from the pews, I made all kinds of friends and lovers who led fascinating lives without requiring religion as a compass. Through these encounters, the worlds of art, literature and music began to open wide, offering so much more now that I no longer filtered these things so unconsciously through a Catholic lens. Eventually, I woke up to realize that I was not only a lapsed Catholic but an atheist, as well.

But taking the boy out of the Church does not, by definition, take the Church out of the boy. Although I was an “ex” Catholic, I was talking so much about the Church as to leave the impression I was still in the thick of it. The first few years were a gestalt-fest of self-loathing anger as I “recovered” from the regime of self-denial I had allowed the Church to impose. Once I got over that, I moved on to righteous indignation about priestly celibacy, clerical sex abuse, and the hypocrisy of Vatican homophobia in light of the priesthood’s status as the largest gay club in the world. Before long I grew bored of all that as well, and after a few years finally stopped paying attention to any news coverage of the Church. After 18 years away from its embrace, I was fairly confident I had gotten over it. Then Pope John Paul II died, Ratzinger succeeded him, and I got drawn in again.

Return of a favourite enemy

On April 19, 2005, Ratzinger appeared in his papal robes on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, re-introducing himself to the world as “a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.” This was a staggering metaphor, if only for its deep irony. The fact that such a notorious disciplinarian had been entrusted with the throne of St. Peter seemed like a giant raspberry to his critics. The new pope was a career intellectual and curial bureaucrat seen by many as lacking in qualities often associated with such high ecclesial office: a deep sense of personal humility, empathy with the flock, and several years in the clerical trenches. What’s more, Ratzinger had actively lobbied for the job in the weeks before the conclave (unlike many of his predecessors, who passively accepted their election as both a burden and an honour of which they confessed unworthiness).

Knowing what a lightning rod for controversy Ratzinger had been at the CDF, I began once again to pay attention. My interest was strictly voyeuristic, at this point: I was hoping for a papal stumble, a bit of schadenfreude, perhaps, at Benedict’s expense. Surely he would put his foot in his mouth so often and, ultimately, so fatally that his handlers would be forced to hide him away in the Vatican. But it was not to be. Despite early predictions that Benedict’s would be a “caretaker” pontificate, a temporary fill-in for the next significant pope, he is still here. And, notwithstanding the sensational news last weekend of an apparent “plot” to kill Benedict (or, at least, one cardinal’s prediction that he will be dead within twelve months), I give him pretty good odds of surviving.

Now approaching his 85th birthday and his eighth year as pope, he shows no sign of vacating St. Peter’s throne any time soon despite reports that he is slowing down, and he does not appear to be taking the current power struggle at the Vatican seriously (“He does not give in to wolves,” his spokesman said.). On the contrary: Benedict, who has always loved a fight, continues to match his predecessor for prolific globetrotting and has yet to cancel plans for next month’s papal visits to Mexico and Cuba. (With an average of three foreign journeys a year since 2006, his travel plans for 2012 also include Ireland in June and Lebanon in September, with Iraq, Monaco and Ukraine also competing for space in his crowded itinerary). Nor has his foot-in-mouth disease proven much of a liability. Thanks to fawning media, he has rebranded himself from God’s Rottweiler to Prince of Peace—a misportrait that survives even the sex abuse scandals.

During the spring of 2010, when the latest scandals exploded in Ireland and the European continent, I began to consider Ratzinger’s overall legacy. Over the course of three decades, the sexually abused have comprised a relatively small portion of the total victims of Ratzingerian thought. One could also argue for the millions of Catholic women whose bodies he has attempted to enslave with his teachings on birth control, abortion, and in vitro fertilization (and untold numbers of Third World Catholics further condemned to poverty by his pressure to procreate); the Africans who have died of AIDS or continue to suffer from HIV-related illness because of his and John Paul II’s stubborn refusal to promote condom use; the Latin American priests and civilians who were murdered in the 1980s by right-wing governments emboldened by his condemnation of “socialism”; the handful of theologians who were literally killed by the stress of his inquisitions denouncing their work (and the many others who lost their livelihoods, if not their lives, because of his censorship and silencing); and, of course, the teenagers everywhere who have committed suicide, or have contemplated it, because of his irrational homophobia.

Confessions of a cultural Catholic

With the sheer volume of the damage too exhausting to contemplate, it’s no wonder so many of us turned away from the Church. So what is it that keeps drawing our interest? For me, part of it is cultural: I might be an atheist, but I’m a Catholic atheist, as Graham Greene might put it. That is, I no longer believe in God but happily retain certain tell-tale behavioral traits consistent with “cultural Catholic” identity: a hair-trigger guilty conscience, a fondness for formal ritual around family meals and community gatherings, a fetish for symbolic pageantry, and an uncanny ability to recite verbatim entire sections of The Godfather. A pragmatist, I also see religion in general as an unavoidable part of the social fabric. If pursued with compassion and intelligence, it need not be argued out of existence but instead can offer constructive contributions to public discourse. With Vatican II, the Church had a brief window for serious compassion and intelligence, instead of just the flickers of light we see now and then. So every time I see Ratzinger, I am reminded of the man who rejected the reforms of Vatican II and, well, took the medieval route.

Perhaps Ratzinger looms so large in my consciousness because he functions as a kind of satanic muse. A shadowy alternative father figure only three months older than my actual father, he fulfills that conflicted paternal role by inspiring my rebellious spirit, on one hand, and taunting me on the other with hints of what we have in common. In New York City in 1994, it was he—and not presiding archbishop Cardinal O’Connor—who I was thinking about when I joined thousands of gay pride marchers and AIDS activists for a massive “die-in” in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But if the two of us ever met, I am absolutely certain as to what his first words would be: You should be grateful for the Church, my son, since you would never have been born without it. And, sixth of seven children that I am, I would have to concede that he is right.

In paying attention to Ratzinger, I am honouring the many people I have known who earnestly dedicated their lives to the Catholic project but whose hearts were broken by Vatican II’s failure. If a Church can be said to be no more than the sum of its faithful, then there’s no denying that there have been many good Catholics whose leadership as role models prolonged my own connection to the Church as a young adult. These are people from whom I learned the kind of things that hard-wired my sense of morality to an extent that influences my decisions today. While it is true that, in a different environment, I could have learned these things with no religion whatsoever, it is also true that I have benefited from what I did learn as a Catholic. And Pope Benedict—for all his faults, his omissions, and his constellation of sins—continues to tease me with that knowledge.

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