Pope Benedict XVI and Homosexuality

by Benjamin Studebaker

“Is the pope catholic?” is a common sarcastic response to a question to which the answer is obvious. “Does the pope oppose homosexuality?” is a question with a similarly clear answer. So it comes as little surprise to people that the pope chose to use his Christmas address to the Vatican bureaucracy, one of the seminal speeches on the papal calendar, to denounce homosexuality and gay marriage. This opinion should shock no one; it certainly does not shock me. It does, however, illustrate a deep problem with the moral philosophy of the church and of religious moral philosophies more broadly.

First, let’s look at the content of the pope’s message (I was unable to locate a full transcript and have pieced together what I could from here and here):

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned.

From what I understand, the central thesis of the modern gay rights movement is not that human beings have no nature, but that, for homosexuals, homosexuality is a part of their nature, an element of how they were made. Scientific study on homosexuality has to this point located no one identifiable cause, but the family of theories on what makes a person gay all reject the notion that it is a choice on the part of the individual.  This particular comment from the pope is consequently factually inaccurate. There is more, however:

In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question…The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men.

Here the pope is claiming to know what it means to be a true man–evidently homosexuality is excluded from this. No basis is provided for this claim–nor, for catholics, is one meant to be needed, given the pope’s supreme position. The pope is not merely instructing catholics not to be gay, however, the pope is attempting to influence public policy, and, as such, a basis is required independent of “it is true because I am the pope and I say it is so”. The states considering gay marriage are states in which the separation of church and state is practised. For the state to embrace a policy on the basis of its religious content is against its own laws.

The pope goes on to attack gender theories as “false” and to claim that homosexuality and gay marriage undermine the family. Legalising gay marriage would seem to me to do the precise opposite–by bringing gay people into marriage, gay people are brought into a traditional family structure, strengthening the family rather than eroding it. The real trouble in gay marriage for the pope has nothing to do with negative consequences resulting from gay marriage because, from a traditional family point of view, there are none. Gay marriage brings gays into the family and into the tradition from which they were previously excluded. It does not kill the family or kill tradition. It is not a form of radical feminism, as the pope asserts when he attacks a straw man and claims that the supporters of gay marriage share the radical views of Simone de Beauvoir, an existentialist who genuinely believed that there is no human nature and that existence proceeds essence, a claim I myself, a supporter of gay marriage, have vehemently attacked.

Why does the pope oppose gay marriage? Because he believes in the catholic morality, a morality which relies on all of the moral claims of the bible being true. These claims include those made by Leviticus 18 and 20, which include the following:

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable…If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

The pope should be credited for not prescribing the listed punishment, though it would seem an example of “cafeteria catholicism” to me, in which one picks and chooses which commandments to obey and which to ignore. The pope nonetheless cannot go against the spirit of the commandment, even though he would stray from its specific recommended policy for dealing with homosexuality. As a devout catholic, he probably has no desire to do so, either, even though he cannot, to the satisfaction of a reasonable person, provide a good reason for deeming policies like gay marriage a threat to the family.

So what we get is a group of people who are taking their moral beliefs on authority, perhaps the authority of the pope directly, or the authority of the bible more broadly. A justification for this belief that can be understood or articulated in such a way that it would be convincing to a reasonable person is not required, because the moral belief is one of religious deontology–moral proposition X is true because authority Y says so, and authority Y is universally correct. The trouble with this means of deriving moral beliefs is that the credibility of the moral authority is asserted without evidence. How do we know that the bible or the pope have universally correct moral views? We cannot know this, and indeed, such a notion can only be entertained by throwing out numerous moral commandments in the bible to which no one adheres and which must, consequentially, be taken figuratively to mean something else entirely from what they say. Like this bit, from Leviticus 24:

Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying: Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin. One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death.

This sort of passage is morally in contradiction with the principle of freedom of religion, one that very nearly all developed countries subscribe to. I am sure there is some figurative interpretation of this passage that plays with the words and dodges their meaning, but there can be no doubt that these passages were, historically, at one time or another, actually enforced. Consider in this case, for instance, the Spanish inquisition, in which non-believers were made to convert or die (a choice that is not given in the original biblical passage–perhaps even the inquisitors were cafeteria catholics).

There is one demand, one fundamental requirement of a moral philosophy, for it to be valid. Not correct mind you, merely valid. It is quite simple–a theory of moral philosophy must be consistent in its intellectual content, and its moral conclusions must follow from its premises. The moral argument being made by religious deontology is:

  1. What religious text Y or priest X says is always true.
  2. Religious text Y or priest X makes moral claim Z.
  3. Therefore, Z is true.

If the bible and/or the pope are/is always morally correct, then every moral claim they make is equally true. The existence of large numbers of moral imperatives, both made by the bible and by the pope that many self-described Christians decline to follow is evidence that what religious text Y or priest X say are not always true. If they are not always right, then some other moral standard of evaluation must exist to determine when they are right and when they are wrong. No such standard is offered by the bible or by the pope, because, in so far as they are concerned, no such standard is needed. It falls therefore to the individual believers to justify their moral philosophy.

If you say “I am a religious deontologist of the Christian or catholic faction” and you do not follow all of the dictates of the bible or of the pope, you do not have a coherent moral philosophy. When the pope condemns cafeteria catholics in this way, he is fundamentally right to do so, because these catholics do not embrace all of the moral claims made by the moral authority to whom their theory subordinates moral decision making. If you put to yourself the question of how you determine which moral beliefs of the church you abide by and which you reject and you cannot answer the question or rely on mere intuitions, you have no coherent moral philosophy. If you can find a principle by which you make this determination, it is not the bible or the pope that determines your morality, it is your own thinking mind, which has selected this principle. Such a person is not truly religious, at least not in a moral sense, in that such a person’s moral beliefs do not derive from religion. One may certainly be very moral, more moral, I would argue, than many or most religious deontologists, but such a person cannot claim truthfully to practise the moral teachings of any religion.

A true, universal allegiance to any of the religions’ moral content would seem to me (and indeed, as evidenced by the way people behave, to most people) to be an ethical mistake. This opens a new door–on what grounds do we determine what is right and wrong? There are many answers given by a great many moral philosophers, and there is much room for debate and argument on the subject, but to proceed there we first must recognise and admit our abandonment of the religious deontological ethics that we de facto reject in so many facets of life, even though so many of us still decline to admit it.