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Pontification on gay marriage.

By Alan Austin - posted Friday, 27 January 2012

Fair dinkum. Who would want to be pope? You know in advance every syllable you utter will be dissected, analysed and placed in its ecclesio-historical context. With that in mind you painstakingly compose a nuanced commentary on the world. Only to see it misinterpreted and pilloried. Again.

Take this month’s speech to the ambassadors to the Holy See. Senior journalist with Reuters news agency Philip Pullella penned a reportheaded ‘Gay marriage a threat to humanity’s future: Pope’.

His story begins: ‘Pope Benedict said Monday that gay marriage was one of several threats to the traditional family that undermined ‘the future of humanity itself’. The pope made some of his strongest comments against gay marriage in a new year address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican in which he touched on some economic and social issues facing the world today.’


Benedict said nothing of the sort. Pullella was chasing a headline and he got it. His piece prompted several vicious attacks on the pope in blogs around the world.

Worse, Pullella’s report distracted from significant actual comments, which deserved attention. (Yes, he had written an earlier piecefor Reuters on the papal global analysis, but no-one was reading that.) And it missed the import of the one brief reference to marriage.

Three of today’s greatest global challenges are the economic crisis, climate change and religious persecution. The pope addressedall of these in emphatic terms.

He began with ‘the grave and disturbing’ global financial meltdown. This, he said, ‘has not only affected families and businesses in the more economically advanced countries where it originated, creating a situation in which many people, especially the young, have felt disoriented and frustrated in their aspirations for a serene future, but it has also had a profound impact on the life of developing countries’.

At the start of the year when national elections here in France, in America and elsewhere will be fought in part over this issue, this is pretty relevant.

Probably with the vapid sloganeering of some politicians in mind, the pope called for ‘new forms of commitment’. The crisis, he claimed, ‘can and must be an incentive to reflect on human existence and on the importance of its ethical dimension, even before we consider the mechanisms governing economic life’.

On climate, Benedict stressed ‘that education, correctly understood, cannot fail to foster respect for creation’. ‘Environmental protection and the connection between fighting poverty and fighting climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development,’ he said.

The pope referred directly to last month’s disappointing U.N. talks on climate change in Durban. He urged the Rio+20 conference in Brazil next June to meet ‘with a great sense of solidarity and responsibility towards present and future generations’.

This also relates to national election debates currently underway. It is a nudge, in fact, to all governments intending to participate in the U.N. climate talks in Rio de Janeiro.


The pope urged the ambassadors to support religious liberty wherever this is under threat. ‘This freedom has individual, collective and institutional dimensions,’ he said ‘We are speaking of the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person. All too often, for various reasons, this right remains limited or is flouted.’

Marriage arose only when the pope claimed that for young people ‘education needs settings’. ‘Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.’

What precisely were the ‘policies that undermine the family’ to which Benedict was referring? Preceding these remarks was a reminder that education is crucial, ‘for it determines the healthy development of each person and the future of all society’. Following were references to a recent court decision here in Europe banning patents relating to human embryonic stem cells, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe preventing prenatal gender selection. No mention of same-sex unions whatsoever.

Profound shifts are underway throughout the global Judeo-Christian family on homosexuality. Thoughtful scholars such as James Alison in Brazil have notedthat ‘quietly and discreetly [there are] little signs’ that shifts are taking place in the Roman Catholic community.

Alison and others believe the Vatican has already abandoned its defence of the old doctrine of homosexuality being intrinsically disordered. (They accept, however, it may be some time until the catechism is reworded.) Many bishops now openly support gay civil unions. But marriage, according to the present regime, should remain hetero for now.

Benedict’s reflections to the ambassadors this month continued this significant softening of the old hard line on same-sex unions. Some of his ‘strongest comments against gay marriage’? Not at all.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nīmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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