If nominations for the best bright idea of 2008 are still open, I’m voting for Pope Benedict XVI’s “ecology of man”. It goes without saying that this will not pass unchallenged. His intriguing suggestion surfaced in a speech to his staff a couple of days before Christmas - and instantly the gay lobby had conniptions.
An Anglican priest in London, Giles Fraser, founder of the pro-gay Inclusive Church movement, told the London Times: “I thought the Christmas angels said, ‘Fear not’. Instead, the Pope is spreading fear that gay people somehow threaten the planet. And that’s just absurd. As always, this sort of religious homophobia will be an alibi for all those who would do gay people harm.”
What did the Pope actually say?
He was discrete, but it doesn't take much to read between the lines. He said that the Church had a duty to “protect Man from destroying himself”. The Church “ought to safeguard not only the earth, water, and air as gifts of creation, belonging to everyone. It ought also to protect man against the destruction of himself” by gender-bending. True, it was a critique of homosexuality, but it was not based on the yuck factor or even primarily on the Bible.
He did not intend to insult gays, either. Even the gay Australian writer David Marr acknowledged that. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, he scolded his over-sensitive buddies: “But poofs who love the planet more than themselves should acknowledge the pontiff was onto something here: not just saving homosexuals from their ‘own destruction’ but announcing a new role for the church defending ‘the earth, water, air, as gifts of the creation that belongs to all of us’.”
Marr’s reaction suggests that the notion that man is part of the ecological web could be fruitful and persuasive. It could, in fact, lead to a better understanding of why homosexuality is wrong and a violation of human dignity.
But to grasp why, you have to read the original text, not just scraps from jaded Vatican journos. These were not just off-the-cuff remarks. Instead, they represent a consistent theme in Benedict’s teaching: that because nature has been created by God, it is rational, orderly and ultimately comprehensible. Hence it is possible to carry on a rational dialogue with people like David Marr.
This is an idea that Benedict visits again and again, and it is very similar to his critique of Islam in his Regensburg address a couple of years ago. In that controversial speech he declared that "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby".
In his Christmas speech, Benedict plays the same tune. Human bodies, having been created by God, are evidence for an authentic sexual morality: “The fact that the earth, the cosmos, mirror the Creator Spirit, clearly means that their rational structures which, transcending the mathematical order, become almost palpable in our experience, bear within themselves an ethical orientation.” If the biology of male and female sexuality is complementary, there must be an ultimate reason for it. A rational person searches for that reason and draws ethical conclusions.
He also appeals to a principle that now seems self-evident, at least in the Western world: that we trash the environment at our peril. Why? Because “the earth is not simply our possession which we can plunder according to our interests and desires. It is rather a gift of the Creator who has designed its intrinsic laws and with this has given us the basic directions for us to adhere as stewards of his creation.”
Man, even though he has a spiritual element, is part of this ecology. He may not - he cannot - reshape himself without risking his own destruction, just as abusing the atmosphere, the earth or the sea could lead to catastrophe.
When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysics. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender’, results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and from the Creator. Man wishes to act alone and to dispose ever and exclusively of that alone which concerns him.
Admittedly, this will not be easy for supporters of homosexuality to accept. What they feel is that biology is less important than the longings of the heart, or the desire to conquer and manipulate nature. They are unwitting disciples of Francis Bacon, the English Renaissance philosopher who argued that the destiny of science and technology was to remake and triumph over nature. In his recent encyclical Spe Salvi, Benedict treated Bacon as an important figure, whose naïve enthusiasm for scientific progress ended up justifying the terrifying and destructive potential of modern technology. Not long ago Bacon was worshipped as a visionary thinker, but contemporary philosophers are less complimentary. They regard him as a forerunner of Western science’s continuing legacy of alienation, exploitation, and ecological oppression. Someday, the Pope hints, we will realise that the gay culture is just an extension of this.
The inescapable fact of human existence is that we are both rational and animal. As W.B. Yeats put it in one of his great poems, we live “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal”. Even if our reason transcends it, we are as much part of the ecology as beetles and sea gulls. We can no more defy the laws of nature than they can.
Will the Pope's brief words, just a couple of dense paragraphs actually, convince people that homosexuality is “unnatural”? Absolutely not. But they could spark a realisation that it is inconsistent to demand respect for the laws of ecology with the single exception of man himself. When that philosophy was adopted by the Industrial Revolution, it turned forests into deserts, fields into wastelands and seas into stagnant ponds. Benedict wants us to see that the Sexual Revolution could do much the same.