Thursday, 12 February 2009

Independent: What the Pope really said
11.2.9 by Adrian Camilleri Flores; ST Paul’s Bay

During the Xarabank programme of 30 January the fiction that Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Curia of 22 December 2008 “described homosexuality as ‘the destruction of God’s own work’,” was repeated.

In fact, anyone who checks what the Pope actually said can confirm that Benedict XVI did not even mention homosexuality. His only clear allusion to it was in a reference to “marriage, understood as the life-long bond between a man and a woman”. How this restatement of the Catholic view that marriage is a heterosexual institution translates into the Pope describing homosexuality as “the destruction of God’s work” (a phrase that occurs several sentences earlier) is beyond my imagination to conceive.

Any illusion in an earlier reference to “the nature of the human being as man and woman” would be to transexuality rather than homosexuality, and in any case would be quite peripheral. The context of the Pope’s whole argument indicates that he is concerned with far wider issues.

One of these is gender theory. As journalist Paul Vallely wrote in The Independent (UK), since the Pope’s remarks “were in an in-house address to his staff, he spoke in impenetrable theological shorthand”. Consequently, many outsiders missed the significance of his use of the term “gender”. (The English word is used in the original Italian and German texts). In fact, as another journalist, Peter Popham, wrote, also in The Independent, “the Pope... was apparently taking up arms against” gender theory’s claim “that our ideas about the categories of sex, gender and sexuality are not the product of biology but are culturally constituted in accordance with what a given society permits”.

Mark Henderson, science editor of The Times (UK), wrote that in attacking gender theory, “the Holy Father has said something that needed saying”. But he added, “as the Pope is finding out, anyone who criticises this “gender theory” invites vitriol from its liberal supporters. Scientists such as Simon Baron-Cohen and Steven Pinker have been accused of rationalising patriarchy and discrimination. Nevertheless, “the work of these researchers and others shows that gender theory is built on sand... the Pope (is) taking the right side in this argument”.

The fiercest critics of gender theory are evolutionary psychologists like Pinker and Baron-Cohen. In his acclaimed attack on social constructionist ideology, The Blank Slate (2002), Steven Pinker devotes a long chapter to gender in which, like the Pope, he never once mentions homosexuality. What he is concerned with is the pernicious effect of gender theory on feminism.

As Paul Vallely wrote, something else that the Pope “seems to have his sights... is questions of bioethics”. This is hardly surprising since the Vatican had issued its most important document on bioethics in 20 years a mere 10 days before. In his address the Pope speaks of the “message... inscribed” in man, or in more scientific language the genetic code, and of defending “human nature against manipulation”.

As has often been said, the Catholic Church thinks in centuries, and the Pope has every reason to be concerned about the dire prospects for humanity if it sets out, as it seems to be doing, on the road of what Cardinal Keith O’Brien and others have called “Frankenstein science”.

Already some countries, like the UK, have given the green light to the creation of clones, human animal hybrids and so on, and there is no telling where it will all end. Many people are worried about genetically modified crops and animals, but they should be even more worried about genetically modified humans.

The Vatican’s concern is shared by prominent secular intellectuals like Jurgen Habermas, Francis Fukuyama and Bryan Appleyard, all of whom have written books on the matter. The Pope’s call to “not only defend the earth, water and air” and the “rain forests”, but also to “protect man” echoes what Fukuyama wrote in his essay Transhumanism (2004): “The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of non-human nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.”

“Transhumanist” is the term adopted by those who advocate the (almost) unfettered use of biotechnology to, as Fukuyama puts it, “liberate the human race from its biological constraints” or, in the words of the transhumanist philosopher Max More, “guide us towards a post-human condition”.

This, not homosexuality (which he did not mention), is what the Pope had in mind when he warned against “man’s attempt at self-emancipation from creation”, and called for “a human ecology” and respect for “the language of creation. To disregard this (he warned) would be the self-destruction of man himself, and hence the destruction of God’s own work”.

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