Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spitting On an Outstretched Hand

It is amusing -- in a spitting sort of way -- to watch the media and bloggerati speculate whether Pope Francis will alter the Church's stance on homosexuality.  That some should even ask reflects a childish incomprehension as to what the Church is and how it operates.  That others should caution not to expect an "overnight" change leaves one wondering what happened to their voice of moderation during Benedict's tenure.

We have written at length, before and elsewhere, on how Benedict was laying the groundwork for a radical repositioning of the Church's teaching on sexuality.  To summarise very briefly,

Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was on love. Within the first few paragraphs he managed to quote Nietszche and allude to Aristophanes.  To anyone familiar with what Aristophanes had had to say about love -- and about the three sexes --  it was the hint of a clanging gong.

But Benedict did not leave it at  hints.  In the ensuing paragraphs he espoused the doctrine of "ascending love" which naturally begins in eros and matures into mutual caring. "The essential nature of love," he wrote, is "a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery" (Deus Caritas Est., § 6.) If eros is merely the enticement that pulls us out of ourselves, what possible difference does it make if a person is led to care for one of the same or the opposite sex? None. In the Christian lexicon, caritas, agape, "love," is absolutely not gender-conditioned.

It is within this context, that what Benedict omitted to say was as significant as what he did  say.  Nowhere did he quote from Humanae Vitae, the previously enunciated doctrine that the redeeming purpose of sex is to transmit life.  While Benedict did acknowledge that matrimony between man and woman "tends" toward the transmission of life, in the next breath he went on to caution that  love should not be "relegated to the purely biological sphere." (Deus Caritas Est, § 5.)

At least as critical was Benedict's volte face on relevant Scriptural passages.  Anyone knows that the Christian condemnation of homosexual acts is based on Corinthians 6:9, Romans 1:18-32 and  Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  Ghost writing for John Paul II,  then cardinal Ratzinger certainly knew the drill. But as pope, Benedict interpreted these passages as condemnations against ecstatic fertility cults in which humans were "exploited" as mere "means of arousing divine madness."  That was a very different (and essentially liberal) reading of the passages.

But it is on the reading of Scripture generally that Benedict showed his true colours. In the Introduction to his book “Jesus of Nazareth” (Ignatius Press, 2007), Benedict took as his premise that historical criticism was “indispensible” to Biblical exegesis. (Op. Cit., p. xv.) "A voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words; the individual writings [Schrifte] of the Bible point somehow to the living process that shapes the one Scripture [Schrift].” (Op. Cit., p. xviii.) Thus, he continues, the Bible “does not speak as a self-contained subject” but “in a living community... in a living historical movement."  The writings in the Bible "become Scripture by being read anew, evolving in continuity with their original sense, tacitly corrected and given added depth and breadth of meaning."

In so saying Benedict was not so much being a "radical" as a tradtionalist in the true sense of espousing change within continuity.  The Church is not guided by a merely present consensus on things, like a political party.  It is a trans-generational community of "saints" whose experiences and inspirations are all alive in the present which shapes the past as it is shaped by it.

A cycnic may be excused a smile at the notion of "tacit corrections" by "deeper understandings."  But the process is not one of rhetorical exploitation for present purposes.  Traditionalism has to be practiced in good faith with circumspection and constraint; but it does seek to evolve, permute and change.

I cannot but view these writings of Benedict's as other than an invitation to participate in a movement toward a deeper understanding of human love -- one that transcended (without denying) the biological and aimed at loss of ego in caring for another.  But the liberal Catholics and the majoritairan gay community spat in his hand.

Not only that, but in its incessant drumbeat the media fabricated out of whole cloth "condemnations" which Benedict never uttered.  Of course, Benedict publicly urged support for the heterosexual family.  Why wouldn't he?  Most of the world is heterosexual and the Church must speak for them.  But he was very cautious not cast that support in dichotomous terms.

In January 2012, Benedict spoke of social settings necessary for personal and social development. Of these, he said, "pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman."   The phrase "pride of place" necessarily implied other places.  How this got translated into the screeching headling "Pope says Homosexuality Imperils Civilization"  is any monkey's guess.

Alas, three months later, "pride of place"  gave way to language cribbed directly from Humanae Vitae.  Matrimony, the pope said was  "essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation." 

People we talked to, who are more in tune with subterranean currents at the Vatican, were convinced that Benedict had been ambushed by conservatives on his speech writing staff.  But ambushed or not, the media turned it into a kill.  The pope delivers scores of homilies, addresses and greetings in any given week -- all chock full of pre-approved phrases and researched references. While they are not "meaningless" they do not involve the careful word-weighing process that goes into an encyclical and for that reason do not carry much doctrinal weight.  But the Hate Benedict Crowd -- as if needing a bugbear for their own self-definition -- treated it as the bull of the century and drove the nail into the very change they avowedly sought.

Nine months later, an exhausted Benedict resigned.    He has been replaced by a "humble" pope who in all humility has said that gay matrimony is an affront to God.  That's the kind of  crime against nature language that reverts back to the 19th century.   Tacit corrections?  Not likely.


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