Popes Out-of-Step with Their Times

By: Warren J. Blumenfeld

Poll after poll has found that the Catholic papacy is out-of-step with its increasingly shrinking U.S. flock. On the topic of abortion, 55% of U.S. Catholics do not want the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision overturned, 67% favor pre-marital sex, 71% approve of divorce, and 54% consider same-sex relations as morally acceptable (Pew Research Center, January 2013), 82% approve of birth control, (Gallup, May 2012), 63% sanction medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos (Gallup, March 2009), and 59% support ordination of women (NYT/CBS, 2010).

While a Public Religion Research Institute poll released in 2012 found that 59% of U.S. Catholics favor marriage equality for same-sex couples, Pope Benedict XVI, who has recently announced his abdication effective February 28, 2013, throughout his tenure as pontiff over the past eight years has incessantly raised his opposition not only to marriage equality, but to our very being by arguing that same-sex sexuality and relationships and gender non-conformity threaten the existence of humanity and the ultimate survival of our planet.

During his annual Christmas message delivered in December 2012, for example, he asserted that marriage for same sex couples destroys the "essence of the human creature," and he deemed marriage equality as a "manipulation of nature," and along with abortion and euthanasia, threatens world peace.

"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," he declared. "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves."

In January 2011, Benedict delivered a New Year's speech to diplomats from approximately 180 countries, declaring that marriage for same-sex couples "threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself," and in 2008, during his end-of-the-year Vatican address, he asserted that humanity needs to "listen to the language of creation" to realize the intended roles of man and woman. He warned of the "blurring" of the natural distinctions between males and females, and called for humanity to protect itself from self-destruction. The Pope compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work."

The Pope's warnings came after another of his controversial Christmastime addresses in which he quoted in 2008 a 14th century Christian emperor who asserted that the Islamic Prophet Muhammad imposed on the world only "evil and inhuman" conditions.

Pope Benedict XVI, by invoking his interpretation of Christian scripture, follows a long history of Popes who, throughout the ages, have employed these texts to justify and rationalize the marginalization, harassment, denial of rights, persecution, and oppression of entire groups of people based often on their social identities. At various historical moments, Popes have applied these texts, sometimes taken in tandem, and at other times used selectively, to establish and maintain hierarchical positions of power, domination, and privilege over individuals and groups targeted by these texts.

On Slavery: Quoting a number of Biblical passages, Pope Nicholas V, in 1452, composed his Dum Diversas, which granted to the kings of Spain and Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens [Muslims] and pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery. Then in 1548, Pope Paul III, reasserted that any free person may buy, sell, and own slaves, and that runaway slaves were to be returned to their owners for punishment. Pope Gregory I in 595 sent a priest to Britain to purchase Pagan boys to serve as slaves on church estates. Around the year 600, Pope Gregory I wrote, in Pastoral Rule: "Slaves should be told…not [to] despise their masters and recognize that they are only slaves." And between 1629-1661, Popes Urban VII, Innocent X, and Alexander VII, purchased Muslims whom they enslaved.

On the Jews: In 1239, using Biblical passages as his rationale, Pope Gregory IX ordered all copies of the Jewish holy book, the Talmud, confiscated, and in 1322, Pope John XXII ordered all copies of the Talmudburned on the eve of the Jewish Passover. Pope Paul IV, in his Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum, segregated Jews within a walled ghetto with locked gates at night to keep them separated from the Christian majority, and to emphasize Jews' inferior legal and social status. Pope Pius IX, in 1858, kidnapped a young boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy, and raised him in Rome as a Catholic against his parents' wishes on the justification that a Catholic maidservant had secretly baptized the boy earlier when he was gravely ill. Pope Pius IX also referred to the Jews of Rome as "dogs."

The Church has since admitted regret for many of the oppressive words and actions of former Popes. The Rev. Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, was honored by Jewish leaders around the world for his work in saving large numbers of Jews during the German Holocaust. As Pope, he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which authorized the declaration Nostra Aetate and approved in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. An article in the document, while certainly not going far enough, stated: "True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today." Moreover, the Church "deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."

Coming back to the Church's positions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities and lives, according to the Catholic Catechism, 1997: #2357 "...Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life [reproduction]. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."

I wonder how long it will take the Church to apologize for its longstanding marginalization and persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and its ultimate sanction of our relationships and our gender expressions. I'm certainly not going to hold my breath that any real change will come to pass with the arrival of the new Pope regarding LGBT people as well as its positions on the ordination of women, stem cell research, pre-marital sex, divorce, contraception, sexuality education, women's reproductive freedoms, and a plethora of other concerns.

Maybe all we can hope for with the ascendancy of new pontiff is his leading the Church out of the 17th century, where it has remained entrenched for so long, and into the bygone days of the 18th century of the common era.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Iowa State University. He is author of Warren's Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon); and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge). Visit his blog at http://www.warrenblumenfeld.com/

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