Pope & U.K. Catholic Hierarchy in Major Clash Over Gay Marriage

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 15, 2010

As the Pope prepares for a historic visit to Britain, a Catholic cleric there has expressed sympathetic sentiments with gays and lesbians who find the church staunchly opposed to their right to have a family life.

Anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews reported on Sept. 14 that the U.K.'s leading Catholic cleric, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, spoke of gay Catholics as being in a "difficult" place because while the church does not condemn gays as being sinful for their sexual desires, it does condemn as "inherently evil" any expression of sexuality between two individuals of the same gender. The church also condemns sex outside of marriage, but insists that marriage should not be granted to same-sex couples.

Nichols commented on that when asked whether the church might, at some future date, come to embrace same-sex families. "There is in the Book of Nature an inherent connection between human sexuality and procreation; and those two things cannot ultimately be totally separate," Nichols said, echoing language used by the Catholic Church in condemning same-sex families. The church teaches that the correctness of heterosexual marriage is a matter of "natural law," but also essentially denies that there is a place in nature for homosexual pair-bonding. However, Nichols added, "People who are of a homosexual orientation say: 'Well, hang on a minute. How is the Book of Nature written in me?' "

Nichols also acknowledged, obliquely, that even heterosexual couples fall short of the church's requirements with regard to human sexuality and family issues. Among other things, the church condemns divorce and birth control. "That tradition says human sexuality is for an expression of total self-giving in fidelity in a way that is open to the creation of new life," explained Nichols. "Now, that's tough, that's a high ideal. I'm not sure many people have ever observed it in its totality, but it doesn't mean to say it has no sense."

Nichols also opined that the church's characterization of same-sex physical affection as "sinful" was a "misguided" attempt to shepherd its followers. "Fear is never a good motivation," the archbishop opined. "The whole point of the Catholic journey is that it is a journey, and we try to hold together high ideals and understanding. That is the same for people who struggle in whatever way with their sexuality. It's an aim."

LifeSiteNews reported that the archbishop's comments drew fire from Catholic conservatives, who were quick to say that his failure to hew strictly to the church's teachings endangered children, though no details on Nichols' comments posed a threat to the young were offered.

Elsewhere, however, comments Nichols made in praise of the Pope were reported. Catholic scholar and writer Cristina Odone took note in a Sept. 11 op-ed piece in U.K. newspaper the Daily Telegraph that in separate interviews with two major British publications--one with the Telegraph, the other with the Daily Mail--Archbishop Nichols spoke highly of Pope Benedict XVI and addressed the issue of the church's pedophile scandal head on.

"Whether he is defending Pope Benedict as a man of peace who is much misunderstood, or speaking of the 'shame' that his priests have heaped on the Church he loves, the leader of the four million Catholics of England and Wales is eloquent, even passionate. This is the message we have been longing for since the paedophile priests scandal broke," wrote Odone. "Catholics who read those interviews must be issuing a sigh of relief--and gratitude." Though Odone did go on to criticize Nichols, it was because, Odone claimed, Nichols had not done enough to generate excitement among U.K. Catholics on the ground for the pope's visit.

The issue of the Pope's visit,and of the church's image problem in the U.K., is far broader than any single cleric, even the top-ranking archbishop, however. Canadian newspaper the National Post noted in a Sept. 14 article that the pope's visit was likely to engender a cool reception among many in the U.K.

Protests to Plague Pope's Visit?

Benedict's British visit is scheduled to begin on Sept. 16, and will mark only the second time a pope has come to the U.K. (John Paul II went to Britain in 1982.) The newspaper predicted that the pope's journey would be plagued by protests, in contrast to Pope John Paul II's 1982 journey, which was met with rapturous accolades. The Vatican was already assigning blame for the expected protests to Britain's "pluralistic" and "outspoken" society.

Pluralistic as Britain may be, many are united in their anger over the global pedophile priest scandal and the church's response to it, the newspaper reported. There was also resentment among the British for the cost of the trip: half the tab is being covered by the British government, to the tune of about $32 million. Moreover, the article noted, anger still lingers over the Pope having extended an invitation into the Catholic fold to Anglicans alienated by their church's more accepting stance toward gay clergy and gay church members. The article recounted that during his trip, Benedict XVI is expected to beatify an Anglican who converted to Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman.

But many in Britain also take exception to the church's stance on gays, the family, women, and other social issues. GLBT equality advocate Peter Tatchell summarized some of those points of contention in a speech he delivered last month critical of the Catholic hierarchy.

"On so many important social issues, the Pope rejects human rights," Tatchell declared. "Pope Benedict opposes women's ordination. Women are deemed unfit to preach the gospel," Tatchell said. "This is pure patriarchy, sexism and misogyny.

"The Pope says artificial contraception is a sin," Tatchell added. "He condemns poor parents to having large families that they can't care for adequately. In some countries, priests spread the lie that contraception makes women sick." Tatchell also criticized the papal stance on in vitro fertilization and stem cell research, before addressing one particularly inflammatory point.

"Benedict XVI has denounced the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV," Tatchell declared. "He has also claimed that condom usage may 'increase' the rate of HIV infection. His dishonest teachings discourage a proven way to reduce HIV transmission, thereby putting millions of lives at risk."

As for the pope's record on GLBT issues in general, Tatchell noted, "In 1992, When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he authored a Vatican document that condemned homosexuality as an 'objective disorder' and a 'strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.' Rejecting the concept of gay human rights, the document asserted that there is no 'right' to laws protecting homosexual people against discrimination, suggesting that the civil liberties of lesbians and gay men can be 'legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct.' "

Tatchell went on to recollect, "The Pope has attacked same-sex marriages as 'evil' and vilified supporters of gay equality as 'gravely immoral.' He has also denounced homosexual equality as a 'deviant trend' and condemned same-sex love as being 'without any social value.' He even threatened to excommunicate Catholic legislators who voted for gay rights laws.

"While condemning loving, consenting adult same-sex relations, the Pontiff played a role in shielding Catholic clergy guilty of child sex abuse from prosecution," Tatchell added. "In 2001, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to all Catholic Bishops, which ordered papal silence concerning allegations of child sex abuse. He instructed the bishops to report all such cases to him in Rome, so the idea that he did not know about sex abuse by priests is nonsense. His letter did not tell Bishops to report the abusers to the police."

Earlier this month, Tatchell called on the pope to make files pertinent to the pedophile priest scandal available to civil authorities. "The pope's condemnation of sex abuse by clergy will never be taken seriously until he agrees to pass to the police in countries around world the evidence the Vatican has compiled on child molesting priests, bishops and cardinals. Keeping these files secret is wrong and collusion with criminal acts," Tatchell asserted. "It is no use Benedict meeting victims of sex abuse if he is not willing to hand over his own bulging Vatican files on clerical abusers."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.