In a recent speech to a group of Vatican diplomats, Pope Benedict XVI called gay marriage a threat “to the future of humanity.” His condemnation comes as another salvo in the war for the basic rights certain men and women in the Western World demand—and deserve. But it also continues to propagate the fallacy that a good society is a Christian society.
“In addition to a clear goal, that of leading young people to a full knowledge of reality and thus of truth, education needs settings,” he said. “Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.”
To a Christian, the Pope articulated nothing more than old-fashioned common sense. To a Christian—even a Protestant would here find agreement with him—the Pope presented a sound argument. Truth of premises separates a sound argument from a valid argument, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christian—especially a Catholic—who’d deny the truth of the Pope’s premises.
But are the premises true? If so, do they enable people and institutions to deny basic rights to millions of men and women?
Before he took a backhand to gay marriage, Pope Benedict XVI defined the importance of education to a society: It is “a crucial theme for every generation,” he said, “for it determines the healthy development of each person and the future of all society. It thus represents a task of primary importance in this difficult and demanding time.”
But what is a “healthy development,” and how can it be compromised by a “family” that doesn’t qualify as such under the Pope’s definition?
Here, definitions are crucial. To understand an argument, we must understand its parts. To understand its parts, we must know in unambiguous terms what a word or phrase—in this case “healthy development”—means.
Earlier in the same speech, the Pope said, “Truly the world is gloomy wherever it is not brightened by God’s light! Truly the world is dark wherever men and women no longer acknowledge their bond with the Creator and thereby endanger their relation to other creatures and to creation itself. The present moment is sadly marked by a profound disquiet and the various crises—economic, political and social—are a dramatic expression of this.”
In the context of the Pope’s speech, we can reasonably conclude, “the healthy development of each person and the future of all society” is a metaphor for “the successful inculcation of dogma on each person determines the future strength or cohesion of a society.”
In short, Christian beliefs—good; un-Christian or non-Christian beliefs—bad. Granted, this is nothing new. To hear it from the Supreme Pontiff, the institutional descendant of Ancient Roman tyrants, is as unsurprising as the answer to the age-old question: Does the Pope shit in the woods?
Later in his speech, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the popular unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. Of note, he said, “[It]seems evident to me that the best way to move forward is through the recognition of the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental rights. Respect for the person must be at the centre of institutions and laws [...]”
Respect for the person. Recognition of the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental rights. Clearly, these concepts appear at odds with the Pope’s desire to foster policies promoting the family—and implicitly crushing the dignity of gay men and women by denying them such basic rights as marriage.
How can governments or institutions respect a person, respect his or her dignity and rights, if they’re encouraged to pursue policies or legislation denying the rights of a percentage of the population?
This seeming contradiction evaporates when, later in his speech, the Pope offers a definition of “fundamental rights”: Religious freedom, he tells us, is “the first of human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person.”
Freedom to practice and to preach one’s religious belief is the most important human right, we are told. It must be protected at all costs. If one’s religious belief challenges social or cultural assumptions, we can conclude, the religious belief should trump secular assumptions—since the former is to human dignity and rights what the Pope is to Catholics: master of priorities and agendas.
Now, we can detour into a long exegetical argument citing scripture or luminaries such as Augustine or Aquinas, Nietzsche or Russell to challenge the Pope’s assertions. But, sticking to this speech, we’ll look at the Pope’s assessment of religious terrorism, of all things, to uncover the frayed strings from which we can unravel his entire argument.
“[Religious] leaders,” he tells the Diplomatic Corps., “need to repeat firmly and forcefully that ‘[religiously motivated terrorism] is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.’ Religion cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and of law for the sake of the intended ‘good.’” [Emphasis added.]
‘Justice’ and ‘law’ are not the key phrases here; ‘the rules of justice and of laws’ is what we have to focus on. ‘Rules’ denotes something like, ‘social agreements established through reasonable discourse.’ If you agree with this definition, then it follows that any policy conceived in violation of the spirit of ‘rules’ is a violation of the product of reasonable discourse.
Reasonable discourse allows for the establishment of justice, of laws. Human dignity is the autonomy of a person to establish, to adhere to, and to propagate rational standards. Rational standards are the foundation on which reasonable discourse is built. A violation of reasonable discourse is a violation of human dignity and, if enacted as law, a violation of human rights.
A violation of human rights–’fundamental rights’ or rights conceived through social and cultural agreements or evolution—is an explicit expression of institutional intolerance.
Defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, defining that union as a “fundamental cell” of the growth of a person, of a society, while denying the rights of gay men or women to marry while labeling such unions as threats “to human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” is a clear violation of human rights. It’s a clear example of institutional intolerance.
In extolling the virtues of religious freedom, Pope Benedict XVI paused to decry, “In other parts of the world, we see policies aimed at marginalizing the role of religion in the life of society, as if it were a cause of intolerance rather than a valued contribution to education in respect for human dignity, justice and peace.”
We can argue for or against the merits of religion in the realm of education, even in the realms of human dignity, justice, and peace—but we can show that religion is a cause of intolerance. Note that I didn’t use the definite article. Religion is not the cause of intolerance; it’s a cause of intolerance. And in the modern world, any socially transmitted idea fostering or encouraging intolerance should be marginalized.
We owe the dismissal of people and ideas encouraging bigotry and intolerance to ourselves, to our children, to our society. Intolerance threatens the future of humanity—not two men or two women who want to celebrate their love.