Matthew Parris

Another Voice | 17 January 2009

The gay lobby should rejoice at the Pope’s argument that God makes us the way we are

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The gay lobby should rejoice at the Pope’s argument that God makes us the way we are

I have been puzzling during the winter holidays over Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas message. You may remember that it was interpreted as an attack on homosexuality, provoking the usual outrage. Most people, it seems, saw the response. Few bothered to study the message itself.

I have done so. Not only (as Roman Catholic spokesmen protested at the time) does the Pope never in fact mention homosexuality, it is far from clear he meant his remarks to be interpreted in any such light. Study the remarks themselves, for they present a picture troubling in a quite different way from that suggested by spokesmen for gay and transgender organisations. The address seems to betray a Church mind confused about the implications for morality of rival scientific theories, and plumping in its confusion for the variant most dangerous to church teaching.

In order (I believe) to take a swipe at an idea the Vatican finds immediately irritating — that women could be priests — the Pope has sided with arguments in medical and social science which, properly understood, present real difficulties for traditional Church morality in the longer term. He has undermined the belief that people can change. He has sided with those who suspect that people can’t — or not as much as required. I think he is right. But he is sawing off a branch on which Catholic ethics sit.

The question under scrutiny is to what extent a higher animal, human or otherwise, is the product either of its inherited genes, or of its environment and upbringing. Essentially this is the old nature vs nurture debate.

The theory the Pope chose to attack this Christmas was what he rather obscurely called ‘gender theory’. There’s really no such thing, but it’s true that in the social sciences, especially feminist studies, there’s a good deal of hypothesising about gender. Much of this gives more weight to social conditioning than to inborn nature as the principal determinant of what it is to be a woman or a man. At its extreme is Simone de Beauvoir’s view that ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’ Put crudely, the attraction of the nurture-not-nature theory to feminists is that it seems to confound the belief that there are things women ‘can’t do’ (or can’t do well) just because they are women. In fact, runs the argument, aptitudes are suppressed by social conditioning.

Irritated by this approach, the Pope declared in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall that it is not ‘out-of-date metaphysics’ to ‘speak of human nature as “man” or “woman”’. When the Roman Catholic Church, he said, defends God’s Creation, ‘it does not only defend the earth, water and the air... but [it] also protects man from his own destruction.’

Critics seized on passages like this to interpret Pope Benedict as asserting that procreation is man’s divine duty, that men and women have been created differently in order to fulfil it, and that the Church must resist teaching that we’re all the same, or that gender is secondary. How the gay lobby got it into its head that this was an attack on homosexuals I am unclear, but it was certainly an attack on those who think we can all become whatever sort of human being we want, if only we get the right attitudes and try hard enough to change.

Which is odd, because on the gay debate that is precisely the Roman Catholic Church’s position. The whole of the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual thoughts and practices is anchored in a simple and wonderfully optimistic ‘yes we can’ approach to human behaviour. This is that we are not born good, but with God’s help can become good by faith, effort and understanding. Though born in sin, everything is possible.

Whether or not you accept the (secondary) premise that same-sex leanings are sinful, the primary premise, that with God’s help leanings are remediable, is deeply positive: a happy thought indeed.

Unfortunately it is undermined by the last 30 years or so of work on genetics. This tends to support what I take to be the theoretical basis to the Pope’s pronouncements on male/female differences: that many behavioural characteristics, probably including some of what society has seen as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ talents, are inherited in our genes. Thus at birth we are not, as that lucid populariser of developments in genetics Stephen Pinker has written, ‘a blank slate’. We are hard-wired to become, or tend to become, the characters we do with the natures that we develop.

I do not say that Pinker et al claim this as a scientific basis for male chauvinism; only that there are others who may do so. On the man/woman question you would expect the Catholic Church to rejoice at these findings. In the Clementine Hall the Pope seemed to be saying the same thing — albeit crediting God rather than DNA with the hard-wiring (but doubtless he credits God with the DNA).

So much (he might snort) for the feminist notion that a woman could ever acquire by training alone the nature of a priest; or the characteristics of one who happily puts career ahead of motherhood. She will be going against her own nature, militating against a God-given order of things. So much for the idea that two men can easily and naturally be two parents to the same child... in such ways the argument that we are not blank slates might seem, in Catholic hands, to tend.

If so, the gay lobby should have rejoiced, not fumed, at Pope Benedict’s Christmas message. At last! The endorsement we’ve all been waiting for: the Vatican’s assurance that we can’t help it. Away with aversion-therapy! Away with electric shock treatment! Away with trying harder to find girls sexually attractive! Away with praying to God to remove our sinful feelings! Away with repentance! Away with guilt! It’s just how we were born: it’s in our natures.

Space hardly permits me to anticipate, and reply to, the possible rejoinders from the camps of both Professor Pinker and the Pope. Pinker can reply that genes do not predetermine but only predispose, and that training and willpower can still make a difference. Up to a point, yes, but the language of predisposition severely destabilises the currency of censure. The Pope may reply that a gay man may not be able control his desires, but can control his behaviour. Up to a point, yes, but that’s to jettison the whole doctrine of interior change, as well as Jesus’s injunction that the thought is as sinful as the deed.

For myself, I confine myself to welcoming Pope Benedict in his first steps along the path to understanding that, well, as that dreadful song puts it: I am what I am.

Written byMatthew Parris

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Spectator and The Times.

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