Just hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his unexpected resignation, a bolt of lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica. Many say it’s unequivocally a sign from God. If so, I’m hoping it’s an “amen” moment signaling the end of an oppressive era of bashing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people as the church now moves forward.
The LGBTQ Catholic group Equally Blessed said in a statement:
“With the pope’s impending resignation, the church has an opportunity to turn away from his oppressive policies toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, and their families and friends, and develop a new understanding of the ways in which God is at work in the lives of faithful and loving people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
This pope has used his papal authority to hold back the tides of modernity. And the early signs were there long before Benedict became pope. The reaction by many religious progressives to the April 2005 election of then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy was tempered by either their desire to keep hope alive or an apologetic acceptance in deference to Pope John Paul II.
If the Catholic Church was looking for a religious leader who embraces the world as it is today, then Pope Benedict XVI aka Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not the man. Benedict used his authoritarian, “Rottweiler” interpretation of church doctrine to maintain an ecclesiastical lockdown on the church’s progressives. For example, just last year, he publicly bashed a group of “dissident” U.S. nuns for, as “The New York Times” put it, “focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping ‘silent’ on abortion and same-sex marriage.” The pope believed that this rogue group of Catholic sisters was not only undermining the church’s teachings on the priesthood and homosexuality but was also brashly promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Benedict pushed back against the tide of progressive theologies by upholding a rigid orthodoxy of millennium-old church doctrines and creeds. Case in point: Benedict suppressed the growth of liberation theologies in third-world countries, the emerging face of the Catholic Church, for their supposedly Marxist leanings that exposed classism. However, liberation theologies combine Christian theology with political activism on issues dealing with human rights and social justice. Liberation theologies emphasize the biblical theme that God’s actions on behalf of the enslaved, the poor, the outcasts (like women), people of color and LGBTQ people, just to name a few, are a central paradigm for a faith that embraces the world — as it is today — from an engaged and committed stance that does justice. It is liberation theologies that have given women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and those in developing countries a voice. And it’s liberation theologies that allow us all — churched and unchurched, believer as well as atheist — to stand in the truth of who we are.
Benedict’s venomous attacks on LGBTQ people have been unrelenting. Just this past December, the pontiff’s Christmas sermon denounced same-sex marriage, claiming that it would destroy the “essence of the human creature.” In previous sermonic anti-LGBTQ diatribes during his tenure as pope, Benedict has stated that marriage equality is a “manipulation of nature” and a threat to world peace.
The pontiff doesn’t waver in his stance on us with the theological qualifier “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Instead, Benedict takes his stance to a level that invites LGBTQ bashing justified in the name of God. In a 1986 letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on “pastoral care of homosexual persons,” Cardinal Ratzinger stated, “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” On the Vatican’s website for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was directed by Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.”
Benedict believes that evil is born into a person and that it is part of their ontological makeup; therefore, when you remove the bad seed, you ostensibly remove the evil. And many religious conservatives feel that because you cannot remove LGBTQ people from society, then society must either restrain or deny them their civil rights. And one clear way to do that is to call that group of people “evil” or state that they contribute to, if not create, evil in the world.
St. Augustine argued that evil arose from the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. And St. Thomas Aquinas said that evil derives from man’s abuse of our God-given free will. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that evil was not an intrinsic nature found in man but something caused by the corruption and constraints of society.
I side with Rousseau. I believe that evil exists in its various machinations because of systems, regimes, presidencies and, yes, the Vatican, which allow it to give birth unchecked. As a system whose wheels churn on the absence of goodness, evil reduces people to objects of sin and targets of hatred, thus denying them their basic human needs. And its strength to maintain human suffering is proportionate not only to its political and capital clout but to the strength of its religious ideological underpinning. The problem with evil is not only how it diminishes human life but how it denies the suffering it causes.
It’s time for a queer-friendly pope. And the bolt of lightning striking St. Peter’s Basilica is no clearer sign.