How media distorted pope's call for human ecology


Opportune distortion of the pontiff's words led to a fixation on transsexuality and homosexuality, writes Breda O'Brien 

ACCORDING TO international news agency Reuters, Pope Benedict XVI said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. The Italian media somehow missed this entirely, and instead focused on the pope allegedly saying he was not a rock star. Both approaches managed to miss the point. While the "I am not a rock star" angle merely smacked of the blindingly obvious, the Reuters report resulted in a great deal of international commentary, most outraged.

Had the pope actually said saving humanity from homosexual behaviour was as important as saving the rainforest, the hurt and outrage would have been justified. He didn't.

Being misquoted is commonplace for anyone in public life, and in fairness, the Vatican does itself no favours by being so slow about issuing English translations of papal statements. However, given the rapidity with which unofficial translations appeared on the internet, some of the commentary seems more aimed at what commentators want to believe the pope said rather than what he actually said.

The pope's talk is a meditation on how the Church carries out its mission in the world and the role of the Holy Spirit. It contains a robust defence of World Youth Day. This is significant, given that it was widely assumed that as Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pontiff was not enthused about Pope John Paul II's innovative gathering of millions of young people every two years.

On the contrary, the pope defends World Youth Day from the allegation it is some kind of Catholic rock festival and essentially meaningless aside from the "feelgood" factor it generates. Instead, he says World Youth Day is the fruit of intense preparation, and that the joy that it generates is an important means of communicating the Christian message. With that kind of dry intellectual wit that characterises him, the pope enlists Nietzche in explaining what he means.

"Friedrich Nietzsche once said: 'Success does not lie in organising a party, but in finding people capable of drawing joy from it.' According to Scripture, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22), and this fruit was absolutely palpable during those days in Sydney." The "rock star" headlines were generated by the pope saying he is not the focus of World Youth Day, much less the star. (He never uses the term "rock star".) Instead, he is there only to point to Christ.

Later in his speech, the pope goes on to affirm that creation is not just random but has an intrinsic order and energy, born from the goodness of God. His address assumes that protection of creation is a vital part of being a Christian. As human beings, we are part of creation, and therefore also need "a human ecology", a way of living that is in tune with our deepest nature.

The pope used the English word "gender" in his address. "That which is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender', in the end amounts to the self-emancipation of the human person from creation and from the Creator. Human beings want to do everything by themselves, and to have exclusive control of everything regarding themselves. But, in this way, the human person lives in denial of the truth, in conflict with the Creator Spirit."

Gender theory states that the biological sexual differences between males and females account for a relatively small part of the actual differences between men and women.

It declares most of these differences are matters not of sex but of gender which, unlike sex, is socially formed and cultivated. A subtext is that these socially determined roles are used to oppress women and minorities.

Obviously, it is true, to some degree, gender roles are socially constructed, in the sense they have changed throughout history. For millennia, women were seen as inferior and incapable of holding power. However, to extrapolate from that historic injustice that the biological basis of some gender differences is minimal leads to damaging distortions.

In medicine, there is a growing recognition that men and women are different even in the way they experience disease. Women, for example, get different heart attack symptoms from men, which can lead to women ignoring vital warning signs that could save their lives.

Other writers, such as Louann Brizendine in the Female Brain, show there are significant biological differences in male and female brains that influence behaviour. For example, the male brain has 2½ times more space dedicated to sexuality, as well as larger centres for action and aggression.

Perhaps it was the fact that the pope reiterated the church's support for traditional marriage that led the Reuters reporter to see his comments on gender as an attack on homosexuality. However, it is a frankly bizarre reading of a complex address.

In context, his comments on gender read as an examination of hubris, the idea that we can ignore our physical realities and shape ourselves in whatever way that we wish, as though we were merely minds and had no bodies. It is the same hubris that leads us to act as if we are independent from the rest of creation, and can therefore treat the environment in any way that we wish without incurring drastic consequences.

In fact, the idea that biological differences matter is probably of more relevance to heterosexuals. Our culture has embarked on an extraordinary cultural change, where women are supposed to be able to act like single males even when they have family commitments. At the same time, they are supposed to be hypersexualised parodies of women, always available for sex. These conflicting messages lead to unbelievable levels of stress for women.

Similarly, men are constantly being urged to be more like women. For example, we are told that suicide rates would drop if men would only talk about their problems.

However, research is beginning to show that men communicate in entirely different ways, and are flooded by deeply unpleasant emotions if they attempt to relate in the way that women do. In the context of what science is beginning to show us about male-female differences, a call for a "human ecology" that takes our nature and differences into account begins to look not incendiary, but imperative.