The Pope on homosexuality and the environment

2008-12-30

in Politics, Rants, The environment

Dylan Prazak making a monstrous face

Recently, the Pope announced that fighting homosexuality is just as important as protecting the rainforest. These comments have been rightly attacked from many angles. For me, what it highlights most is the ways in which religion can produce poor prioritization of issues. By according certain things sacred or venerated status, they can become a disproportionate focus for attention, a spark for conflicts, and an obstacle to the completion of more important work. Because religions elevate acts that are purely symbolic (say, baptism) to having a high level of perceived practical importance, they can get in the way of the achievement of practical goals, like enhancing and protecting human health and welfare, as well as that of the natural world. To those who say that religion is necessary to make the majority of people act in moral ways, it can be riposted that many of the supposedly moral issues that get the most attention are basically distractions from the real challenges being confronted by humanity.

This is precisely the property of religion that is satirized by Jonathan Swift in the conflict between the Big Enders and the Little Enders in Gulliver’s Travels. Ultimately, the issue of what gender of people a person is attracted to (or wishes to marry) has as much relevance for other people as which side they choose to crack their boiled eggs on. In spite of that, there are those who successfully employ emotions stirred up over such trivial issues as means to bolster their own support by turning people against one another.

Religion isn’t the only force within society that elevates the symbolic to the practical in a potentially harmful or distorting way. Certainly, there are comparable transformations within politics: in which symbols come to be more important than the things they represent, and their defence comes to be a distraction from more important endeavours. Whatever the cause of such instances of ‘missing the point,’ it is to be lamented. It must be hoped that people in a few hundred years will have learned enough to laugh at an idea so silly that protecting the environment and reinforcing traditional gender norms are (a) both desirable ends or (b) equally worthy of attention.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh December 30, 2008 at 1:04 pm

Thank you for providing the citation to the BBC article. At least it had some of the quote. I read two articles about the Pope’s statement in the Globe. One seemed to focus on negative reaction and the other supportive of the Pope. I guess the intent was to present both views. Unfortunately neither article had a direct quote of what he said. Even the BBC article seems to have a very limited quote which reads

“Rainforests deserve, yes, our protection, but the human being … does not deserve it less” (which in at of itself is not an objectionable statement, so I m again lacking the wider context).

So that made it difficult for me to form my own view.

In a general way I am not attracted to institutions that show lack of tolerance. I hope that in many communities where various differences in sexual orientation are not well tolerated, they will become more accepted. I hope that in a generation or two where this controversy rages currently, there will grow a tolerance such that people will wonder what the fuss was about.

A current film that provides some history of this occuring is Milk. It is the story of the politicization of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians elected to office in the United States as city supervisor in San Francisco. I found the film very interesting.

PS Great Photo

. December 30, 2008 at 1:30 pm
Alex December 31, 2008 at 1:03 am

http://ncrcafe.org/node/2342
http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/ (23 December)

While this is not the place to discuss the Church’s position on homosexuality three points regarding the Pope’s Christmas address to the Roman Curia are worth stressing.

First, it should be read as a defensive speech by B16 against those voices of the Church arguing that the Church should not “do environment”. In fact, the recent trend towards environmental issues represents a major ideational shift which should please enviornmentalists like you.

Second, Catholic environmentalism overlaps with secular environmentalism but is not coextensive with the latter. It always comes with a broader body of Catholic social teaching, as evidenced by B16’s comments on gender. While certain elements of Catholic social teaching (e.g. critique of capitalism, promotion of peace, support for the Third World) will please political liberals, they will find other elements rather challenging or even repelling.

Third, the prioritisation of issues is never an obvious, natural thing but inherently political. Millions of religious people around the world would vehemently disagree with your dismissal of the ‘symbolic’ or your explanation of religious action as ‘stirring emotions’. Religious groups wish to shape societal life and enter into debates about the ‘good life’ like parties, political movements, NGOs, or lobby groups.

What our liberal democracies need is a healthy dialogue between secular and religious perspectives on modernity. I am not sure whether your dismissal of public religion and Catholic value preferences is the best way forward towards such a dialogue as it seems to delegitimize the other side before any such dialogue is even attempted.

R.K. December 31, 2008 at 9:28 am

Rejecting any defence of symbols does seem foolish. There are certain symbols that are psychologically powerful for everyone, and it is no surprise that they will defend them rather than focusing exclusively on “practical goals, like enhancing and protecting human health and welfare.”

In short, your argument fails at the step of generalization. Saying “Concentrating on somehow stopping homosexuality is a bad prioritization of resources” doesn’t allow you to go on and say: “Symbolic conflicts are all unworthy of attention.” Homosexuality certainly isn’t the only symbolic fight that’s not worth the effort (think of attempts to ban flag burning), but there may well be efforts of this kind that are worthwhile, such as defending or repairing the symbol of a community that has been threatened or damaged.

This situation is also an odd extension of the nature-nurture debate. The Pope is implying that changing how people behave regarding sex and gender could somehow prevent homosexuality. In all likelihood, there were homosexual people around long before there was a Pope to condemn them, and nothing short of massive manipulation of human genes and/or brains will change that in the future. At the same time, the societal trend towards homosexuality being accepted (or being accepted again, after a period of repression) is a social phenomenon with a big effect on homosexual people. Societal conditions probably don’t change whether or not someone will be gay, but it establishes the risks and benefits of acting on those desires.

R.K. December 31, 2008 at 9:46 am

You could also argue that ‘saving the rainforest’ is itself a symbolic act, given how it can almost be used as shorthand for the entire business of environmental protection.

The ‘save the rainforest’ symbol has also been a powerful recruiting and fundraising tool for environmental organizations.

Milan December 31, 2008 at 10:54 am

Dad,

I hope that in a generation or two where this controversy rages currently, there will grow a tolerance such that people will wonder what the fuss was about.

I agree. Indeed, I think the biggest change may not be going from a position hostile to homosexuality to one tolerant of it, but going from seeing it as a major moral or political issue to seeing it as something of little importance to those not directly involved.

I have been meaning to see Milk. Perhaps I will early in the new year.

Alex,

In fact, the recent trend towards environmental issues represents a major ideational shift which should please enviornmentalists like you.

It is helpful to have allies in anything, but I don’t know if the environmental movement can wholeheartedly embrace the new theological interest in environmental protection. Theological institutions, after all, bring a lot of other beliefs along with them, including dubious ideas like the world was created specifically for human beings, that this life is secondary in comparison to a future ‘eternal’ one, or that there is some kind of grand cosmic plan the universe is following.

Believing those kinds of thing arguably makes it a lot harder to take environmental protection seriously, or realize the magnitude of the threats we are creating for ourselves.

Third, the prioritisation of issues is never an obvious, natural thing but inherently political.

To some extent, I agree. Symbols are important mechanisms for convincing people and competing politically. That being said, I don’t think it is meaningless to assert that some are more important than others, and that some symbolic fights may not be worth the effort put into them.

What our liberal democracies need is a healthy dialogue between secular and religious perspectives on modernity. I am not sure whether your dismissal of public religion and Catholic value preferences is the best way forward towards such a dialogue as it seems to delegitimize the other side before any such dialogue is even attempted.

The question of how to engage with actors that are both religious and political is a challenging one.

Tolerance is generally a good thing, but we cannot necessarily accept anything a person might happen to believe as a starting point for dialogue. There is a distinction here between religious beliefs that are manifestly false (say, that the world is a few thousand years old) and those that are simply unprovable (god will only allow a small number of Mormons into heaven, and nobody else). Views of the first kind can be delegitimized fairly unproblematically, given how they are in obvious conflict with observable fact. Views of the second kind are hypotheses to be evaluated in both logical and practical terms.

It certainly isn’t clear to me what form a useful dialogue of the sort you describe could take. It would be helpful if religions could abandon some of their most damaging beliefs (say, opposition to birth control) and it would be good if some of the moral elements incorporated into religions could be more influential in public life (say, not intentionally harming others so as to advance your self interests). It’s not clear to me how a dialogue could achieve these kinds of things, except very indirectly (for instance, political liberalization leading to people rejecting decrees against family planning).

Milan December 31, 2008 at 11:01 am

R.K.,

I think you are right to say that rejecting the importance of symbols altogether is going too far.

Bad prioritization also extends well beyond symbolic conflicts. For instance, our security priorities are badly skewed away from everyday occurrences that affect large numbers of people (such as domestic and sexual violence) and towards spectacular Hollywood threats of terrorism. Likewise, a lot of our news coverage and public discussions focus on trivialities.

Given the degree to which gods and sex captivate people emotionally, it is no surprise that anything involving their combination gets a lot of attention.

You could also argue that ’saving the rainforest’ is itself a symbolic act, given how it can almost be used as shorthand for the entire business of environmental protection.

While the rainforest is, in some senses, symbolic it is also a practical and highly important thing. The state of the rainforest affects the composition of the atmosphere around the world. It also profoundly affects all the species whose habitat are in that ecosystem.

There is a big difference between a religious symbol (where the practical disjoint is between the physical and a possible metaphysical realm) and a concrete symbol (like the rainforest, which is simply distant and outside our ordinary experience).

Often, people seem to be better at crossing that metaphysical divide, and altering their behaviour accordingly, than at dealing with the comparatively trivial physical divide separating us from the world’s tropical forests.

You are right, however, to highlight how the environmental movement has used symbols to advance itself.

R.K. January 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

Perhaps the climate issue would gain more traction if someone told the Pope that letting it happen would be one giant abortion. It would permanently reduce the human carrying capacity of the planet and, as a consequence, millions or even billions of people who would otherwise have been born will not be.

Milan February 4, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Here is one encouraging religious pronouncement on the environment, written by Luc Bouchard, the Bishop of St. Paul in Alberta:

“I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca Oil Sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oil sands constitutes a serious moral problem. Environmentalists and members of First Nations and Metis communities who are challenging government and industry to adequately safeguard the air, water, and boreal forest eco-systems of the Athabasca oil sands region present a very strong moral argument, which I support. The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.”

. April 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

Vatican To Build 100 Megawatt Solar Power Plant

“The Vatican is going solar in a big way. The tiny state recently announced that it intends to spend 660 million dollars to create what will effectively be Europe’s largest solar power plant. This massive 100 megawatt photovoltaic installation will provide enough energy to make the Vatican the first solar powered nation state in the world! ‘The 100 megawatts unleashed by the station will supply about 40,000 households. That will far outstrip demand by Pope Benedict XVI and the 900 inhabitants of the 0.2 square-mile country nestled across Rome’s Tiber River. The plant will cover nine times the needs of Vatican Radio, whose transmission tower is strong enough to reach 35 countries including Asia.'”

. April 23, 2009 at 10:14 am

When It Comes to Climate Change, Catholics Get It

According to a recent Zogby telephone survey of over 1000 American Catholics, 55% agree that climate change is a serious problem, versus 22% who do not.

Catholics in the U.S. are also clear on climate science, with 60% recognizing that human activity is a significant contributor to climate change versus 21% who do not believe that. These results are interesting at a time when, according to a Gallup poll, 41% of the overall population believes that the issue of global warming is being exaggerated by the media, despite that according to scientists and journalism scholars, the media has actually underplayed the seriousness of the issue.

Milan April 13, 2010 at 4:41 pm

The Catholic Church just keeps digging holes for itself to fall into:

“Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true,” said Bertone. “That is the problem.”

The church’s problem certainly isn’t homosexuality, and it isn’t even pedophilia directly – rather, it is the way the church responds to pedophilia. Rather than calling the cops, as they should, they try to hush it up.

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