Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI we may well have a new definition for the term “bully pulpit.” Last week, just to make it more clear in case anyone hadn’t gotten the message already, the Pope reiterated his unyielding opposition to gay marriage, and his absolute support of Catholic bishops in the United States who oppose gay unions. In the Pope’s words, traditional families and marriage must be “defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature.” He went on to say that whatever injured the institution of marriage also injured society. He added that he hoped that the US Midwestern bishops, who were paying him a friendly little visit, would continue their “defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation.” Note this relatively new term, by the way, “oriented to procreation.” I imagine this has emerged out of a series of workshop meetings, wherein the bishops discussed the argument made by pro-gay marriage advocates that not every traditional marriage ends in procreation. What if, for example, one of the spouses is sterile, or the woman is beyond the child-bearing years, or the couple just decides they don’t want to have children? So, I’m guessing they figured that “oriented to procreation” was an attempt to ward off this very plausible argument. I’ll let you be the judge if they succeeded. Personally, I don’t think they did.
Bur let’s get back to what we started off with, the term “bully pulpit.” The original meaning comes from Teddy Roosevelt, who used it in reference to the presidency, and to his ability to use that prestigious post to rally people in support of his point of view. In those days, bully meant “great” or “wonderful,” as in the expression “bully for you!” Today, of course, the word has a very different meaning, and has migrated to indicate a person who attempts to harass and harm people whom he perceives to be weaker than he.
Much has been said recently, and rightly so, about childhood bullying in school yards and on playgrounds, But what we have here in this case is an example of an eighty-four year old man bullying – or attempting to bully – a whole class of people. Instead of using the enormous power and prestige of his office for good and to talk about the Divine Spirit, or about the love and acceptance that human beings as reflections of that Spirit ought to have for one another, the Pope squanders the opportunity and gravely misuses his office to berate those who have never done him harm in any way.
Or does the Pope in fact believe that gay people actually are harmful to him and to his church, merely by existing? Just a few years ago, for example, he stated (in typical language) that being gay was evidence of a “strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as objectively disordered.” His advice to gay people was to lead a life of “chastity.” In essence, this was his way of saying, zip up, shut up, and never have a love relationship that will be fulfilling to you as a human being.
Let us examine a little more closely some of these words that the Pope uses. He calls being gay an intrinsic evil. What could be clearer than that? Intrinsic means essential to or containing wholly within. Thus, gay people, in his definition, are evil and corrupted through and through, simply by the fact of their being gay. What follows from this is that they are “objectively disordered.” In philosophy (which the Pope has studied deeply) the term “objectivity” relates to something having an inherent reality or truth all its own, independent of anyone’s view of it. And “disordered,” of course, refers to a dysfunction in a normal pattern or system; in medical terms, it means diseased. Thus, my reading of the otherwise obscure term “objectively disordered” is that the Pope believes gay people to be, by their very nature, dysfunctional and disturbed, in a word sick, no matter who says anything else about them.
Now it should be noted, I suppose, that he does go on in his kinder, more avuncular persona to sweetly remind us all that, oh by the way, we ought not to harm gay people, since they apparently can’t do much about the way they are. So, in other words, let’s not kill them! How nice of him, don’t you think? This is a lesson, by the way, that could well be taken to heart by the current government of Uganda. But why, it can be asked, would Ugandans, or anyone else for that matter, not wish to “protect themselves” against people whom the Pope is on record as saying that he believes are disturbed and evil, and whose relationships injure society?
If Benedict XVI thinks that his words do not have grave consequences, he is not reading the newspaper every day, nor does he see how many gay people are discriminated against, attacked, or even murdered. His words do have a marked effect. They give comfort and solace to those who take it upon themselves to harm to gay people. Is this the behavior that we expect from a “man of peace,” which the Pope declared himself to be upon ascending to the papacy? Just the opposite, in fact. His words are words of violence, not peace, and they give cover to violent action against gay people. They tell those who are bigoted or frightened or merely ignorant that it is OK to discriminate against gay people in their hearts, as well as in their behavior and in their laws.
So, this has now become the new meaning of “bully pulpit”: a place from which a prelate can attack innocent people, and from where his words can go out to cause grievous harm in the world. If Benedict XVI meant to be a “man of peace,” he’d better try again. From what I can see, so far at least, neither has he succeeded in word nor in deed.