Why Benedict XVI Matters

The elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to pope has been greeted along Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, when mentioned at all, with shrugs, dismissals and tired jokes about men in skirts. I have also heard one or two pretty ugly anti-German comments, which, when you get right down to it, are about as constructive as fag jokes.

This pose of insouciance is a mistake. Whether you are Catholic, ex-Catholic, non-Catholic or anti-Catholic, this is a political development that will affect you personally. If you’re not Catholic, you probably don’t care. You should. They care about you. This papacy will escalate the debate about gay and lesbian lives to a new level of oppression. Things that were unthinkable to say publicly will now be the norm—in Congress, in the media and over dinner tables. Your enemies have for some time been thinking on the biggest, broadest levels.

Have you?

Some of us have been familiar for a long time with Ratzinger. The notorious “Halloween Letter” of 1986, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” had a deep effect not only on gay Catholics but also on public policy in education and elsewhere. It provided a rallying point for much opposition to gay issues among Catholics and others alike. Among other tidbits, the letter included the now immortal phrases defining homosexuality as “tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and “an objective disorder.” These concepts have no meaning in Catholic theology; they are impossibilities. So when commentators speak of Ratzinger’s theological genius they must be referring to his ability to twist theology to suit one’s personal preferences—and prejudices.

Don’t take it personally. Benedict XVI hasn’t only done this on the gay issue. The same twisting has come about regarding the ordination of women, and you should read Ratzinger’s pronouncements on music. The new pope understands what we seem to have forgotten—that all issues, whether perceived as artistic, religious or economic, are in fact intensely political.

Let’s get to a specific issue. You can expect a pronouncement on the priest sex abuse scandal any day now—and you will be named as the cause of it. It will be blamed on sexual permissiveness—read: gays. The real issue at stake in the abuse scandal—a culture of secrecy and absolutism that fosters abusive power dynamics—will not be addressed. We all saw Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston, taking a central role in the Vatican rites over the last couple of weeks. The concerns of the abuse survivors’ network were ignored with what can only be called contempt.

You may question whether the Vatican has more than symbolic power. First off, yes, it does, especially in countries where it supplies the largest share of health care. Do I need to remind my gay brothers and sisters about the political implications of health care?

Secondly, we make a mistake if we dismiss the inherent power of symbolic gestures. Isn’t marriage itself a symbolic institution? And the language you can expect from the Vatican will be more sophisticated and powerful than ever. Nobody doubts the new pope’s intellectual prowess. He is a world player to be taken seriously: Think Henry Kissinger without the sense of humor and with a serious gripe against gays and everything he perceives us to “stand for” (as if we “stand for” anything these days!).

Oh yeah, we’re in big trouble.

So what’s a poor, beleaguered queen or dyke to do amidst all this? I can’t tell you exactly. The methods that formed our community over the last 40 years or so do not seem to be effective anymore. Support of queer media watchdog groups will be more crucial than ever, but official homophobia in church institutions seems to have gone off our radar screen ever since Ellen’s talk show started getting good ratings. I do know that, in any crisis, awareness is the first tool to utilize. Awareness includes more than reading up on things—although it includes that too. It includes engaging in conversations that we would sooner avoid, questioning pronouncements from the news, and, yes, debating, once again, with your homophobic family while they cloak themselves in biblical veils.

And save the campy jokes about men in skirts. They were tired in the 16th century. Pope Benedict XVI will take this debate to a new level of prominence and sophistication. We will need to respond at the same level.

One more thing: Don’t expect the mainstream media to let you know what’s going on. New York 1 is addicted to showing file footage of New York Catholics looking pious during Mass—I know. I’ve seen myself over and over again in a shot taken when I attended Mass after September 11. The New York Times reported today with a straight face that the pope intends to engage in constructive dialogue with other religions. They neglected to report Ratzinger’s opposition to admitting Turkey to the European Union because of the “abundance of Muslims” in that country.

If you want interesting, judicious reporting on the new pope, the best place to go is the National Catholic Reporter and the Jesuit weekly magazine America. You read that right. They are the only publications I have found that questioned aspects of the late pope’s reign while the secular papers were indulging in mass necrophilia. The National Catholic Reporter and America are available free online at natcath.com and americamagazine.org. Read them while you can. They probably won’t be around much longer.