‘Churchmen aren’t at all happy to see gay couples happy’
If you had a one-to-one meeting with the Pope, what would you talk to him about? In the third of our series, the church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch tackles His Holiness on homosexuality and Catholicism.
Given my five minutes with Pope Benedict, I would ask him if he’s ever spent any time with a gay couple. I don’t mean the large number of silently gay Catholic clergy under vows of celibacy, who are not unknown even in the corridors of the Vatican; I mean two people who have met socially, spent time getting to know each other, found that it’s a lot of fun being with the other person, had rows, made up, gone to parties, done the shopping, been polite to each other’s dull relatives, had a good laugh with the unexpectedly entertaining eccentric aunt, and at the end of a day of pleasant trivia, have turned off their bedside lights side by side? And have perhaps done that over months, years, decades, initially despite the huge amount of social pressure to split up and fade into the background of other people’s social and moral expectations.
Has His Holiness sat down with them over a coffee or a beer and discovered how intrinsically ordinary they are? Because if he hasn’t, I don’t think he’s got much business calling them intrinsically disordered.
I think what might disconcert him about such an experience would be that such couples don’t have any problems, at least problems no different from those of other couples, or of human beings generally. The Church rather likes claiming a pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay people, because it sees them as having a basic problem that needs pastoral care. And the Church has been very good at setting up problems for gay people which it can then solve. It has demanded that they feel guilty if they ever enact their feelings for another person of the same sex in a physical way – then it can deal with the guilt. Churchmen really aren’t at all happy to see gay couples happy; it breaks all the rules and of course encourages others to do the same things. Who knows where it will all end? Gay teenagers cheerful, contented and fulfilled? Or at least making the same stupid mistakes as any other teenagers?
But perhaps the Pope will surprise us all on his visit. He is, after all, planning to beatify Cardinal Newman, a distinguished theologian who patently found a way within the conventions of his time of having a deep, committed relationship with another man, Ambrose St John. It was the primary relationship in both their lives and that was expressed by their single grave in death. Because they were both priests committed to clerical celibacy, I don’t suppose that they did much that was physical to express their relationship, and I don’t think that I would greatly care even if there were proof that they did. It really isn’t that important. The relationship matters. For those who aren’t nineteenth-century celibates, there are different means of celebrating such a relationship, and I can’t imagine that the God of love is too worried about the details of what they are.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the Church and a fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, and author of A History of Christianity, published by Allen Lane.