10 January 2012

The Pope and the Diplomats

Rumour, it’s said, can be halfway round the world before Truth has got its boots on. Rarely does that adage seem more apt than in the world of religious journalism. 

Yesterday morning the Pope gave his annual ‘State of the World’ address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican; the speech was remarkably broad, taking in such issues as the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, the situation in Iraq, the family as the basic social unit, recent European decisions on human life in its early stages, the importance of education, the right to religious freedom and the duty to resist religiously-motivated violence, humanitarian crises in Africa, and how we must respect the world in which we live.

Despite the wide range of issues covered in the address, it’s a tightly woven piece of work, unified by the idea that we must recognise ‘the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental human rights’. As the American Declaration of Independence recognised, our fundamental rights are inalienable precisely because they are given us by our Creator, and in exploring this central idea the Pope followed the logic of this by locating our dignity and rights within the context of our place in creation:
‘Truly the world is dark wherever men and women no longer acknowledge their bond with the Creator and thereby endanger their relation to other creatures and to creation itself.’
In other words, we have been created not merely with fundamental rights but with fundamental duties, duties that require us to live rightly in relation to God, to each other, and to the world. We are our brothers’ keepers, and we’re called to till and keep the world not just for ourselves but for each other and for our children and their children.

Oh, Ambassador, you're spoiling us...
The diplomats who were present understood what the Pope was saying. The Canadian ambassador, for instance, summed up the core of the Pope’s address as being:
‘It boils down to a respect for the dignity of the human being is really the key to resolving the financial and economic crisis, and to give hope to millions of youth who find themselves a bit in a desperate situation in many countries. It is very interesting that the pope started from that point, the situation of youth in many countries, to go to North Africa, the Middle East where he talked about specific situations.’
The Australian ambassador likewise homed in on Benedict’s focus on youth, describing the speech as sober and commendable, saying:
‘What I picked up most from the Pope’s speech was his return to the theme of education. Education for young people, education as part of religious freedom and cultural progress in the Middle East and around the world.'
 Discussing the speech at some length, the British ambassador noted the global role of the Holy See, and took the opportunity to stress how important the Holy See is as a diplomatic partner for Britain, especially in connection with environmental matters, peace negotiations, and the war on global poverty, with particular reference to the Millennium Development Goals. He said that although the speech was sombre, it was far from pessimistic, reminding the gathered diplomats that we should not allow the crises of today to deter us from pursuing our long term aims:
‘His Holiness was very clear that we should not despair in this moment of crisis but that we need to look forward with new commitment, new dialogue, new creativity for ourselves and for the younger generations. And he flagged up several specific areas including the Middle East, Europe and the European crisis, and strengthening of religious freedom around the world.’

Ah, Churnalism...
Given the wide-ranging yet unified nature of the address, it was a bit disappointing that insofar as the global media has reported the story, it’s done so through a tediously predictable and utterly misleading filter. ‘Gay marriage a threat to humanity’s future: Pope,’ declared Reuters, in a hastily dashed-off piece which claimed that the Pope had made some of his strongest comments against gay marriage in a speech that ‘touched on some economic and social issues’. 

More than 95 per cent of the address was dismissed with one simple phrase -- ‘touched on some economic and social issues’ -- so that the Reuters article could exaggerate one small point. And unfortunately, that one Reuters piece set the ball rolling...

I read a shockingly poor piece – since somewhat amended – about the address on the Digital Journal site last night, seemingly relying on little more than the original Reuters piece, a few tweets, and a couple of old and discredited news reports, and then today I saw that the Daily Mail had tweaked the original Reuters piece to make it look like their own work, churning it out under the headline, ‘Gay marriage is a threat to humanity, claims Pope’.

It's not surprising that people all too often think the Church is obsessed with sex, when all too often that's the only thing that's often reported about the Church. Still, the issue of marriage was mentioned in the Pope's address, so it's worth looking at how it's dealt with. The first thing that's worth noting is that the key passage that's been quoted takes up maybe two per cent of the speech. Whatever way you try to spin this, this wasn't the focus of the address.

Uniquely stable, uniquely balanced, uniquely valuable
The address runs to 2,772 words when translated into English, of which I’d say a grand total of fifty, buried in the middle of the speech, could be understood as an implicit attack on the idea of gay marriage, though even then the key passage is best understood as a passage praising marriage and encouraging us to work to protect it. The Pope spoke of how education should take place in proper settings, and that,
‘Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.’
The Pope wasn’t speaking specifically of Christian marriage here, but of marriage in a more general sense: theology aside, the Church sees marriage as an institutional reflection of a biological reality. We are, after all, a sexual species, reproducing sexually, with every single one of us being the product of a mother and a father; marriage reflects that reality and provides a setting in which we can be nurtured, protected, and raised with complementary male and female role models. 

The Church recognises that the basic structure of marriage as the bond that holds families together is deeply rooted in our nature, and that marriage makes an invaluable contribution to the common good of society, providing a uniquely stable and balanced setting in which children can be born and raised. Given the uniquely valuable role that marriage plays in human society, it’s hardly surprising that the Pope should argue that it should be uniquely supported and promoted.

Of course, it goes without saying that we can only preserve the status of marriage as the gold standard for family life if we also acknowledge that other forms of relationship, regardless of how good we might regard them as being in themselves, do not play so important a role in our society and are not equally deserving of protection and promotion. We cannot prize something as 'best' unless we take the view that all other comparable things, no matter how good, are less than that 'best'. To claim that other forms of relationships are identical to marriage or are as good as marriage, is to deny that marriage is uniquely special and uniquely worthy of protection; such denials undermine an institution that is fundamental to human society. And when we undermine the foundations of our society, no matter how noble our intentions might be, we undermine our society.

Addressing the gathered diplomats, and as just one small part of a much longer speech, Benedict warned that policies that undermine the family and that rationalise the destruction of human life in its earliest and most vulnerable stages threaten the future of humanity; instead, he said, we should be working to build a sense of universal fraternity, corresponding to the ‘lofty grandeur of our human calling’.

Even then people weren't listening...
Way back in his uneven first book, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, John Allen recognised that Benedict is a thinker with whom people need to engage, and generally fail to do so; instead, he said, people tended to react in a kneejerk way, either dismissing him out of hand, or cheering his proclamations without thinking seriously about what he'd said. I don't think that we can realistically expect Reuters to issue lengthy reports, or expect the Mail to offer reasoned comment, but what we can do, whenever stories like this hit the presses, the internet, and the airwaves, is to reserve judgement, find out exactly what Benedict said, and think about why he might have said it.

The 'State of the World' address isn't that long. It's worth engaging with. Read it and think.


Cathyby said...

Good post. I've read the address, I think it's a shame it was reduced to reading between three lines of it. I also note as an aside that unemployment, lack of education and lack of housing also impact on marriages and families and can just as easily be characterised as an attack.

I do have to comment on the biological basis of marriage. We know that marriage was not always viewed as between one man and one woman. The Bible itself names men with more than one wife. Looking at various cultures, the picture is more complex than "one man one woman" as the basis of the family, you have children with multiple father, and many societies where the family is based on wider bonds.

So while it's plausible to argue that marriage is between one man and one woman as approved by Jesus or approved by the Church, I'm not so sure the biological claim is as uncontentous as you suggest.

Buntifer Green said...

I read the State of the World after you posted it on twitter yesterday, and while I agree that a lot of the negative journalism on the speech has been sloppy and deliberately antagonistic, I do think that given the importance of the speech and the influence the Pope wields, he and/or his speechwriters need to be more careful to avoid "implicit attacks" which could have been avoided easily if they so desired. I give them the credit of being intelligent enough to understand the ways this could be read, and while he does praise marriage, he does so in a way which explicitly rules out the possibility that he is praising homosexual pair bondings. This leads me to believe that any implicit attack was intended, whatever its grade of 'plicitness.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Good points both, and alas, neither of which I'll have time to address properly now, as I've to pack and write a bit more before heading to the station.

That said, and quickly...

Cathy, you're right to say that there marriage has taken various forms: history and anthropology show that, as does Scripture, as you say. That said, with perhaps a tiny number of exceptions, what we don't see are group marriages. In polygamous societies, for instance, a man might be able to have several wives, but what's striking is that while all those wives are his wives, they are not wives to each other. Essentially it's a situation where a high status individual can be in several pair bonds at the same time, such that any children he might have always have a clearly-identifiable father and mother.

I agree completely on the fact that financial, educational, and other matters can also undermine marriage. These matters are all joined up.

Buntifer, firstly I'm looking foward to seeing you on Saturday. It's been too long.

I agree that the Pope certainly wasn't praising homosexual pair bondings. I was merely trying to say that insofar as he challenged the current trend towards their being explicitly approved in law - as opposed to legal tolerance, with states taking no interest in what goes on the bedrooms of consenting adults - he did so as an inevitable element in his attempt to praise marriage. The focus was on the positive support, not the negative challenge.

I also think it's important to stress that it was just one rather small element in the speech, and certainly wasn't its focus, but you'll have gotten that from having read it yourself.

Anyhow, must ready myself. I shall want to pick your brain for recipes soon.

Catherine Stead said...

I expect that by the time you get a chance to check in here, you'll also have seen this piece, but in case you haven't, a good Guardian comment piece by Andrew Brown on this has now gone up. I was amused by his observation that the press seems perpetually surprised that the Pope is Catholic: the ability of the mainstream press to hold both that and confirmation bias in tension is a tad startling sometimes.

It's entirely reasonable, in looking at that brief comment on the family, to see a criticism of gay marriage implied in it. But:

(a) it's something that's implied, not something that was actually said, which was the how Reuters/Digital Journal pieces reported it, and

(b) it's only a tiny part of everything that's implied in that statement, which, as you say, is focused on the positive ideal of marriage between a man and a woman as the "fundamental cell of society." As Cathyby said, there are so many other things that undermine families.

The comment on the family is such a tiny part of the Pope's whole speech that to focus solely or primarily on that comment is to grossly distort the whole thing. It's only possible to reach the view of the speech that the Reuters piece did by determinedly looking for such messages in it. No plain reading is ever going to take that as the - or even a - significant point. To focus on just one of the many implicit consequences of that statement, rip it our of context, and report it as having been explicitly stated, is appallingly bad journalism. And that's only to be expected from some quarters, though rather surprising from Reuters.

(And that's enough from me, I think. You and I have had this conversation already, and I'm not adding anything to the debate.)

Michael said...

I've been a quiet admirer of this blog for some time and appreciative the often exhaustive care you take to lay out both sides of an argument in great detail.
So great in fact that while I've often been tempted to reply I have been daunted by the challenge of responding with the degree of precision that I felt your own efforts deserved.
However your reflections on marriage in this piece have prompted me to make a response, which is neither precise nor exhaustive .
I have been married for nearly 25 years . Before I met met my wife I could not imagine being married. I cannot imagine now what I would be like if I had not married.
I have two children, both adults now. Again before I got married I could not imagine myself as a father.
I now happily define myself as a husband and father. In a real sense through marriage I found my vocation.
I am a fan of marriage. If marriage was included in the Olympics , I think me and the other half would be gold medal contenders.
And for me marriage means sacramental marriage - the civil side was and is incidental.

And yet I find myself completely at odds with what you write about the threats to marriage. I feel no threat to my marriage or my idea of marriage from the promotion of other forms of committed partnerships. I do see a threat to committed relationships of all sorts by the effects on culture of consumerism etc.
I do think that my faith has been the bedrock of my marriage, but not because I ever listened to what the church said about it. It was all the other stuff that mattered - faith hope and charity as it were.
If we want to promote marriage, and we should want to promotre marriage, let's stop worrying about civil partnerships, gay marriage , the attitude of the state or whatever.
Instead let's concentrate on helping to form our children in mature people of faith who will then I'm absolutely sure find their way as I did mine.

Donum Vitae said...

Good post. What a man is our Pope!

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Thanks for that, Michael. And congratulations on your Olympic-standard marriage!

I do appreciate and have a huge sympathy with your position. There is a part of me that thinks that worrying about 'gay marriage' is nonsense at a time when half of Britain's marriages end in divorce, and I've no doubt that some of those who are screaming loudest about this are motivated by simple homophobia, rather than by reasoned consideration of what marriage is, what marriage is for, and why this matters to the State and society.

That said, marriage has been being undermined in many ways for several decades in Britain, such that only about half as many people get married now as used to get married, and only half of those marriages last. It's very clear that as an institution, marriage is under threat here in the west.

Does this matter? I think it does, because marriage makes a unique contribution to society, and as marriage declines, so too does that contribution. In this sense, it's worth remembering that the Church basically recognises two types of valid marriages, both of which is sees as hugely valuable. Christians have sacramental marriages, but all marriages are creation ordinances, established by God. They're rooted in our biological nature and make a massive contribution to society. If marriages decline in popularity or robustness, society is impoverished, and then even married couples wind up living in impoverished societies.

People have gotten convinced that marriage is primarily about two people falling in love, and this love being somehow recognised by the State or the Church. This is, frankly, nonsense.

Whatever the Church may think of people loving each other, the State doesn't care about that. You can't legislate for emotions, and nowadays at least the State takes no interest whatsoever in what consenting adults get up to in their own private lives.

No, the State cares about marriage because it sees it as as the bedrock of a healthy and robust society. It sees it as a social institution which reflects a biological reality, and a social institution that exists so that children can be born and brought up in balanced and stable setting.

The stability of marriage as a setting in which children can be raised is something people often forget. It may be true that in Britain half of all marriages fail; what people too often forget is that in Britain half of all marriages succeed, allowing children to be raised by both their parent; in Ireland, it looks as though five out of every six marriages succeed even now. If we compare Britain's marriage figures with cohabitation or civil partnership figures we see that marriages have far more longevity than either.

The balance of marriage is, of course, something that arises from its complementary nature, its combination of male and female role-models for children. Sociological evidence is increasingly providing us with data to support what common sense would always have said, which is that as children only come to be through the union of men and women, so they are best raised by a combination of men and women.

Things are defined as much by what they're not as by what they are. You can't simply announce that people can call housecats 'Bengal Tigers' if they want, and then announce that Bengal Tigers are no longer an endangered species as there are millions in Britain alone.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I think there are a number of ways in which it's dangerous to redefine marriage -- and that's what legislation for same-sex marriage would do -- in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it would send a signal that the common understanding of marriage is not something uniquely valuable, and not something uniquely deserving of protection as the best environment in which children can be reared.

That's not to say that children can't be reared successfully in other contexts; plenty of children have been raised through the heroic efforts of single mothers and widowers, for example, but we all surely recognise that -- allowing for specific individual circumstances -- these are not ideal situations. It's not good for children to grow up without a mother. It's not good for children to grow up without a father. It's best for children to grow up with both.

One other reason why I worry about this is because the State is in danger of overstepping its limits in a profoundly illiberal way. It is on the brink of saying 'You know that word the meaning of which you've always understood in the same way as your grandparents, as Gladstone, as Wilberforce, as Austen, as Shakespeare, as Malory, as Chaucer, and as Bede did? Well, we've decided that henceforth it's going to mean something else.' Semantic change happens, as we all know, but it rarely happens because the State decides that it can take language and alter it so as to dictate how we think.

That's dangerous. Orwellian, even. And it's something that those who believe gay people should be allowed marry ought to be very wary of. After all, if we accept the principle that the State can change language to achieve things we like, we're accepting the principle that the State can change language to do things we dislike.

Fwiw, I wrestled with this at length over three posts back in September. You might find them interesting. I was basically thinking out loud, but in a structured way.

Cathyby said...

Regarding different views of marriage, there are actually societies in which children are not seen as the product of one mother and one father. The concept is called partible paternity. The Aché, the Canela and other South American tribes share this belief. Fatherhood can extend to those who provided meat to the pregnant woman, to those who had sex with her when, or just before, she was pregnant (which means the "primary" father may not be the biological father).

This is, obviously, not a widespread idea. But it does suggest that marriage is not based on certainty of paternity in all societies.

I agree totally that children should ideally be raised by men and women. However my ideal would be for a range of men and women, not just one of each. The reality is that *does* happen: relations, friends, teachers and others influence how a child turns out. If there IS one commonality in human history it is that children grown up surrounded by many people of varying ages. It is our time, with children at home with their mother, apart from others, that is the anamoly.

Regarding reduced rates of marriage, when I said in my first comment that lack of housing, education and work was an enemy of marriage, I wasn't just picking those from the air. Those are the situations that seem to discourage marriage (see description on report finding this http://respublica.org.uk/item/The-fall-out-from-the-IFS-latest-study-on-marriage-time-for-a-grown-up-discussion ) In which case the decline in marriage is indeed under attack in the UK, but it is ongoing unemployment that is at the root of it.

(I hope it's also okay to comment on something you wrote elsewhere. Don't want to disturb that set of comments :) Homosexual sex is well known in the wild. The obvious case is bonobo chimpanzees. A 2009 review found various behaviours, including long-term pair bonds, in the wild. http://pda.physorg.com/_news164376975.html )

Michael said...

The original basis for this story - the belief that the Reuters reporter chose to focus on just one element of the address to the exclusion of all else - is undermined to some extent by the reporter's explanation that he had filed an earlier piece that focused on the substance of the address.


However in general I think you are right in thinking that much of the media ignore the vast majority of what church people are concerned about and focus on a narrower concern about issues of sexual morality and in particular about the issue of same-sex marriage.