In the weeks since the death of Pope John Paul II, Germany’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger played a public role unprecedented in its visibility for the man who would go on to be chosen as the Catholic Church’s next leader.
Ratzinger was the principal celebrant of John Paul’s funeral Mass on April 8. His role as advisor to the late pope was discussed in great detail in the week between the funeral and the meeting of the College of Cardinals to choose a successor. On April 18, as the cardinals prepared to enter their secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel, Ratzinger again celebrated the Mass and delivered a homily in which he decried the “dictatorship of relativism” he saw infecting the increasingly secular Western world. He then presided over the conclave as dean of the College of Cardinals.
The world has probably never before gotten such a high profile preview of a papacy to come.
Yet for many gay men and lesbians—and others concerned about the reactionary arc of John Paul’s papacy—the name Joseph Ratzinger was hardly one first encountered in 2005. In fact, the fame—or more precisely, infamy—of the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI dates back to at least Halloween 1986.
On October 1, 1986, Ratzinger, as leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a leading Vatican office responsible for theological pronouncements, issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the first major Vatican pronouncement on gay people in 11 years. The words and arguments Ratzinger chose staggered gays and lesbians worldwide, but perhaps nowhere more than in the U.S., where the queer community was just beginning to coalesce around a strategy for fighting a five-year-old health menace.
Ratzinger noted that his Congregation had addressed the issue in late 1975, when a “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” was issued, stating that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” The earlier letter, issued under Pope Paul VI, certainly put the church in opposition to the nascent gay rights movement, but coming as it did just two years after the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, the statement was not particularly out of step with the times.
Ratzinger, in fact, apparently worried that the 1975 statement did not go far enough. He noted that in the public discussion that followed the Declaration, “an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” For the sake of removing ambiguity, he went on to write, “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Pathology was thus married to moral harm.
But the future pope did not stop there, choosing instead to twist the knife by playing on AIDS anxieties.
“Even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates remain undeterred and refuse to consider the magnitude of the risks involved,” he wrote, before making the cynical addendum, “The Church can never be so callous.”
Ratzinger addressed one other burning matter in his letter—the potential culpability of the church in anti-gay violence—in similarly disingenuous fashion: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation,” he began, before quickly supplying the church with a perfect alibi: “When homosexual activity is condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”
It was in this way that Pope John Paul II first entered the gay rights debate in significant measure, more than eight years into his papacy. The effect on gay and AIDS activists here in New York was profound. For years following the “Halloween Letter,” the block of Fifth Avenue in front of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral became the most contested ground during the annual Gay Pride March, with demonstrators shouting “Shame, Shame, Shame” in front of the shuttered and heavily protected church. For several years, marchers also carried signs with caricatures of Ratzinger as a rat dictating anti-gay nostrums.
In an e-mail blast circulated on Wednesday, the writer and Sirius radio talk show host Michelangelo Signorile recounted a zap carried out by members of ACT UP in January 1988 against Ratzinger, when he appeared at St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Center in midtown along with the late Cardinal John O’Connor and other leading conservatives including William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert Bork, the failed Reagan Supreme Court nominee.
But as AIDS activism cooled in the ‘90s and the gay rights movement mainstreamed, anger at, perhaps even awareness of Ratzinger diminished, but there was no corresponding diminution of interest on the cardinal’s part. Instead, he stayed in the game. In 1992, the Vatican declared that discrimination against gays was “not unjust” if it involved adoption, foster care, teaching or military service. More recently, in July 2003, just one day after Pres. George W. Bush made his strongest statement to that point regarding a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Ratzinger issued yet another letter, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexuals.” Though it broke no new doctrinal ground, it was clearly a bid to stunt the growing movement toward acceptance of gay and lesbian unions, which Ratzinger termed a “troubling moral and social phenomenon.” Heterosexual marriage, he wrote, is “holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural law.” And in a clear warning to Catholic politicians, he continued, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.”
Ratzinger’s efforts on the gay rights question, however, have not been confined to theological treatises issued on dusty parchment. As has been noted with regard to his treatment of other church figures who have strayed from the orthodoxy established under John Paul II—whether on priestly celibacy, the ordination of women or left-leaning liberation theology once widespread among clergy in the developing world—Ratzinger over and over again played the role of activist enforcer. Those who persisted in publicly challenging papal teachings on key policy questions have been called to account before Ratzinger in Rome, they have been investigated, in some cases they have been silenced and in a few exceptional situations they have been excommunicated.
The penultimate of those sanctions was issued against two American religious leaders—Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick—who, beginning in 1977, operated New Ways Ministry, a pastoral effort headquartered in Mt. Ranier, Maryland, near Washington, to work with gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and also to assist other church leaders, including parish priests, educators and hospital chaplains in understanding their gay flock. Their work won them deep affection from many gay Catholics, including Dignity, but also raised the ire of Vatican officials, particularly Ratzinger. After an investigation that stretched for years, Ratzinger in 1999 order the two to desist from pastoral work with gay and lesbian Catholics. When the two continued speaking out about their investigation by the Vatican, Ratzinger demanded that their respective religious orders compel their silence through their vow of obedience. Nugent complied, and took up new work in Pennsylvania, but Gramick, stating, “I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression,” decided to leave her order and become affiliated with a more progressive order of nuns, the Sisters of Loretto.
Several years ago, when Gramick was in New York to accept an award from Dignity NY, she related a story of enduring a chance 30-minute encounter with Ratzinger on a flight between Rome and Munich during the time he was investigating her. In an television interview this week, she recalled that her impression at the time was, “He is a very kind and holy man, but he is very rigid.”
But, she pulled no punches in describing her reaction to Ratzinger’s elevation to the papacy.
“My heart went down to my feet. I was so despondent,” she told the Washington Post. “It couldn’t have been worse in terms of my own ministry and outreach to gays and lesbians.”
“I think Jesus is very disappointed,” she said in a Baltimore television interview.
Gramick was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for further comment, as was Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an official in the Detroit archdiocese who has been the highest ranking U.S. church advocate for gay rights.
On behalf of New Ways Ministry, Francis DeBernardo, its executive director, said, “We are very disappointed that the cardinals selected someone the hallmark of whose work has been enforcing orthodoxy.”
Asked whether Ratzinger’s elevation ran the risk of alienating those gay Catholics who have been trying to hold onto their faith in the face of years of official hostility, DeBernardo said, “In the ten years I have been working here, whenever there are vicious statements from the Vatican, we often hear that this is the last straw. This is such a stunning blow to many people. But there will be many people who will keep up the fight.”
Father Jim Morris, an openly gay priest on leave from the Brooklyn diocese who now does social work in the mental health field, echoed that view about the resilience of gay Catholics.
“There’s always a danger, always a loss in people leaving,” Morris said. “But there are enormous numbers of Catholic activists in pockets all across this country who are just as likely to be energized by something like this. Catastrophic events like the election of Benedict XVI can only help these movements in my opinion.”
Morris focused on a curiosity in Ratzinger’s career—during the 1960s, he was considered a theological liberal who was a dedicated supporter of the reforms ushered in by the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII.
Still, Ratzinger was “the worst possible candidate for us, the absolute worst,” Morris said, adding, “Maybe that’s what it will take to lead to real demands from the people of God for structural change.”
Morris’ lover, Jeffrey Stone, the secretary of Dignity NY, also mourned the ascension of Ratzinger, even as he remains committed to Catholic activism. Noting that the new pope is bad news for non-gay liberal and even moderate American Catholics, Stone said, We’re dismayed. This is a cardinal who has authored some of the most virulently anti-gay documents of the last papacy.”
Asked how Dignity will respond, Stone said, This is something that is going to take a bit of time to come up with a response to. But our message is still that our lives are holy, our relationships are holy and healthy.”
The most downbeat assessment from a prominent gay Catholic came from Matt Foreman, the head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“As a long-time Catholic from a staunchly Catholic family, I know that the history of the church is full of shameful, centuries-long chapters involving vilification, persecution and violence against others,” Foreman said in a written statement. “Someday, the church will apologize to gay people as it has to others it has oppressed in the past. I very much doubt that this day will come during this pope’s reign.”