Savi Hensman

The Pope, 'the family' and Christmas

By Savi Hensman
December 24, 2012

The foundations of family life and key aspects of humanity are under threat, the Pope has claimed, referring to the debate over marriage for same-sex couples. Yet the reasoning behind his warnings is weak, and his theology out of step with the message of Christmas.

Is women’s status pre-ordained?

Addressing cardinals and Vatican officials, Pope Benedict XVI said that “the family is still strong and vibrant today. But there is no denying the crisis that threatens it to its foundations – especially in the western world”.

Mentioning the situation in France, where some Roman Catholic and other religious leaders have opposed marriage equality, he warned that “the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question.”

He appeared to take the view that questioning ‘traditional’ male and female roles, and the notion that there was only one valid type of family – father, mother and children – was rebelling against God.

He was critical of gender theorists who argued that “sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society... People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being.”

But, said the Pope, “According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God.” What is more, “if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.”

He warned that “When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker Himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being.”

There are several flaws in his case against diversity in marriage and family life.

To begin with, even if some aspects of what it means to be a man or woman are based on biology, it is hard to deny that sometimes unjust claims have been made about what women are capable of, and how they should be treated, supposedly based on their ‘natural’ inferiority.

“Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting.” These are the words not of a radical feminist but of Pope John Paul II, in 1995.

Secondly, even if most men and women are ‘naturally’ best suited to marrying members of the opposite sex and having children together, why should this apply to all? Some people are infertile, others are mainly attracted to the same sex from an early age. And if one pattern only is acceptable, does this not mean that arranging celibate orders of monks and nuns is encouraging rebellion against nature?

Indeed many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people would claim that their sexual orientation and gender identity are not a matter of choice, but rather an intrinsic aspect of themselves. People of faith may assert, rightly or wrongly, that this is how God made them. So supporting equal marriage need not involve believing in “the freedom to create oneself”.

Thirdly, given that various communities throughout history have found ways of institutionalising identities that today might be described as LGBT (e.g. two-spirit peoples in North America), is there evidence that this led to a diminishment of human existence? If not, why should this be the case today?

Fourthly, many people feel drawn to be part of committed heterosexual relationships in which children are conceived, and these often make an important contribution to society. But why (especially since the global population has grown dramatically in the past couple of centuries) is this form of family life more authentic than all others, for instance fostering, adoption or caring for sick adults.

Christ’s coming and human identity

What is more, for Christians, Jesus’ birth calls into question conventional approaches to family life and dualistic notions of identity.

At the beginning of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, through the Holy Spirit, Mary is able to do more than would have seemed possible. Jesus is brought up by a mother and stepfather, a deviation from the narrow model described by the Pope.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” declares the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Those open to the living Word become part of a non-biological family: ”to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory”.

In the new family life celebrated at Christmas, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, it would appear that the duality of gender is not reinforced but overcome: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus... when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

While Christians should indeed examine social and cultural changes critically, the fearfulness of the Pope about shifting attitudes to gender and sexual orientation seems excessive. Christmas should be a time of celebration in response to God’s generous love, through which barriers are broken down and humanity’s potential fulfilled.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a widely-published writer and commentator on religion, politics, theology, Anglican affairs and the sexuality debate. An Ekklesia associate, she contributed several chapters to Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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