No Hope for the Pope


should have come as no surprise, but somehow liberal Catholics in
the U.S. were caught off guard when the conservative Cardinal John
Ratzinger became Benedict XVI. With this new hardline Pope in place,
U.S. liberals, both Catholic and non-Catholic, are going to have
to come to terms with some hard realities about the Pope and the

became very clear in the media commentary on the papal election,
the world-wide Roman Catholic church—especially the rapidly
growing communities in Africa and Asia, as well as large parts of
South America—is deeply conservative on issues of moral and
sexual theology and orthodoxy. While Catholics in the United States,
as well as European countries such as Germany and Ireland, are far
more inclined to be liberal leaning in their stands on sexual morality,
they make up just over 10 percent of world Catholics. The fact that
Roman Catholicism—which under the pastoral care of Pope John
Paul II had become aggressively involved in secular politics—takes
an overwhelmingly right-wing, condemnatory stance on anything it
sees as deviating from traditional Catholic sexual morality is going
to present an unprecedented problem for progressives in the United
States and around the world. 

his election the U.S. media has attempted to separate Pope Benedict
XVI from his former persona as arch-conservative Cardinal John Ratzinger.
Noting his humility and conciliatory statements—he stated that
he was “a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyards”—even

New York Times

, which had been highly critical of Ratzinger’s
work as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, managed to rehabilitate him as “shy, orderly, funny”
and printed charming stories of his drinking German beer and playing
Mozart on his piano. 

decades the U.S. liberal establishment and U.S. Catholics have held
onto a fantasy of Vatican II as the defining moment of post-war
Catholicism, not just for Europe and the Americas, but for the world.
John XXIII was, in many people’s eyes, the Kennedy Pope and
Vatican II was his Camelot—a glorious, Roman Catholic version
of the New Deal and the New Frontier that would move Catholicism
from the medieval past into the beautiful future of social equality
in which mass would be celebrated in the vernacular, nuns’
habits would be modernized, and the Pope mobile would replace the
traditional chair as a form of papal transportation. 

Pope John XXIII was a progressive pope in many ways— his love
of the people was a direct and moving contrast to the public austerity
and rigidness of his predecessor Pius XII—he also vigorously
upheld traditional Catholic morality. In his 1959

Ad Petri Cathe-

he proclaimed that there was one revealed truth, which
was to be found in Catholicism, and that to hold this in “contempt”
would “result in incalculable losses to the individual and
the whole social structure.” In his 1961

Mater et Magistra

he affirmed that, according to natural law, the role of human sexuality
is permissible only in marriage and that, “Everyone [i.e.,
non-Catholics as well] without exception is bound to accept these
laws.” Most important, John XXIII urged new efforts in the
Third World and the ordination of “native clergy” to work
with their own people. This was the beginning of a massive church
effort of conversions akin to those that occurred in the great territorial
conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries—and the basis for
the cultural and theological makeup of the church today. 

his successor Paul VI there was a shift to a more hard line on issues
of personal morality as he reaffirmed the church’s stand on
birth control, divorce, and celibacy for priests. Along with urging
more missionary work in the Third World, he also insisted on a larger
role for non-European and U.S. Catholics and clergy, thereby shifting
the makeup of the College of Cardinals to make sure some of them
came from Third World countries.  

course, the greatest shift in tone came from John Paul II who, following
the lead of his predecessors, made insistent demands that the church’s
teachings on sexual morality and reproduction be followed not only
by Catholics, but be enacted into secular law. He issued numerous
statements condemning legislation that promoted reproductive rights,
abortion, access to alternative means of reproduction, anti-discrimination
laws to protect gay people, and laws protecting alternative families. 

XVI’s honeymoon period will undoubtedly end soon, given the
fact that the day before his election he spent considerable time
in a homily decrying “the dictatorship of relativism.” 

reality is that the church has hardly changed its mind about sexual
issues—ever—and is not about to now. But there is a second
liberal illusion about the Vatican and the Roman Church that goes
hand in hand with this—i.e., that the Pope and his faithful
followers do not have a great deal of power. This may have been
true 75 or 100 years ago, but is not true now. The Roman church,
in the last 50 years, has regrouped and reinvigorated itself as
a player and is more powerful than it has been for almost 200 years.
On the world stage this has been seen over the past 30 years, beginning
with the papacy of Paul VI and the Vatican’s unceasing efforts
to stamp out liberation theology in South and Central America. But
that was only the beginning. 

of the most important places that this power may manifest itself—aside
from the Vatican attempting to influence U.S. politics—will
be in the United Nations as primarily Catholic Third World countries
will be voting on funding for birth control, AIDS prevention, and
sex education. (Already we have seen alliances between some primarily
Catholic countries and Islamic countries on votes about freedom
for women and sexual issues, especially the relaxing of regulations
on homosexuality.) 

November 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the Vatican’s
spokesperson on family affairs stated, “Relying on condoms
is like betting on your own death,” claiming—as scientific
fact—that condoms are too permeable to prevent the spread of
HIV and AIDS. Although the World Health Organization countered this
with the information that condoms are a highly efficient means of
preventing the spread of HIV, Trujillo responded, “They are
wrong about that…. This is an easily recognizable fact.” 

blatant, deadly, and intentional misstatement of scientific fact
has been carried from the Vatican by bishops and cardinals, mostly
in Asia and Africa where the church is growing quickest and where
AIDS is spreading the fastest. For example, 20 percent of the population
of Kenya is HIV positive, but the Roman Catholic clergy has repeatedly
condemned condom use as immoral, stating that as a form of birth
control it is against “natural law” and promotes promiscuity.
The church also publicizes and reiterates the lie about condom permeability.
As AIDS spreads across these countries, the death toll climbs higher
and higher. 

is, sadly and ironically, history repeating itself. In the middle
ages and the Renaissance the Vatican’s Inquisition would kill
people for not adhering to church doctrine. Now people face a hastened
death for following doctrine. Karl Marx succinctly noted, history
repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time
as farce.” 


Michael Bronski
has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer,
editor, publisher, and theorist since 1969. His most recent book is

Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps

(St. Martin’s, 2003).