One of the schools down the road from my children’s school runs a programme for year 5 (nine and ten year olds) aiming to tackle homophobic language. The simplest example is using “that’s so gay” to mean “that’s a bit rubbish”.
When it comes to denigrating same-sex relationships, there is a long and ignominious history that dates back dozens of centuries. Even in Athens, hotbed of gay sex in the ancient world, if you did it “wrong”, you could be stripped of your citizenship. In ancient Athens, the politics of sex didn’t focus on with whom you were sleeping, but who did the penetrating (it wasn’t sex if it didn’t involve a penis going into someone, apparently). It didn’t matter if you were having sex with a man, a woman or a child, as long as it was you doing the poking rather than being poked, you were fine. If anyone was to discover that you had been poked, you could be thrown out of society.
Fast-forward a thousand years or so, and watch as Christianity spreads across Europe. Christianity with its phobias and taboos. St Augustine of Hippo (the famous one, not the guy who converted England) spent much of his life getting his end away in a variety of ways and generally partying hard without heed to the consequences. After his conversion to Christianity, he set aside his lecherous ways and spent the rest of his life deciding that asceticism was the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Augustine’s thoughts and writings continue to influence the church of the today, and have largely prevented any wide discussion of the theology of sex anywhere outside the closed doors of university theology departments. indeed, whenever such discussions do leak outside, the church is quick to silence any discussion that sex might be fun and that gay people might be allowed to enjoy some.
Living today, and still influential, the cardinal I love to hate, Raymond Burke, continues to mouth off about the evils of gay people and gay relationships. In fact, he equated gay people (and straight people who have re-married) to murderers as recently as March this year.
This is how strong asceticism is within the Roman Catholic church even today. Sex for pleasure is wrong. The only justification for any sexual activity at all is for the procreation of babies. Put the two of these together, the only people who are allowed to have sex are fertile straight married couples.
In the course of its long and distinguished history, the church has never shied away from blatant hypocrisy, and it can be found here, too. The church doesn’t pour scorn on infertile couples having sex, neither does it proclaim the sinfulness of old people getting married. No, the asceticism rules seem only to apply to unmarried couples, separated/remarried people and gay people. 1968’s Humanae Vitae underlined the church’s attitude towards sex for pleasure even amongst straight married couples. How much more scorn, then, is reserved for (cisgender) gay couples who, biologically, cannot have their own children?
If this was just a little sect that nobody paid attention to, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The Catholic church, however, is hugely influential across the world stage (although it is panicking about how rapidly it has lost its voice in the rich West), and its attitude towards gay people has shaped cultural development for centuries across half the planet. This has left us with a legacy of homophobia which remains embedded deeply in our societies, even when we are too embarrassed to admit it.
Panti’s revealing TEDx talk has much to say about society’s lingering hatred of all things gay (actually, about gay men, but we can sweep lesbians and bisexuals up in their wake too). Maybe, the next time we hear someone complaining about gay people, we should simply challenge them to admit that what they are really complaining about is the fact that they find the idea of anal sex between men to be icky and unpalatable. Regardless of whether or not any particular gay person has ever even done it (or has ever wanted to do it).
In the wake of staunchly-Catholic Ireland becoming the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by direct popular vote, maybe we can begin to put that history behind us. Actually, I think that we, as a people, are doing just that. My interpretation of Diarmuid Martin’s comments in reaction to the vote, however, suggest that the church is content to wed itself to that history, even as it is left behind.