Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The "Ratzinger Letter" of 1986 as "Theological Pornography"

In the 1989 anthology Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, Catholic theologian Mary Hunt has an insightful essay entitled “Theological Pornography: From Corporate to Communal Ethics.”

Hunt approaches pornography using “three simple but inclusive categories”:

First, pornography objectifies persons. It makes them the object of perverted fantasies that bear little resemblance to real life. Second, pornography trivializes sexuality. It turns sexuality into distorted, usually violent images of women and children (sometimes men as well) subjected to the whims of others. Third, pornography leads to violence. There is debate as to whether pornography causes violence by suggestion or inhibits it by allowing people to act out in print and on film what they wish to do in person. My claim is simply that pornography and violence are deeply intertwined.

Hunt then proceeds to examine and identify as theological pornography the 1986 letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (often called the Halloween Letter by its detractors, as it was released in late October 1986). For many Catholics – gay and straight – this letter and, in particular, the terminology it introduced to describe the homosexual orientation, remains a source of great contention.

Following are more excerpts from Mary Hunt’s critique of “the Ratzinger letter” as theological pornography.


Among the letter’s outrageous assertions is that homosexual tendency, and not simply homosexual behavior, is wrong. The letter states that the condition or tendency is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” This view has not been warmly received by lesbian and gay Catholics. The letter, apart from its content, represents a corporate approach to ethics, which produces pornography so regularly that few readers give it much attention.

The letter is a classic in the genre of theological pornography. First, it objectifies person, making no distinction between lesbian women and gay men. Neither does it make any distinction between persons who are homosexual by orientation, much less by choice, a category that does not seem to exist for the cardinal and his writers, and those who engage in homosexual activity but in fact may be heterosexual.

The letter gives no evidence of specific cases of homosexual behavior that modern psychology calls healthy, good, and natural. There is no effort to consult the data of the social or behavioral sciences. Careful ethicists find an abundance of psychological and sociological evidence showing that homosexuality is normal human behavior for a substantial percentage of the population.

Amazingly, there is little grappling with the basic theology of creation in the letter. Lesbian women and gay men are created in the image and likeness of the same God/ess as heterosexual people, not in the objectified, pornographic image of some lesser divinity.

Finally, the letter itself pronounces its message in the name of the whole church, as if this were the Word of God/ess. Such gross objectifications of persons, including the writer and team who produced this analysis, would be something to ignore if so many people were not affected by it. Like pornography available to children in the convenience store on the corner, this kind of dehumanizing and false portrayal parades as truth. It creates an environment in which sincere believers are seduced.

. . . The Ratzinger letter is pornographic, second, because it trivializes sexuality. It takes an integral part of human beings – our potential to love and be loved, to express that love in an embodied, genital way if we choose – and telescopes it into a narrowly focused fetish. Would that the writers had real experience of warm, loving, committed friendship in which sexual expression flows naturally. At least they could have consulted people who do have such friendships before publishing such material in the name of the whole church. Instead, they imagine or project onto others forms of behavior that simply do not correspond with reality. They trivialize sexuality by condemning what is part of many people’s responsible, human experience.

. . . The third characteristic of theological pornography found in the Ratzinger letter is the close connection between pornography and violence. The letter itself almost invites discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. It includes a disturbingly violent section: “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 . . .”

In the present homophobic, heterosexist climate, this sounds like an open invitation to violence. It seems to be a way of saying that boys will be boys. “Gay bashing” and instances of lesbians being attacked and raped for not conforming to heterosexist patriarchy are all but excused.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for the Ratzinger letter is that it helped clarify what is really going on. We cannot forget that Rome used the same dynamic for the “natural resemblance” theory in 1976, which effectively erased the possibility of women’s ordination. Women do not bear a natural resemblance to Jesus in the Eucharist.

Again, we see the objectification of women and of Jesus, the trivialization of sexuality as if it were pertinent to ministry, and the unleashing of violence against faithful people who will be deprived of the eucharist due to a shortage of priests.

For more of Mary Hunt’s insights at The Wild Reed, see:
Mary Hunt: “Catholicism is a Very Complex Reality”
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Crisis? What Crisis?
A Mountain Out of a Molehill
A Time to Re-Think the Basis and Repair the Damage

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Papa
Listen Up, Papa!
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
The Blood-Soaked Thread
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
John McNeill’s Message to the U.S. Bishops: “Enough!”
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid, You Can Be Happy and Gay
The Bishops’ “Guidelines”: A Parent’s Response
What Is It That Ails You?

Images: Catholic Rainbow Parents Darlene White and Mary Lynn Murphy protest the Courage Apostolate and its unquestioning support of Vatican rhetoric regarding homosexuality and homosexual persons - University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, August 2003. (To read more about this protest, click here.)


Mareczku said...

"Neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground and irrational and violent reactions increase." Yes, this is truly chilling. The article is very good but this quote hits a nerve. I remember reading this the first time and almost being in disbelief. It exposed me to a side of the Church that I did not know existed. So we are not to be surprised when gay people are the victims of violence? Does the Church realize how hurtful these words are to people? Do they care? It seems to me that some in the Church seem not to want to offend those that hate homosexuality and dislike gay people. I read about some of the bishops who seem to be colored by their dislike of gay people. They see us as disorder, defective, inferior. It is painful.

Mark Andrews said...

When the word "objective" is used in this letter, what does it mean?

kevin57 said...


Sadly, I have to concur with your impression that the Church, despite its pastorally solicitous words in the Catechism about homosexual persons does not brook a single "concession" (politically, socially or ecclesiastically) in practice. What drove that home to me in a painful way was when the Vatican voted against a U.N. resolution that would have urged nations to decriminalize consensual homosexual activity between adults. The rationale was that this resolution would have encouraged same sex marriage, even though there was no such language in the measure. Thus, the Vatican joined the ranks of mostly Arabic countries...and, oh, the United States as well.

Mareczku said...

Kevin, I did not realize that the United States voted against that resolution too. The Church claims to be pro-life but what about the lives of gay and lesbians who are murdered in some countries? Don't they care about them? Considering all the gay men who are in the Catholic ministry, it is very discouraging. When did lying become a virtue? It would be nice to hear the Vatican start to tell the truth when it comes to these matters.

Mareczku said...

In reading the pastoral letter, I come across this quote, "The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. The Church ... refuses to consider a person as a "heterosexual" or a "homosexual" and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life." This is all well and good but it contradicts the Church proclamation in regard to homosexual men in seminaries. If the Church refuses to consider people according to their orientation then why does it wish to remove celibate gay men from seminaries. If a gay man is willing to commit to a life of celibacy then should he not be also considered a child of God and heir to eternal life? I see contradictions here.

kevin57 said...

Under President Bush, the U.S. joined the happy lot of the Vatican and Saudi Arabia and Iran. One of the first things President Obama did was to reverse that vote. Although I think Obama has been woefully poor so far at affirming the equal dignity of gays, I do have to applaud this move.

colkoch said...

Mareczku I see this contradiction as an out growth of the Church's insistence on reductionist references in regard to gender. In both gender and orientation everything reduces from the enshrinement of straight male. It used to be white straight male. So we've made a little progress.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

In the context of this letter, "objective" basically means that there's no argument against homosexuality being a disorder as supposedly it's self-evident.

It's related, of course, to the Vatican's "objective truth" concerning the definition and purpose of sex: heterosexual (one man, one woman in the state of sacramental marriage) and always open to procreation.

Thus an “ideal” is lifted up as “objective reality,” and any and all acts that do not correspond with this “reality” or “truth” are viewed as bad and wrong. Furthermore, folks like Janet Smith insist that if a person finds fulfillment and/or enjoyment through these acts, then it means he/she is delusional as only acts that correspond with “objective reality” can rationally be appreciated and enjoyed.



Mark Andrews said...

The use of the word "objective" in reference to "objective reality" presupposes at least two, probably three things.

First, that there is such a thing as "objective reality."

Second, that human beings can partially and reliably (not completely, not entirely) know "objective reality."

Third, that, after partially and reliably knowing object reality, they can act in accordance with with it.

In this discussion there are at least two "objective realities," the one the Magisterium talks about, and the one other people talk about. What I see is a word or a phrase that one group of people uses according to a certain philosophical school, which another group of people take personally. Alot could be gained by everybody clarifying their language and how they use their language.

Liam said...


Correct. That passage was written in technical philosophical jargon. But,at least as rendered in English, it was equivocal and thus poor communication.

There are thinkers who poo-poo the idea of objective reality and an epistemology that can come to know objective reality. In the end, such thinkers are a far greater enemy to gay folk than the philosophical realism (using a technical term here, just to be clear) of Catholic theology. Without realism, gay people's claims that they are in fact gay and have inalienable rights dissolve into thin air. The problem for gay folk is that the Catholic church is the primary institutional defender of philosophical realism these days.