The resignation of Benedict XVI: what happens next?


It was less than a month before news of the Pope’s resignation that I penned an article about what it meant to be a young gay Catholic in the 21st century. Now, it’s interesting to see similar religious issues brought to the fore of public discussion in the wake of recent news. As we know, Pope Benedict XVI is one of only a handful of popes to resign and the first to so do for over 600 years. Lofty rhetoric aside, this is an historic abdication, which will play out quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

When the Pope takes off to his glorified retirement home at the end of February, he won’t leave behind too much of a papal legacy. He will largely be remembered for his covering up of the church sex abuse and his conservative views on contraception, abortion and homosexuality – that is, if history remembers him at all. The abuse scandal was a whole lot greater than him, and as for the conservative views, well, they’re nothing new. The Pope stood for stagnant and painful continuity, so it’s not surprising that many people are now hopeful for the ‘Obama moment’ – the coming of a new leader who will change the face of the church and bring new hope to an old role. Unfortunately, we’ve become too swept up in a political world where TV debates and smiles win votes, and ‘out with the old’ also means ‘in with the new’. I hate to break it to you, but the election of the new pope will most likely be a standard changing of the guard.

In early March there will commence a conclave – a private meeting between over 200 top cardinals, enclosed in isolation until they select the next leader. Although the only rule is that the Pope be a Catholic-baptised male (yes, I’m available), it’s usually one of the Cardinals in the room who is selected. Once they have decided on their man, they let us know by sending white smoke out of their chimney. And who can we expect to emerge triumphant onto the balcony?

Unlike last time, when right-hand man Ratzinger was the obvious favourite, there isn’t really a leading contender this time, but two things are being discussed. One is that the very fact of Benedict’s continued existence will influence the Cardinals’ choice, assuring that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree; the other is that a non-European pope will be selected for the first time in modern history. Will this mean he’ll be different? The simple answer is, probably not.

Pope John Paul II: His Remarkable Journey

It’s easy to hope Western civilization’s rapid gains in gay equality will be reflected by every incoming global leader, but the Catholic Church is not about to start entering popularity contests. It doesn’t need to. The gay cause may be one which reaches political fruition this century, but for every rainbow-flag-waving, well educated European mocking Vatican doctrine,  many more people in the developing world are still dependent on the church for day-to-day survival, basic knowledge and invaluable faith. I know what that feels like, for not so long ago Ireland was one such country, but just as it has lost the faith of a few million on the Emerald Isle, the Church has made huge gains in Africa, Asia and South America, which all boast growing Catholic populations. It’s hoped the new Pope will represent this.

Will this mean a black Pope? Quite possibly – but again, this is not a sign of the moving times. A black man in the Vatican is not quite as progressive as a black man in the White House. In many areas where we thought Benedict was archaic, an African Pope would likely be even more conservative. This is Catholicism’s Africa, where the Church denies condoms to a continent devastated by AIDS and where homosexuality is still largely punishable by death. As names and photos of African cardinals began to swirl around after Pope Benedict’s announcement, I remembered a myth I’d heard as a child in Ireland that a black Pope’s election would preface the end of the world. Unsure of whether this was based on anything concrete, or if it was just a bit of casual racism that circulated among country folk, I did my research. Certainly there are people who link a black Pope with apocalyptic consequences, but nothing is founded in any substantial source. What I did stumble across was something much more interesting: The Prophecy of the Popes.

This is a text which was written by Saint Malachy, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, in the 1100s, which was the result of a vision he experienced on a trip to Rome. He foresaw the future of the papacy, and using short descriptive phrases, predicted the identities of all the popes who would lead the church. For example, John Paul II is depicted as ‘of the eclipse of the sun’ – and he was indeed born during a solar eclipse. Benedict is marked as ‘the glory of the olive’ – the olive being the symbol of the Benedictine order. The document is in some doubt. The church obviously dismisses it and the fact that it wasn’t unearthed until the 1500s (plenty of time to fill in all the contemporary history if it’s a fake), means many people are wary of its authenticity. But theologians haven’t ruled it out completely. It counts up to 112 Popes, of which we can calculate Benedict to be 111. As for 112, (brace yourselves), the prophecy tells us:

‘In the final persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will sit Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The End.’

The city of seven hills is Rome. Again, I have to point out that some scholars question if there was a gap in the text between pope 111, and the final ‘Peter the Roman’, due to some awkward grammar but for anyone interested in a juicy prediction, they don’t come much better than this. No pope has ever taken the regnal name Peter, since the very first – Peter of the 12 apostles – friend of Jesus, and founder of the church. They withhold his name out of respect. Surely they wouldn’t break that tradition now, especially since the prophecy names him? Probably not. But if his birth name is Peter, that’s a different story. So try Peter Turkson on for size, the black Ghanaian Cardinal who is currently standing with odds of 4/1 to take the papacy next month. Could he be the Peter in question? Is he the black Pope of urban myth? Is he the next Pope, and the last Pope?


For centuries, theologians have imaged the Prophecy of the Popes speaks of the end of the world. I wonder if it does not speak of the destruction of the earth but of the church itself. Consider the ‘persecution’ – is this a precursor to reversed intolerance of religion, fuelled by science, liberalism and desire for an almost post-colonial revenge? The destruction of Rome need not mean the city, but the Vatican as a place and an institution. The line about judgement is one we are used to hearing. The OED defines ‘apocalypse’ as ‘an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale’. When translated directly from Greek, it means a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. In other words, a revelation. Is it possible that the sustained and stubborn conservatism of a new Pope could bring about a separation of church and people, evoking a devastation of faith? If the scriptures were speaking metaphorically or theologically, then surely there could be no greater apocalypse for the church than this.

I have speculated on possibilities here and no one can say for sure whether any of it will become relevant in the near future. Remember that the decline of the church could do a whole lot more damage to civilisation than advocates of gay equality might imagine. Personally, I hold out hope for a reinvention of the church. It’s not too late to salvage its reputation, but time is running out and the next Pope might just be the tipping point. This is certainly plenty to chew on and to bear in mind as we wait for that white smoke to emerge from the Vatican some time in March.

This article appeared originally on SoSoGay online.


Ireland’s new pro-gay Catholics versus the Pope


When people hear that I’m a Catholic, they often snort the same sarcastic line: ‘A gay Catholic? How does that work?’

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the answer. The problem is that these people often consider me as an obedient worshipper of Rome, hanging on Pope Benedict’s every tweet, feeling alarm and fear when he condemns my sexuality. In reality, the modern Catholic lives a very different life.

I have to admit, I don’t remember any anti-gay rhetoric in mass, or in any of my Catholic schools when I was growing up – this was in Northern Ireland, where your religion stands for a whole lot more and actually reflects a whole let less than just your religion. (Chew on that.) Growing up in this environment did mean I felt cautious about my sexuality, but only because of the remnants of old prejudices around gender and sexuality that still exist in most societies, and not because of anything I learned from the church. In reality, I feel comfortable as a gay Catholic, because I don’t particularly see the need for them to fit one another perfectly in order for both to be relevant to my life but I know that technically they do conflict, and recently it has become more apparent.

Under Pope Benedict’s leadership, the Vatican has become harsher in its criticism of homosexuality, and my generation in Ireland is now moving further away from the Church. The revelation of the abuse scandal at the start of the 21st century was a major turning point, but issues like gay equality – one which is now coming to the fore around the world – are certainly adding to this. It is a fact that fewer and fewer of us attend Sunday mass, and I heard from three different friends who walked out on Christmas Day because a priest was reiterating the Pope’s message against gay marriage. Many of my friends who do go regularly do so out of a sense of obligation, but the practice now sits further out of sync with modern life.

So what’s the point in the whole Catholic thing at all, if we don’t like mass and we don’t agree with the Pope? Well, being a Catholic is more than just attending a weekly gathering, and faith in God is more than just what you’re told by the clergy. It’s a way of life, and particularly in devout countries like mine, it’s something which binds the community together in schools, neighborhoods and organizations. Northern Ireland in particular is still a polarised state, with two sides divided on ethno-political grounds, where your religion is your label. Of course this has softened in recent years, but the roots run deep enough so that people still feel much more bound by their religion – whether they like it or not – than they might in a multi-ethnic country. Feelings of obligation to the Pope might be waning, but feelings of belonging among fellow Catholics are not. A community still exists, but its leader is being socially and morally ousted.

People who don’t support gay marriage should not be bullied into doing so, but they need to accept opposition. The Pope used his Christmas Day message to declare gay marriage is destroying the very ‘essence of the human creature’. This is lofty, damning rhetoric, both incorrect and offensive. Here, he gives himself and other Catholics a bad name. Had he said, ‘The church has always believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and despite the wishes of many, that it how the church’s position will stay’, that would have been fair; in fact, he said gay equality is an ‘attack’ on the traditional family.

On the contrary, the vision of many supporters of gay equality is one in which gay couples and families co-exist with traditional families. The Pope could have acknowledged this co-existence, as opposed to suggesting that gays are on a crusade to destroy the nuclear family – remember, not everyone is going to decide to turn gay in order to have a gay marriage. He also describes the path of sexuality as ‘man’s fundamental choice’, in which homosexuals ‘deny their nature… given to them by their bodily identity’. This is embarrassing, as it’s now almost universally understood that homosexuality is not a choice; indeed, to reject it would be against one’s own nature.

The split on homosexuality is reminiscent of how previous generations rejected the Church’s condemnation of contraception. The Church argues that contraception is against the wish of God because it prevents the creation of life. People in Ireland realize that contraception is the lesser of two evils (considering abortion destroys a life already created) and in the 21st century is a vital tool in international health. Put simply, they used it anyway. The Church condemns homosexuality? Guess what? Once again, Catholics don’t really care. It’s worth noting that of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland – the DUP (largely Unionist, Protestant voters) and Sinn Fein (largely Republican, Catholic voters), it is Sinn Fein which supports marriage equality. The DUP are rejecting it, and indeed tried to prevent the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland as recently as 1982. This democratic politics speaks louder for the views of the people on the ground than the voice of an unelected man in Rome.

So where do I see the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland? It’s been twenty years since Sinead O’Connor outed the abuse scandal on Saturday Night Live, and ten years since it exploded in full, with mass exposés of historic sexual offences within the Church. I now see a new generation of young people who still identify as Catholic, but reject some of the teachings of the Church. I know people who still pray and have spirituality, but don’t necessarily take it to the door of a chapel. I see communities who act out the positive, generous and loving elements of Catholic teachings, but have dropped the divisive and damning beliefs that have kept their country in fear, guilt, and even poverty, for the centuries in which the Church monopolized Ireland’s institutions. Many might say this sounds like picking and choosing – indeed it is a style of reform – but if it’s reform for the better welfare and happiness of people, why shouldn’t it be so? After all, faith is about being happy – religion became too much about control.

It’s not too late for the Vatican. I look at how the British establishment and the Royal family are reforming ancient laws about succession and religion as well as gay equality, and I can see how it could be done within the Catholic Church. Of course, the Church shouldn’t have to change its ways for every social change – who would want to believe in something, or someone, that changes their mind on an issue at the drop of a hat? (For any Liberal Democrat voters, that question is purely rhetorical.) But these are landmark issues, which are now already accepted parts of the lives of young Catholics, and the tide has turned – it will not turn back. These changes are forever, and the Church should assess its stance.

As with many religions, many years must be served before making it to the ultimate post of Pope, but considering it is a position of such power and personal influence, I truly believe it should become more of a presidential role, into which young priests and bishops can step, bringing with them the thoughts and beliefs of the masses. Call it cheesy, but I have a dream that Catholics could have their very own Obama to save the day. Sadly, I don’t hold much faith in this actually happening, but without it, the Church is facing rapid extinction. Now is the time for our renaissance; the dawning of a new social attitude, where ‘gay’ and ‘Catholic’ are not contradictory, but elements of a person which go hand in hand.

This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

U.S. Presidential Election – a landmark in LGBT history?

The lights have gone out on yet another U.S. Presidential election, and Barack Obama has joined the ranks of the two-term presidents. Arguably his legacy was secured almost before he’d even taken up his job in 2009, but now he’s being given the chance to properly finish the social and political changes he’s set in motion, without fear of losing political support.

If this election taught us one thing, it’s that America’s voting is as divisively split as ever. The well-trawled map where each state is deep blue or blood red demonstrates how polarised the U.S. people remain when it comes to politics – particularly on issues like gay marriage which has come to the fore in this election as ever.

President Obama has admitted taking time to make up his mind about gay marriage, and cites a poignant conversation with his daughters about the gay parents of their classmates as the moment he started to refine his position. A late convert? Perhaps. But his honesty reflects many average Americans who are now beginning to see a realistic social necessity that has to exist in spite of religious traditions. Obama looked stronger going into the 2012 election in support of gay marriage, especially considering his fiercely conservative opponent Mitt Romney was so against it.

In a country where people have such opposing views, it takes a president who is universally accepting to lead them. Unfortunately for Romney – and for other republicans of his stock – they preach exclusion on the issue of gay marriage, and would attempt to impose their views on the people heading the other side of the argument. Obama’s liberal stance may allow for things the conservatives disapprove of, but they’re certainly not being forced to take part.

As a result of the election on Tuesday, three states votes to legalise gay marriage: Maine, Washington state and Maryland. Gay marriage has been made legal by legislators or courts in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia, but this is the first occasion of citizen voting bringing it into legal existence.

No surprises, Maine, Washington and Maryland are all Democratic states. One thing you can be sure of is that such victories are not a case of opening up the floodgates for federal recognition on the national scale. Gay marriage is constitutionally banned in 31 states, and even in the event of some of those being overturned or rewritten, the loyal republican states largely comprising the south and mid-west of America, would likely reject such motions vehemently. It remains a source of bewilderment to much of the rest of the western world – particularly in the UK, where we are now developing a much more liberal, post-religious outlook on social issues – that the United States does not progress similarly across its internal borders. On the same day the French cabinet made advances in plans for a gay marriage bill despite conservative opposition, gay marriage in Spain was upheld after a constitutional appeal. Tides are turning around the world, but the American States we call United are still horribly divided on this issue.

Yet it is no coincidence that the man in the Oval Office reflects such division and reunifications. The colour of the president’s skin is not superficially symbolic. As a man, he is a living reminder of possibility and hope. Of the unthinkable changes America went through in its relationship with racial prejudice, particularly in those states opposing gay marriage as strongly now, as they did for abolishing slavery at the time of the civil war. This gives hope that one day, in a modern, more civilised fashion, the same social transformations could happen for LGBT rights, and normalisation can begin.

This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.

Hillary Clinton’s Speech on LGBT Rights

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a landmark speech on LGBT rights to the United Nations in Geneva on Tuesday 6th December. Mrs Clinton’s message was addressed to countries around the world whose social, cultural and religious traditions have long denied the LGBT community their basic human rights. She drove home that their rights were just as equal as everyone else’s, and that any denial of this was as outdated as the denial of rights to racial minorities or women.

Secretary Clinton echoed her historic 1995 speech on women’s rights, when she was the keynote speaker at the United Nations Women’s Conference – even paraphrasing her famous quote “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” That Mrs Clinton chose to make LGBT rights the focus of her speech is representative of its importance to the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Whilst it takes a lot more than a keynote speech to alter the views of the global community at large, Hillary Clinton has a voice with more volume and authority than most, and the importance of her message will be felt far below as she leads from above. And aside from her personal involvement with the cause, she is in a position to tell the LGBT communities suppressed around the world that, “you have an ally in the United States.” Always an advocate for women and for the gay community, Clinton continues to stand up for those who are persecuted around the world for being who they are. For that, I applaud her.

The full transcript of the speech can be read here: