“Finding God in the Erotic”: Fr Donal Godfrey SJ

The Christian faith in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are widely perceived as being inherently anti-erotic, and hostile to the idea of sexual pleasure, of sex outside of procreation. The perception is well-founded in historical fact. Some early theologians praised virginity as an ideal even inside marriage, at a time when the expectation of the imminent parousia created a belief that humanity had no need to procreate. Later, the insistence on clerical celibacy arose in part from an idea that sexual intercourse the night before celebrating Mass was inappropriate, as somehow defiling and unclean. The imposition of compulsory clerical celibacy in turn led to a distinct two-caste system within the Church, with the celibate clergy seen as more “pure” than those laity living normal sexual lives.

The perception is soundly based in history, but not in Scripture, or even in Catholic theology. There is nothing in Scripture that is inherently hostile to sexual love, and much to celebrate it, notably the Song of Songs. Notable mystics such as St John of the Cross,Theresa of Avila and numerous others have described their prayer in notably erotic (even homoerotic) imagery. Since the Reformation, Protestant theologians have recognised that the value of sexual love within marriage. Even the Vatican overturned centuries of tradition with Humanae Vitae, recognizing for the first time that sexual intercourse has a unitive as well as a procreative value.

Ecstasy of St Teresa (Bernini)
 Increasingly, theologians (Catholic as well as Protestant) are going beyond this to acknowledge that there can also be a specifically spiritual dimension to the erotic: the Presbyterian Chris Glaser, for instance, has written movingly on how the attempt to deny either the sexual or the spiritual in life impoverishes the other, while by embracing both, each strengthens and enriches the other.

Yet there remain vocal lobbies within the Church which continue to howl in protest whenever any churchman dares to speak of sexual pleasure in anything but negative terms, or to say publicly what so many people know from experience. So it is that the California Catholic Daily can hardly hide its glee that Fr Donal Godfrey is no longer serving as executive director of University Ministry at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco: among the black marks the CCD holds against Fr Godfrey is a homily he once delivered on this theme, which was later published at Gay Catholic Forum (where it is still available on-line).I am grateful to California Catholic Daily for this: as so often when they squeal most loudly about something they find objectionable, I took care to seek out the text that upset them, and was glad that I did. (I am equally grateful to them for drawing my attention to another useful homily by Fr Godfrey,“The Call to Come Out”, which  likened Jesus’ calling Lazarus to come out of the tomb to same-sex attracted persons “coming out of the closet.” That homily was also published in the “Gay Catholic Forum.”

Fr Godfrey’s homily on the erotic was based on the Gospel passage in which the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. As he points out, this was an attempt by the Pharisees to trap the Lord in a controversial question about sexuality and quotations from Scripture – but Jesus does not see sexuality in the clinical, impersonal terms of the Pharisees. His message is much gentler. This leads on to a more extended reflection on the value of eros in our spiritual lives.
Here is the opening of the homily:
The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”  They were testing him.  He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?”  They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”  But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.  He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”   (Mark 10:2-12)
Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel is caught up in a religious conflict about sexuality and some people who quote scripture at him. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
And so it is interesting to see how Jesus deals with this situation.
Jesus wasn’t a biblical conservative. But he wasn’t a biblical liberal either.  He expected something important from the scriptures, he expected to be challenged and surprised by God and he also expected that when you are challenged and surprised by God some of the details in the sacred scripture will have to go, because they will be revealed as concessions to our hardness of hearts.
Read the full text at Gay Catholic Forum

Come Out, Stand Proud. (The Catechism Commands It!)

Yes, really – in a manner of speaking. Browsing through the Catechism section on sexuality, which you will find under the sixth commandment, I was struck by two passages in particular:

“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” (2333)

and

“Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (2337)

Of course, that it is not at all what the Vatican means – the rest of the passage assumes that this can only be done by violating your identity in a heterosexual relationship, which we know from the experts in social science, from the testimony of others, and and from personal experience, is a violation of our identites, not an acceptance.  But then, the Vatican has never been noted for freedom from contradiction.

There are more compelling reasons though, than the Vatican’s mixed messages for coming out, and indeed for coming out in church. For “coming Out Day”, I want to look instead at some of these.

Rereeading Elisabeth Stuart’s “Gay & Lesbian Theologies“, I was struck by the realisation that she puts the start of the formal development of gay & lesbian theology to the early 1970’s.  the first notable text she discusses isLoving Women/Loving Men (eds Sally Gearhard and William Johnson), published as long ago as 1974 -fully 35 years ago this year, and “Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation”, edited by Malcolm Marcourt.

An essential aspect of this early thinking takes its cue from Paul Tillich, and his notion of “the courage to be”. In these terms, it is important to recognise our own experience.

Johnson accuses the church of being over concerned with “intellectual theology”, and  under concerned with the grounding of theology in experience.  It is therefore vital that gay people come out, articulate their experience and reflect theologically upon it, for “we who are gay know the validity of our experience, particularly the experience of our love. That love calls us out of ourselves and enables us to respond to the other. Through our experience we experience the presence of God………..

For Johnson, gay liberation is vital for the liberation of the Church to enable it to better incarnate the Gospel. The essay ends with a call to all gay men in the Church to come out, to  ensure that liberation takes place.” (Emphasis added.)

Previously, I have looked at Richard Cleaver‘s view that coming out is “Wrestling with the Divine” (Know My Name), and Daniel Helminiak‘s that is a “Spiritual Experience” (Sex and the Sacred)John McNeill, former Jesuit theologian and psychotherapist, makes similar points in “Sex as God Intended”.  Today, I want to look at the ideas of  Chris Glaser, who in a full length book presents his view of “Coming Out as Sacrament“. Glaser is one of those treasured writers on gay religion of whom it can said, as with James Alison, Daniel Helminiak and JohnMcNeill, that everything they write is worth reading, and accessible even to non specialists. Glaser writes from a backgroound in the Baptist and Presbyterian faiths, but as a Catholic I find this helpful, in broadening my perspective, rather than getting ini the way of his argument. The starting point for this book was some reflection on the importance of the idea of sacrament to lGBT people, who are so often denied access to the sacraments by mainstream churches.  Talking to a close friend (sympathetic, but not LGBT), this is how his thinking went:

“Having visited our Wednesday night Bible study, she told me that what impressed her most deeply, what she thougth was our sacrament as gay people, was our “ability to be vulnerable with one another” – in other words, to xperience true communion by offering our true selves.  As Christ offers himself in vulnerability,   so we offer ourselves, despite the risks. Being open and vulnerable may be preceivesd as weakness, but in reality it demonstrates our strength.  By sharing our  “brokenness”  – how we are sacrificially cut off from the rest of Christ’s Body – we offer a renewed opportunity of Communion, among ourselves and within the Church as the Body of Christ.”

Later, he added a conclusion that had not occurred to him earlier-

” that coming out is our unique sacrament, a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives – our worth, our love, our love-making, our context of meaning, and our God. “

Later in the opening chapter, he carefully notes the ways in which coming out has deep affinity with not just one, but each, of the traditional seven sacraments of the broader Christian community.  Above all, however, he says there is one where there is an extra special affinity: the sacrament of communion is intrinsic to coming out – it is hardly possible to come out entirely in private.

Coming out in public is important for one’s own mental health, and also for one’s spiritual being.  Doing so in the Church cam help the Church to recognise and proclaim the true Gospel message.  If you possibly can, do it:  quite literally,  for the love of God.

Further Reading:

Barefoot Theologians, Twitching Experience
Homoerotic Spirituality
The Road From Emmaus:  Gay and Lesbians Prophetic Role in the Church
Coming Out As Spiritual Experience
Coming out As Wrestling With the Divine