A Masturbation Conversation

We continue to live in the late Soviet period of Catholicism. They pretend to make sense; we pretend to believe them.

-Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

When I suggested yesterday that we should be talking seriously about masturbation, I was not aware that Andrew Sullivan had done exactly that in a post at The Daily Dish back in January (“How Natural Is Masturbation?”), with a couple of follow-up posts to report on reader comments.

Here are some pertinent extracts:

Now there’s a topic for some interesting dialogue. The Catholic church proclaims that wanking is as serious a sin as gay sex because all sexuality is designed to be exclusively procreative – both as a matter of divine will but also, critically, because this is readily apparent to anyone by reason alone.

(This claim of justification by “reason alone” is a favourite in Church documents and of church spokesmen – but frequently signals that there is no justification whatever outside the closed reasoning of the Vatican mind, not apparent to outsiders.)

Shaw was certainly right in saying that 99 percent of men masturbate and 1 percent are liars. I once caused a little stir at Notre Dame by pointing out that every priest in the audience was masturbator, as of course they all were.

(One could reasonably dispute Sullivan’s precise figures here – but I am certain they are in the right ball-park).

From a reader:

Recently scientists have determined that, at least in a man’s older years, masturbation seems to have some preventative properties in relation to prostate cancer. Indeed, some doctors are now prescribing “masturbation therapy” to men over fifty. If further research sufficiently determines the health benefits of masturbation, will the Catholic Church endorse it on that basis? Even more importantly, can I get a return on the several hours of Hail Marys I said in penance in my teenage years?

And an observation which is relevant to so much of the orthodox sexual ethics:

Nature is an elastic concept. The Church’s grasp of it remains umbilically linked to the biology of the thirteenth century. And its allegedly celibate clerisy is the only group allowed to examine it. Hence what most adult, intelligent human beings regard as the hilarity of the hierarchy’s claptrap.

At least one reader was appalled.

I think your beliefs about masturbation are largely at odds with traditional Christian teaching. I’m surprised someone as smart as you are would not think more critically about this issue, especially since you are a self-described Christian.

Sullivan’s reply is that his argument is in fact deeply rooted in orhodox theology:

My reader misses the focus of my posts, which was on the arguments of the new natural law. This …..posits, after Aquinas and Aristotle, that nature, as observed by reason alone, tells us something about the purpose of human behavior and life. When something is as ubiquitous as masturbation, when we now understand that massive over-production of sperm is in fact an evolutionary strategy to maximize chances of reproduction, and when we also notice that even in a marital, procreative relationship, a wife’s nine months of pregnancy renders all that spousal sperm incapable of producing children … then one wonders why rubbing one out from time to time is so unnatural.

From another reader, an important danger in the doctrine:

Telling teenagers in particular that both premarital sex and masturbation are sin, while providing no outlet for their proverbial raging hormones other than the delayed gratification of an ill-prepared prepared rush into marriage in their early twenties, sets an impossible and unhealthy standard.

Is the doctrine thereby contributing to disastrous marriages? And from one more reader, some thoughts based on real experience, not mere cerebral speculation:

The real objection the Church has isn’t that you are indulging in a lie. It is that you are indulging. The pleasure of any sexual activity, solo or otherwise, is a very inconvenient reality for the Church. One that priests are no better at denying themselves of than the rest of us. As much as the rational side of us might want to define sex as a utilitarian function, used only for procreation, no amount of scholarship can change the fact that it’s fun, that it feels good. That, at its best, it is ecstatic. Certainly not the kind of thing you want people engaging in if you’re trying to get them to forget about this world and focus on the next one.

On a personal note, my first wife, raised Catholic, had a great deal of guilt and anxiety about sex, and we had a truly awful sex life. Masturbation, although at times something of an indulgent vice, was also an activity I credit with keeping me somewhat sane through a highly frustrating time of my life, sexually speaking.

I can think of some Irish priests that maybe should have done a little more fantasizing and masturbating. Maybe not a long term answer, and certainly less fulfilling on so many levels than good sex mutually shared. But surely better that than preying on acolytes.

The Catholic Church originally instituted its policy of compulsory clerical celibacy in part as a means of control. It thereby created a two-tier caste system, whereby the supposedly celibate clergy were thereby perceived as morally superior – and the rest of the population, living sexual lives, were constantly faced with the prospect of falling into states of sin, which had perforce to be confessed to a priest for absolution.

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Let’s Talk About The Church’s Dirty Little Secret: Masturbation

The Catechism is clear:

2352Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.

Question: If masturbation, like “homosexual acts”, contraception and cohabitation is indeed “gravely disordered”, why is the Church not talking about it? (It’s not as though nobody does it.)

Masturbation by Klimt, drawing 1913
“Masturbation” by Klimt, drawing 1913 (Image via Wikipedia)

As always, let’s begin by considering some simple facts, the reality behind the theology.

It is widely known that to some degree or other, masturbation is widely practised by both men and women, of all ages, partnered or single, alone or with others, in all humans societies. It is also common in all animal species that have hands – and even some that do not (dolphins use their flippers).

The clear hostility of orthodox doctrine is not based directly on scripture, or on the teachings of the early Church Fathers.

A study by Giovanni Cappelli of the church’s stance on masturbation during the first millennium CE shows that:

  • The Bible is silent on the topic.
  • None of the Apostolic Fathers wrote about masturbation.
  • The first mention of masturbation within the Catholic Church is found in sixth century CE penitentials.

-Religious Tolerance

Later, Church opposition for many centuries was unequivocal, largely based on the writing of St Thomas Aquinas, who named it as one of the three classes of “sodomy”.

Yet other religions have a range of views. Some conservative Christians agree with Catholic doctrine that the practice is sinful. Other Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, see it as morally neutral, or even as a suitable release to avoid more serious sin.

James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit Christian organization, considers it part of normal adolescent exploration and strongly urges parents not to shame their children over the act lest they have marital difficulties later because of shame over their sexuality….Dobson says fathers should urge their sons, if they masturbate, to imagine their future wife, and never some girl they may know.

Other faiths are also divided, with some branches of Islam merely restricting the practice during times of fasting, some reformist Jews recommending it in some circumstances, and the Hindu Kama Sutra advising on the best technique to follow.

In spite of Church claims that the “moral sense of the faithful” has no doubt on the matter, the overwhelming evidence from research is that ordinary Catholics simply do not agree with Church teaching on this.

Medical views long ago abandoned any claims that masturbation is harmful, unless practiced in excess.

The Catholic church has been curiously silent on the subject for years. All the references I have come across in Church documents seem to be based on quotes from the relevant section of the CDF document on human sexuality “Persona Humana“, which was released in 1975.

Now, let’s move on to some reflection. Why has the church been become so silent? Even when the US bishops released their document on sexual ethics earlier this year, reminding American Catholics once again of the moral gravity of contraception and cohabitation, there was no mention of masturbation. Informally, there has been some clear movement. I recall sitting in a parish “faith enquiry” evening, when the subject came up in question time. The parish priest replied unequivocally that modern theologians would see this as a “weakness”, and no longer as a sin. On another occasion, when I spoke of some sexual frustrations with my spiritual director (a senior man in his order, and with a doctorate in spirituality), he asked whether I had considered masturbation as a solution. (My reply? It’s not a very satisfactory substitute for a human interaction with another person).

This was the reply of another priest, to an on-line query at Catholic and and A:

Can masturbation be sinful?  I think the only time masturbation could be considered seriously sinful is if someone is using this activity to avoid one’s obligations to one’s spouse.  Modern moral theologians tell us that masturbation is a normal part of one’s psychosexual development.   Most people go through phases of masturbation, during adolescence, for example, individuals separated from their spouses in war time, the elderly, and others in unique situations of life.  It’s hoped that individuals not become fixed or stuck in only this form of sexual expression, but rather develop a relationship with another person with whom one can express one’s own sexuality in an appropriate loving and intimate way.

– Father John Ruffo, posted at Catholic Q and A

What of the clergy themselves? We known that a significant proportion of them, priests, bishops and cardinals alike, do not keep strictly to their vows of celibacy, and conduct sexual relationships with others, either furtively, or sometimes even more openly. What of the rest, who avoid sex with others. How many also avoid solitary pleasures? Or do they fall back on the advice of so many Protestant theologians, and accept self-stimulation as a way to avoid more serious temptation?

I suspect that there can be only two possible reasons for the continued institutional silence on the matter. The first is simple embarrassment: they know that they cannot defend a prohibition that they ignore themselves.

The second is far more intriguing. This is that my former parish priest and Fr Ruffo, quoted above, are right. Modern theologians have agreed that the old prohibition is unsound, and can no longer be defended. To say so though, would create untold difficulties. For the basis of the argument is that no genital activity outside marriage and ordered to procreation is acceptable, “Every sperm is sacred”. To accept some circumstances where masturbation is not sinful, also calls into question the implacable arguments against contraception, premarital sex, and homoerotic relationships.

When I was still teaching, the headteacher at one of one my schools regularly advised the staff to “Choose our battles”, to avoid taking a stand on issues we could not win. This, I think, is the key to understanding the present Church position on masturbation. They know that the traditional stance is a battle they can not win.

If that is so, perhaps that is all the more reason for us to take up the challenge instead. Perhaps progressive Catholics should be forcing a reasoned, public discussion. This is one battle where indeed, we can win.

 

“The Last Judgement”, and the Homoerotic Spirituality of Michaelangelo.

One of the great paradox’s of queer church history is that a period of extreme persecution of “sodomites” by the Inquisition, directly at their own hands or indirectly by secular authorities at their instigation, largely coincided with a remarkable series of popes who had sex with men, who protected family and friends who did so, or spent vast sums commissioning major works of homoerotic art. Of these, the most obvious and best known of these is Michaelangelo’s magnificent frescoes for then Sistine Chapel, which remains one of the must see attractions for any tourist visiting Rome. (Pope Paul III who commissioned these works for the chapel, also commissioned an obviously homoerotic theme, the Rape of Ganymede, for his bedroom.)

For the thousands of daily visitors, this is a powerful depiction of the second coming of Christ, and so a source of religious inspiration – but may have been based, in part, on scenes of male and female prostitution the artist saw in the Rome of his day.

A new study claims that the huge painting is also based on the seedy scenes the 16th-century artist witnessed at Roman public baths which doubled as brothels for male and female prostitutes.

“The figures descending to hell and ascending to heaven are inspired by the virile, muscular manual workers and porters Michelangelo would have seen during his visits to the baths, which are well documented,” said Elena Lazzarini, a researcher at the University of Pisa and the author of the study. “It was here he defined the build of the working man as the ideal physique.”

The public baths which proliferated in Rome at the time offered steam rooms, massages and basic medical treatments with leeches, “but also rooms offering scenes of promiscuity and prostitution, both male and female”, she said.

Lazzarini pointed out that in the painting, which spans an entire wall of the chapel where papal conclaves are held, one of the damned is being dragged down to hell by his testicles while men heading for heaven hug and kiss “in an ambiguous fashion”.

-Guardian

In what sense is this image of men kissing “ambiguous”?

So, there appear to be two paradoxes here. One is the historical anomaly of open male prostitution and papal tolerance or encouragement of homoeroticism while simultaneously executing thousands of Sodomites, often by burning at the stake. The other is the apparent anomaly of placing erotic art,  homoerotic and otherwise, in a papal chapel.

On the historical anomaly, I do not want to go further here. On the spiritual / erotic element, there is no contradiction at all. Eroticism, and especially homoeroticism,  frequently goes together with spirituality. As Chris Glaser notes in his introduction to “Coming out to God”, sexuality and spirituality can support and reinforce each other. They are not in conflict. Outside the Christian tradition, many religions have explicitly embraced sexuality in religious worship, from Hindu erotic temple art, to male and female temple prostitutes in the Middle Eastern ancient world. Many societies even recognize a specific association between spiritual gifts and homoerotic attraction or cross-dressing, as seen in the American berdache, African sangomas, and Asian hijras – or even the “skirts” worn by many Christian male clergy, and the high proportion of gay Catholic and Anglican clergy. The history of Christian spirituality is filled with examples which use male erotic imagery, such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, or images of male friendship -such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s “Spiritual Friendship”.

The homoerotic content of Michaelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere, is self-evident: all one has to do is to look at it. But this is not only erotic – it is also powerfully, deeply spiritual. Indeed, when the painter Veronese defended himself before the Holy Tribunal on charges of “inappropriate” imagery in his Last Supper, he cited The Last Judgement as precedent – and the Tribunal responded that Michaelangelo’s work was excused because of its great spirituality.

For most casual visitors today, the spiritual content of the “Last Judgement” is obvious: an inspiring image of the resurrection, and the prospect of everlasting life.  For observers of his own day, the message would have been more terrifying – a reminder of the danger of eternal damnation, and hence of the necessity of redemption through the Church. The frequent commissions by the church of scenes of the Last Judgement, Michaelangelo’s among many others, would thus have been a means for the church to remind the faithful of its own importance, and so consolidate its power over their minds. Robert Baldwin elaborates on this idea, and also observes that Michaelangelo himself, by showing his own self-portrait in a flayed skin held by st Bartholomew, sees himself as a victim of the Church’s obsession with control.

So, where is Michaelangelo’s spirituality to be found? I suspect that the clue comes in looking not just at his art, but at the man as a whole. His contemporary biographer Ascanio Condivi wrote that

Michelangelo ‘loved not only human beauty but universally every beautiful thing: a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood and every place and thing beautiful and rare after its own kind.. .’

-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland

This love of beauty was expressed not only in painting, but also in poetry, in sonnets (some of which are also clearly homoerotic in content).

A sonnet written when he was in his early seventies began with the declaration that every beautiful thing passed through his eyes instantly to his heart along a path open to thousands ‘of all ages and sexes’.

-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland

In his Mass to celebrate the restoration of the Sistine frescoes, Pope John Paul II had this to say of them:

‘The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides… The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor…in the context of the light that comes from God, the human body also keeps its splendour and its dignity. .. If it is removed from this dimension, it becomes in some way an object, which depreciates very easily, since only before the eyes of God can the human body remain naked and unclothed, and keep its splendour and its beauty intact…’

-quoted by George Bull

In his praise for the paintings as presenting the “theology of the body”, John Paul is careful to select the representations of male and female, but the work itself also celebrates another element of beauty in the human body: that of male and male.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

Coming Out as a Religious Obligation: Micah and Justice

When I was reading some biographical notes recently about the Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid, I was interested to note that she began her career working for the church among the poor of Buenos Aires, applying the techniques of liberation theology to the “option for the poor”. Later, she applied those same techniques in slum communities in Scotland, before starting to apply the same techniques to the situation of the equally marginalized communities within the church itself, its sexual minorities.

I have never been engaged full time in this work, not worked directly with the poor, but in South Africa I did get involved as a volunteer in some of the activities of the Catholic Church Justice & Peace Commission, and attended several meetings and training workshops on the subject. A standard Scripture verse to open those meetings was the well-known words of the prophet Micah:

Do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God

-Micah 6:8

I clearly remember one major workshop at which these words were elaborated as a paradigm for the very concept of justice, as as set of three related relationships: relationships with God, relationships with others, and relationship with oneself.

The Jewish lesbian theologian Rebeccah Alpert expands on this idea in her contribution to Robert Goss’s “Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible”, and emphasises an implication to this injunction that I believe is a key to resolving the difficult choices facing us as lesbian, gay or trans people of faith – the importance of coming out.

To make this point, Alpert begins with the last of Micah’s exhortations, and elaborates on their meaning in Hebrew tradition – a meaning that has relevance also for people of other faith traditions. This phrase, “walk modestly with God” (hatznea lechet im eloha) Alpert interprets as about the way a person sees her place in the world:

Walking with God is a metaphor for the way each person approaches her own life. It is a way to conceptualize one’s innermost feelings and thoughts. …. To see oneself walking with God requires a vision of God as the most important value in life, that which is with the individual always and everywhere. … We can only walk with God if we know and accept who we are. Walking with God begins with self-acceptance and requires that we tell ourselves the truth about ourselves. This stance describes coming out, declaring oneself as lesbian, as a necessary prerequisite to walking with God.

Walking with God requires self-acceptance, and this in turn requires coming out. Initially this is in private, to oneself, but this is not enough. Coming out privately, she says, should be followed by coming out to friends and family, and ultimately also to the wider world. This may bring personal hardship, she admits, but will also bring wider benefits to the LGBT faith community as a whole – it is politically important. But this not the only reason for doing so. Coming out i public, she argues, is implicit in the same part of Micah’s injunction.

“Hatznea lechet” also requires us to be honest people: honest with ourselves about our sexuality and honest with others in our lives. Coming out publicly keeps us from having to lie – to doctors whom we sometimes do not visit because we do not wish to tak about our sex lives, to coworkers to whom we omit pronouns when referring to our partners, to acquaintances who want to introduce us to men. The lies we tell may be small ones, but they inhibit our ability to live openly and lead us into patterns of lying incompatible with walking with God. And they draw nonlesbians into our lie as well, requiring them often to deny what they see.

This obligation to being publicly honest about oneself is a personal obligation, which does not require the outing of others. However, it is important also to meet up with others in collectively out communities, such as the gay and lesbian Jewish Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), and its counterparts in other faiths. These congregations and their relationships with wider faith communities raise difficult questions, but they are important as public witnesses to a collective honesty.

Coming out then, privately, publicly and collectively, is a religious obligation implied by the requirement to “walk with God”. It is also a pre-condition for the fulfilment of the rest o Micah’s three-part injunction:

It is only those who come to self-acceptance, including a sense that they are loved by God and by the Jewish community, who can begin to work towards creating a world of love and justice.

The second part of the injunction is to “love well” (ahavat hesed), or forming right relationships with friends, family and community. She observes that this is often difficult for Jewish lesbians, who are faced with strong expectations and pressures from family and community to make a conventional marriage and raise a traditional family – but sound relationships must be formed nevertheless, and can only be done in honesty. How else can one deal, for instance, with issues like invitations to weddings or other family celebrations?

None of us lives in isolation. We all need community, to share in our joys – and for support during our trials. This is especially important at times of bereavement, when our faith communities are particularly important. We cannot provide proper support to others in their time of need, nor receive it in ours, if we have not established these relationships in honesty.

…… ahavat hesed requires hard work. In order to love well, we must take our responsibilities to others seriously and give careful consideration to the contribution we want to make that will enable the Jewish and lesbian communities to thrive. And in order ultimately to love well within the Jewish community, we must receive ahavat hesed from the community in return.

And so, after discussing the commitments to walking humbly with God, and to loving well, Alpert turns to the first part of the verse from Micah, the commitment to justice, asot mishpat. These three though, while treated separately, are not independent of each other but interconnected.

We cannot make a choice between accepting ourselves, caring for our circle of loved one, and doing justice in the world. These efforts must be woven into our framework.

We cannot begin to envision such a world (i.e., a world of justice)unless we have created the possibilities within ourselves and our community to work towards this plan. We begin with the idea that to walk with with decency with God is measured by our self-acceptance and willingness to be visible. This is the beginning of justice. For only if we speak out about who we are, can we create the opportunity for justice for ourselves.

But this alone is insufficient: love is also a prerequisite to justice. In relation to justice ahavat hesed means respect not only for those that we love particularly but for all humanity.

The search for justice is double-edged: we must seek justice for ourselves – but must also work together with others, to seek justice for those suffering other kinds of oppression.

**********************************

Alpert’s reflection is quite explicitly from the perspective of a Jewish female, but I found no difficulty or sense of it being inappropriate in applying it equally to my situation as a gay man. I first began to prepare the above summary of it several weeks ago, and have been intermittently reflecting on it ever since, without quite getting to setting it out in full. I have been spurred into doing it now, because several other topics that I have been struggling with recently, including the question of a response to the problem of gaybullycides, and the question faced by gay Catholics in particular: to stay fully inside the Church, to form gay worshipping ghettos, to leave completely – or (as recommended by Dignity) to return and vigorously challenge the status quo, seem clearer to me when I think of Alpert’s reflection on coming out as an obligation imposed by Micah:

Do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God.

Related articles

The Raising of Lazarus and the Gay Experience of Coming Out (thewildreed.blogspot.com)
“Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion (queertheology.blogspot.com)

Pray, Don’t Pay, Disobey: The Catholic Revolution Has Begun

Prickly Pear, at Far From Rome, has written about a personal decision to remove himself from the sacramental life of the Church. He says that this was “precipitated” by moving house, but has been a long time coming – and was preceded by substantial time for reflection, during a time without easy internet access.  It’s important to note here, that this time was accompanied by an increase in meditation practice.  I was alerted to Pear’s post by a report on it by Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic, who writes on his own experience outside the formal life of the Church for over 25 years. Anyone who is familiar with Jayden’s writing will recognize that he too may have left the institutional church, but retains a very strong spiritual, even sacramental life, with a strong devotion to the Eucharist. He simply chooses to practice his spirituality independently.  Pear quotes from a Commonweal article by Cathleen Kaveny (sadly, hidden behind a paywall I cannot access), on many others who are doing the same thing:

From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.

Bill Lindsey at Bilgrimage is another important Catholic blogger who writes specifically as a Catholic theologian, at his own site and at Open Tabernacle, and has frequently made clear his objections to participating formally in the sacramental life of the Catholic church. He has a useful summary of Kaveny’s piece, and includes this extract:

From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering.  But why not stay and fight?  First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them.  The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.

Prickly Pear, Jayden and Bill are far from alone. It has been widely reported that ex-Catholics, those who have either transferred to another denomination or simply ceased to identify as Catholic, are now the second largest religious denomination in the US. Similar patterns of disengagement are seen in many other parts of the world. (Research has shown that the most important reasons people give for leaving concern Vatican teaching on gender and sexual ethics, compulsory clerical celibacy, and the child abuse disgrace). I am more interested though, in another phenomenon: the abundant evidence that Catholics who choose to stay are simply ignoring official doctrine, on matters ranging from sexual ethics to church discipline.

A couple of months ago, an Irish paper asked, with reference to the call for a boycott of Mass, “Is this the start of a revolution in the Catholic Church?” My response is no, the start of a revolution is no longer possible. The revolution has already begun, and is well under way, in Ireland, in the US, and elsewhere.

Velvet Revolution, Czechoslavaki

Sexual Ethics

It is now commonplace to observe that almost nobody any longer pays any attention to official doctrine on contraception – obedience to other matters of sexual ethics is not much stronger. There is abundant research evidence that demonstrates that “What the church teaches”, in the sense of Vatican doctrine, and “What Catholics believe” (i.e. in real life) diverge dramatically, on all other matters of sexual ethics. On premarital sex, on divorce, on masturbation, and even on abortion, most Catholics disagree with the formal Vatican doctrines.

Not only are the laity disregarding the rules: even among the clergy, estimates are that a substantial number of priests are disregarding their vows of celibacy, and so also ignoring the Church’s insistence that genital sexual expression outside of marriage and procreation is to be avoided at all costs. Some conduct faithful relationships with regular partners, sometimes even with the knowledge of supportive parishioners, others have covert one-night stands, or pay for prostitutes.

Church Rules

How many Catholics still wrestle with their conscience if they miss a Sunday Mass? There was a time when it was axiomatic that loyal Catholics would be in Church for Mass every Sunday morning (or possibly on Saturday evenings for the vigil Mass). This was more than simply an occasion to demonstrate the numbers, and provide an opportunity for the priest once more to pound away at his message of obedience to Church authority – it was also an opportunity to rake in the money from the Offertory collections. Today, even those who continue to see themselves as faithful Catholics may attend Mass less frequently – and often deliberately withhold contributions to the Offertory collections, especially where there is a sense that the monies are to be used in an inappropriate, socially divisive way, as with the use of Church funds in Maine to support the campaign against gay marriage.

The practice of regular private confession to a priest has almost disappeared. When I was at school, I was taught that as Catholics we should be grateful for the gift of the confessional, which for many Catholics reduced or eliminated the need for psychotherapy. When it works correctly, with a wise and sensitive confessor, I am sure that the observation is sound. But far too often, over many centuries the confessional has instead been abused as a site of terror. For as long Catholics believed that without formal absolution for their sins they were doomed to hellfire for all eternity,  and that absolution could be obtained only from a priest in the confessional, many will have felt compelled to knuckle under to every command of the Catechism, no matter how ludicrous, or to submit to the scrutiny of a priest in the confessional.   The confessional was thus a source of power for the clergy, even in areas of sexuality where they had demonstrably less real-life expertise than the people they commanded. Fortunately, the whole concept of the confessional has been transformed, to one of reconciliation rather than simple confession of guilt, and ever since the publication of “humane vitae”, there has been a much stronger awareness of the role of individual conscience. The confessional has lost its power of intimidation, and many people now simply refuse to go, or go much less frequently.

Women priests

The emergence of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is for me the most striking example of outright defiance within the Church. At America Magazine,  MICHAEL O’LOUGHLIN reflects on the image he saw in his local cathedral during a recent All Souls’ Mass. Of 20 people in the sanctuary, 18 were men. He asks,

What does an image like that say to girls and women sitting in the pews? That is, what do women and young girls feel while looking up at a sanctuary filled overwhelmingly with men?

The question has been asked before, and must be asked again, repeatedly. In the comments thread, one reader points to an appropriate response, to this and other examples of the inappropriate and outdated rules coming from the Vatican:

I wonder what qualities of ministry attach to a penis over a vagina, to put it graphically. My conclusion is that hierarchs feel threatened, and prefer to keep the status quo – not really out of any theological consideration, but as markers of their psychological dysfunction. The fear of the feminine is a powerful one. It poses too many centering questions.

I have since attended services where Episcopal women priests preside, and always welcome our female pastoral associate filling in at Eucharist services or whatever. A sign of the alarm women ignite is a recent chancery communique warning anyone to stay away from a woman priest in our area, and promising excommunication to those who attend her celebrations.

No matter, change is coming from the bottom up, and someday all this will seem like foolishness. Maybe that priest shortage is for an inspired reason, though married men come first, and when all other options are spent, women become acceptable. I don’t sweat it too much because the time is coming, and eventually, it will be, ‘What was all that fuss about?’

It is indeed remarkable, given the strong Vatican insistence on automatic excommunication for anyone assisting in the “attempted” ordination of women, that this movement continues to grow and attract support. As the number of male candidates for the priesthood continues to stagnate, how long will it be before the number of female ordinations exceeds that of men – at least in Europe and North America?

Obedience and dissent

Growing up in South Africa, I was taught that when faced with a choice between the demands of unjust laws and the prompting of conscience, the Catholic obligation is to follow conscience every time. When people have done so in sufficiently large numbers, they have frequently been able to overcome unjust laws: “the best way to destroy an unjust law is to ignore it”.

“From the bottom up” is an important part of how change came to South Africa, and to Eastern Europe, and before that how Mahatma Gandhi, with his campaign of Satryagraha forced change on the British in the Indian sub-continent – and hence on the rest of the British colonial empire. These examples, and many others, overcame forces with substantial military and political power. In the Church, the power of the episcopal oligarchy rests entirely on their control of our minds – and it is now obvious that that power is eroding rapidly. The manifest wrongheadedness of Humanae Vitae taught many Catholics the validity of following conscience before Vatican doctrine – and that lesson is now being applied elsewhere.

“That was a watershed. Up to that time, I think, practically all Catholics accepted that, whether they disobeyed Catholic teaching or not, the teaching was right. It was there that the questioning began.”

-Bishop Willie Walsh, quoted at Irish Times

Yet this doesn’t mean that people are turning away from God and religion – interest in spirituality and personal prayer remains high.

The Kairos moment

Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic, reflecting on the decline in allegiance to the institutional church offers his own explanation in theological terms – he sees this as a sign of the Holy Spirit at work:

There is a movement underway here and I’m convinced it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit – showing us in such lives that the ‘sacramental life of the church’ (and I would include the Eucharist) can continue, flourish and survive outside the present formal obediential structures of the Roman institution (though this was not exactly Prickly Pear’s intent in his statement, I’m enlarging here). Many of us are being called to witness to the life of the Spirit independent of the institution. When it is healthy, it can be an enormous help, but it is not an Absolute entity that is essential to the spiritual journey. When it becomes unhealthy, it becomes a danger – to young gay persons especially. The great Catholic tradition, however, is another matter, and here as well I feel many of us are being given the calling to maintain the living flame of this tradition in the wilderness of a very dark time

The Spirit is ahead of us on this one, way ahead. The bottom line for myself: peace and joy and the living face of the Beloved are found outside the door, not within the formal chamber of the church. And since so many of us are feeling this, what then is the Spirit saying by this powerful witnessing movement? We cannot claim credit for it ourselves, something very significant and powerful is being messaged here about the very nature of institutional religion. Peace, joy and love in the Spirit flourish on the margins of belief.

Change indeed is coming from the bottom up. The old slogan “pray, pay, obey” has given way to “pray, don’t pay, disobey.”

And I thank God for that.

Come Out to Save Lives – Megachurch Pastor Jim Swilley

There are many sound religious reason for coming out (which I summarise below). The Georgia megachurch pastor Jim Swilley, of “Church in the Now”, by his own example has presented another. He has come out to save lives.

Swilley has hidden his sexuality from his congregation for years, through two marriages (although he was at least honest with his second wife, who in turn encouraged him to be open more publicly). Unlike so many other closeted preachers (Bishop Long, George Rekers and Ted Swaggart, for instance) however, he has never fallen into the trap of preaching against homosexuality to hide his own orientation.

The tipping point for him came with the rash of recent publicity about the bullying which leads to so many teen suicides. Many of the institutional churches have a double culpability here: their frequent and misguided condemnations of same-sex relationships often lead to feelings of guilt and shame  by gay young people themselves, while too many others use it as an easy justification for bullying. Young bullies may grow into older gay bashers, and later even into adult killers of gay men, lesbians and the transgendered – all supposedly in the name of “religion”.

There have been many reports surfacing on the queer blogosphere about this story – reports that I missed through my personal circumstances last weeks. The best I have seen are those at Bilerico, and at Queerty. Read them yourselves (and watch the on-line videos that have been posted)  – I’m not going to simply quote them here, because from a faith perspective I am more interested in these deeply moving, theologically sound words Swilley posted on Blog in the Now some weeks ago. These do not refer directly to his coming out (they appear to have been written immediately before doing so publicly), but read now they have an obvious and direct bearing on it:

Today I will live in the now! I will live in the now because I have a command to GO into all the world – into every part of the worlds of every man, woman, boy and girl – into every culture and counterculture – into every mindset and philosophy – into every system and network — and preach the good news, without the preferential treatment of anyone!

Today I will embrace the call of Christ. Even though I may be rebuked for my unbelief or hardness of heart as the first disciples were, I have still been mandated to go — to go anyway — in spite of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable and, regardless of what I have or haven’t done, Jesus is still depending on me to give the inhabitants of His world some good news!

Today I will go to where the people are – not just where they are geographically, but to where they are mentally, spiritually, emotionally and philosophically. I will speak with the tongue of the learned (Isaiah 50:4), becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Today I will make some movement, knowing that my steps are ordered of the Lord and that God blesses whatever I put my hand to.

Today I will not preach religious tradition, or anything that could possibly make people feel alienated from God. My declaration of the Kingdom (“The Kingdom is at hand!”) will make Jesus accessible to those who have been disconnected in their minds. I will go to where the breaches are — and I will repair them!

 

Today I will be a witness, telling my story, finding my voice.

 

Today I will be followed by supernatural signs confirming my words. God will bless my efforts because I believe. My faith will be irresistible to Him today, and today I will live in the now!

Father, help me to get up and get going today. In Jesus’ name, amen.

The “It Gets Better” campaign encourages us all to be open, as our visibility can be a demonstration to young people that we can indeed grow into healthy, mature adults in sound relationships – but does nothing to combat the religious roots of the violence. This is why coming out by people of faith, and especially within the evangelical tradition, is so important. Done on a sufficiently wide scale, it will go a long way to undermine both the religion – induced guilt of young queers, and the excuses produced by the bullies.

Other Religious arguments for coming out.

The political and psychological reasons for coming out are well known – it increases visibility and so improves public acceptance for others, it provides sound role models for young people, contributes to personal mental health and can be seen as a psychological growth experience. The religious reasons are less familiar, but are important for queer people of faith.

Theologian and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak (Sex and the Sacred) says that alongside the psychological growth, coming out is a spiritual experience. Fellow Catholic therapists and spiritual directors John McMillan and James L’Empereur say much the same thing. Richard Cleaver (“Know My Name”) describes the process as wrestling with the divine. Chris Glaser has devoted a complete book to “Coming Out as Sacrament”.

Many commentators have seen coming out as implicit in Jesus’ command to Lazarus, “Come out!”, and read it as a lesson from the story of Exodus, using the Israelites flight from Egypt as a model for escaping the bondage of the closet. The Jewish theologian Rebeccah Alpert also sees coming out as a biblical command, reading into Micah’s exhortation on justice a requirement alongside living in good relationship with God and with other people, an obligation to live in good relationship with oneself – which is not possible when denying one’s own sexual identity.

In the same way I read coming out as a requirement of the Catholic Catechism, and implicit in the conclusion of the otherwise loathsome CDF document “Homosexualitatis Problema“, which reminds us of the Biblical injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”.

It is not enough for Christians to speak the truth – we must also live it.

Recommended Books:

Glaser, Chris : Coming out As Sacrament

Glaser, Chris : Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends

Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Helminiak,  Daniel: Sex and the Sacred

Kelley, Michael B: Seduced by Grace

L’Emperereur, James : Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person

McNeill, John: Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Sweasey, P: From Queer to Eternity