St. Joan of Arc

Among all the multitude of queer saints,  Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc).  In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected.  We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.

Joan of Arc Iinterrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)
Joan of Arc:  Interrogation by the Bishop  of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)


Continue reading St. Joan of Arc

Share Your Stories – It’s a Theological Obligation.

In his useful review of Catholics theologians’ work on homosexuality, James Keenan organises his material in three broad divisions: critical reaction, specific moral theological investigations, and power, language, and experience. “Experience” then is formally included in the third of these divisions – but in fact, the importance of experience is a recurring theme throughout.

For instance, under critical reaction to the CDF’s 1986 Pastoral Letter, he includes the complaint by Mary Segers that the Letter “succumbs to the tendency to focus on homosexuality as a male phenomenon and to ignore completely the experience of lesbian women.” By ignoring women’s experiences, the Letter overlooks “the many diverse forms of human friendship and affection which bind people together in relationships and communities”. But it was not only women’s experience, with the diversity of their relationships that was ignored. Men’s experience and relationships were also ignored, with the emphasis on a relentless focus on genital acts. The experience of being a gay man is not simply a matter of sexual attraction and genital obsessions, but also a matter of relationships. The dominican theologian Gerald Moore puts it precisely in “A Question of Truth”, noting that a same – sex attraction is more about who one “takes delight in”, than who one has sex with, and the Baptist gay theologian does even speak of sexual orientation, but of “affectional” orientation.

Keenan also includes in his discussion of critical reaction, the observation by J. Giles Milhaven that it is not only gays and lesbians whose experience is ignored, but that of all loving couples:

“Catholic theologians are only beginning to recognize that there is a number of different kinds of couples who out of their personal lives make the point to the teaching Church. They say to the Church: sex is important for the two of us. You do not take its importance into account in your teaching. You must not know it.”

To this, the only possible response can be of course they “must not know it”. How could they, having taken vows of celibacy for themselves, have any personal experience of loving sexual relationships on which to base that understanding?

Acts of faith

In the second division of his analysis on, on “moral investigations”, Keenan begins by noting that the judgement on the moral acceptance of homosexuality requires a judgement on whether it is “good and “normal”, and lists several theologians who have concluded that while not matching the ideal of heterosexual marriage, for some individuals, same – sex relationships should be judged as subjectively good and normal – for them. This then, raises the challenge of addressing the paradox of general norms that insist that such relationships are wrong – but subjectively, in particular lives, they may be good. To resolve this conflict,

 many moral theologians have accepted the responsibility to examine the morality of the lives of gay and lesbian persons and have used one of three traditional resources: biblical theology, natural law, and theological anthropology.

But to examine the lives of gay and lesbian, requires an awareness of the experience of those lives. This is especially important in the approaches from natural law, for which an important concept is that what is “natural” is that which leads to human flourishing – and to discern what leads to human flourishing for gay and lesbian people, we need to listen to their experience:
Continue reading Share Your Stories – It’s a Theological Obligation.

“Theological Endorsements of Masturbation”

As an adolescent boy in a Catholic High School staffed by priests, where daily Mass was on offer and regular confession a clear expectation, a continuing source of anguish was having to deal with confessing the “sins of impurity” which (we believed) were the particular bane of teenaged boys. The difficulties included the challenge of finding suitable words that could make my meaning plain, without actually spitting out precise wording, and also that of getting over my embarrassment (shame?) at patently having failed in my earnest promises at the last confession, to do my best to avoid that particular sin in future. In my innocence, I fondly believed that the curtain separating me from one of my teacher – priests protected my anonymity. In fact, in a particularly small school, and with a distinctive accent, it’s likely that any one of the priests would have instantly recognized and identified me. – but thoughtfully avoided addressing me by name. Invariably, these encounters ended with variations on a familiar penance – and an exhortation to pray to the Virgin Mary for the “gift of purity”. This coupling of Mary with sexual repression, I suspect, is partly responsible for my continuing ambivalence to Marian devotion. Later in life, growing wary of the continuing need to deal endlessly with the difficulties of the confessional led me first to abandon its trials altogether, and then (necessarily, in Catholic logic), to stop taking communion, and eventually to cease Mass attendance or any other practice of the faith.

Masturbation, along with any other genital activity not open to procreation, remains firmly prohibited in the Church documents (in the Catechism, for example). But as I have grown older, I have gained an impression that at the level of pastoral practice, at least, priests are far more sensible (and sensitive) on the subject that when I was at school or than the Catechism would suggest. I have also learned that far from being a vice especially affecting adolescent boys, it is widely practiced by people of all ages, men and women,  alone or with others, and is an entirely natural impulse. Even in the animal kingdom, non – primate species lacking hands for manual stimulation can get remarkably inventive in finding alternative means of self – stimulation. But still, the documents are explicit: this is a practice that is not just frowned on, but is described as a “grave evil”. Really?

I’ve been reading two college text books on theology and sexuality, by Susannah Cornwall and by Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher. Reading in parallel their chapters on masturbation, it’s refreshing to find that both books present verdicts of respected Catholic theologians that differ sharply from the orthodox presentation of the CDF. Cornwall, always scrupulously even – handed and neutral in her presentation, first presents the orthodox Catholic view, and then goes on to present the contrasting view of other theologians:

…some people argue that masturbation, even if it is not the fullest expression of sexuality possible, is still preferable either to extramarital sex (if the masturbator is unmarried) or to adultery (if the masturbator does not have his sexual desires met within their marriage). Masturbation has been figured either as a harmless, pleasurable form of self-exploration, or as “the lesser of two evils”. Masturbation may provide a safe way for people to satiate their sexual urges without engaging in a sexual relationship for which they are not emotionally ready and which exposed them to the risks of sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation may promote the integration of self-esteem and body – esteem, re-inforcing confidence in one’s personal identity, “which in the long run can enhance the quality of one’s attachments and commitments. (Louw 2011). Masturbation may also be a healthy way for young people to learn what feels pleasurable to them so that they are later able to  communicate this better to a sexual partner – and may be an important way for girls, in particular, to explore their bodies and their sexual anatomies as sites of joy, not shame (Jung 2000).

Patricia Beattie Jung, a Roman Catholic ethicist, suggests that masturbation should not be figured as inherently selfish or self-indulgent. Rather, she says, “Arousal draws us toward others, and ignites their attraction to us; sexual desire sustains relationships. Even the delights of solitary sex can enliven in us our sense of connection to life. Sexual pleasure inclines those who enjoy it not toward a sense of selfish isolation but toward the world”. Along similar lines, Margaret Farley notes that although masturbation might seem contrary to a central tenet of just sexual activity, namely that it promote relationality, in actual fact many women, in particular, may through masturbation learn things about their own bodies’ capacity for pleasure which then enrich their sexual relationships with their partners (Farley 2006 ),  In other words, masturbation does not inherently or inevitably make people selfish or inward – focused. Rather, sexual pleasure in itself, even outside a relational context, disposes people to relationality.

Stuart and Thatcher do not attempt to retain the same degree of neutrality. They too first present the orthodox view, quoting some choice extracts, but respond with undisguised incredulity:

“Does one assume that clerical embarrassment precludes any acknowledgement of it?”

These conclusions must be considered amazing, whether considered theologically or pastorally.

Does anyone believe them? Other approaches to ethics do not arrive at this extreme position. Biblical ethics, for instance, is noncommittal on the subject, since masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible. The Church of England makes no mention of the subject in their influential “Issues in Human Sexuality”. The strong influence of natural law, the strong imposition of authority, a strong fear of the body and sexual pleasure, a strong feeling of guilt all combine here with bad biology to produce pastoral chaos.

They then continue by describing alternative Catholic approaches which are more useful and pastorally sensitive.

 Another Roman Catholic approach to masturbation, unofficial yet deeply devout, acknowledges the goodness and value of what is called “self – pleasuring”, whether for women discovering the mysteries of their own bodies and the pleasure available to them; for adolescents anticipating full sexual experience; for married couples whose “mutual caresses” sometimes “lead to orgasm without intercourse”; for married people whose partners are temporarily unavailable; for lonely people acknowledging their sexual needs; even women who have been abused, and who “re-learn the loveliness of their bodies, the goodness of sexual pleasure” with a loving female partner. Only when a positive account of self-pleasuring has been given is there then a very proper warning given about “the possibility of disorder in the solitary exercise of sexual arousal”.  The contrast between these two evaluations in striking, and the pastoral sensitivity of the second is only one of the grounds for preferring it.

It’s important to recognise here, that warning about “the possibility of disorder”. The rigidity and complete lack of understanding of human sexuality displayed by the orthodox Catholic teaching makes it gravely flawed, as widely recognized by a substantial proportion of Catholic ethicists – especially by those who are themselves married and so with some real – world experience of loving sexual relationships. But to dismiss the gravely disordered and destructive orthodox view should not lead to an embrace of “anything goes” sexual licence. The challenge for all Catholics is to steer a sound and healthy middle course between the twin dangers of a rigid sexual repression, and complete lack of self  discipline. The really important question should be not, “Is self – pleasuring good or bad?”, but “When, under what circumstances, is it healthy and good – and when is it harmful and bad?”

The sources quoted above are all those of eminent, respected academic theologians, mostly from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, in senior academic posts at top universities. Sister Margaret Farley is a Mercy Sister, and (now retired) professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University. Professor Adrian Thatcher is a Professorial Research Fellow in Applied Theology at Exeter University. Professor Elizabeth Stuart is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and  Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Winchester. Dr Susannah Cornwall is a post-doctoral research associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.

But it can be helpful to listen not only to the voices of learned academics, but also to reflections on simple human experience. Here’s the openly Catholic, openly gay journalist, and educated layman, Andrew Sullivan:

It’s worth recalling that the formal, theological case against masturbation is identical to that against contraception and gay marriage. It is sodomy, as defined in the early modern period, i.e. ejaculation outside the vagina of a married female. So, as I argued at length a decade ago, we are all sodomites now. Men, anyway. Has any priest now living not masturbated?

For the record, I could never grasp why this was so wrong. My instinctual reaction to my first teenage orgasm was total wonderment. Of course, I had been taught nothing about this strange liquid coming out of my dick. It happened while I was reading – of all things – one of the Don Camillo short stories by Giovannino Guareschi. Not the most predictable erotic trigger – but when you’re fourteen, it could be the ceiling and you’d hit yourself in the eye if you weren’t careful.

To me, having this amazing thing suddenly come alive in my body was so obviously marvelous, so instantly ecstatic, it never occurred to me that God forbade me to forsake it. Why give me this 24-hour, unlosable instrument of blind, transcendent pleasure – and then bid me not to touch it? I had never experienced anything so simply pleasurable in my whole life until then. If we’re talking natural law, all I can say is that masturbation was the single most natural thing I had ever done at the moment in my life. More natural than watching television or riding a bus. If I felt guilt, it required some excruciating effort – until I realized that the most effective thing to trigger the constantly loaded rifle was thinking of another man. Usually naked. I had no porn or access to it. So I drew the men I wanted (and they all looked scarily like my husband). It was only then that the culture began to bear down on my nature.

But as I’ve grown older, and mercifully less driven by my dick, I can see the point of self-denial. In your teens, you have a constant unstoppable production of more sperm than could ever merely reproduce (another natural refutation of natural law). By your forties (unless I’ve just had my testosterone shot), not so much. So a little self-restraint definitely increases the pleasure and intensity of the orgasm you eventually get. And no, I feel no guilt about it whatever. It’s so psychically natural, so obviously intuitive, it was the first step for me toward dismantling the strange doctrines of natural law on human sexuality, devised in the early middle ages by men who knew a lot at the time – but tiny shards of truth compared to what we know now.

Wank on, my brothers and sisters. Wank on.

-Andrew Sullivan, the Dish

Cornwall, Susannah SCM Core Text: Theology and Sexuality

Stuart, Elizabeth and Adrian ThatcherPeople of Passion: What the Churches Teach About Sex

Church of England House of Bishops, “Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops

Farley, MargaretJust Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Jung, Patricia Beattie, “Sexual Pleasure: A Roman Catholic Women’s Perspective on Women’s Delight“, in Theology and Sexuality 12, pp 26 – 27.

Louw, Daniel J, The Beauty of Human Sexuality Within the HIV and AIDS Discourse: The Quest for Human Dignity Within the Realm of Promiscuity”

Whitehead, Evelyn Eaton and James D. WhiteheadA Sense Of Sexuality: Christian Love & Intimacy


Gay couples in Portugal win limited adoption rights

 Portugal’s parliament on Friday handed same-sex couples the right to adopt the children or foster children of one partner, a partial victory for equality campaigners that fell short of their call for full adoption rights.


The co-adoption law scraped through with a majority of just five votes in the 230-seat Lisbon assembly, prompting long applause from the gallery. Nine deputies abstained and as many as 28 did not show up for the vote.
Activists hailed the biggest step forward for gay rights since Portugal became the eighth country to allow nationwide same-sex marriages in 2010, breaking with the Catholic nation’s predominantly conservative image.
“It was a super-important, fundamental approval as it concerns the human rights of the children and not just the couples,” said Paulo Corte-Real, head the country’s gay, lesbian and transgender rights association, ILGA.


He said the law would benefit children raised by same-sex couples by giving the children additional protection if their original parent died or became seriously ill.
Catholic Church leaders have opposed moves by some European countries to allow same-sex unions and adoption by gay couples, saying heterosexual marriage has an indispensable role in society.
France, which is mainly Catholic, last month followed 13 countries including Canada, Denmark, Sweden and most recently Uruguay and New Zealand in allowing gay and lesbian couples to tie the knot. The French law also authorized adoption.
The Portuguese bill, presented on the International Day Against Homophobia, still needs to be signed into law by conservative President Anibal Cavaco Silva, who enacted the same-sex marriage bill in 2010 but expressed his disapproval.
Another bill introduced by two left-wing parties that would have extended full adoption rights to gay couples failed to pass on Friday.
The ILGA took the Portuguese state to court after the European Court for Human Rights ruled in February that Austria’s adoption laws discriminated against gay people on the issue of co-adoption.
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Gay Marriage, Civil Unions, and the Church

June is a big month for marriage equality. In the UK, it’s now clear that the House of Lords will approve the Marriage (Same – Sex Partners) Bill, in the USA, the Supreme Court will make two rulings that will most likely further advance the cause (while stopping short of declaring a full right to marriage). The Church of England has accepted that it has now lost the political battle against the gay marriage bill, and will instead concentrate on improving the detail. Already this year, three countries and three US states have legislated for equal marriage, and the Brazilian court has confirmed that even without legislation, gay couples have the right to marriage.

This political progress to full equality, and the fierce opposition that it has encountered, has obscured an even more remarkable movement, of greater significance for queer people of faith – extensive acceptance of civil unions/ civil partnerships, and of our relationships. This chart from the Pew Research Centre illustrates how strong this has been, in the USA. (Similar growth applies elsewhere).


Polls on gay marriage have become commonplace, especially in the US, done frequently by a wide range of polling firms. The Pew polls are particularly notable, because they’ve been doing it for a long time, and so have a powerful collection of comparable data with robust sample sizes, and also because of their specific interest in religion, as indicated by the name. (“Pew Research Centre” is associated with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). For any Pew poll, it is worth digging into the detail, for cross-tabs on religious denomination. This graphic illustrates the results for the question on “allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples?”

% in favour of legal unions

Civil Unions, Support 2013

For American White Catholics in particular, these results are remarkable: just more than four out of five support legal recognition – even more than for the “unaffiliated” group (essentially, those with no religion). In the UK, a similar pattern was observed in the House of Lords debate on the equal marriage bill. The interventions by Catholic peers included some from all sides – in support of the bill, in opposition to the substance but in favour of advancing to committee stage debate on detail, and opposition that was so strong as to reject even progressing to a second reading. But in all interventions, there was clear support for the principle of equality and non – discrimination – opposition was based only on concerns about the word “marriage”, and that civil partnerships or similar provided sufficient equality.

It is against this backgrounyd that we must assess recent declarations by Catholic bishops for some form of legal recognition and protection for same – sex couples. As os so often the case with Catholic bishops, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s renowned Duke of Plaza – Toro, they lead their regiments the church from behind, following where ordinary Catholics have already gone. Those speaking up now, are simply catching up with the real church. This catching up, what is more, goes well beyond the simple matter of supporting legal contracts to protect gay couples – it challenges the whole of church teaching on same – sex relationships. The same Pew poll shows it clearly – the majority of American Catholics no longer believe that “engaging in sinful acts” is sinful (once again this is up sharply from ten years ago), and even more now believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society:

However, opinions among Catholics have changed substantially. In 2003, more Catholics said homosexual behavior was a sin than said it was not (49% vs. 37%). Today, a third of Catholics (33%) say it is sin, while 53% disagree.


….. wide majorities of Catholics (71%) and white mainline Protestants (65%) say homosexuality should be accepted by society. And those without religious affiliation favor societal acceptance of homosexuality by roughly five-to-one (79% to 16%).

 Pew Research Centre

The Washington Post had a story last week headlined “The political war over gay marriage is over. The culture wars continue” (or something like that). Change “culture” to “religious”, and that’s my position, exactly.

The political wars will take time to reach completion, but it’s only a matter of time. The churches must now deal with the implications, for themselves. The cardinals and bishops who are speaking up publicly are only those will to show their noses. There are many more, just waiting to do likewise. Once they start talking about legal recognition, they will have to start talking also about the inherent value of these relationships – and then, of the need to find some way to recognize and celebrate them, in church congregations. That can’t be done, without accepting that same – sex love in itself, is not intrinsically sinful. Exciting times, ahead.

As the old platitudes for against gay marriage fade away, we need to create a more reasonable, constructive debate about the real meaning and value of marriage – and other forms of relationships. But this needs to look at the realities, not nonsense about labelling opponents as “homophobes” on the one hand, or dire warnings about the destruction of the institution of marriage, on the other. The fact is, that marriage has constantly evolved (been “redefined”) over many centuries, and taken countless forms in different societies. As Mark Jordan observes in his superb  ”Blessing Same-Sex Unions“,  many so – called “traditional” weddings today are far removed from any real religious content,  with the chief presider over ritual no longer a priest or pastor, but the wedding planner – closely followed by the photographer, caterer and the florist. There’s as much of real Christianity in these marriages, as there is in the modern “traditional” Christmas, which has been equally debased by commercial interests.

Our experience as gay and lesbians in loving, committed relationships, without the distortion of these commercial weddings and based on real partnerships, freed from artificial and customary role models and patriarchal assumptions, will be useful in teasing out a new, revitalized understanding of the real value of marriage and other committed relationships  – .useful for the whole church.

A continuing constructive debate about the religious value of marriage, as distinct from the secular protection in law, may well result in further redefinition of marriage – for the better.


Related Posts

Brazilian judicial council: Notaries must recognize same-sex marriage

The Brazilian National Council of Justice, which oversees the nation’s judiciary, passed a resolution Tuesday that denies notaries the right to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

In Brazil, notaries officiate marriages and civil unions.
Recently, 12 Brazilian states began allowing same-sex couples to marry or convert their civil unions into marriages. However, since the Supreme Court does not carry legislative powers, it was up to each notary to officiate at their discretion, and many refused, citing the lack of law.
Joaquim Barbosa, president of the Council of Justice, said in the decision that notaries cannot continue to refuse to “perform a civil wedding or the conversion of a stable civil union into a marriage between persons of the same sex.”
Barbosa, who also presides over the Supreme Court, says the resolution merely follows the transformation of society.
“Our society goes through many changes, and the National Council of Justice cannot be indifferent to them,” he said.
Civil unions between same-sex couples have been recognized in Brazil since 2011, after the Supreme Court ruled that the same rights and rules that apply to “stable unions” of heterosexual couples would apply to same-sex couples, including the right to joint declaration of income tax, pension, inheritance and property sharing. People in same-sex unions are also allowed to extend health benefits to their partners, following the same rules applied to heterosexual couples.
Brazilian lawmakers have debated same-sex marriage, but in most cases, the bills introduced have not progressed through Congress.
Brazilian neighbors Uruguay and Argentina are the only other two countries in Latin America that have laws allowing same-sex couples to marry.

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"Ascension Day: Jesus Returns to God" (Jesus in Love Blog)

“As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” — Acts 1:9 (RSV)

A male couple seems to dance skyward in a vision of the Ascension from “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Doug Blanchard, a series of 24 paintings by Douglas Blanchard. Churches celebrate the Feast of the Ascension today (May 9).

Ascension, 22 J Returns To God.

The loving couple seems to dance in a mystical homoerotic union. Jesus, shirtless and wearing blue jeans, swoons in the arms of a dance partner who appears to be a hunky angel. But they both have crucifixion wounds on their wrists. Jesus is embraced directly by God! The position of their arms suggests a ballroom dance, perhaps a waltz, with God’s hand planted firmly on Jesus’ buttocks.

Detail from “Jesus Returns to God”

Beams of white light stream from God’s head in a bright sunburst, almost obliterating the blue sky. His wings look muscular, as if God must work hard to lift the dead weight of Jesus up from the earth. The wounds in Jesus’ wrists and feet were dark before, but now they glow like hot-pink jewels. Dissolving into white at the top, this is the lightest painting in Blanchard’s Passion series, contrasting with the pitch-black panel of “Jesus Among the Dead.” Now the misty clouds even spill over the frame on the lower left. The Bible and creeds make it clear where the dancing couple is headed. Soon Jesus will sit at the right hand of God.

– continue reading at Jesus in Love Blog