St. Joan of Arc, Trans Martyr

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)

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Rosa Bonheur: Cross-dressing painter honored “androgyne Christ”

Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the 19th century, was a queer cross-dresser who honored what she called the “androgyne Christ.” She had two consecutive long-term relationships with women. She died on this date (May 25) in 1899.

Born in France in 1822, Bonheur received much acclaim in her lifetime for her paintings of animals. In recent years she has been celebrated as a queer pioneer, feminist icon, and role model for the LGBT community. Her achievements grew out of an unusual religious upbringing in the proto-feminist Saint-Simonian sect, and the queer Christian ideals that she expressed in adulthood. Bonheur’s gender-bending lifestyle has been covered extensively by scholars, but her spirituality has received much less attention.

Her parents raised her in Saint-Simonianism, a French utopian Christian-socialist movement that advocated equality for women and prophesied the coming of a female messiah. Her father was an artist and an ardent apostle for the Saint-Simonian religion. Bonheur writes a whole chapter about growing up as a Saint-Simonian in the book “Rosa Bonheur: The Artist’s (Auto)biography,” which she wrote with her companion Anna Klumpke.

The Saint-Simonian concept of gender equality paved the way for Bonheur’s father to train her as a painter… and for her own defiance of gender norms. As she put it, “To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day.”

read more:  Jesus in Love Blog

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Harvey Milk, Secular Gay Saint and Modern Martyr

In California, May 22 is officially recognised as “Harvey Milk Day“. The reasons for this secular honour are well-known, and recorded in several books and notable movies.  In 1977, he became the first openly gay man elected to public office as a gay man, but served for only a short term before he was assassinated on  Nov. 27, 1978. Even in that brief term of office, he made his mark with his contribution to San Francisco’s landmark Gay Rights Ordinance, and to the defeat of the Briggs initiative, which would have required California school districts to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers, but was defeated in the November election shortly before Milk’s assassination. Rather than rehashing the bare facts of Harvey Milk’s life and career, which can be read elsewhere, I want to reflect a little on the symbolism and lessons that these have acquired, three decades later.

Although he is best known for his unique position as a trailblazer for out gay politicians, his work was not limited to queer advocacy, as Kittredge Cherry reminds us at Jesus in Love:

Milk (1930-1978) served only 11 months on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before he was killed, but in that short time he fought for the rights of the elderly, small business owners, and the many ethnic communities in his district as well as for the growing LGBT community.


Continue reading Harvey Milk, Secular Gay Saint and Modern Martyr

How Can There be Frank Discussion, in a Climate of Fear?

Ever since his election last year, Pope Francis has caught the popular imagination with his message of inclusion, mercy and hope. This has been particularly notable, for LBGT Catholics, beginning with the celebrated simple line, “Who am I to judge?” on the flight back from Brazil, and continuing (amongst other memorable quotes) that the Church should be a “field hospital for the wounded”. This week, there was more of the same kind, without the rhetorical flourish. To resolve problems of division and disagreement within the Church, he says, we need discussion.


In the church, as in any other situation, “problems cannot be resolved by pretending they don’t exist,” Pope Francis said.

“Confronting one another, discussing and praying — that is how conflicts in the church are resolved,” the pope said Sunday before praying the “Regina Coeli” with visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The pope focused his remarks on the day’s first reading, Acts 6:1-7, which describes how the early Christian community, as it grew to include people from different groups, began to experience internal tensions, and how those tensions were resolved at a meeting of the disciples.

National Catholic Reporter

Last week, Francis’ point man in the Italian Bishops’ Conference, whom he had personally handpicked as its secretary general, said much the same thing. Bishop Nunzio Galantino told an Italian newspaper that the Church needs to listen, “without taboos”,  to all the arguments in favour of gay relationships, married priests, and communion for the divorced.

Welcome words? Well yes, of course – but for queer Catholics, they remain just words, sizzle without the steak. We cannot have the proposed frank discussion to resolve conflicts, in a climate of fear. The Church cannot be a field hospital for the wounded – while continuing to inflict the wounds.

For far too many, this fear is all too real, and well founded. I’ve seen it in a small way myself, when I was told by Cafod that I was not acceptable as a school volunteer, because I publicly criticize some aspects of Church teaching: some aspects, evaluated against other aspects, and in the light of the Gospels. In other words, I attempt to stimulate precisely the discussion suggested by Pope Francis, to which Bishop Galantino says the Church should listen. In my case, this exclusion was not of any material consequence, but it was nevertheless emotionally deeply hurtful: a wound inflicted by the Church, not healed by it. ( See”“Despised and Rejected – but also “Phall if you but will, rise you must”)

For others, the consequences, and reason for fear, are much greater: loss of employment and livelihood. Pope Francis may ask, “Who am I to judge?”, but that has not stopped a series of bishops taking it on themselves to judge, and if those employed in parishes or church schools are found to be gay and honest in their relationships, forcing them out of their posts.

Catholic employment contract

For still more, the issues are not about employment, but deeply spiritual matters. I was moved by a reader’s response to the Bondings 2.0 report on Bishop Galliano. After recounting some local church history, and an active witch hunt against gay men and lesbians in that diocese, she continues:

In truth, now I won’t admit to any priest I’m lesbian. I’m too worried that if something happens to me and I need last rites, the very priest to whom I admitted I was gay will be the same one walking in the hospital and denying me last rites (and possibly attempting to excommunicate too boot ). Call me paranoid or chicken or both but I just don’t want that to happen. I’m more than happy to stand up for other people but .. not so much for myself. Seems pointless to do so much of the time.

Even for those with nothing much to lose, who are able to set aside this fear, and come out openly as both gay and Catholic, there remains another problem. Frequently, they may find full acceptance, inclusion and welcome in a local congregation – as I do myself. Such local congregations may indeed be those field hospitals for the wounded that Pope Francis extols. From the institutional Church, and from some sections of the church – not so much. Fr James Martin SJ wrote about this last week at America, in a piece called Simply Loving. At Bondings 2.0, Frand DeBenardo headlined his report on Martin’s post with a pertinent question, “Why Do LGBT People Feel the Catholic Church Hates Them?” One reason suggested by Fr Martin, was that when LGBT people hear the Church, or people speaking on behalf of the Church, about “homosexuals”, it’s almost always accompanied by words about sin – even when the words are intended to be welcoming and helpful.

As always with Martin,his piece is thoughtful, compassionate and sensitive. However, when read together with the reader responses, it simply highlights the extent of the problem. When I read it a few days ago, the first comments I came across seemed to be saying,

“Excellent piece, well done – but after all, we really must remember that homosexual acts are indeed sinful”.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!


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Senior Bishop: We Need Frank Discussion – Without Taboos

A notable feature of Pope Francis’ style, has been his willingness to listen to people and their troubles, not simply to lecture them on Church teaching. One of his Italian protegés has said that approach to apply particularly to the controversial and divisive matters in the Church, of abortion, divorce – and homosexuality.

Bishop Galantino

The secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), Nunzio Galantino, bishop of the southern diocese of Cassano all’Jonio, was speaking to the Florence-based La Nazione newspaper earlier this week, and reported by The Tablet:

The Catholic Church should listen to all the arguments in favour of gay relationships, Communion for remarried divorcees, and ending mandatory celibacy for priests, a senior Italian bishops has insisted. The secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), Nunzio Galantino, bishop of the southern diocese of Cassano all’Jonio, told the Florence-based La Nazione newspaper yesterday that he wanted church leaders to open their mind to different views on these issues.

Tablet News, 13th May

(Not included in the Tablet report, but an important qualification in what he actually said, was this rider, which I picked up at an Italian site:

.….Starting from the Gospel and giving reasons for their positions)

What makes this particularly significant, is that Bishop Galantino was personally selected by Pope Francis for his post on the Italian Bishops’ conference (initially on an interim basis last December, and ratified as permanent just last month. LGBT Catholics should also note that Italian politicians are likely soon to move towards approval of civil unions. There’ve been similar attempts in the past, but these have always been derailed in the face of fierce opposition by Italian bishops. In the light of Pope Francis’ own statements that civil unions deserve proper discussion and consideration, and now these words by the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, it’s unlikely that they’ll want to get involved as vigorously (if at all), this time.

However, welcome as this is, it’s not enough. These are fine words – but without more flesh on the bones, without concrete actions to make this much desired frank discussion a reality, it will be no more than sizzle, without the steak. Before the Church can even claim to be embarking on frank discussion, two essential criteria must be in place.

There cannot be meaningful discussions – while excluding those most directly affected.

The context of the bishops’ words, is that the Church is preparing steadily for an important bishops’ synod later this year, on marriage and the family. The simple fact that the synod is being held at all is good news, and there are good reasons to hope that it will initiate a process, that could lead to meaningful reform – but that will be only the beginning of a process. This year’s synod will be a synod of bishops, discussing marriage and family, but without meaningful participation of lay Catholics with real – life experience of marriage and family, beyond a token handful of “auditors”. This synod will not be the end of it: a further synod is scheduled for next year, when there could be greater lay participation – but don’t hold your breath. The early portents are not good. In the UK, the English bishops have not even released the results of their survey of local Catholic opinion. let alone engaged in any discussion with us on an appropriate response. In the USA, some bishops have released results, but interpreted the finding that most Catholics disagree strongly with much of Vatican doctrine by concluding that they must work harder to present the teaching. Other bishops did not even submit the Vatican questions to the people of the diocese, simply believing that they could answer the questions adequately themselves.

This is simply not good enough. Frank discussions among the bishops is a start – but of limited value if it does not include those most directly affected by these matters.

Frank discussion is not possible in a climate of fear.

If there are few signs yet of any frank discussions involving lay Catholics, this is even more so for lesbian and gay Catholics being consulted on their own experience of what in fact it means to be both gay and Catholic. Worse, for far too many of us in the Catholic Church, it’s not even possible to identify openly as gay, without the prospect of real harm, to loss of careers in Catholic schools and hospitals, as church musicians, of being excluded from active parish ministry and service, or in the most extreme cases, even exclusion from communion.

For meaningful frank discussions “without taboos” even to begin about “homosexuality” – LGBT Catholics first need to know that they can participate in those discussions openly, and without fear of harm.

(Thanks to Frank DeBenardo at Bondings 2.0, where I first came upon this story)

You might also like:
Senior Bishop: “Catholic Church Must Welcome …
How Can There be Frank Discussion, in a Climate of Fear?
Pope Francis, on Why and How the Church Must Change
Relationships, Not Acts: An Emerging Catholic Orthodoxy?

Romans 1:24 – 27, Part Two – Historical, Cultural Context.

I wrote recently about interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans as it affects LGBT Christians, pointing out that if we approach it with due consideration for the context of the full Chapter 1 and opening of Chapter 2, and not just the frequently quoted verses of 1:24 – 27, the sense of the passage changes substantially. This is not after all a condemnation of same – sex relationships as sinful. Paul does however, describe them as “shameful”. To appreciate more precisely what he means by this, and what it should mean for gay Christians today, we need to pay attention to another of the principles recommended for biblical interpretation by the Pontifical Biblical Commission: the need to consider the historical and cultural context appertaining at the time of writing.

I made a start on this in a previous post, where I argued that when the cultural context is considered for this passage, the real meaning is hiding in plain site: Paul was writing to the Romans, for whom sex in all its variety, was an even bigger part of daily life than in modern Western cities, with no general hostility to same – gender sexual practices.

Ithyphallic Tintinnabulum in British Museum (Source: Wikipedia)

Continue reading Romans 1:24 – 27, Part Two – Historical, Cultural Context.

"All Will be Well, and All Shall Be Well" : Julian of Norwich, 8th May

There is no way that we should be thinking of Julian as gay or lesbian, but we should certainly think of her as queer (and as, she was undoubtedly female, in spite of her name). There are two reasons for including her here. The first is her pioneering unequivocal feminism. These are shown by her gender bending references in her book to God as mother – and even to Jesus as “mother Jesus”, which are habits for us too to acquire in our prayer. In her own career, she was remarkable for producing the first book to be written in English by a woman. Can we think of her as the first feminist theologian?

“The Mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven with inner certainty of endless bliss.


The second is the fundamental nature of her spirituality, which was centuries ahead of her time, and can be especially valuable to those who, like the LGBT community, feel threatened by an accusatory and hostile  institutional Church.  Here, it is important to note that her optimistic spirituality, as indicated in the well-known quotation in my headline, is not simply a Panglossian, mindless “always look on the bright side”. There is a very sound theological basis for it, made clear in an expanded formulation of the idea:

“And so our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortably: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well”.

All will be well – because God has promised to make them well. Hope is a virtue – and optimism a theological obligation.

Julian (not her birth name) was born in 1342. At the age of 30, she fell dangerously ill, coming close to death. At this time, she experienced a series of mystical visions on the Passion of Christ and on the love of God. After her recovery, she became an anchoress, and recorded her experiences which she described as “showings”, in her book. She is renowned for her insistence in these on God’s unbending love and care for Her people, which was unusual for a time when religion was seen in much stricter, more judgemental terms of avoiding eternal damnation.

Read “The Showing Of Love” on-line

The “Umilta” website has an astonishing collection of links to scholarly work on Juliana and her times ( including this useful one : Equally in God’s Image  Women in the Middle Ages

Friends of Julian describes itself as the  “official” Julian website. I don’t know on what authority they make the claim, but the site is at least attractive and informative.

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SS Benedicta, (6 May) and Galla (5 October), Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  


Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:

How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?

I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.RomanForum

Continue reading Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?

Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:

How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?

I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.RomanForum

Continue reading Romans 1:24-27 (1) Just WHO Is Being Condemned?