Pride in Our Past

One of the features of the post-Stonewall era, with the explosion of interest in lebian & gay studies and in queer theory, has been the wealth of information becoming available of our place in history.  By reminding ourselves and the world that we as LGBT people have been around in all ages and societies, by showing that in many of these it is not homosexuality but exclusive heterosexuality that was considered abnormal, and by presenting as role models individual gay & lesbian leaders in all fields, we have been enabled to recover a sense of self- confidence, and to counter more easily the lies and prejudice spouted against us.

For the most part, however, this recovery of history has by-passed our place in the church, which today remains one of the primary sources of the hostility.  This is quite unnecessary:  gay men, lesbians, and gender minorities all have a notable place in scripture and church history, which we should be doing more to uncover and share.

When I first began to explore what we may call our ‘lost’ history, I thought of it as material that had simply become ignored and then forgotten. Later, as I investigated some particular individuals, I realised that in at least some cases,  the omissions have not been simple oversight.  The nature of these is so significant they can only represent deliberate acts, actively airbrushing us out of the official biographies. Two examples illustrate the problem – many more can be found.

Last week I wrote about St Paulinus of Nola, noted saint, bishop and gifted medieval poet.  All of these are recorded in his entry in the on-line Catholic Encylopedia.  This entry also notes his friendship with a certain Faustinus, and that a portion of the poetry is addressed to Paulinus, which the entry describes as ‘epistles’ – a word which to modern ears has distinctly religious associations.  What the CE does not tell us, is that these verses were quite clearly erotic love poems, of sufficiently obvious a nature as to be represented in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. These verses were emphatically not the entirety of Paulinus’ legacy.  No more than for any of us, homosexual attraction was by no means thee totality of his being.  But by no stretch of the imagination can I conceive of frankly homosexual erotic verse being presented as religious ‘epistles’, as the result of mere oversight.  Somewhere over fifteen centuries of hagiographic transmission,  the true nature of these poems has been deliberately excluded.

Much the same has occurred much more recently in the story of Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I also investigated and wrote on last week. In a lengthy entry, the CE totally ignores his very significant attachment to his beloved friend, Aubrey St John.  There is no point in speculating about the physical expression of this love.  It is quite enough to know the uncontested fact that it was so strong that Newman insisted on being buried in the same grave as St John, so that they might spend eternity together.  Yet so remarkable a desire, evidence of an exceptionally important relationship in his life, gets not even a mention.  This too can only be deliberate omission of an uncomfortable fact, not simple oversight – but in this case, without the excuse of centuries of historybehind it.

But it gets worse.  In just the past two days, I have come up against two different writers who claim there has been deliberate mistranslation of scriptural texts, so as to obscure the gender implications.  In the article on the Song of Songs (“The Song of Songs, A Gay Love Poem” (Fidelity Press, 1995), reviewed at the Wild Reed the writer provides evidence that later translators have deliberately altered the text of the Song of Songs to obscure its frankly same -sex erotic origins.

“Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation. The Masoretes did not, happily, produce a homophobic text. They merely made a gay love poem appear to be hetero. And that was done to many ancient poems and stories.”

Today, I came across an article by Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…… outstanding among the Apostles”…  in which she produces evidence that a personal name in Romans was altered from a female form to a male form, to mask the fact that a woman was being addressed as a great apostle:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.

John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)

Also notable is the case of Junias or Junio, placed in the rank of the apostles (Rom. 16, 7), with regard to whom one or another [exegete] raises the question of whether it is a man.

Pontifical Biblical Commission (1976)(3)

What a striking contrast! The exegesis of Romans 16:7 has practically reversed.”

There are many other examples. On the face of it, it would seem that to support the view that homosexuality was sinful, and that women could not serve as priests, the official voise of the church a;ltered texts that did not fit with their prejudices.  Then they used their bowdlerised texts in support of their prejudices.

These arguments are clearly contoversial, and are surely contested.  I lack the credentials and resources to explore them fully, nor do I have any desire to do so.  I do want to stress though, that there is a pattern (here and elswhere), entirely consistent with the abuse and transformation of the word and concept of “sodomy”, which makes it at the very least abundantly clear that the received version of history as handed not by the church, and usually accepted without questioning, is at the very least open to contest and debate.

There is a further reason to explore for ourselves our true place in church history:  Pope Benedict himself, indirectly, has commanded us to do so.  In his otherwise infamous “Hallowe’en letter”, then Cardinal Ratzinger instructed us to “speak the truth” on homosexuality :

“Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral”
“We encourage the Bishops to promote appropriate catechetical programmes based on the truth about human sexuality… ”
“The Lord Jesus promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32)”

(Encouraging thruth, of course, the letter immediatley proceeded to pronounce falsehoods and half truths)

God is Truth” was one of the key attributes of the divine, relentlessly hammered into me in school RE lessons, complete with endless scriptural texts to support the statement – all of which I was required to write out and memorise. But truth is not something which we can find simply by accepting at face value the words of the church, as the Vatican could like us to believe. Truth is a goal never fully achieved, that needs to be worked for, to be wrestled with, accepting there will be many false starts and mistakes along the way. (For a wonderful descripton of this search in the context of the church see James Alison, “The joy of being wrong”, in “On Being Liked”.) For the misrepresentations of church history apply not only to sexual & gender issues, but also to the official versions of the history of church power and of the Vatican itself.

In recovering an understanding of GLBT church history, I am also finding a new understanding of the growth and abuse of papal power itself.  Both of these journeys I have begun sharing with you, and will continue to do so, for as long as I maintain this site.

There is one final reason for me, personally, to explore these issues.  When Cardinal Murphy O’Connor authorised the move of the Soho Masses into the Catholic parish of the Assumption & St Gregory, he made clear in his public statements that there should be no ‘ambiguity’ in our ministry about Catholic teaching on homosexuality, on which official teaching should be presented ‘clearly and in full’.  For someone like me, in clear dissent with some of the official teaching, this presented a real dilemma, which soon dissolved when I recognised that it is simply impossible to follow both instructions to the letter.  For the “full” teaching of the church is  itself ambiguous, on many points and many levels. Recognising the impossibility of doing both,  I have discarded any attempt to avoid ambiguity, and embraced instead the alternative instruction, to promote the full teaching as fully as I can.  but the Magisterium, so central to Catholic orthodoxy, is assembled from history.  To understand it “fully”, we need to understand also the historical development and selection.

I can thus proclaim that in creating, maintaining and developing this blog, I am attempting to do no more than follow the clear directives of my presnt Pope, and immediately past Cardinal:  to speak the “truth” about homosexuality and Catholic teaching, “in full”.  This is clearly an impossible and Herculean task, akin to clearing a beach of sand, one grain at a time.  Still, I continue relentlessly, one grain and post at a time, seeking the truth where I find it – including those truths that the Church itself has attempted to keep hidden.

In doing so, I am finding increasing confidence and pride in my status as an openly gay Catholic, with increasing freedom from years of instilled guilt.  I hope and pray that my ramblings can help you to do the same.

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