John McNeill: Dignity Address

How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy’s Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?

On Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from the priesthood. My immediate reaction was great sadness for the Church I love, then rage at the injustice of it all, and then painful awareness of all those good and holy gay men in the priesthood who will feel betrayed and abandoned by their Church.  I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me discern what this is all about.

First, the Spirit assured me that this decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ. Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay members of the clergy. They ignored all the expert advice from psychologists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility for the crisis and any need on their part to reform the Church.




The Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our task as gay Catholics is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.

I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred people crowded into the room we reserved at GoodShepherd Church in Gramercy Park. Obviously, we were meeting a strongly felt need in the Catholic lesbian and gay community. I remember saying at that first meeting: “Dignity is not something that we can give ourselves, but with God’s grace, it is something that we can give each other!”

We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God’s love to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that “what is bad psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa.” The evidence is in that those who try to live out Church teaching on homosexuality frequently destroy their mental health and submit themselves to worshipping a God of fear. In Paul’s words: “You were not called to a spirit of slavery to let fear back into your lives again, you are called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God, Abba (Daddy).”

We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had redefined the Church as “The People of God”! Our naïve hope that the Church would change seemed confirmed a few years later in 1976, when my book, The Church and the Homosexual, which seriously challenged Church teaching, was given an imprimi potest by the General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (an action for which he paid heavily later by being deposed as General by the Pope) and I was granted permission to publish.

Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God’s love to our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill ever since.

The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians. A series of homophobic documents have been issued from Rome. The final most egregious document read: “The homosexual inclination, though not in itself a sin, must be considered objectively disordered.” We gay and lesbian Catholics, who know that we were created homosexual by God, see this statement as a blasphemy against God by claiming that God created something that is intrinsically ordered to evil.

Now we are told that a document will be issued by Rome, using the teaching on “objective disorder’ that forbids any seminary from accepting a gay candidate no matter how qualified, and forbids bishops to ordain an openly acknowledged gay candidate.

This should come as no surprise. Twenty five years ago, friends in the Vatican sent me a copy of a letter sent by the Congregation of Bishops that deals with seminaries on the issue of accepting gay candidates for priesthood. At that time, the Congregation asked all seminary directors to carefully scrutinize gay candidates and determine whether their homosexuality was egosyntonic or egodystonic. This psychological jargon distinguishes those who accept and are comfortable with their homosexuality over against those who see their homosexual orientation as something to be hated and rejected. Only those candidates whose homosexuality was egodystonic should be accepted as candidates for the priesthood. In other words, only the mentally sick should be accepted and the healthy should be turned away. Fortunately, most seminary directors ignored this directive. Now the Vatican intends to enforce it.

Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for the priesthood today have an egodystonic attitude of self-hatred. So the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.

I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood, limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing.  I can think of no action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse of that priesthood – a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new form of shepherding in the Church.

In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two examples of that.  The first is my friend and colleague, Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved fire-fighters in the 911 collapse of the WorldTrade Towers. Mychal and I worked together in ministry to Dignity/New York and in a special ministry to homeless people with AIDS in Harlem. Mychal had a deep awareness of God’s love for him and felt a strong desire to reach out and bring the message of God’s love to all those the Church and society had abandoned. Another example of the Holy Spirit’s shrewdness: as Mychal was dying at the foot of the World Trade towers, bureaucrats in Rome where busy preparing a document to expel gays from the priesthood. Mychal recited this morning prayer every day:

Lord, take me where you want me to go,

Let me meet who you want me to meet,

Tell me what you want me to say and

Keep me out of your way.

Mychal was a perfect model for a renewed priesthood. His priesthood was not primarily in the sanctuary but with the homeless in the streets or with the sick, the suffering and the dying.

A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:

People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the feminine) than is usual…. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their call and respond to it in fruitful ways.

Jesus gave us a marvelous example of how to deal with scapegoating in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. The Gerasene community had picked one troubled individual and made him their scapegoat, throwing him out of town. The demoniac had accepted their judgment on him, interiorizing self-hatred, tearing off his clothes, breaking the chains that bound him, howling and gashing himself with stones. As soon as Jesus entered his presence, he became aware of God’s love and that he himself was not evil but worthy of God’s love and compassion. Jesus, by his love, drove out the legion of demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. They entered into a herd of pigs and their destructive evil was immediately manifested by the fact that the pigs rushed down the hillside and threw themselves off a cliff into the sea.  The people of the village came out and found the former demoniac “sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind.”

The people of the village became frightened because they had lost their scapegoat and begged Jesus to leave. The former demoniac asked Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus refused and instead told him: “Go home to your people and tell them all the good things the Lord has done to you. Give witness to God’s love for you!” So the man went off and proceeded to spread throughout the Decapolis all that Jesus had done for them. And the people were amazed.

There is striking parallel here with us lesbian and gay Catholics. We too are being scapegoated by our Church. Many of us in the past interiorized the Church’s homophobia, resulting in self-hatred and self-destructiveness. But Jesus’ Spirit at one point touched our hearts and freed us from all self-rejection by giving us a clear, undeniable experience that God loves us in our gayness. Our ministry, then, like the former demoniac, is to witness to our people all the great things that God in her mercy has done for us. Our first task, then, is to call in the Holy Spirit to grant us such an overwhelming experience of God’s love that we are healed of all self-hatred and self-rejection and rendered immune to the persecution of the institutional church.

We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church? James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears to have little relevance to Jesus’ mission. As Mark noted, after the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and looked around but immediately left forBethany with the twelve. Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus’ best friend. Here was Jesus’ church – a true community of love.

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “it is necessary that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this: unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and immediately in our own experience.

Paul sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of this prophesy of Jeremiah:

Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel…..I shall plant my law, writing it in their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to teach neighbor, saying “Learn to know Yahweh” No, they will all know me, the least to the greatest.

We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the institutional church, whether that be to have their approval or the equally destructive attachment that comes from the anger at the Church’s injustice. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God’s hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.

James Allison shares with us his experience of being called by God to ministry to the gay and lesbian community. He was on retreat in a Jesuit retreat house in Santiago in Chile. He had been dismissed from the Dominican order for acknowledging his gayness. The first grace he received from God was a profound awareness that all the homophobic violence and injustice in the Church has nothing to do with God. This was the human Church caught into its own blindness and sinfulness.

He was trying to discern in prayer with was God’s will for him. One day he went on a walk in a gay cruising area. He found himself looking at some young gay men cruising in the park and felt a strong liking for these young men and wishing them well.  When he returned to the retreat house, he went into the chapel feeling somewhat guilty for his mixed motives for going to the cruising area. He was suddenly given the grace to realize that the warm affection he felt toward the young gay man was not just his feelings but the feelings of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart. Then he heard a profound voice telling him “Feed my sheep!”

He realized that that voice was God directly calling him to a ministry to lesbians and gays. That call from that moment on was an essential part of his identity, a call to priestly ministry that he could not deny or run away from with out denying an essential dimension of himself. This call in no way depended on validation from the institutional church but was his direct and immediate commission from God.

Ezekiel, in Chapter 23, saw God in a vision detaching himself from the Temple in the shape of a chariot, becoming flexible and mobile. Ezekiel then had a vision of  God upbraiding the shepherds of Israel (the Temple priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and abandoning them to meet their own self-interests. God revealed a new understanding of shepherding, in which God Himself will undertake the shepherding. “Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep”

Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the creation of text based Judaism. And again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.  In every case, the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to us and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us. It took a long time but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any intermediary.

In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit.  Allison feels sure that anyone who has experienced God’s love and has been freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step of freeing themselves from external Church authority will also hear the same call to ministry in their heart.

A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale. He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it was over he was sure of God’s love for him as a gay man and felt a strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13thcentury there would come a day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them, everyone an authority.

For example, who knows what God wants from lesbians and gays? – Obviously, only lesbians and gays. No one can tell us from outside what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and brings with it that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Congratulations Dignity/Chicago on thirty years of faithful service to the Catholic lesbian and gay community! You have prayerfully discerned and carried out the commission the Spirit has given you. You are a foretaste of the future Church of the Holy Spirit. Continue to prayerfully discern what God is asking of you and follow that voice. Keep in mind the famous insight of Maurice Blondel: “Our God dwells within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!”

John McNeill

2 October 2005

The Value of Experience as Spiritual Self-Defence

I referred yesterday to a post on Nihil Obstat in which Ned O’Gorman paints quite a depressing picture of the difficult position in which the established church puts us LGBT Catholics. He refers specifically to how some people enter heterosxual marriage to maintain some form of acceptance. As this goes directly to my own experience, I responded immediately with a lengthy comment.  Later, I realised that much of this is also fully relevant to the ongoing theme I am trying to develop, and that you might like to know a little more about me, so I repeat my comment here:

“It is undeniable that the established Church puts us in a difficult position, and that too many people simply evade or avoid the issues. I was one of those who married (very unwisely) ‘to maintain a place in church and society’. The irony is that it was during those years, when I was trying to live faithfully within the bounds of Catholic teaching on sexuality with all its restrictions, that my faith life was sterile, leading to a gradual disconnection from the church, and to a 10 year flirtation with agnosticism.




My return to the church came only after setting up a committed relationship with another man. I then developed an active faith life, and an exploration of prayer and spirituality, far richer than anything I had ever experienced while operating within the bounds of official teaching. Later, since developing an active participation in an explicitly LGBT Mass, and especially since I started blogging on the subject, I have been led still further, to readings in theology, church history and ministry that I would never previously have gone into.

St Ignatius teaches us to trust the ‘movement of spirits’ as we discern them deep in our hearts, by prayerful reflection on the experiences of our own lives. My own reflections on experience confirm that I have most directly felt God acting in my life,  when I have lived honestly, as a gay man, not in what was (for me)  the pretence of straight marriage.

O’Gorman is too pessimistic. There is no need at all to feel ‘abandoned’ by the Church – just by the Vatican. There are increasingly many supportive priests, even including some who will indeed bless same sex unions, and many other ways of finding support in faith – not least through a an expanding network of welcoming parishes, a publishing explosion on LGBT theology and spirituality, and on websites and blogs such as this one, my own, and many others.

My Anti-Vatican Self-Defence Routine.

Whenever, as now, I find myself getting worked up about the Vatican, I find it helps to recall the wisdom of some of the wise friends and writers who have helped to shape my thinking.

For me, my Vatican recovery began a very few words from a very human Jesuit in Johannesburg (now in Cape Town, lucky man), who simply asked why was I fussing about “Vatican bureaucrats”, when the church was so much bigger than they.




Mark Jordan’s book is always a tonic.  It cautions against trying to debate with the Vatican – showing how their rhetorical style is based not on rational argument, but on simple repetition of old statements, until the opposition is silence-of-sodom1bludgeoned into submission.  He also shows up at length the internal contradictions in an institution which is internally irremediably camp and infused with a gay sensibility, yet is nominally vigorously opposed to ‘homosexuality’.  After reading Jordan’s thesis, it is hard to take the bureaucrats quite as seriously again.

Richard Cleaver takes a different tack.  Starting from the perspective of Liberation Theology, he reminds us thatknow-my-namerevelation is not something that ended in Biblical times, but continues through to our own age.  We can all participate in discerning this revelation  by using prayer and reflection to discern the action of the Holy Spirit  in our lives and experience. The starting point in liberation theology sounds controversial to some, but the basic point is not – I was strongly moved by the same argument in Dick Weston’s Redemptive Intimacy. Benedict XVI himself said something similar in his Christmas address to the Curia – sadly overlooked by much more newsworthy, because controversial, remarks on gender and climate change.

sex-and-sacredDaniel Helminiak, in “Sex and the Sacred”, concentrates on the importance of developing a spiritual life, and shows how a unique take on spirituality is one of the gifts of being gay.  (Among other things, coming out is itself a spiritual experience).

mcneill3But above all, at present, I turn to the writings of John McNeill.  Infused with the Ignatian Spirituality of the Jesuits, McNeill constantly reminds us that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” (St Irenaus), and that bad theology is bad psychology – and vice versa.   He too argues  for the spiritual life, developed with the Holy Spirit, to confer the wisdom that we are not getting from the Vatican.  but he goes further than Helminiak, arguing strongly that the church needs collectively to arm itself with the grace of the Holy Spirit against a sterile, power-hungry Vatican bureaucracy.

Increasingly, I believe he is right.

The Gospels’ Queer Values.

Jesus & Family

The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.”   This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged.  Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to do with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as certainly “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay.  In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity,  at His actions, and at His words.

The Jewish Family.

It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community.  This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean.  The  detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity to their husbands, and were thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.

In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation.  Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities.  Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.

Jesus’ Families.

My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.

But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with.  More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children.  As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.

So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?

First, and famously, He did not marry.  This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation.  So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form?  We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper.  The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families.  It is significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles:  these were the people we must take to represent His closest family.  Who were these men?  If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.

Think about it:  on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men.  Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?

Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ?  The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship.  What was the nature of this household?  Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family.  The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters:  Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life.  Even at face value, this is an unusual household:  Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother.  Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention.  For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sisters’ may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.

So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women  (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children.  Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.

I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions.  That I will do later in a  follow-up post.

Heterosexuality Can Be Cured!

A new organisation, Leviticus International, has announced the establishment of a programme that will redress the unfairness of the existing “ex-gay” programmes, in which evangelical Christians claim, with Christ’s help, to take unhappy ‘homosexuals’ and turn them into happy, smiling ‘heterosexuals’.  This is of course, a discriminatory programme – there have been (until now) no comparable programmes for unhappy ‘heterosexuals’.  This is the deficiency that Leviticus International is about to put right.  They too, claim the help and support of the Lord Jesus Christ for their programme, which will take all those sad and unhappy heterosexuals, and turn them into happy homosexuals.

St Aelred of Rievaulx, January 12

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Collect

Pour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many into your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The regard given to St Aelred by gay writers is based on his book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, in which he is clear in extolling the value of same-sex love. He does so on the basis of personal experience, and describes the impact that several of these friendships have had on him, and the desolation he has felt when a lover has died.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love;  in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness;  in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

It is important to keep clearly in mind that although there is clear reference to the “embrace of love”, and to “kisses”, Aelred is writing about spiritual friendship, and that he stresses the spiritual riches  it brings, “with the Holy Spirit flowing over you.”

It is for this reason that opponents of homoerotic love deny that Aelred in any way presents a model of gay love as we understand it today. Instead, they point to his equally clear writing about chastity, and his lifelong struggle to remain chaste.

Personally, I see the battle to confirm or deny Aelred’s spiritual friendships as resembling or contradicting modern gay love as completely pointless. Of course they were different to modern relationships – just as all other medieval relationships were different to modern counterparts. Marriage then was different in many important respects to what we have today, ordinary friendships were different – as Alan Bray argues convincingly in The Friend. Aelred was also living and writing in a specifically monastic setting, about people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Discussion of whether those monks’ intimate friendships included physical intimacy is entirely irrelevant.

Aelred and his writing do nevertheless have profound importance for modern gay men and lesbian partnerships, and raises uncomfortable questions about the Catholic church’s rule on compuslory celibacy for priests. Saints Augustine and Aquinas both described the sacramental value of two people giving themselves to each other in (heterosexual) marriage. Aelred does likewise for  same -sex emotional and spiritual intimacy in monastic same-sex relationships. In the same way, modern gay or lesbian couples can and should recognize and nurture the spiritual, sacramental value  their relationships, whether celibate (as in the monastic ideal), or otherwise (as i heterosexual marriage).

In the centuries following Aelred, his celebration of love between monks was completely undermined and replaced in monastic life and in seminary training for the priesthood by a tragic and destructive prohibition on any form of particular friendships, fostered by a growing recognition in the late medieval period of widespread homosexual practices in the monasteries. (St Peter Damian, who was one of the earliest to argue vociferously for strong penalties against homosexual acts, directed his anger primarily at priests and monks). The problem is that if priests are allowed neither physical nor emotional intimacy with another, where are they to obtain the strength and succour to sustain them in their lives?

Praising the value of clerical celibacy in his extended interview for “Light of the World”, Pope Benedicts says that it “becomes possible” when priests live in community. What then, of those priests who do not, or those other gay Catholics who wish to live in conformity with orthodox teaching but are in practice expected to live alone?

St Aelred got it right. There clearly is deep spiritual value in intimate same-sex relationships, whether in monastic celibacy, or in marriage.

There are other reasons too, for us to take Aelred seriously as a patron of gay or lesbian committed relationships. His writing draws explicit attention to the nature of Christ’s own particular friendship, with the beloved disciple – describing it as a “heavenly marriage”:

“Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.”

Just to rub in Aelred’s direct connection to same sex unions or marriage, take a look at the Mass readings for his feast day: Psalm 36:5-10 ;Ruth 1:15-18Philippians 2:1-4 ;Mark 12:28-34a.

These all deal with love, but note especially the words from Ruth, words which are often used as readings for weddings – but which are spoken by one woman to another.

5 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’

16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So now you know. Celebrate the feast of St Aelred today – and with it, the sacramental value of same sex unions.

Recommended Books:

Aelred of RievaulxSpiritual Friendship

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Alan: The Friend

Related articles

The Obligation to Dissent

The teaching authority of the church is an important concept, well – known and widely accepted.  Less well-known is the   importance of conscience, at the level of the individual, and of the ‘sensus fidelii’ at the communal level. This leads me to a notion of an ‘obligation to dissent’ in certain circumstances.  This is a theme I will return to repeatedly.  In the meantime, The Wild Reed has drawn my attention to an important article,  Balancing Integrity and Obedience,in which Collen Kochivar – Baker (of Enlightened Catholicism) explores the same theme in different words.

For a short extract from this article, see  The Wild Reed .   For a fuller exploration of the idea, follow Michael’s links at the foot of the extract, or explore his useful archives.

Gay Saints: Do they exist? Do they matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition.  Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.  Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints.

For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous  ‘worship’ of the saints;  for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints:  remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regiosn of Europe.

There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships.  (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.)

Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness.  We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe.  There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate.

But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own.  It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these.

Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’?  Is it helpful?

I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined.  But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.”

The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic.

For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem.  Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there.

So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined?  I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria:  agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important.

It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised.  The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’.  (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’).

By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us.  This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history.

It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.

“Christianity is a Queer Thing” – Elizabeth Stuart

I have been re-reading Elisabeth Stuart’s wonderful “Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Difference“, which presents a ‘genealogy’ of the changing approaches by self-identified lesbian & gay theologians, culminating in the last two chapters with a discussion of “Queer theology”.  It was these latter two chapters that I was particularly interested in.

gay-and-lesbian-theologies




As I went through Stuart’s rundown of the leading figures in the development of Queer Theology, I found myself excited by the description of almost all, and planning on adding them to my ‘Wish List’, which I have now done.  I thought I would share with you why.  The notes below are super – brief descriptions of the key ideas that caught my interest, and the books, as reported by Stuart, that hold them.

Strangers and Friends (Michael Vasey)

Vasey argues from an historical presentation of the sexuality and the family.  He points out that far from being the ‘tradtional’ model, the family as idealised  by modern Christians, especially the evangelicals,  is a relatively modern invention.  The gradual development of this model as normative, has largely been responsible for the parallel development of a distinct gay identity, largely in reaction.  (The campaign against the ‘homosexual’ is attacking what it has itself created.) Conversely, the early church idealised male friendship and community life, rather than the family as now understood.

Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Kathy Rudy)

Rudy also looks at the historical development of the family, from a feminist perspective.  Her conclusion is that LGBT people are mistaken in looking to mimic heterosexual families, suggesting that urban gay male culture offers a model of human relationships modelled on community. She denies the argument that Christian sexuality needs to be procreative – Christianity reproduces itself not by procreation, but by conversion.  What matters is not whether two people can produce children, but whether they can embrace outsiders – the key characteristic of Christianity.

Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach (Virginia Ramey Mollenkott)

Mollenkott shows that many features of God’s incarnation and manifestation to humans, and many practices of the church, fall outside socially approved, binary ideas of gender. She also discusses numerous examples of canonised saints who have defied gender roles.

Indecent Theology: (Marcella Althaus-Reid)

Althaus-Reid’s starting point is within the framework of liberation theology, but she points out that this has often proceeded from within a traditional approaches to gender and sexual identity. She “foregrounds a Christ outside the gates who is the eternal Bi/Christ who always gives us something to think about.”

Books: Where To Begin?

One of the best ways to prepare oneself for the onslaught of religion-based hostility is to read some of the very many books on the subject that have  emerged over the last thirty years or so. But with such a wealth of titles available, and the field constatnly expanding, the obvious question is where to begin? To which the obvious reply is, where are you starting from?

The question matters. You need to be clear on whether you want a simple introduction, a general but comprehensive overview for playpeople, or a scholarly tome filled with notes, sources and all the necessary qualifications, ifs and buts. Are you looking for approaches rooted in scripture, or Church teaching, or both? From a gay male, lesbian, or trans perspective? All these questions, and more, will influence your choice. In my detailed posts for each book, I have attempted to provide answers to these questions. The labels included in each post will help you to find books on a specific topic. With time, I will be building in thematic lists, a search engine, and other means to access exactly what you personally will find helpful – but all these refinements take time, while I am simultaneously trying to expand the number and range of books included. I crave your patience.

In the meantime, I offer some suggestions of what might be the most useful for specific purposes.

For a very simple, introductory overview of Scripture and Church teaching, I was impressed by “The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality”, by Nicholas Coulton. Written from an Anglican perspective, but is also more widely applicable.

Also tackling both Scripture and Church teaching, but going into more detail, former Jesuit John McNeill’s “The Church and the Homosexual”, was one of the very first and is still a classic. “A Question of Truth” by the Dominican priest Gareth Moore covers much the same ground, and is much more recent.

On Scripture specifically, I think the best for the general reader is “Dirt, Greed and Sex” by the Episcopalian L. William Countryman. For a later, more Evangelical approach to the same subject, read Eugene Rogers, …If you are ready to tackle a more academic treatment bristling with footnotes, then read the chapter on Scripture in the landmark “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” by John Boswell. (This is also of fundamental importance for gay church history, and the development of theology). If you are put off by the excessive footnotes and Greek & Latin quotations, you will find summaries of his arguments in many of the other books).

The Catholic priest, theologian and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak has written that McNeill, Countryman and Boswell (noted above) were the three books that nmost influenced his own thinking and understanding. Helminiak’s “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality“. Helminiak’s book is often listed alongside those three.

It is important though not to get bogged down in biblical studies of homoeroticism by dealing only with fending off the oppressive texts of terror.  There are many ways in which we, like all other Christians, can read scripture for its positive inspiration. “Take Back the Word” (edited by Robert Goss) does just that.

An important set of books “from a perspective Catholic and gay” are more difficult to classify. These are the series by the theologian and former Dominican James Alison. These are undoubtedly works of “theology”, but the word is misleading, with its associations of ancient, scholastic tomes. Alison’s books are tightly reasoned, but presented in an informal, chatty style, as a series of reflections on God, and on what it means to be both gay and Catholic. These are all popular and highly recommended. Start with the first in the series: “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay.”

Faith is incomplete without prayer. The Presbyterian Chris Glaser has several books on prayer for gay men and lesbians. A good one to begin with is “Coming Out to God” – which is a good way to think of starting our queer faith journey.

Finally, two books by Catholic priests which offer a completely fresh, unfamiliar take on the awkward question of sexual ethics: “Sex and the Sacred” by Daniel Helminiak, and “Sex as God Intended”, by John McNeill.

(Note:

I realise that all the above titles are written by men, and have a clearly male focus, although all do also try to cover lesbian relationships as well as gay male. There are good books by women, but I am not aware of any (yet) that I can reommend at this general level. I will make a point of highlighting books written from lesbian, bi or trans perspectives when I discuss some more specialised topics.)

The full introductory list then, is:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Coulton, Nicholas: The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality

Countryman, William: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today

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: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality

Rogers, Eugene:  Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church