Category Archives: Catholic_Church

The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet

Over the last 40 years, we who are openly gay and lesbian, inside and outside the church, have been discovering the joy of coming out.  It is widely agreed that at a public level, this has led to increasing public understanding and acceptance of our issues. At a personal level, this is almost invariably a liberating, invigorating experience, freeing us from guilt and fear. As Helminiak has noted, and I discussed here, this is valuable as a growth experience for both spiritual and mental health.
The converse of course, is also true: remaining in the closet  carries clear and demonstrable costs.  Denying oneself honest sexual expression leads either to the repression of a natural human instinct, or to a life of subterfuge, of deceit, of fear of being discovered, and of feelings of anguished guilt.  This surely cannot be healthy, either mentally or spiritually.
Continue reading The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet

Clerical Abuse: The Story So Far, Looking Ahead.

For a long time I resisted writing about the assorted scandals of clerical sexual abuse from around the world.  After the Irish Ryan report though, I broke my silence, writing for the first time of own experiences, which I presented as just a preamble, declaring my interest, and promised more. You may be wondering what has happened to the rest of reflection on the topic.

In fact, the theme is far from forgotten or neglected, occupying a great deal of my thinking time – and the more I think about it, the wider the scope becomes.  It may not be immediately obvious, but a good portion of what I have written over the past few weeks is part of the argument I am developing.  (Indeed, it could be stated that almost everything I put onto this site is part of my argument – but that is jumping rather too far ahead.)

For now, I would just like to restate what I have published this far and how it fits in to the bigger picture. Then, I will point to the material which is in preparation, and an outline of where I am headed.

Starting from the beginning:  I wrote earlier of the  reasons for my initial silence :

“1)   This is personal.

2)   The issues are far more complex and multifaceted then press reports, or popular commentary, would lead us to believe.

3)  Too often, those attempting to spell out in honesty the complexities and subtleties of the issues, are simply branded as apologists for evil.”

Of these three, I have fully explained the first, and there is nothing more to be said.  (If you missed this little personal memoir, you may see the two posts combined on the page “Sexual Abuse: My Experience” ).  Of the third, I think it will be clear by the end that I am anything but an apologist.

It is the second item, the many facts of the issue, that is the problem. This very complexity leaves me having to spin out what is far too often presented in a few glib sentences  and stock phrases over many posts, slipping into what appear to be unrelated digressions.  They are not unrelated at all.

Some of you may have seen my earlier post some months back on Bishop Geoffrrey Robinson’s book, “Confronting Sex and Power in the Catholic Church”, in which he argues that the three primary causes of clerical sexual abuse are sexual immaturity in some individual priests; enforced celibacy; and excessively centralised power structures in the church.

It was because enforced celibacy is central to the problem, that I wrote about the Myth of Priestly Celibacy.  I will follow this up shortly by expanding on how enforced celibacy leads to abuse.  (My recent items on coming out were not only because they were appropriate to Pride week: they were also important because sexual honesty is crucial to mental health, and so key to this discussion). It will also be necessary to say more about the problem of excessively centralised power in the church – although it will be obvious to my regular readers that this is something I touch on constantly.

This alone does not deal with the full complexity  of the problem.  I noted when I first wrote about abuse that the language is gravely inadequate to the reality, which is covers a wider range of practices, all lumped together into a single term.  I want to show how the problem is much wider, and there is a sense in which we are all, at some level, victims of clerical abuse of some kind.

Conventional responses to the problem are also in my view grossly inadequate.  Simply pointing fingers at the perpetrators and the Bishop who covered up the scandal, attempting to make amends with financial payouts, does not even scratch the surface of the healing process required. Instead, in looking towards a more viable approach, I have been recalling the approach of South Africa in dealing with the appalling atrocities committed in the name of apartheid, or of the “struggle” against it.  Key to this was the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, magnificently led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.   Dealing with this, and my personal response to the TRC, wil require a short digression into South African history, and to some reflection on the concept of truth.

Only then will I finally be able to present my full conclusions:

  • A full understanding of the problem of clerical abuse will show that at some level, we are all victims;
  • By allowing the church to persist in the exercise of excessive power, and to pervert the truth for a twisted sexual theology, we are all at some level complicit, and share to some degree in the blame;
  • But by simply getting on with our lives, by ignoring those parts of sexual doctrine which are obviously untenable, by showing more sensitivity and compassion in our local parishes than the institutional church does in its documents , and by speaking up vigourously against abuse (of all kinds) wherever we encounter it, we are also, thankfully, already part of the solution.  By asserting our right of participation as formulated at Vatican II, creating if necessary our own structures and forums to have our vocies heard, we can extend still further this healing.

I hope you will stay with me as I elaborate this argument in the weeks ahead.

(Previously posted:

Priests, Paedophiles and Purity

Church, Power and Abuse

The Paddywhack and Me (personal)

More Worms: Abuse, continued (personal)

The Myth of Clerical Celibacy

Coming out as Spiritual Experience

Coming Out as Wrestling With the Divine#

The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Until the 12th century, Christian priests led sexual lives resembling those of lay people: some priests and lay people alike embraced voluntary celibacy,  others did not.  Then, at the First Lateran Council of 1123 ,  celibacy was imposed as a rule on all priests. The circumstances and reaction at the time are interesting. John Boswell argues that among the groups strongly promoting the rule were priests who had no wives or concubines, but did have boyfriends.  After noting that Pope Leo IX, who was the first pontiff to take action against married clergy, had shown no interest in acting against homosexual practices by priests or bishops, Boswell continues with:

Contemporaries, at least, were quick to note that gay priests were more willing than heterosexual ones to enforce prohibitions against clerical marriage“;

and again

There is some evidence of a power struggle between gay and married clergy over whose predilection would be stigmatized.”

In the Eastern church, orthodox priests never adopted the rule, and were horrified by the practice in the West. An anonymous Byzantine tract of c 1274, quoted in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium“, asks plaintively,

“Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry.  Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.”

In the centuries that followed, this charge (that clergy at all levels no longer married, but continued active sexual lives with concubines) was widely accepted. Indeed, sexual scandals even at the level of the papacy were one of the factors that led to the Reformation.  Somehow, in subsequent centuries, many Catholics seem to have adopted the belief that since celibacy is the rule, it is now also the practice.  This is hogwash.  It never has been, and never will be.

It is well known that there has been a haemorrhaging of good men from the priesthood over the last half century, many of them leaving the priesthood explicitly to marry.   It is delusional to suppose that these men kept themselves sexually chaste until after leaving;  it is equally delusional to suppose that all those who maintained active sexual relationships, left the priesthood.  I myself have a personal friend who left the priesthood only when he ‘had to get married’ to the religious sister he had impregnated.  Note the sequence:  first he got her pregnant, then he left the priesthood.

In the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism”, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine , and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success, to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these contentions.  In The Future of the Celibacy Debate lies in Africa, not Miami Collen Kochivar-Baker writes about the situation in the Central African Republic, where it seems that bishops and priests for years have been living openly with wives and families:

“Africa News had reported Monday that Archbishop Pomodimo and several priests in his archdiocese would be sanctioned ‘for adopting a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with their commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty and obedience’.”

In Zimbabwe, the otherwise impressive and respected Bishop Ncube has resigned after as sexual scandal.  From Rocco Palma’s “Whispers in the Loggia”:

“Ncube’s resignation was accepted after the 62 year-old prelate was accused of adultery in what, at the time, the archbishop maintained was a “well-orchestrated plan” by Mugabe and his allies to discredit Ncube for his globally-noticed protests of the country’s authoritarian rule.

Several months later, the prelate admitted to the affair in a documentary interview.” In the same post, Pollo  also refers to situation in Bangui.

There have been many instances publicised in the West (and many more unpublicised), of which  the case of Fr Mario Cutie in Miami is just the most recently prominent.    Nor have the sexual partners been restricted to women.   Censor Librorum at Nilhil Obstathas written on the voracious sexual appetite of the late Cardinal Spellman for young men, and former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland has recently come out publicly on his experience as a gay Bishop in the church.

A  sexual appetite is a fundamental human urge. Modern research shows clearly that healthy, active expression of this urge contributes to physical and mental health. While I fully accept that voluntary celibacy is entirely possible and acceptable for those who embrace it willingly in maturity, I have grave misgivings about imposing it by compulsion.

The pretence of priestly celibacy is not just a myth:  the consequences are intensely damaging, in many ways, to the whole Church and its people.  I will expand on these consequences later.

Seduced by Grace

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other occasions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder ofRainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.

What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book, Seduced by Grace.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over. Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

Marriage Equality & the Church.

Wedding cake of a same-sex marriage, photo tak...

In the wake of the disappointing, but expected, Californian ruling on Prop 8, it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the gains elsewhere, and especially on the impact on the churches.

It is well known how rapidly legal recognition of same sex marriage has progressed: first in Iowa, by court order, then in rapid succession Vermont and Maine by legislative action. New Hampshire is not quite there yet, but it is likely just a matter of time – as it is in New York and New Jersey.  DC has voted to recognise marriages legally conducted elsewhere, Washington has approved expansion of their civil union regime to ‘everything but marriage’, and in many other states and city jurisdictions, there have been less dramatic, incremental gains.  These have been widely reported and celebrated.

One big advance, and the one that I suspect may be more important for its long term impact on the churches of the world, has drawn remarkably little attention.  The day before the Iowa announcement, and drowned out of the news by the drama of developments in Iowa and New England, The Swedish parliament, with the minumum of fuss or fanfare, and the support of all the major parties, voted to make Sweden the fith country in Europe to recognise same sex marriage.   For those of us in Europe, especially if we are committed to the ideal of ever closer union, this is obviously more significant than the stop-start progress in some minor American states and cities. But I believe that the siginificance for all of us is substantial, particularly if we are professed Christians.  Why?

In the US, and also here in the UK, the legal provisions for same sex marriage or civil unions/partnerships, where they exist, are quite specifically for ‘civil’ marriage or partnerships.  Indeed, the British legislation specifically prohibits the use of religious language or premises for the ceremony; increasinlgy, US legislators are cradting thier gains by spelling  out the the legislation proposed places no obligations on religious minsters, or even staff.

The Swedish situation is quite different. The legislation quite specifically provides for legal recognition of either civil or church marriage. This has huge implications for the Swedish Lutheran Church, which until recently was the official state church of the country, with special status, even funding, in the legal system.  This has changed, but the informal ties and status remain strong.  So what was the response of the church?   Did they start weeping and wailing and gnashing there teeth? Did they lament the moral decadence of the country?  Did they offer grudging toleration, with ifs and buts to demand a right of opt-out?  None of the above.  a final decision awaits a full synod later in the summer, but the provisional, formal response was that the church would understand and ‘excuse’ any pastor who, as a matter of conscience,  felt s/he could NOT preside over same sex weddings.  That’s right – the specail consideration and understanding goes to those who are opposed:  the default position, buy Sweden’s major church, is to take in their stride same sex marriage conducted in church. Unless I have wildly misread the situation, this is likely to be the standard position after the synod later this year.

This will have important ripple effects, notably elsewhere in the EU.  Pressure for marriage equality will undoubtedly continue to spread across the EU, particularly in Western Europe.  When (not if), equality reaches Germany and Austria, the German Lutheran church, and also the German and Austrian Catholic churches,  will have to consider carefully their position.  All of them have special state recognition and funding.  Even in advance of legislation, just the propect of pressure for marriage, is forcing the churches into hard tactical consideration – faced with an emergin gay marriage lobby, the Portuguese Bishops proposed civil partnerships as a compromise solution – thus embracing the very proposal that there English counterparts strongly opposed a few years back.

In the English speaking world, the troubles caused to the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopalians) by disputes over homosexuality are well known. But while skirmishing continues, it is clear that over the longer term view, the tide is clearly turning in the direction of greater acceptance. The continuning expansion of legal recognition of civil marriage across the USA is already forcing more and more individual pastors, and local jursdictions, into fresh consideration of their own stance – and an increasing minority are  coming down on the side of at least blessing, and possibly solemnising, these unions in church.  Every synod season sees new debates on these. Where there is not yet victory, the margins of defeat are generally narrowing.

For me, the most heartening aspect of this, is the increasing number of reports I am seeing of sincere religious clergy of goodwill, who have found themselves prayerfully re-examining scriptures, theology and church history in search of guidance – and concluding that established church strictures against homosexuallity are without scriptural foundation, and misguided. (The recently released survey of ‘mainline protestant clergy’ attitudes to SSM has some fascinating figures on this).

There is no longer any doubt:  marriage equality is spreading steadily across the world, and across the US.  As it does so, the churches will increasingly be forced to grapple with, and re-examine, their own beliefs.  In doing so, many will reverse long-standing opposition to same sex relationships, and see the value of recognising commitment, whatever the orientation or gender of the partners.

The Catholic church will be behind the trend – but will not resist indefinitely.  Here, too, truth will triumph in the end.

Same Sex Marriage:  coming (soon) to a church near you – but not yet to a Catholic parish.

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Catholic ‘Dissent’ March 11, 2009

As a child in Catholic primary schools, I vividly remember memorising, page by page, the catechism of the church:  first a slim little red version, later a slightly fatter grey-green version for older students.

“Who made you?
God made me.”

“Why did God make you?
To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world,  and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”

But by the time I reached secondary school, Vatican II was in progress, enthusiastically embraced by the priest who taught me RE for the next 5 years. I never again saw that little catechism.

There is a quaint view in some quarters that to be a Catholic requires that one suspend all powers of the intellect, and meekly agree to believe, and to live, exactly as one is told.  This view I emphatically reject.  One of the key parables in the Gospels is that of the 10 talents. We are taught that the Lord requires us to use all the talents we are given, for his greater glory and to further His reign on earth.  Surely the intellect is one of the greatest talents He has bestowed on us?  (Another is our sexuality, which should also be used – but that is another story.)

Michael Bayley, at The Wild Reed, writes an impressive blog from what he calls a ‘progressive, gay, Catholic perspective.’  I am a regular reader, admiring in particular the way he has of presenting not only stimulating personal views, but also the best of writing from a range of others.  He also has excellent cross-references and links, so that I find that his archives alone are worth spending hours on, to explore specific themes.  But in yesterday’s post, he shares a letter he has received from a reader who states that

“this blog is just an exercise in false advertisement. For while you may in fact be progressive and gay, you are most definitely not Catholic.”

In making this assertion, the writer cites as evidence Michael’s regular criticisms of the hierarchy, his occasional writings on other faith traditions, and on some of his other activities, such as the work of the Spirit of St Stephen’s.  The comment boxes at the Wild Reed have been filling rapidly, with readers rushing to Michael’s defence.  I made my own response there, so I do not intend to elaborate further on Michael, and my support for him.  (Go to the Wild Reed yourself. Read the interchange, the recent posts which led to it, mull over the comments.  But also explore his valuable archives on dissent, and on what it means to be a Catholic).

What I do want to do here is to explore some of my own reflections on this interchange, as it affects me and this blog.

Ever since the approach of Lent, I have been struggling to get my thoughts down on the keyboard, and this is part of the reason.  I have never been one to see Lent as primarily a time of sacrifice:  rather, it is for me a time of reflection, in preparation for the great feast of the Easter resurrection.  My reflections this year have left me wanting to resolve some personal issues in developing a closer relationship with my local parish and diocese.   These do not lend themselves to public writing.

Furthermore, in setting up this blog in the first place, it was never my intention to devote it to reflexive, incessant attacks on the established church. This is what I wrote in my founding statement:

“….to all you who are gay Catholics or lapsed Catholics, a plea and invitation:  come in and come out. If you have lapsed, come back in to the Church, and help to make a difference.  If you remain a regular churchgoer, come in deeper – take on more active ministry.  Let there be no doubt of your credentials  as Catholic. Then, cautiously and gradually, come out as gay

…….. Coming out in the church will be more difficult, so you will need even more support.  I hope that this site will help you to find a suitable support network for face to face contact and discussion.  But the virtual society of the blogosphere can also represent support of a kind – and that, we definitely aim to provide.”

My track record since then has been less balanced.  (Unfortunately, simple responding to current news has left me with little choice).  Still, I am mindful that my intention from the start was to focus on the ‘Good News’ that is inherent in the Gospels, in the gift of our sexuality, and in the great tradition of the Catholic Church.

So, the debate at the Wild Reed has brought into focus how I can (belatedly) reflect in this blog, part of my own Lenten resolution. For the next few weeks, I will be attempting to present a more positive view of the Church which, for all its failings, remains my spiritual home.

Related articles

 Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).
Confronting Power and Sex

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

Continue reading  Church, Power & Abuse

Holy Spirit at Work? – James Alison

In a penetrating article on his website, noted theologian James Alison examines the recent furores in the Church over matters gay, and reaches what he calls a ‘suprising’ conclusion.    There is a huge amount of meat in here, which requires long and deliberate chewing (as always with Alison), so I cannot attempt to cover it all, certainly not after just one read.  It is though, an important and hopeful post, so I do want to share what seem to me to be some of the most important issues.

Being the thoughtful theologian that he is, Alison has deliberately avoided the temptation some of us fell into of responding in the heat of the moment to the flurry of apparent slights to the LGBT community in the closing weeks of last year and early this year.  Instead, he has given the issues time to settle, and responded only after careful (and no doubt, prayerful) reflection.  His conclusions are all the more important for this. Note, by the way, that he has entirely ignored the latest kerfuffle over SPXX – the dust is still settling on that one, and it is in any case only incidentally an issue of the church and homosexuality, which is Alison’s sole focus.

In examining the widely publicised curial address before Christmas, Alison notes (as others have done), that homosexuality is not directly mentioned at all – although he concedes that there is some reference to social constructions of gender, he finds that ” in the end, I don’t know what he was referring to. Not for the first time, his style tends to leave hostages to fortune.” For him, the importance of the address does not lie in any “donnish sideswipes” at homosexuality or gender issues, but at the deeper core of the message and four points on the workings of the Holy Spirit (of which the fuss was about just half of one of these points).  In drawing attention to the holy Spirit, Alison finds grounds for encouragement:

“If the Roman Curia, which he was addressing, regularly understood its task as responding to the Spirit rather than applying laws, we would certainly be a better Church.”

This is just the point I made (with far less insight and clarity) in my own response to the full text, but which I have not yet seen elsewhere.   The importance of this for LGBT persons, he elaborates in further reflection on how Benedict sees his role in the Church as the representative of Peter.  To make sense of this, I must first refer to two other recent incidents – one widely, but inaccurately, reported, the other not reported at all in the popular press.

Referring to the outcry over the document on seminary training, and the popular outcry at the time over its claims about ‘homosexual’ activities in seminaries, Alison notes that this document in fact barely mentions the subject.  The main focus lay elsewhere entirely, and much of the popular commentary focused on quotations that simply did not appear in this recent document .  I will not go into how this misreporting arose: what is important is to contrast the tone of this recent document with an earlier one, of  2005. In this, Alison finds evidence of retreat from the earlier hostility:

“My take on it is that it is transitional, as though a new team at the Dicastery for Catholic Education were trying to move on from the hole into which Cardinal Grocholewski and the 2005 document forbidding gay people to enter the priesthood had got them.”

The other important event was completely bypassed in the popular press, but is probably the most significant of all. This is an article  from the January 7th 2009 edition of Avvenireby Vittorino Andreoli:

“The article, one in a long series about priesthood, is about priests and homosexuality, and its author is a respected mainstream doctor and psychiatrist. While making the usual appropriate acts of reverence to the teaching authority of the Church in moral matters, and the right of the Church to choose whomsoever it wants for its presbyterate, what is striking about the article is that its author is perfectly clear and straightforward that he does not consider it to be scientifically acceptable to regard homosexuality as a form of sickness.” (This please note, not in a newspaper like the Guardian, but in the official organ of the italian Bishops’ Conference. )

“The first two documents in Church history to try to say something professional about homosexuality … both sought to define homosexuality in such a way that it could not be regarded as something neutral. ….And yet now, quietly, and without much fanfare, it rather looks as though it is perfectly possible publicly to maintain the opposite position in a properly Catholic context without fear of immediate retribution. Proper discussion has broken out.”

From this, together with his lengthy and tightly reasoned reflections on the earlier events, Alison appears to conclude that the Holy Spirit is presently at work in the Church, guiding  Benedict as the representative of Peter on earth, together with some other infulential figures, to prepare the Church for a gradual recognition of the past errors on matters of homosexuality, and to bring it into the modern world.

I have drawn attention previously to other notable theologians who are discerning signs of just this current action of the Holy Spirit transforming the Vatican.  Alison is the latest of several, but he is the first I have come across to reason the case so tightly, with such clear presentation of the evidence.

There is much else in this article that is worth taking on board:  a poignant reflection at the beginning,  on the pain inflicted by the church on its LGBT people; a  fascinating observation  that in their divergent approaches to the emerging issue of same sex marriages or civil unions in so many countries across the world, many national bishops’ conferences are taking positions directly in conflict with the Vatican’s own directive; the interplay of awareness by the Vatican press corps of the closeted gay lives of certain prelates, and those prelates’ own awareness of that knowledge .   All these have a fascination of their own.

The overriding message of this article though, appears to be a simple one:  Benedict has recognised, or is coming to recognise, that past hostility to ‘homosexuals’ has been misplaced, and is leading the hierarchy through a process of downplaying past condemnations, which will lead in turn to an increasing recognition of the need for a new theology of homosexuality.  This is a development, says Alison, that he has long anticipated, but it is occurring sooner, and more subtly, than he had expected.

It is this perception that explains the second part of his title :    “The Pain and the Endgame: Reflections on a Whimper.”

I have not remotely covered all that is important in this article:  I hope I have shown you that is worth going to for yourself.  To quote Josephus on Salus Animarum, who drew my attention to it:

Tolle, lege! (Take up and read!)

Thank you, James Alison

Changing the Church.

I have commented several times on John McNeill’s thesis that we my be in a ‘Kairos Moment’ in which the Holy Spirit intervenes to change the direction of the Church.  Against the background of extraordinarily strong reaction to recent statements and actions from the Vatican, and previously unprecedented signs of Vatican sensitivity and response to such criticism, J.S. O Leary on his web page has agreed that the Kairos Moment is with us. It is appropriate then to revisit just what McNeill meant with his suggestion.

The argument was first put forward in an address to the Dignity conference back in October 2005, reprinted in his book “Sex as God Intended” (My review of the book will appear here on Monday 8th). I am delighted that with McNeill’s help, I am able to post the full text of the Dignity address here.  Have a read, then consider:  are we experiencing the fundamental shifts in church power that both McNeill and O’leary are discerning?

John McNeill: Dignity Address February 6, 2009

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