In the US, October 11th is “National Coming Out Day”. By now, the value to LGBT of coming out is well accepted. It’s valuable to the individual, as good for emotional and mental health – psychotherapists recognise the process as one of psychological growth. It’s also good for the community. As the number of openly LGBT people has steadily increased, the greater visibility has contributed directly to increased public recognition of the need for LGBT equality in law.
What is less widely recognised among LGBT people of faith, is that precisely the same arguments and more, apply to the importance of coming out, in church. Just as psychotherapists acknowledge the process as one of psychological growth, a number of see it as one of spiritual growth. David Helminiak, an academic with doctorates in both psychology and spirituality for instance, describes this in “Sex and the Sacred”. The theologian and psychotherapist Fr John McNeill does so in “Sex as God Intended”, and Fr James Empereur SJ, does so in “Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person”.
In Brazil, some LGBT activists have launched a campaign for the Catholic Church to declare as a queer saint an indigenous man called Tibira do Maranhão. This is totally unlikely – Tibira was executed by the colonials for the crime of “sodomy”, and was never a Christian. The story has been reported at Vice, and then picked up by the Catholic LGBT advocacy group, New Ways Ministry.
The campaign is aimed at a declaration of sainthood – but it’s more appropriate in my view, to see him as a queer martyr – martyred not for the church in defence of his faith, but by the church, on account of his sexuality. This is clearly recognised by the wording of the brochure shown above, which describes him as “santo martir” – ie, holy martyr.
The gruesome story is retold at Vice:
Missionaries accompanied the colonists, Sepahvand said, with the intention of teaching natives the proper Christian way of living. The goal was to “purify the earth of its evils” and “extinguish sin” among the native population—one of which was sodomy. “Indeed, the word ‘faggot’ comes from these times, a reference to the small pieces of wood that would be used to light the executing fires,” Sepahvand said.
In 1614, a Tupi man known as “Tibira” was sentenced to death for the crime of sodomy. He was to be executed in a public spectacle, to serve as a local object lesson: that same-sex sexuality was no longer going to be tolerated. And so Tibira was strapped in front of a cannon and blown to pieces. “But only after he had been baptized,” said Sepahvand. “In their apparent ‘benevolence,’ the missionaries wanted to make sure that upon death, Tibira would arrive in heaven and there could choose to join the male or the female group of angels singing God’s praise.” Hallelujah, indeed.
The campaign for Tibira claims that the death of Tibira is considered to be the “first documented case of homophobic murder in Latin America.” This is not correct. Twenty years earlier, there had been an even more gruesome execution for sodomy, when forty “two-spirited” men had been literally fed to a pack of dogs for their alleged crime of gender and sexual non-conformity.
The campaign for sainthood is doomed to failure, but it’s worth highlighting, for illustrating how misguided are the claims that it was Western missionaries and colonists that introduced homosexuality and gender variance to Africa, Asia and the Americas. For Catholics, it’s particularly important, to counter current tirades against “ideological neo-colonialism”. In fact, the ideological colonialism was the other way around.
Walatta Petros is a 17th-century Ethiopian nun and saint who had an intense lifelong friendship with another nun and led a successful movement to drive out foreign missionaries. Her feast day is Nov. 23.
Her biography, written by her disciples just 30 years after her death, is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in sub-Saharan Africa. That section was censored until 2015, when the first English translation was published.
Cherry’s source is a 2015 translation by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, of a 17th-Century African Biography by by Galawdewos. Acknowledging that the story is “controversial”, for more background on the story, she includes a link to Belcher’s webpage.
A constant theme during the 2014 and 2015 synod assemblies on marriage and family, and of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation that followed it, was the importance of listening, and accompaniment for families in unconventional situations. This certainly applies to same-sex couples, but it also applies to families with LGBT members. These ideas are coming into increasing prominence, following the recent publication of Fr James Martin’s book, “Building a Bridge”.
In London, the LGBT Catholics Young Adults Group have arranged a workshop to do exactly this.
A day workshop for Catholic family members of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. We hope that listening to input from both Mgr Keith Barltrop, chaplain to the LGBT Catholics Westminster, and the experiences of other family members of LGBT people, will enable those taking part to truly walk with their LGBT family members and accompany them on their journey.
Suggested donation of £10 which will include lunch.
As Australia faces a postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage, we are seeing a steady stream of articles arguing the “yes” or “no” case. Many on the “no” side are prone to citing the Bible or appealing to “biblical values”. But what does the Bible actually say about human sexuality and homosexuality in particular?
What follows represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue. Critical biblical scholarship draws on a range academic disciplines including literary criticism, archaeology, history, philology, and social science to offer the most plausible, historically grounded interpretation of the Bible. It is not simply a matter of personal belief or citing official church doctrine.
Australian scholars are among leaders in the field when it comes to sexuality and the Bible. William Loader has written several books on the matter and this Anglican collection of essays is also excellent.
When it comes to homosexuality there are, at most, six passages of the Bible that are relevant. So what do these passages say?
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is well known. This is where the terms “sodomite” and “sodomy” originate, and it has long been associated with biblical condemnation of male homosexual sex. It is, however, actually about gang-rape.
In this story, the men of Sodom seek to rape two visitors (who are actually angels). Their host, Lot, defends them and offers them protection in his house, but offers his virgin daughters to be raped in their place.
It is a deeply problematic and complex story that warrants an article of its own, but what is clear is that sexual violence and rape is harshly condemned, and so God destroys the town with sulphur and fire. Despite the linguistic history of the word “sodomite”, Genesis 19 has nothing to say about homosexuality or mutually consenting adults of the same gender expressing their desire and love.
Two of the laws of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) seem more pertinent. They call a man lying with another man instead of his wife an “abomination”.
We should note first that the imagined scenario is a married man committing adultery with another male. It is not describing what we would understand to be a sexual orientation. We might also note the inherent sexism here: women apparently don’t have the same desire or their sexuality is deemed too insignificant to be worthy of comment.
Again, we need some context. Yes, this verse clearly condemns adulterous homosexual sex in calling it an “abomination” (to’ebah), but here some of the other things also called an “abomination” in the Bible:
Egyptians eating with Hebrews;
having an image of another god in your house;
sacrificing your child to the god Molech;
having sex with your wife when she is menstruating;
taking your wife’s sister as a second wife; and
Banned likewise is wearing mixed-fabric clothing, interbreeding animals of different species, tattoos, mocking the blind by putting obstacles in their way, and trimming your beard.
As you can see, there is quite an assortment of ancient laws, some of which seem to make good sense (such as no child sacrifice) and others of which the majority of Christians no longer keep (such as eating pork and wearing a wool-silk blend).
To claim one set as timeless truths while ignoring the others is patently hypocritical and goes against the grain of the text itself.
These two verses in Leviticus are the sum total of what the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) says about same-sex activities. The remainder of the biblical references occur in the New Testament, written between approximately 50 and 110 CE in the context of the Roman Empire.
The attitudes and norms of Graeco-Roman culture are critical in understanding these texts. In Graeco-Roman society, there was an acceptance that men might be attracted to other men. Even if married (to a woman) and often prior to marriage, a wealthy man might have a young male lover or male partner.
In educational settings, several ancient authors comment on the male-male mentoring that often included pederasty (sex with boys). The main ancient objection to male-male sexual activity was that one partner had to take the “woman’s role” of being penetrated.
In a patriarchal society, to be masculine was to be the active partner, whereas to be passive was deemed feminine and shameful.
These attitudes find their way into the New Testament in various forms. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 list a wide group of people who will not “inherit the Kingdom” without changing. Paul is using a standard list of vices here to make a wider rhetorical point.
Where some English translations might include “homosexuality” on this list, the translation is not that simple, which is why various English words are used (adulterer, immoral persons, prostitutes).
The Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means “soft” or “effeminate” and captures the Graeco-Roman distaste at a man taking a “female” role. In the Bible it is commonly used to describe fancy clothing, and outside the Bible was a term for cult prostitutes.
The word arsenokoites is rarer. Scholars have debated whether it refers to male prostitution or pederasty or something else. To translate it “homosexual” is problematic for two reasons: it is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses is as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.
It is typical of the strong “them and us” rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se. As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarises:
Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.
We need to put all this in perspective. These are six verses out of more than 31,000 verses or roughly 0.016% of the text. In contrast, the Bible contains more than 2,000 verses about money (and related issues of greed, wealth, loans, and property), and more than 100 specifically on one’s obligation to care for widows.
In other words, monitoring and proscribing human (homo)sexual activity is not a particular concern of the Bible when compared to the overarching demand for justice, economic equality, and the fair treatment of foreigners and strangers. For certain Christian groups to make this the decisive Christian issue is simply a misreading of biblical values.
Lest readers think the Bible is against sexuality generally, there is an entire biblical book devoted to celebrating human sexual desire. Written in the style of a Mesopotamian love poem, the Song of Songs (sometimes called Song of Solomon), speaks positively of both female and male sexual yearning.
Serious Christians cannot ignore the Bible. They can, however, make sure that they interpret it with all the tools available to them, that they examine their own biases, and stop over-simplifying the issues.
The Bible offers a wide variety of marriage arrangements, many of which we no longer condone. It never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly.
It does, however, give us an ethic to guide how we treat one another: an ethic based upon God’s generous love and a profound concern for justice.
For LGBT Catholics struggling with formal Catholic teaching on sex and gender, conscience is a lifeline. In this regard, it’s worth paying attention to the thoughts on the subject by Cardinal Cristoph Schonborn, who is perhaps the most influential theologian guiding the Catholic church on lgbt issues.
One the one hand, Schonborn is highly respected by both our living popes. Pope Francis invited him to present the formal launch of Amoris Laetitia to the press. He’s also close to Pope Benedict XVI as a former student, a close friend, and a regular participant in the theological “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” Benedict used to hold every summer at Castelgandolfo. He was also the general editor 25 years ago of the Catholic Catechism. His judgement matters.
One disturbing feature of the Catholic Bishops’ Synod Assembly on Marriage and Family, and in the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” which followed, was a series of strenuous attacks on what was described as “gender ideology”. By this, the bishops seemed to mean anything that differed from conventional ideas about suitable roles for men and women, and about gender complementarity as the only basis for marriage. What they refer to as gender “ideology” is in practice, essentially just the gender theory – and the established evidence from the real world that ideas of “masculinity” and “feminity” are culturally determined, taking different forms in different societies around the world, and that not all biological males (or females) show the same degree of “masculinity” (or feminity).
The real “ideology” here, is not that which is under attack by Catholic bishops, but the church’s own insistence that gender and biological sex are to equated. The dangers of gender stereotyping that results from this approach are severe, with damaging effects on children’s self-esteem, on limiting life choices for women especially but also for men, and on increased risks of bullying or worse, for gender non-conforming people.
Kids everywhere have damaging gender stereotyping set by age 10
Damaging gender stereotypes are ingrained from the age of 10. That is the conclusion of the first study to draw together data from high, middle and low-income countries across different cultures about how “tweenagers” perceive growing up as a boy or girl.
In many places, the pressure of these stereotypes leaves girls at higher risk of leaving school and experiencing earlypregnancy and sexual violence, and encourages reckless and risky behaviour in boys
Such gender-based restrictions on girls leave them at a greater risk of dropping out of school, pregnancy, child marriage and exposure to violence, depression, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
And while males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females, teen girls are more likely than teen boys to attempt suicide, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For boys, the hegemonic myth of being strong and independent generally puts them at a higher risk of falling victim to physical violence, according to researchers.
In countries such as China, India and the U.S., it has become increasingly acceptable for girls to challenge gender stereotypes, but boys can still deal with physical bullying for defying gender norms.
Researchers also found that not only do boys die more frequently than girls from unintentional injuries, and not only are they more prone to substance abuse and suicide, but as adults, their life expectancies are also shorter compared to women.
Such differences are socially not biologically determined,” study authors concluded.
The Catholic Church does not have a strong record of paying attention to the findings of science, in developing its ideas about marriage and family. t is to be hoped that this may now begin to change, with the upgrading of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, to an Institute to Marriage and Family Science.
Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright says he believes there’s a valid “common good” argument for the government to legalize same-sex “marriage”. In a September article for Aurora, the diocesan magazine, he drew a clear distinction between whether it “squares with Catholic teaching”, or “is a good practical rule for people living in this society at this time”.
Bishop Wright makes clear that the Catholic church cannot recognise same-sex unions as marriage “except in the limited sense of a marriage according to Australian law”. But, he continues, that is a distinction that the Australian church already accepts, in other situations.
News from Rome is that the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family has been upgraded, to the Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Science. Much of the news commentary about this, has focused on the addition of “theological” to the name. I’m more interested in the addition of “science”.
What is immediately clear from the announcement, is that there is an important broadening of the institute’s field, from just moral and sacramental theology, to include much more of the real world:
With the decision of making it a theological institute, Paglia said, the pope enlarges its scope, from being focused only on sacramental and moral theology, to one that is also biblical, dogmatic and historic, and that keeps under consideration modern-day challenges.
Paglia said that, at this moment, the body of professors working at the institute will remain, with new faculty being added to respond to the enlarged curricula. Among other things, he said, the history of the family will be explored, as well as the many scientific aspects of the family, from anthropology to bioethics.
That alone is to be welcomed. Also to be welcomed, is Pope Francis’ recognition that marriage and family need to be studied in the context of the real world:
We do well to focus on concrete realities, since the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history, and through these the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family.
Faithful to Christ’s teaching we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows
The question in my mind, is whether this newly minted interest in science and concrete realities of families, will include serious consideration of queer families and the science of sexuality. Some years ago, the theologian James Alison wrote that it was an exciting time to be a gay Catholic – because science was demonstrating convincingly that a same-sex orientation was entirely natural, and non-pathological. In time, he believed, the church would be bound to adapt.
As yet, there has been no meaningful sign of the church is indeed taking account of that science. (Indeed, the Vatican’s attacks on so-called “gender ideology” amounts to an outright attack on the science of gender). In his analysis of the range of LGBT discrimination practised by the Vatican, Krzysztof Charamsa, writing with inside information as a former senior official, notes that far from assessing the science, theologians at the CDF were in effect prohibited from consideration of either the science or the theology of homosexuality.
There was in fact a time when the CDF did pay careful attention to the science. Sadly, that was way back when the science still regarded homosexuality as a form of mental illness to be subjected to “cure”. Later, it was Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the CDF who dispensed with attention to science, and replaced it with what he saw as the higher truth of the truth from Holy Scripture (more accurately, his own interpretation of that truth).
It is possible of course, that with this new development, things will improve. Pope Francis has replaced Pope Benedict XVI as bishop of Rome, Benedict’s protege Cardinal Mueller is no longer head of the CDF – and just as the John Paul II Institute has been newly upgraded to a theological institute, the importance of the CDF for the understanding and Catholic responses to marriage, family and sexuality has in effect been downgraded.
David Ludescher, a regular OT reader, has put to me some important questions on the formation of conscience. These arose in response to my post on empirical research findings on the current state of British Catholic belief, and some observations I made on the implications for our understanding of the sensus fidelium (on sexual ethics and priestly ministry in particular).
These questions were put in a comment box, which I have reproduced in an independent post for easy reference. Just follow the link to read the questions in full. This is my response:
David, I cannot offer a “methodology” on the formation of conscience. I’m not sure such a mechanical, formulaic approach is possible or desirable. (If it is, I do not have one). I do however, have a few important principles that I apply, and some specific techniques and strategies that I apply, or have applied in the past. These I am happy to share.
Before getting to the important issue of conscience formation, just a word on how it applies to the sensusfidelium. I agree completely that this is not a concept that is useful for personal conscience formation. In raising it, I did not in any way want to imply that our decisions should be based on the results of opinion polls – that would be mere ethical mob rule, which is poles apart from my own thinking. However, it is important in assessing the validity of claims that one or other belief is part of “church teaching” – or is simply part of Vatican doctrine.
Your primary request was for my thoughts on resolving the first question you put:
So, how does a Catholic, wishing to be a faithful Catholic, Christian, and human, go about determining a methodology for discerning how to inform one’s conscience?
I fully accept and agree with your assertion that the primary influences on conscience should be (a) Holy Scripture, (b) assisted and guided by the teaching of the Magisterium. However, there are some serious caveats against relying on these alone, which is why (c) the final arbiter is the individual person – an observation which raises its own difficulties. I take these in three bites, before moving on to two other important considerations.
is a vast assemblage of texts, written in languages, literary idioms and historical contexts remote from the language and conditions we are used to. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has warned that there are grave dangers in simplistic readings of specific texts. Rather, a proper understanding of Scripture requires that we approach each with a true understanding of several contexts: the context of the passage in the Bible as a whole; the historical context in which it was written; and the modern context in which we wish to apply it. We also need careful attention to the language and literary idiom in which it was written. Few of us have the skills to properly apply all of these skills in our own study of Scripture. This is why we need the help and advice of specialists, notably in the form of the magisterium.
That alone does not resolve the problem, as much the same difficulties arise. The full magisterium is an even greater assemblage of texts, written (except for the earliest materials) largely for specialists, and in language that is foreign to us. This is why we have the Catechism, which is an attempt to make the magisterium available in a more accessible form to non-specialists. The Catechism has the opposite disadvantage – in its simplification and distillation of a vast body of work, it has lost much of the subtlety and nuance of the full teaching.
There are also more serious difficulties with the entire concept of relying on the Magisterium. Unlike Holy Scripture, there is no claim that it is divinely inspired, nor is there any agreement (that I am aware of) on a fixed, unchanging selection of work that is agreed to be canonical to the exclusion of all others. We know that some key theologians and their works are fundamental, but we also known that some teachings that were once thought to be inviolable have been abandoned, while some secondary writers come in or out of favour, have been forgotten or been rediscovered.
We also know that it is human nature that the people in any institution will have a tendency to exaggerate their own importance. So, in evaluating the Magisterium we need to adopt at least some caution, if not outright scepticism, to Church claims about the importance of its own authority.
I have stressed some of the difficulties of simplistic reliance on Magisterium, especially as reduced to the Catechism, but I emphatically do not reject it. I welcome and value the teaching authority of the church: but that is teaching authority, not legislative power. Any good teacher will welcome and encourage a student who criticizes the teacher, provided that he can do so on well-reasoned grounds. Such critical evaluation of the magisterium in its application to conscience formation is appropriate to adult, educated Catholics.
The Individual Person.
Here we have the ultimate conundrum: if Scripture is too vast, remote and complex to yield to simple interpretation by non-specialists and requires the help of the magisterium; and if the magisterium is even more complex and inaccessible to ordinary people, requiring ultimate evaluation by the individual – where is that ordinary Catholic to find the resources to provide that evaluation?
The first answer, I submit, is to recognize that the magisterium, as produced by Vatican-approved theologians, is not the only source of human knowledge, or even of theology. There was a time when the only theologians were priests or monks, and more specifically bishops and abbots. There was even a time when virtually all (West European) human knowledge was produced or preserved in the Church. Those days are long gone.
Today, we have countless important theologians outside of the Catholic clergy: both in other Christian denominations, and Catholics outside the priesthood, as religious women and lay people. There voices too should be read and considered. We must also recognize that there is knowledge outside of theology: history, physical and biological sciences, anthropology, medicine and psychology all have useful things to say about the human condition. Some of their findings impact on theology – and so on conscience.
Theologians once accepted without question that creation occurred precisely within a space of seven days. In the light of palaeontology and cosmology, most people now accept that the “seven days” of Genesis are not to be read so literally. In the same way, we need to consider the findings from secular knowledge when evaluating traditional teaching on many issues of theological ethics.
But all of this is simply expanding the sources we need to draw on, and we cannot possibly expect to have more than a superficial understanding of any single one, let alone the full range of sources I am now recommending: Holy Scripture, Magisterium, church history, secular history, natural history, anthropology and social science, medicine, psychology, and even more.
The task would be impossible, except for the most important source of all.
God, Heard Through Prayer.
I started by rejecting the concept of a mechanical “methodology” for conscience formation, which I did primarily for the connotations of the word as all “head stuff”. One of the treasures that I took away from the dozen or so years of experience I had in a Jesuit parish and in the Ignatian –based Christian Life Community (CLC), is the importance of balancing “head” and “heart”. All of the foregoing is essentially intellectual head-stuff, but the Lord speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts.
Central to the Ignatian approach to decision-taking is the idea that we need to apply both. First, we must apply our intellects to gather and assess the factual information as best as we are able. Then (or in parallel, in an extended decision), we take the factual material to prayer, and allow the Lord to speak to us directly in our hearts. It is entirely appropriate, I believe, that conscience is often described as the “still small voice” within us. It is the voice, I believe of God in God self – if only we can learn to hear it.
The Jesuit theologian has written that we all have the potential to find a direct experience of God. When we do, there is nothing that the Church, or even Scripture itself, that can countermand what we learn directly from the ultimate source. And so, to approach this final state of conscience formation, we need to set the neglected task of spiritual formation.
For me, this is a badly neglected area of Catholic education. Perhaps times have changed since I was at school, perhaps it is something that cannot be really appreciated until we have reached a certain maturity. Whatever the reason, I suspect that most Catholics underestimate the importance of prayer not simply as a means of talking to the Lord, (or just asking for favours, in prayers of petition), but as a means of listening for guidance.
How we learn to do so is a vast subject itself, which I do not have either the space or the expertise to go into. But noting its importance, I can now summarize my approach to the formation of conscience:
Use Scripture, and the Magisterium, to the best of our ability. We will never achieve full understanding, but we can constantly extend the knowledge that we have.
Extend and balance that understanding with additional information, we can access it, from secular source.
Add in the one area where we are all experts – our own experiences. Share these with others, and learn also from their stories.
Take the whole lot to regular prayer – and listen to the Holy Spirit speaking directly to your heart.