Category Archives: Sexuality and gender

Queer Francis of Assisi: Breaking Boundaries

At Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry has uncovered more ground-breaking work on opening up the previously hidden history of queer elements in the lives of the saints – in this case, Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was yesterday, October 4th. The evidence she has quoted, comes from an unpublished master’s thesis “Gender Liminality in the Franciscan Sources” by the Franciscan scholar, Kevin Elphick.

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Reference to “queer” elements in the story and example of Francis are not intended as equivalent to the modern term “gay”, which would be completely anachronisitic, or to imply any specific sexual activity. We must always remember that although some writers use “queer” loosely as a synonym for gay and lesbian, or for the acronym LGBT, in fact it’s application in queer studies, and in queer theology, is much broader. Correctly used, the term does not refer to any specific sexual orientation or gender identity, but to a complete rejection of arbitrary definitions for sexuality or gender. In this sense, it is about breaking down boundaries – including boundaries outside of sex and gender, such as ethnicity, race or class.

So it is, that the Gospel message of radical inclusion and equality for all, is intrinsically a very queer one indeed. The theologian Robert Goss, who is identified by Elisabeth Stuart as initiating the transition from gay and lesbian theology to queer theology, rooted his thinking firmly in Christology, as indicated by the titles of two of his books, “Jesus Acted Up“, and “Queering Christ“.  St Francis of Assisi is renowned for his passionate commitment to embracing this Gospel message of breaking down boundaries, and an embrace of a materially simple life in imitation of Christ’s own. To see him as “queer” in this broadest sense, follows naturally.

The queer identity of both Francis and Christ, his model, is neatly illustrated in an image posted by Kittredge, of Francis embracing a Jesus with AIDS, on the cross. I quote here Kittredge’s description of Francis, and of the image:

Francis was born to a wealthy Italian family in 1181 or 1182. As a young man he renounced his wealth, even stripping off his clothes, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in the service of Christ. He connected with nature, calling all animals “brother” and “sister” and celebrating them in his famous Canticle of the Sun.

He saw the face of Christ in lepers, the most reviled outcasts of his time, and nursed them with compassion. William Hart McNichols puts Francis’ ministry into a contemporary context by showing him embracing a gay Jesus with AIDS in “St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree,” pictured here. Words on the cross proclaim that Christ is an “AIDS leper” as well as a “drug user” and “homosexual,” outcast groups at high risk for getting AIDS. The two men gaze intently at each other with unspeakable love as Francis hugs the wounded Christ. It was commissioned in 1991 by a New Jersey doctor who worked with AIDS patients, and is discussed in the book Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More by Kittredge Cherry.

“St. Francis ‘Neath the Bitter Tree”
By William Hart McNichols © fatherbill.org

Kittredge’s post goes further, noting that Elphick’s thesis shows how some aspects of Francis’ life were “queer” even in a narrower sense, breaking down gender boundaries in particular, applying female terms to men, and male terms to some women admitted as brothers in the male community (a reminder here, of the  earlier biologically female saints who lived as men, in male monasteries).

Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He also liked to be greeted as “Lady Poverty.” He encouraged his friars to live as mothers with children when in hermitage together, and used other gender-bending metaphors to describe the spiritual life.

Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

Jesus in Love

There is also evidence of an emotionally intense relationship with another man, described in the earliest known biography of Francis, by one of the saints own followers, who knew him personally:Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” (Details about Jacoba are at the end of this article.) His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order.

 “Now there was a man in the city of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other, and since they were of the same age and their constant association and ties of affection emboldened Francis to share his secret with him, he would often take this friend off to secluded spots where they could discuss private matters and tell him that he had chanced upon a great and precious treasure. His friend was delighted and, intrigued by what he had heard, he gladly accompanied Francis wherever he asked. There was a cave near Assisi where the two friends often went to talk about this treasure.”

Thomas of Celano, quoted at Jesus in Love

Elphick is careful to describe this relationship  as “homoaffectional”, and not as “gay”:

“The relationship is inescapably homoaffectional, describing a shared intimacy between two Medieval men. That this first companion disappears from the later tradition is cause for suspicion and further inquiry…. The tone in Celano’s earliest account captures the flavor and intimacy of this relationship, perhaps too much so for an increasingly homophobic church and society.”

Kevin Elphick, quoted at Jesus in Love




Natural Law Part 2: Gender perspectives and evolution

We left two issues on one side for reconsideration later, near the beginning of Part One, evolution and the female perspective. In this part we’ll critically reassess the male perspective, before considering the seriously missing female views, and then move on to examine what needs to be incorporated from our understanding of evolution.

Patriarchy - a penis puts you in charge of the womenfolk - how convenient
The male perspective and the Church’s sexual morality teaching

The Church and Aquinas’s sexual morality teaching comes from a male, patriarchal perspective. It is explicitly so and starts from the use by men of the penis and its supposed proper, natural and moral purpose. We are told nature allows us to deduce the sexual purpose of the penis is for inserting into the vagina for depositing semen for the purpose of procreation. This is backed up by another natural purpose idea, that the male and female sexual bodies are designed to be ‘complementary’ and only with the vaginal use by the penis do human bodies fit ‘naturally’.

Added to this is a significant element of Bible and Christian tradition used to justify and reinforce the very restricted view of acceptable human sexual behaviour. There’s only one plain dish available in the Catholic sexual cafe, even for married couples.

Why does the Prostate Gland have feelings?

Before we consider female perspectives on the Church’s and Aquinas’s teachings on sexual morality, we should briefly pause to deal with another male sexual organ, one which is internal, the prostate gland; this produces some of the fluid within semen¹.

Neither the Church nor Aquinas have ever considered this male sexual organ. It plays an integral part of the male reproductive role, and although it is hidden, it has one highly significant characteristic.

The prostate surface, although internal, is rich in nerve endings and when stimulated this is highly pleasurable. Some people call it the male g-spot. Its surface is not stimulated during Aquinas-approved vaginal penetration. Neither Church nor Aquinas considers its surface sensitivity.
male internal prostate gland
Most gay men know about the prostate’s surface sensitivity from experiences of anal sex: the prostate surface is stimulated by contact with a penis in the anus. There is no biological reason in procreation to justify the design of the prostate gland to incorporate sensitive surface nerve endings.

It appears deliberately designed by God, evolution and nature, to make anal sex pleasurable for homosexual men.

Female perspectives on the Catholic Natural Law of sex

– the Clitoris

Let’s turn to the Aquinas’s and the Church’s teachings and consider these from a female perspective.

Females are distinguished with their own sexual characteristics and possess a clitoris and this is visible. But, despite being visible, it is completely ignored by Aquinas and the Church. It is as if the clitoris doesn’t exist. (Adjacent to the clitoris in most, but not all, women are the female-only Skene’s glands² the equivalent of the male’s prostate; these contribute to vaginal lubrication.)

The significance of the clitoris in natural law terms is that it has no necessary purpose in procreation. It is not required to achieve the fertilisation of the egg, nor to accommodate penetration.

However friction on the clitoris produces pleasure, and pleasure is its biological purpose.
Clitoris anatomy
The Christian theologian Professor Christine Gudorf concludes that the existence of the clitoris in the female body suggests that God intended that the purpose of sexual activity was as much for sexual pleasure for its own sake, as it was for procreation. Therefore, according to Gudorf, pleasurable sexual activity, apart from procreation, does not violate God’s design, is not unnatural, and hence is not necessarily morally wrong, as long as it occurs in the context of a monogamous marriage (Gudorf, Christine. Sex, Body, and Pleasure, Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, 1995 p. 65)³.

Aquinas: females are ‘defective’ males
Aquinas teaches that women are defective males
It is profoundly shocking to modern sensibilities and our sense of gender equality to read Thomas Aquinas’s description of women as the product of a ‘defective’ male seed– he has a male-centred view of creation and life, one where women are naturally subordinate and secondary to men.

We now know a rather contrary account, from scientific human biology, that the true nature of humans is that the female is the standard human prototype, and boys are a natural variant which develops male characteristics from female foundations in the womb.

Adam comes from Eve, is biology’s complete rewriting of the Genesis human creation myth.

Such a fundamental misconception by Aquinas of the nature of female and male, and one that excludes any female perspective, underlies Aquinas’s thinking, reasoning and conclusions.

This raises further doubts about the appropriateness of relying on Aquinas’s ideas and conclusions for the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.

Other female perspectives on Aquinas and the Church’s teachings [4]

– dependence

Women with or without children, who are economically dependent on their husbands, may find themselves in the position of having to engage in sexual activity whether they want to or not, for fear of being abandoned, or physically, or psychologically abused; these women may not be engaging in sexual activity fully voluntarily. The woman who allows herself to be bullied into sex by her husband worries that if she says “no” too often, she will suffer economically, if not also physically and psychologically.

– ‘giving yourself’ in marriage: is this perpetual consent? What about rape?

Does ‘giving yourself’ in marriage mean that wives [or husbands] always and every time have to have sex if their partner wants this? Can there be no rape in a Catholic marriage?

Aquinas and Christians traditionally saw a married woman as her husband’s property, for sexual use as and when he wanted. This view swung towards female autonomy only in the 19th and 20th centuries, but very slowly. It was as late as 1991 that marital rape was made a crime in England and Wales.

Many women complain they still lack real sexual autonomy equivalent to men in marriage.

– coercive pressure is morally wrong

The presence of any kind of pressure at all is seen by some women experts as coercive and means there is no voluntary participation in sex, making that sex activity morally objectionable. Charlene Muehlenhard and Jennifer Schrag discuss this in “Nonviolent Sexual Coercion”.

They list, among other things, “status coercion” (when women are coerced into sexual activity or marriage, by a man’s wealth or occupation) and “discrimination against lesbians” (which discrimination compels women into marriage or into having sexual relationships only with men) as forms of coercion that undermine the voluntary participation by women in sexual activity with men.
women under sexual pressure
– are some pressures uncoercive, or morally acceptable?

Some people counter this by saying either that some forms of sexual pressure are not coercive and do not appreciably undermine voluntariness, or that some pressures are coercive but nevertheless are not morally objectionable.

Both these views seem indistinguishable from a male heterosexual apologia for using sexual pressure for the purposes of coercion, and as an excuse or justification for maintaining the present male power advantage to secure sex when a male wants this.

These can only be assessed fairly with the benefit of the views of the more vulnerable person in that situation. Personally, I’d prefer to trust the judgement of relatively vulnerable women facing this situation and say such coercive pressure is morally wrong.


– women’s health and well-being

Consider the situation of women concerned for their future health and well-being (her body’s capacity to gestate, give birth to and nurse a child), her age and the mental and physical resources available to nurture a child / another child through to adulthood. Aquinas and Catholic teaching ban all use of artificial contraception and abortion. Repeated childbearing is physically demanding on the woman’s body, and childbirth is often hazardous without significant affordable medical, obstetric, or midwifery care being available. Maternal death was common among women until the early decades of last century (affecting at least 1 in 10 women) and it is still common in much of the developing world.
98% of Catholics have used birth control
Aquinas’s and the Church view ignores this female health and well-being perspective: when you married you ‘gave yourself’ to your husband. If you die in pregnancy, from childbirth, or postpartum, or of exhaustion, or cannot cope with a disabled child, that’s just the life of a Catholic wife.

It is hard to conclude that women would arrive at the same conclusion as Aquinas and the Church on the consequences of always procreative sexual activity, when it is their lives and health that are at risk. The reality that most Catholic women (over 90%) use ‘artificial’ contraception when this is freely available and that some have abortions, despite the Catholic bans, demonstrates that sex that is always open to conception is not most women’s normal, natural choice.

Women’s sexual activity preferences

The sexual activity allowed to married women and men by Thomas, vaginal penetration open to procreation, is limited. The different attitudes to sexual activity stereotypically found in men and women go unrecognised. A husband of the ‘wam bam thank-you mam’ type, single-mindedly focused on his penetration and his orgasm, would be perfectly acceptable in Thomas’s prescription. That’s not likely to be welcomed by many wives as serving their sexual needs and wishes well.

The needs of women, who typically prefer loving attention to become receptive, are not considered or recognised.   Kissing and cuddling are OK, but fingering or tonguing arguably amount to ‘unnatural’ sex because these are not necessarily making “use of certain things in a fitting manner and order for the end to which they are adapted”  but“by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation” are rendered “unnatural vice”.

Certainly a husband fingering or tonguing his wife to orgasm, masturbation, is “unnatural vice”, even as a warm-up to penetration. And getting much more adventurous than the “missionary position” risks going off-piste for “not observing the natural manner of copulation”, making it “unnatural vice”.

Scepticism: the prostate, clitoris, and transgender people

Today we cannot be at all confident, as Aquinas and the Church were, that God’s plan can be discovered by a straightforward examination of the obvious male and female sexual body parts. The natural law examination and consideration of natural purpose completely missed the clitoris and the surface-sensitive internal male prostate, both of which demand proper respectful consideration from the Church.

Then there is the rich diversity in the bodily and hormonal expressions of gender differences seen in the variety of transgender people [5] [6]. The Church’s current view of transgender differences is ignorant, unscientific, disordered and un-Christian. I will leave transgender issues aside because of their complexity, my lack of expertise and because it is not central to the argument about mainstream male and female sexual expression. It is a vital issue to the people affected, and because the Church’s understanding and teaching in this area is also defective, transgender expressions of sexuality deserve respectful, considered, and separate assessment. I hope to return to this at a later date when I have become better informed.
transgender news
Evolution and natural sexual expression

At the beginning of Part One in this series, we also mentioned and put to one side (along with a female perspective and the ignored male and female sexual organs), the issue of evolution. Evolution was not considered by either Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas in their development of Natural Law in relation to sexual morality, simply because neither was aware of it.

Aristotle, as mentioned earlier, believed the world had always existed as it was, while Aquinas inherited the Biblical creation account of life’s origins. What do we now know from evolution about the development of gender diamorphism, sexual differences and behaviours? How might this modern understanding influence our response to Aquinas and the Church’s teachings about sexual morality?

Life evolved from primordial slime and found evolutionary advantage in two genders because this is highly effective at mixing genes and especially in producing advantageous adaptations. Evolution has the additional advantages of recombinational DNA repair and through processing a very large brain. There are two significant issues with large brains, the first that our babies are born very immature (to be able to pass through the pelvis) and need a very long period of nurturing by adults, not necessarily the parents, to gain size and reach sexual maturity, and secondly humans, with the high intelligence that comes from having a big brain, have more complex forms of social organisation and interaction than any other creature.

From observing animal species, evolution has taught us that species providing extended parental care after the birth of their offspring have the potential to overcome the sex differences in parental investment (the amount of energy that each parent contributes to each offspring), and this can lead to flexibility in, and even the reversal of, gender roles.

-promoting hybrid vigor.

Advanced complexity results in gender role flexibility

Humans evolved as the most advanced placental mammal, posse

Gender stereotypes and ignoring sexual behaviour diversity

A great deal is still not fully unexplained about the diversity of human behaviour and we must be wary, firstly, of explanations that invoke stereotypical gender roles and secondly, realise how individuals who do not fit the norm and popular narratives are routinely ignored.

Aristotle and Aquinas are a warning to us of this because both expressed a patriarchal view of human society and gender interactions.
sexuality and gender role distinctions in the bible
Homosexuals and transexuals are good examples of being omitted from the mainstream story society tells itself about male and female human nature, and have been persistently denigrated in the Christian and Abrahamic traditions. Yet there are other human societies where homosexual and gender-role-defying people are prized, as shamans, healers and notably as religious exemplars.

Contemporary evolutionary biologists see diversity as ‘natural’

The work of contemporary evolutionary biologists, like Joan Roughgarden, is illuminating. She sees the tremendous diversity in human and animal genders and sexualities, not as something that has to be explained away to fit the dogma of binary gender and sexual selection, but as the “natural” order of things, and this perspective is gaining wide acceptance. Her book, The Genial Gene is a fascinating alternate vision of the evolution of sex.
Sexual Diversity Guide book
Competition between the sexes is no longer at the centre of natural selection, but is replaced by social forces in families and communities of animals.

Her theory of social selection fills many of the gaps in theories of sexual selection, from explaining the existence of homosexuality, transexuality and other intermediate genders and sexualities, to the mathematical impossibility of females being able to calculate genetic superiority in nearly identical males, and the lack of a correlation between secondary sex characteristics and fitness.

Evolutionary biology’s lessons for society and the Church

The Church needs to reflect on the emerging understanding that evolution has handed humans a unique and diverse set of cards, and with our huge intelligence, we should be very wary of the simplistic ‘natural’ behaviour analysis and strictly limited gender roles and acceptable sexual morality, as found in Aquinas and the Church’s teaching of Natural Law for sexual behaviour.

Instead the available evidence and current evolutionary biology understanding tells us the Church is surely in error about the beauty seen in the diversity of God’s human creation, as expressed through human evolution and development.

 

Church and external expertise

What does all this signify and how do we incorporate this wealth of knowledge into an appropriate view of the diversity of expression and ‘proper’ use for the human sexual faculties in the 21st century?

There is a vast wealth of external expertise in many fields, that the Church has not fully opened its eyes and mind to in the fields of gender and sexual expression. The Church cannot discern the Truth it should transmit properly and broadcast this to the world, if it continues to ignore large parts of modern understanding and insights about sex and relationships. It undermines people’s faith in the Truth the Church teaches, to ignore and not publicly address such contemporary human knowledge and insights.

Involve, Consult, Reason, Explain, Persuade lay people

The Church needs to persuade, reason and explain its sexual morality teachings for these to be publicly credible, especially because this is in an area of life where the Church has lost, through the clerical sexual abuse scandal, much of its moral authority in sexual matters.

When it does not do so, as it did not for contraception in Humanae Vitae, the bulk of the faithful simply decides to reasons things out for itself and decides in the light of its own informed conscience. More than 90% of Catholics use contraception that the Church teaches is forbidden.

Sexual morality is an area where the lay faithful have experience and some expertise, unlike celibate clergy bound by promises of chastity. The disconnect between Church and laity in sexual morality accounts for much of the moral relativism about which the Church complains so bitterly. It has the potential remedy in its own hands.

Scepticism about Aquinas’s competence to discern Truth from the natural world

It is time for the Church to embrace a healthy scepticism about the Truth of Aquinas’s prescriptions for human sexual behaviour based on his attempt to discern the intentions of God from his simplistic understanding of biological evidence in the natural world. Natural Law, with the addition of misapplied historical tradition and scriptural interpretations, appears unfit for transmitting God’s Truth for proper human sexual expression in committed relationships.

Next Post: 3: modern specialists

The next post, third in this series of four, will consider some of the modern specialist knowledge and insights into sexual behaviour and morals that are now available. For example people are endowed with large brains and great intelligence, and are capable of a complex range of subtle behaviours, but the Church appears to disregard significant insights of psychology in human sexual expression.

Both Catholic and secular modern moral theologians are often highly critical of the Church’s teachings on sex and relationships because the understanding of natural law and scriptural interpretations are flawed and inadequate.

Does the Natural Law teaching of the Church on sexual morality stand up to the modern insights of psychology and the criticisms of moral theologians and ethicists?

footnotes and sources

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostate

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skene%27s_gland

³ http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H12

[4] http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/ Philosophy of Sexuality

http://www.iep.utm.edu/natlaw/ Natural Law

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H16 Consent is Sufficient – specific

http://www.iep.utm.edu/sexualit/#H17 What is voluntary? – coercion

[5] Sexual Diversity and Catholicism : toward the development of moral theology; Professor Patricia Beattie Young with Joseph A Coray, editor(s), 2001, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA

[6] More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church, 2011

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...Chris Morley’s complete series on natural law

 

Recommended Books

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay … of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality
Oliva, Adriano: Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (French Edition)

Related Posts

Alison:Does "Objectively Disordered" Mean Anything At All?

In the CDF Hallowe’en Letter, possibly the most offensive and damaging element was the labelling of the homosexual orientation as “intrinsically disordered” – but just what does “disordered” in fact mean? Science has shown from mental health and from animal biology that it is entirely natural, and not in any scientific sense disordered. Defenders of the Vatican line respond to this criticism of the label by insisting that it does not mean what it appears to do in common speech. It has, they say, a specifically theological sense, which the critics are ignoring. My question then becomes, “Just what does ‘disordered’ mean, theologically?’ “

Beyond meaning simply that it is not ordered to procreation, which we can counter (and Bishop Robinson has done) by demonstrated that much else in human and animal sexuality is likewise not ordered to procreation, I have not yet worked out just what this supposed deep theological meaning might be. The Catholic theologian James Alison has now illuminated this for me. If I understand him correctly, I don’t understand the theological meaning of the term – because there is none, that makes any theological sense. The use of the term is itself  disordered.

In his long interview for Vox Nova, Brett Salkeld asked Alison about this term. The interviewer first described how he had once forced Lifestyle News to retract a claim, widely assumed but rejected by mental health professionals, that the term refers to a psychological disorder, and asked Alison for his own views on the “origins” of homosexuality. Instead, Alison responded by addressing the meaning (or rather, the absence of any meaning) in the term “disordered”.

The heart of Alison’s reasoning here, is that either the term means something, and or it does not. If the former, and it does mean something, then it should be possible to understand it at least by analogy with other conditions described in other contexts as “objectively disordered”. In that case, we should be able to deduce a meaning for “disordered” by a clear statement of just what it is that is its opposite – what is meant by the “ordered” condition, against which the supposedly disordered condition of homosexuality falls short?  The Vatican theologians have conceded that the condition is entirely natural, and so not disordered in this sense – but they have also not offered any clear statement of what meaning it does have.  And so, we are forced to reject the first possibility, that the term means something.

We are forced then to turn to the other possibility, that the term has no meaning “in any reality that can be measured”. It is simply a verbal construct used by those theologians to get to the conclusions they want to reach. This leads Alison to describe it as “unstable” in meaning. He points out that in traditional Catholic theology (and Alison is a very traditional theologian), “the acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil”. Any moral judgement on this inclination must depend on their use. From this it follows that if the  homosexual orientation is morally neutral (which is agreed), then the judgement that homosexual acts that follow naturally from that orientation are disordered does not logically follow: it makes no more sense that to say that it’s OK to be left-handed, just don’t write left-handed.

Here are the question that led to Alison’s observation, and two extracts from his response. (The full interview has been published in two instalments at Vox Nova, and at James Alison’s website)

7. Some time ago I engaged in a lengthy e-mail exchange with the editor-in-chief of Lifesitenews because one of their articles had claimed that it was the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexuality was a psychological disorder. After much wrangling, I was successful in getting them to edit the article. It is not Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. In fact, my reading of the Catechism is that the official stance on this question is one of agnosticism. We don’t know the causes of homosexuality. What do you think the Church’s position is on this question? What are your beliefs about the origins of homosexuality? What factors strike you as the most important? What are your thoughts about homosexuality that has roots in sexual trauma or other aspects of a broken past?

I’m so glad that I wasn’t involved in your discussion with Lifesitenews! To judge by what you say, I think that I would simultaneously agree and disagree with both of you. Personally I think that the current teaching of the Roman Congregations in this area is of unstable meaning. The Congregations both insist that the inclination itself must be considered objectively disordered, and yet fight shy of committing themselves to a sense in which this claim has incidence in reality. Well, either their claim means something, in which case it enters into the realm of that which can be studied and understood by analogy with other objective disorders, having as its backdrop a clear claim about the proper order by comparison with which it is some sort of defect. Or, on the other hand, the claim has no incidence in any reality that can be measured, and is simply the verbally necessary logical ground which the CDF must stake out if it wants to maintain that the acts flowing from the inclination are intrinsically evil.

This would be a consequence of their knowing that in Catholic Theology, acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil, but would be good or bad according to use. So, in the one case, the claim would be falsifiable by the human sciences, and in the other, we would be obliged to derive our understanding of what is from what is forbidden, or “can never be approved”, a voluntarist position smuggled in by the back door, and the claim would be something like a de facto defection from Catholic teaching concerning grace, nature, faith and reason as set out with admirable clarity by Pope Benedict in his Regensburg address.

My own belief is that being gay is a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and that an appropriate analogy is left-handedness, which also, as it happens, used to be regarded as some sort of defect in a normatively right-handed humanity. I’ve arrived at this position having, as an educated amateur, followed the studies and arguments back and forth over many years, and notice that this position is tending to be confirmed massively the more that we know and see of gay people who are able to live their lives openly. I hope I would be open to any emerging evidence that my view was wrong, though I’m aware how easily any of us can become locked into convenient self-deceptions and self-reinforcing ideological cocoons. Like all other educated amateurs gathering what I can from disciplines in which I have no expertise, what I know about the aetiology of same-sex desire is regularly being updated as the field advances, and I’m sure that we are in the early days of scientific knowledge about such things.

As part of my personal history, I should say that I remember my own relief on realizing that not all searches for causality are helpful. Part of my motivation in the search for a cause of being gay earlier in my life was the need to find “something that has gone wrong that I can put right”, and it was good, spiritually fruitful, to discover that the question: “what went wrong in where I came from?” is actually not a useful one. More helpful is to ask: “how can I enrich where I’m going starting from where I am, however this has come about?” I wish I could find the reference, but I remember a quote from St Augustine, tired of nit-picking arguments about the finer details of Original Sin, insisting that “it’s not where we come from that is important, but where we are going” or words to that effect.

Books by James Alison:

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

 

Lesbian, Gay Catholics: Emerging From the Shadows

Here’s one more piece in an expanding pile of evidence that while formal doctrine on gay and lesbian Catholics remains unchanged, ordinary mainstream Catholics are making a welcome for them in church. “US Catholic” is not a source I would normally regard as particularly radical or progressive, but they have just published not just one article, but an entire special section, dealing with the place of Lesbian and Gay Catholics in church, some of them highly topical: for example, see the piece originally published way back in 1997 that argued that the church would benefit from permitting same – sex weddings, in church!

Here’s the US Catholic full listing of articles, with links. I will be picking up on some of these for more extended discussion and reflection in later posts, but for now – explore them for yourselves. I would be most interested in your responses: which do you think are the most important and/or interesting?

US Catholic Special Section: Gay and lesbian Catholics 

While legislation regarding same-sex marriage may have pushed gay and lesbian issues to the fore in recent years, the history of gay and lesbian Catholics and their relationship with the church has been a long, winding road. U.S. Catholic has been covering the issue for decades. We’ve collected a sample of articles from recent issues and from the archives by and about gay and lesbian Catholics. Read on to learn more.

Pride and prejudice

Gays and lesbians have made big strides toward acceptance in society at large, but many struggle to be at home in a church still unsure about their place at the table.

The mamas and the papas

The parents of GLBT Catholics have a lot to say about the church and their children.

Pride and prejudice: A timeline

A brief history of the relationship between GLBT Catholics and their church.

Mom, Dad: I’m gay

The news of a son’s or daughter’s homosexuality brings with it many challenges. Some parents move through the tears and isolation into helping the church do a better job of welcoming their children.

Mind the gap

Which path do we choose when the twain of experience and church teaching don’t meet?

A good fit?

Church teaching on gay and lesbian people must reflect their dignity as God’s daughters and sons.

What I learned from Father Dan

Many gay priests have served and continue to serve our church well. Let’s not make them scapegoats for the sins of others.

One gay priest’s story

Defying the current scapegoating and stereotypes, a priest shares his journey and struggle

Thoughts from a gay teacher in a Catholic school

A junior high teacher yearns to be a positive gay role model in her Catholic school. But she wonders, “Does the church love me as much as I love it?

Let’s watch our language about gays and lesbians

Official statements calling gays and lesbians “disordered” and “violent” do little to make them feel welcomed and respected in the church. A pastor argues that it’s time to stop the name-calling and start treating gays and lesbians as brothers and sisters in Christ

Gay and lesbian Catholics beg to differ

Recognition of same-sex marriage is only one of the hotly contested issues involving gay and lesbian Catholics. There are many sides of the debate about homosexuality and the church.

Why we never married

A Roman Catholic man, former gay activist, and veteran of over a decade in a same-sex relationship argues why he and his partner have chosen a celibate relationship.

Let’s invite gay and lesbian Catholics to a church wedding

In this 1997 article that accompanies the one above, one Catholic argues that same-sex marriage would allow the church to encourage more loving, nurturing, and lasting relationships.

I promise to do my best

How one community struggles with the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policies.

We can be better than bitter

There is room in the church for all human beings, no matter which way your sexuality tilts.

Out of the closet and into your living room

For most of the 20th century, movies and television have cast gay and lesbian characters as deviant bad guys. But as attitudes in the larger public change, so has Hollywood’s portrayal of gays.

US Catholic.org.

(What I am not seeing, here or anywhere else, is comparable attention to the issues raised by gender identity or intersex, and the particular challenges  that these present to simplistic Catholic assumptions of a binary gender divide).

Bishop Robinson on "The Offence Against God", "God’s Purpose"

Speaking at New Ways Ministries’ conference 2012 on  the theme From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships, Bishop Robinson began by demonstrating that we cannot hope for a  change Catholic teaching on homosexual relationships, until we first achieve a change in teaching on heterosexual relationships. He then devoted a major part of his address to demonstrating just why that teaching is unsound, producing three discrete arguments:

  • The first addresses the Church’s claim that the essence of sexual sin is a direct offence against God, irrespective of any harm caused to any human being.
  • The second reason for change is that the statements of the Church appear to be assertions rather than arguments.
  • The third argument is that the teaching emphasises the God‐given nature of the physical acts, rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships.

After demonstrating why present teaching needs reform, Bishop Robinson moved on to a positive basis for a new Catholic teaching, and then to a discussion of Catholic ethics for homosexual relationships. I will get to these later. For now, I consider here only the first of these three arguments:

First Argument (Against Catholic Teaching on Heterosexual Morality):

The teaching of the church  that sexual sin is that is a direct offence against God raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

The claim that non -procreative sexual activity is a sin against God rests on the belief that this contravenes “God’s purpose” for sex, opposed to the natural order that God established. One problem with this, is that observations of “nature” show clearly that this is not so. There is abundant evidence that in the natural world of the animal kingdom, many species practice a wide range of sexual activities that cannot lead to procreation, including sex before reaching full maturity and fertility, oral and anal sex, masturbation (alone or with others), genital rubbing, and homosexual activities. Some primates even manufacture and use sex toys – breaking off vine sections for use as dildoes, and fruits adapted as masturbation aids.

But that is not the objection Robinson raises. He finds another, one that I have not found before. Is there any other context, he asks, where theologians identify a sin on the grounds that it is against God’s purpose? If there are, he asks further, why do church documents not list them? To demonstrate the absurdity of theologians deriving a single, inviolable “God’s purpose” for a particular human faculty, he refers to the rather trivial case of human vision. If the purpose of eyes is to see where we are going, is it then a sin when driving, to use rear view mirrors, which show us where we have been?

There are numerous other examples that he could have used to demonstrate the futility of deducing a single “purpose” of God in any part of creation. One that I would certainly not be acceptable to the Vatican was once used by post-reformation Protestant theologians. Observing that women have narrower shoulders and broader hips than men, they deduced that God’s purpose for women was to bear children.  Some Catholic theologians might accept this – but not their next conclusion, that this implied that for women to live celibate lives in convents was clearly in contravention of God’s purpose for them.

In the sexual context, I wonder about the tongue. It would seem self-evident that this has two purposes: for speech, and in eating. The Church’s teaching on sex is that it too has two purposes, unitive and procreative, but that these must both be present for sex to be licit. For the tongue, any attempt to apply both uses simultaneously, eating and talking at once, is clearly not ideal. Then, there is another, less obvious use of the tongue, in kissing and in love-making. Following the Church’s reasoning on any contravention of God’s “purpose” as sinful, are we to conclude that introducing the tongue in love-making is a third purpose for the organ – or that such use is a contravention of its two intended purposes, and so sinful?

There are many more objections that could be raised to the whole idea of identifying a particular “purpose” of God, but Robinson goes on to another issue entirely, the suggestion that any contravention of such purpose is an offence against God, to which he proposes a remarkably simple riposte: God is bigger than that, and not so easily offended.

Robinson’s full text is posted on his own website. This is the extract relating to his “first argument”.

First Argument

The first argument is that the teaching of the church says that the essence of sexual sin is that it is a direct offence against God because, irrespective of whether harm is caused to any human being, it is a violation of what is claimed to be the divine and natural order that God established. It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative. If it does not contain both of these elements, it is against “nature” as established by God. This raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.

In relation to nature, should not the church’s argument give a number of examples of other fields where God has given a divine purpose to some created thing, such that it would be a sin against God to use that thing in any other way? Or is this the only example there is of God giving a divine purpose to a created thing? If there are other examples, why do church documents not list them? I remember reading years ago the mocking argument that the natural God‐given purpose of eyes is to look forwards, so rear vision mirrors in cars are against nature and hence immoral. Granted that this is a mocking argument, does it not raise questions about what we mean by “nature” and how difficult it is to draw moral consequences from a claim to a divinely established nature?

In relation to God, the argument was used in the past that striking a king was far more serious than striking a commoner, and, for the same reason, an offence against God was far more serious than an offence against a human being. In this view, the most serious sins were those directly against God. In practice, this applied above all to sins of blasphemy and sexual sins, and it helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.

When a person takes great offence at even a trivial remark, we tend to speak of that person as a “little” person, while a person who can shrug off most negative comments is a “big” person. My reading of the bible leads me to believe in a very big God indeed who is not easily offended by direct offences. I believe, for instance, that God shrugs off much of what is called “blasphemy” as an understandable human reaction to the felt injustice of evil and suffering in this world. I do not believe that God is in the least offended when parents who have just lost a child rage in terrible anger against God.

In this vein, I must ask whether God will be offended by any sexual thought or action considered solely as an offence against an order established by God, before any question of its effect on other persons, oneself or the community is taken into account.

The parable of the prodigal son may help us here3. The younger son had received the entire share of the property that would come to him and he had
wasted it. He had no right to one further square centimetre of the property, for the entire remaining property would now go by strict right to the elder son (“You are with me always and all I have is yours” v.31). The father respected his elder son’s rights and would take nothing from him. When, however, it came to the hurt the prodigal son had caused to his father by abandoning him and wasting the property he had worked so hard for, the father brushed this aside out of love for his son and insisted that he be welcomed and treated as a son rather than a servant. The message is surely that God cares about the rights of human beings and what they do to one another, but is big enough, loving enough and forgiving enough not to get angry at direct offences against God. May we ask whether the god portrayed in this parable would condemn a person to eternal  punishment for sometimes getting unitive and procreative purposes out of a perceived ideal harmony in the midst of the turbulence of sexuality?

For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin (4) According to that teaching, even deliberately deriving pleasure from thinking about sex, no matter how briefly, is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed aloud today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes (5) it has never been retracted and it has affected countless people.

The teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of
deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.

Does it not follow that there are serious dangers in basing the church’s moral teaching concerning sex on the concept of direct offences against God? It must be added that, in the response to revelations of sexual abuse, this became a most serious problem, for far too many church authorities saw the offence primarily in terms of a sexual offence against God, to be treated according to the criteria governing such offences ‐ repentance, confession, absolution, total forgiveness by God and hence restoration to the status quo. This contributed greatly to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another. There was never going to be an adequate response to abuse as long as many people thought primarily in terms of sexual offences against God rather than harm caused to the victims.

3 Lk. 15:11-32

4 See Noldin-Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Feliciani Rauch, Innsbruck, 1960 Vol.I, Supplement
De Castitate, p.17, no.2. The technical term constantly repeated was mortale ex toto genere suo. The
sin of taking pleasure from thinking about sex was called delectatio morosa.

5 For example, Clement VII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621) said that those who denied this
teaching should be denounced to the Inquisition.

Books:

Robinson, Bishop Geoffrey: Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church

Robinson: Hetero/Homo, Catholic Sexual Teaching Stands (Or Falls) Together

In his address to the New Ways Ministry Conference last week,  Bishop Geoffrey Robinson dared to say on the record what no other has done before,   but what an unknown number of other bishops are thinking or saying privately, many theologians and priests are saying publicly, and the majority of Catholics are doing, anyway.  He said in effect, that the entire construct of Catholic sexual teaching, from top to bottom, is a nonsense and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

He was speaking to the New Ways Ministry conference,  From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships. For an audience of primarily lesbians and gay men, what they probably most wanted to hear was something specific to them (and got it), but first, there was a lot more. Before moving on to LGBT relationships, he spent a major part of his text on the fundamental problem in Church teaching that underlies and undermines its entire structure of sexual doctrine: a grievously flawed understanding of the “purpose” of sex. He notes, correctly, that there is no possibility of a change in teaching on same -sex relationships until the Church has first confronted the failings in heterosexual relationships.

The thesis of his paper is in three parts:

  1. There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts;
  2. There is a serious need for change in the Church’s teaching on heterosexual acts;
  3. If and when this change occurs, it will inevitably have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts.

I will be commenting on this important address in a series of posts throughout this week. Today, I just want to cover the importance of his first statement:

There is no possibility whatsoever of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts.

I have often heard the argument that Church teaching is not discriminating against lesbians and gay men in denying them licit sexual expression, because it asks of us no more than it asks of anyone else: no sex outside of marriage, or which is not open to procreation. Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that the Church does not allow us to marry, we can equally well turn this on its head: the Church is as unjust in its treatment of all unmarried Catholics, or those who are married but not yet ready to start a family.

There are three core components of Catholic sexual doctrine that all rest on one basic assumption, that sex is only licit when it serves to fulfil the dual purpose of expressing love between two persons, and is open to new life. That’s the foundation upon which all else rests – but in the real world, outside of Vatican ivory towers, hardly anyone actually believes it. Masturbation, contraception, and homosexual relationships are all clearly prohibited by the requirement of procreation.  Other elements of teaching, like the prohibition on sexual intercourse before marriage, or outside of it, follow as a matter of course. Without contraception, there must be no risk of pregnancy outside of marriage.

If the premise is sound, then it becomes impossible to reject any one of these three pillars of  Church teaching. Conversely, if any one of them is formally reversed, then the premise is automatically rejected, placing in doubt the validity of the other two. Yet we know that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Catholics either condone or practice at least one of the three. The obvious conclusion is that either the vast majority of Catholics, those whose understanding of sex comes from those with real world experience of love, sex and relationships are at best in error, or even in a state of grievous sin, or that the ivory tower theologians, those whose sexual understanding comes from abstract reasoning based on theology manuals, are the ones in error – and the premise, and the entire sexual teaching, is unsound.

This is how Robinson puts it in the introductory section of his address:

The constantly repeated argument of the Catholic Church is that God created human sex for two reasons: as a means of expressing and fostering love between a couple (the unitive aspect) and as the means by which new human life is brought into being (the procreative aspect). The argument then says that the use of sex is “according to nature” only when it serves both of these Godgiven purposes, and that both are truly present only within marriage, and even then only when intercourse is open to new life, so that all other use of the sexual faculties is morally wrong .

If the starting point is that every single sexual act must be both unitive and procreative, there is no possibility of approval of homosexual acts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church indeed deals with the question with quite extraordinary brevity: “(Homosexual acts) are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”

If this is the starting point, there is little else to be said. There is no possibility of change concerning homosexual acts within this teaching, and it is futile to look for it, for homosexual acts do not possess the procreative element as the Church understands that element. If teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must first change.

The full text is posted on his own website. Later, I will discuss the rest of it.

Bishop urges change in all church teaching on sexual relationships

Sooner or later, it had to happen. Ordinary Catholics living in the real world have known it for decades, moral theologians know it, priests in Austria, Germany, Belgium and Ireland have been demanding it, and an unknown number of bishops recognize it privately. Now, at least on bishop is saying it publicly: the officially authorized doctrine on human sexuality, in all its aspects, is fundamentally and intrinsically disordered, and has to change.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson will not be the last bishop to make this call – expect many more to follow. It will take time, but this will become the mainstream view. The only questions in my mind, are how long will it take, and how will they manage the admission.

At the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality, retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson called Friday for “a new study of everything to do with sexuality” — a kind of study that he predicted “would have a profound influence on church teaching concerning all sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

“If [church] teaching on homosexual acts is ever to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,” he said.

Robinson, a priest since 1960 and auxiliary bishop of Sydney from 1984 until his retirement for health reasons in 2004, told the Baltimore symposium, sponsored by New Ways Ministry, that “because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is always serious.”

That view, espoused by the church, stands in contrast to the general perception of modern society, which “appears to be saying more and more that sex is not in itself serious,” he said.

For the church to deal with sex seriously, however, does not in itself mean that the church must continue to accept uncritically its traditional understandings of sexual morality, he said.

National Catholic Reporter.

There are of course, several rebuttals to my confident prediction above. Many will be made, including some by my readers here/

Bishop Robinson is retired, and so no longer in the mainstream. His opinions, the sceptics will say, no longer count.

Yes, and that’s precisely the point. Because he is retired, he has more freedom to speak his mind, without fear of losing his job and home. We can be pretty certain that what he is saying publicly, many others are thinking or saying privately.

New Ways is not officially recognised

He was speaking at the New Ways Ministry conference in Baltimore, and New Ways has been routinely criticized by the oligarchs as not a “Catholic” organization – by which they mean, not one formally approved and sanctioned by themselves. Again, that’s precisely the point. Free from having to watch their words for fear of offending the oligarchs, the people of New Ways, and those who speak to them, are able to speak openly and honestly.

He is only one among thousands of bishops.

Yes, but see again the response above: what one is saying publicly, many others are thinking or saying privately. Besides, he is not the only one – just the first (that I know of) to address his call to all elements of sexual teaching. Others have said the same thing about specific parts of teaching. On homosexuality, Cardinal Schonborn said nearly two years ago that it is time to shift the emphasis from genital acts, to the quality of our relationships. In the many months since, he has still not been rebutted for the statement, and instead, a number of other bishops followed, saying much the same thing. In Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols acknowledged that there is value in legal protections in civil unions or partnerships.

On contraception, it is well known not only that the majority of Catholics reject the teaching, but also that in many cases they do so with the support and sometimes encouragement of their priests, confessors or spiritual directors – many of whom are privately backed by their bishops.

It is not possible to separate the separate strands of sexual teaching into independent elements. Underpinning them all, is a demonstrably unsound claim that every sexual act must be open to procreation. Remove that assumption from one element, and you remove it from all. The whole house of cards collapses at a stroke.

There’s much, much more to say on this, and more evidence to produce to justify my conclusion. I will return to it later.

For now, I will simply repeat, that this statement by Bishop Robinson is not the end of the story. More bishops will follow, this discussion will be moving inexorably into more public debate.

Related Posts

 

 

Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ

The story of Rev. Sally / Selwyn Gross neatly encapsulates the challenges of intersex people to Roman Catholic rules on the ordination of women. Male-identified at birth, Selwyn was raised as male, and became a Catholic priest. When medical tests revealed that internal biology was primarily female, Sally transitioned – and was forced out of the priesthood.
In the Anglican church, there is no problem with the ordination of intersex people, as there is no bar to women’s ordination in the first place, nor are there barriers to promotion – up to the rank of bishop. Then the stained – glass ceiling is struck, for intersex people and for women. We know from science that the intersex phenomenon is entirely natural and complex, including a small but significant proportion of the human population. The absolute division of us into a neat two-part binary, is simplistic and a dangerous ground on which to base rules for ordination (or for marriage, for that matter).
The theologian Dr Susannah Cornwall has specialised in the intersex challenge to theology, notably in her book “Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ” . In a new paper, reported on in the Church Times, she applies these considerations to the debate raging in the English Church over women bishops.   The trigger for her intervention came in a paper by those opposed to women bishops,”The Church, Women Bishops and Provision”which argued “When we stop receiving Christ in his essential maleness, his humanity becomes obscured”.
Essentially male?




Continue reading Intersex, Women Bishops, and the Body of Christ

The Gay Closet as a Place of Sin

My colleague Advocatus Diaboli sent me a link some days ago to a post at Jesus in Love, about a new book (“Dark Knowledge“, by Kenneth Low) which argues that Jesus was homosexual and sexually active, but closeted – and that was the reason for his trial and execution. AD asked me for my opinion. Before getting to my response, I share some key extracts from Kittredge’s post:

Dark Knowledge” by Kenneth Low uses rational arguments to disprove much of the conventional wisdom about Christ. According to Low, Jesus was not heterosexual, not celibate, and not happy with his own identity.

Low presents evidence that Jesus must have been homosexual because he was an unmarried man who surrounded himself with men, including John, his beloved male disciple and sexual partner.

-Jesus in Love

Kittredge quotes from Low directly:

In His childhood, Jesus Christ came into His awareness of being the Son of God. His magical authority and other attributes were given to Him as His birthright. As He came into sexual awareness, He discovered Himself to be a homosexual. His awareness of being the Son of God precluded any possibility of denying His sexuality out of some external concern and He began to be sexually active. He was evidently discovered to be a homosexual by people in His hometown and He must have been sharply rebuked and ostracized. He left Galilee and wandered on an endless soulful sojourn seeking a reconciliation of His divinity with His homosexuality. (p. 276)

-Jesus in Love

Toby Johnson, the author of Gay Spirituality and Gay Perspective and a former editor of the “White Crane” journal of gay spirituality, has also written about Dark Knowledge. He summarizes the thesis proposed by Dark Knowledge:

When Low considers Jesus as homosexual, it is as secretive, shamed and closeted, what a homosexual would have thought of himself in an intensely and threateningly homophobic and misogynistic society. His townsfolk would have ignored his teachings because they knew too much about him. He’d have been an embarrassment to his family. The Apostles would have been reluctant to admit they knew him if this fact came out. In this reading of the story, Jesus’s homosexuality isn’t an item of pride, but rather the source of a spiritual crisis that forces him to develop an interpretation of virtue and goodness that isn’t just conformity with Jewish Law, since he himself can’t conform.

(In his review, Johnson praises the originality of the presentation and the  manner  in which Low re-imagines the life of Christ. He concludes by noting that he is sceptical of Low’s conclusion, but finds the book stimulating, and a good read nevertheless).

I stress that I have not read the book, and will not even attempt an assessment. However, I was interested in my own strong reaction to the book’s conclusion as presented in Kittredge’s review, and where that response led me. That reaction was  to the whole concept, that Jesus might have been actively “homosexual” – but closeted. We have virtually no real evidence on Christ’s orientation or sexual practice. There are reasonable arguments that he may have been (in modern terms) homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual or asexual in orientation, and it is possible to believe that he was sexually active, or celibate. We may speculate, but we just don’t know. I’m comfortable with any of the possibilities – homosexual and sexually active, heterosexual and sexually active – or entirely celibate. I don’t believe that it really matters. But the one possibility that I have not considered before, and immediately rejected out of hand in an instinctive, visceral reaction, is the one presented by Low: that Jesus was both homosexually active, closeted and ashamed. Why did I react so instinctively?

Somewhat surprised by the intensity of my response, I tried to dissect it. My conclusion came fairly rapidly: Low’s idea flatly contradicts a core belief of standard Christology, that although fully human, Jesus Christ was without sin. If he was without sin, what could he have to be ashamed of?

And that was where assessing my own response became really interesting to me. In going from a standard, conventional belief, that Jesus was without sin, to my conclusion, that this makes it impossible for him to have been a closeted, sexually active gay man, I had made an automatic assumption, that I was previously unaware of. That assumption, was that to be closeted and sexually active, is inherently sinful. But where is the sin? I have made it clear in numerous posts that I do not believe that homosexuality in itself is inherently sinful ( but some forms of inappropriate use of it may be). So if there is sin implied by the assumption, it must lie in the proposition that Jesus was closeted, and ashamed.

Is that a sound assumption? My short answer, which I present before the full reasoning, is yes – the closet is a place of sin (but with an important qualification, which I will get to later).

Before getting to a full consideration of just why I felt so strongly that the closet is a place of sin, I first reflected a little more on the nature of Christ. I have shared before, how my Religious Education classes at school included a lengthy period locating and memorizing Biblical texts on the theme of “God is….” (examples being “God is love”, “God is mercy”, “God is justice”, “God is light”, “God is life”, and more). A key one here, was “God is truth”.  If God is truth, and the closet is (by definition) a lie, then God/ Jesus in the closet is a logical impossibility. That doesn’t necessarily imply that there is sin in the closet, but the idea prepared the way for more, after some thought on the nature of sin.

My understanding of sin, is it is that which turns us away from God, keeps us from being the best that we can be. As John McNeill regularly reminds us in his books, St Ireneaus taught that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” – and by extension, I see sin as that which keeps us (or by our agency, others) from that glory, of being fully alive.  There is abundant evidence from academic literature, from anecdotal evidence, and from my own experience, that coming out is a process of growth, of becoming more fully alive . Remaining in the closet obstructs that growth, denying that process of growth. The closet keeps us from that – hiding us from that full glory of God.

If God / Jesus is truth, the closet is a lie. By hiding our own truth, we are denying the example of Christ.

God is love. Where is the love in the closet? “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the familiar text, but that implies that we must, indeed, love ourselves. Can we truly love ourselves, accept ourselves in all that we are, while denying an important part of who we are?

God is justice. Is there justice in the closet? Is there justice, in a situation where the 80 or 90% of adults are able to rejoice publicly in their loves, and invite friends, family and parishioners to celebrate an affirmation of those loves in church weddings – and some of us feel constrained to hide our loves, or even to avoid love altogether, out of fear?

I could go on, but you get the idea. As I explored my understanding of God, and of sin, it seemed to me clear that the closet restricts our approach to God, in these various aspects. Impeding our access to God, the closet is a place of sin.

But this was a troubling thought. I have often argued for the value of coming out, in church and in the world, but with an important qualification. This must always be only as far as we are able.  Sometimes, for personal reasons or by reason of external circumstances, we may not be able.  If the closet is a place of sin, as I concluded, what does this say of those who, for whatever reason, find that they are not able to come out?

That led me to some further thoughts on the nature of sin.

First, we must consider the particular circumstances and motivations of someone who is closeted. To take an extreme example, for most Catholic priests, coming out would be reckless, endangering their careers and ministry as priests. In such circumstances, staying within the closet in pursuit of a greater good is morally acceptable, and not sinful.

Next, we must consider that there exists both personal and social sin. If it is true that the closet is a place of sin, that does not necessarily imply that a closeted person is in a state of sin – the sin could lie in the social circumstances (of church doctrine and law, for instance, or the possibility of real and severe penalties). In that case, the sin could be social, not personal.

Now,  a little disclosure. The trigger that led to all of the above was in an email from AD, which by chance I read at 3 am one morning (no, that’s not my usual time for correspondence). The thoughts I have shared above, were buzzing around in my head for some hours later. They are based on perceptions, and half – remembered school lessons, not any deep knowledge or training in the relevant theology. The argument needs further testing and thought, but I have shared the ideas simply because they have substantially shaken me up. I am certain there will be flaws, in either the assumptions, or reasoning. I welcome responses from any one willing to pick holes in my thesis.

“Led by the child who simply knew”: (Boston Globe, on a Child’s Transition)

For trans children, at just how young an age is it appropriate to begin the transitioning process?

That’s just one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking story from the Boston Globe, on Nicole and her family. (The implied answer would seem to be, to prepare the way early, but delay anything permanent (and that includes delaying “natural” processes, like the onset of puberty) until the decision to transition is definite and irrevocable.

Jonas and Wyatt Maines were born identical twins, but from the start each had a distinct personality.

Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.

Wyatt favored pink tutus and beads. At 4, he insisted on a Barbie birthday cake and had a thing for mermaids. On Halloween, Jonas was Buzz Lightyear. Wyatt wanted to be a princess; his mother compromised on a prince costume.

Once, when Wyatt appeared in a sequin shirt and his mother’s heels, his father said: “You don’t want to wear that.’’

“Yes, I do,’’ Wyatt replied.

“Dad, you might as well face it,’’ Wayne recalls Jonas saying. “You have a son and a daughter.’’

-Read the full article at The Boston Globe.

The article also highlights the importance of a supportive family and school community – and Nicole’s own mental strength. There came a point in her journey when the family became involved in political lobbying. She had encountered difficulties at school over usage of the girls’ bathroom, and filed court proceedings against the school district for discrimination. A Republican state legislator then introduced legislation that would have repealed Maine’s protection for transgender people in public restroom.

Last spring Wayne and Nicole roamed the halls of the State House, button-holing legislators and testifying against the bill. “I’d be in more danger if I went into the boys bathroom,’’ Nicole told the lawmakers, who ultimately rejected the bill.

“She knows how to work a room,’’ her father says proudly. “She even convinced a cosponsor to vote the other way.’’

Nicole freely acknowledges the difficulties ahead – but described the political engagement as a “perk”:

“Obviously my life is not going to be as easy as being gender-conforming, but there are perks like being able to get out there and do things that will benefit the [transgender] community,’’ she says. “I think everything’s going to turn out pretty well for me.’’

As an aside to gthe main themes, I was amused by the self-description of Nicole’s father (note the emphasis I added):

“As a conventional dad, hunter, and former Republican, it took me longer to understand that I never had two sons,’’ he told them. “My children taught me who Nicole is and who she needed to be.’’