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The Catholic Laity/Bishops Disconnect on Sexuality, Homosexuality

The evidence of a gulf in thinking on homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) between the formal position of Vatican orthodoxy and the  real beliefs of ordinary Catholics is clear. To make sense of this. we need to consider two key questions: the compelling, established evidence that such a gulf exists, and the more tentative evidence that the oligarchy is starting to catch up.

In this post, I simply present a summary of the main findings on the belief of real Catholics, with some commentary and supporting links. Later, I will report on commentary elsewhere, and expand on the signs of the change that must come from the bishops’ oligarchy – and is just starting to do so.

The extent and growth of the Catholic / Oligarchy disconnect on homosexuality

Several major opinion polls have demonstrated the existence of this disconnect, with last week’s Washington Post/ABC poll on gay marriage just the latest of several. (see for example, here and here). Most of the time, the views of the Catholic subsample get just a line or a paragraph, but now we have a much more detailed analysis from the Public Religion Institute, digging into the detailed data from earlier research, and released as a report called Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues.

These were the key findings:

Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.

Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.

This really should not surprise. Catholic tradition is strongly supportive of families. There is no reason at all why Pope Benedict’s recent address on this theme cannot be applied to all families, in keeping with the firm commitment of Catholic orthodoxy to inclusion and justice for all marginalized groups. Going back into older Catholic history, there was also an established tradition of liturgical rites for blessing same sex unions, and recognition of the spiritual value of what St Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendship” between male couples.

Defining same-sex marriage as a civil marriage dramatically increases support among Catholics.

If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage “like you get at city hall”, Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28%, from 43% to 71%. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic shift is more pronounced.

Catholics have a strong commitment to marriage as a sacrament, based on its connection with raising children, and do not see civil marriage as having any validity in the eyes of the Church. On that basis, the only significant difference between same sex and opposite sex civil marriages is the gender of the participants – a clear case of discrimination. There can be no valid religious argument for opposing what the Church itself sees as a purely legal  arrangement between two people.

Beyond same-sex marriage, Catholic support for rights for gays and lesbian people is strong and slightly higher than the general public.

Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour laws that would protect gay and lesbian people in the workplace; 63% of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 6 in 10 (60%) of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt.

There are really two distinct issues here – discrimination, and adoption. Even formal Catholic teaching is opposed to what it describes as “unjust” discrimination against LGBT people. The problem is only that the CDF gets itself into an eggdance over attempting to present some discrimination as “just”, and opposing legal protection against discrimination, on the spurious grounds that we can all avoid discrimination by simply hiding our orientation – by remaining in the closet. In this, they are contradicting their own reminder that we should “speak the truth in love”, and that “the truth will set you free”.

Adoption is not a matter of discrimination against gay or lesbian people, but one of the rights of children. The only issue of importance should be, what is best for the child in need of adoptive parents. Frequently, the best available parents for some kids will be gay. To exclude such potential parents on arbitrary grounds limits the possibilities for the full flourishing of that child.

(See also: Catholics Support Gay Adoption.The Fallacy of the Church Push Against Gay Adoption)

Compared to the general church-going public, Catholics are significantly less likely to hear about the issue of homosexuality from their clergy, but those who do are much more likely to hear negative messages.

Only about 1 in 4 Catholics who attend church services regularly say their clergy speak about the issue of homosexuality, but nearly two-thirds of this group say that the messages are negative.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important characteristics of Catholicism are not matters of sexual puritanism, but a commitment to justice and service on the one hand, and to developing a personal relationship with the Lord, through prayer and sacramental practice, on the other.

Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks on how it is handling the issue of homosexuality.

Less than 4 in 10 Catholics give their church top marks (a grade of either A or B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.

How can it be otherwise, on this or any other matter of sexuality, when the teaching is developed and disseminated by those who are not supposed to have any practical experience of loving sexual relationships, to those who do?

Seven in ten Catholics say that messages from places of worship contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.

In Catholic tradition, suicide is one of the gravest of sins. How grave a sin is it to lead another to suicide, either by promoting ideas of self-contempt, or by indirectly promoting or condoning youthful bullying?

Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.

Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed. Less than 1 in 4 (23%) believe that it can.

The majority Catholic view here is in fact close to generally accepted Catholic orthodoxy, which teaches that we must pay full attention to the findings of science. These findings, as reflected in the determinations of professional bodies in the fields of medicine and psychology, and in numerous field studies in animal behaviour, are that for some individuals and for some animal species, homoerotic sexual attraction and expression is entirely natural. Formal Catholic teaching has not yet grasped this nettle, but sooner or later it surely must.

A majority of Catholics believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.

Among the general population, less than half believe it is not a sin.

Of course such relations, in themselves, are not necessarily a sin – any more than sexual relations between any two adults are necessarily sinful. That rather depends on the context. Many theologians, and what appears to be an increasing number of bishops, now recognize that what matters is the quality of the relationship. If this is committed, permanent and faithful, then the sexual relationhip is no more sinful than that within marriage.

Even the orthodox position, which insists unambiguously that even within such a loving same sex relationship sexual expression is a grave sin, nevertheless agrees that this is not so in every case. There is always recognition of the primacy of conscience. Where gay or lesbian couples in sexual relationships do so after a full process of conscience formation on the matter, and have reached a decision in conscience that their relationship is not sinful – then there is no sin.

My Related Posts:

True Catholic Belief.

Gay Marriage: Coming (Soon?) to a Church Near You.

Say It Again, Loud and Clear This Time: CATHOLICS SUPPORT GAY MARRIAGE!

Catholics Support Gay Marriage; Homosexuality “Not a Moral Issue”

http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/new-report-catholic-attitudes-towards-lgbt-issues#comment-199262

http://www.publicreligion.org/research/?id=509

http://www.publicreligion.org/objects/uploads/43/Catholics_and_LGBT_issues_2011_FINAL.pdf

Lest We Forget: The Ashes of Our Martyrs

For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored.  We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively.

So it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to .    and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome:  I do not wish to belittle it in any way.  However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.

For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period.  During the 11th century,  Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,

classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour

In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.

All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts.  Although this  penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.

Templars

Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying.  In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy.  (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).

To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused.  In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.

Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions;  and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted).  These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.

The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place.  Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) .  Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.

Protestant Europe

After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).

The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in  England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.

Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries.  It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.

It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith.  It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.

 

Sources:

 

The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

One of the key points in the recent declaration by German theologians (now joined by others, worldwide), is the urgency of ending the current insistence on compulsory clerical celibacy. This is my cue to revisit, and expand on, some points I have made frequently on previous occasions.

When I wrote a series of posts on the problem of compulsory clerical celibacy nearly two years ago, I listed several problems with the rule:

  • It is not based on Scripture, but in fact contradicts Paul’s clear advice that celibacy is not for everyone.
  • It was not the practice of the early church, and was not compulsory for the first twelve centuries of Christianity – over half of Church histor
  • The rule, when it became fixed, was not introduced as a matter of pastoral care, but to preserve church wealth and powe
  • Celibacy has never been required for all clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Churche
  • It was swiftly rejected by the Protestant churches after the Reformatio
  • It is still not required for all Catholic priests: it does not apply to those in the Eastern rite of the Roman church, nor to those who are already married, and are now converting from other denominations
  • Many bishops and even national Bishops’ conferences have asked, either privately or formally, for the blanket ban to be relaxed.

I can now add some further observations that I was not then aware of:




Continue reading The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

Theologians’ Revolt Deepening, Widening

When the German theologians last week released their declaration calling for far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church culture, structures and teaching on sexual morality, it had been signed by 143 leading theologians from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The publication of the declaration on Friday coincided with the resignation of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in the culmination of sustained popular protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Since then, Arab street protests have spread to other countries of the Middle East, notably including Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Jordan and Algeria.
The theologians’ revolt has similarly been spreading beyond the original 143 German signatories.
  
A note by Bill Lindsey in the Open Tabernacle comments thread drew my attention to the current list of signatories, which as of yesterday (February 18th) had grown to 245 German theologians. Simple calculations demonstrate that if the original 143 represented about a third of the total, then 245 are more than half – an absolute majority. (There will still be others who agree with all or most of the points, but have withheld their signatures). Even more interesting to me, was an observation at the bottom of the German list, confirming what I suspected when I first wrote about this; theologians in other parts of the world are now adding their names.

 

Das internationale Interesse am Memorandum ist groß. Immer mehr Theologieprofessorinnen und -professoren aus den nicht-deutschsprachigen Ländern bekunden uns ihre Unterstützung.

(International interest in the Memorandum is huge. An increasing number of theology professors in the non-German countries are telling us of their support).

The site lists 22 foreign names – not yet many, but this will surely grow, once the word spreads that this is no longer an exclusively German development. Academics thrive on extensive personal international connections (several of the theologians are listed as associated with two distinct institutions, in different countries) International attention will spread rapidly.




Continue reading Theologians’ Revolt Deepening, Widening

Theologians’ Revolt Exposes a Vatican Myth

When I quoted Charles Curran last week with his statement that “the majority” of moral theologians want to see some revisions to Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, I could not have anticipated how quickly I would be seeing some evidence that Curran may even have understated the problem. At the end of the week, coinciding beautifully with the Egyptian”Day of Departure”, the German press published a statement by 143 theologians, titled “The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure”, which called for fundamental, far-reaching reforms in the structure and moral theology of the Catholic Church.  In doing so, they dramatically demolished an important Catholic myth: that Vatican doctrine and disciplinary rules dictate the beliefs and conduct of the Church.

They do not. It has long been clear that Vatican pronouncements on sexual ethics and on the requirements for admission to the priesthood do not reflect the views of ordinary lay Catholics. It is now obvious that they also do not reflect the views of their own professional theologians. I suspect, indeed, that the Vatican oligarchs no longer believe their own pronouncements themselves. True Catholic belief, as reflected in the real life beliefs of real people, and not abstract words in a rule book, has been substantially reformed. All that is now required is an admission of the fact. What is now becoming clear is that, just like the Emperor’s New Clothes, the idea that the Vatican controls Catholic minds and speaks for their belief, is – a myth.

The revolt of the German theologians has attracted remarkably little attention in the Mainstream English press, which has largely been content simply to headline the calls for the ordination of married men and women, and some cursory references to the other reforms which were specified. This is a mistake: the document is far more important than  just a few academics making yet another call for changing the rules on ordination. It is, instead, a  demand for a wholesale restructuring of the entire culture and structure of the church, in which the specific reforms asked for are just some particular consequences, not the main thrust at all.




Continue reading Theologians’ Revolt Exposes a Vatican Myth

Pope Benedict, on the Queer Lessons in the Church’s Martyrdom of St Joan.

At Enhanced Masculinity, I came across a post which reported on an address by Pope Benedict about the martyrdom and later canonization of St Joan of Arc. I was pleased to see this, as I have written before of the importance of Joan as a queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later rehabilitated and honoured. Much the same will surely occur in time to those modern queer heroes who have been professionally martyred, by the Church which has deliberately destroyed their careers, for the great sin of attempting to speak the truth on sexual ethics or LGBT inclusion.

Benedict’s frank admission of the patent error of the church theologians who presided over Joan’s trial and passed sentence on her, together with his quotation from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium on the constant need for purification, made a welcome contrast with the usual glossing over of past mistakes and the insistence on a constant and unchanging tradition. His words also immediately reminded me of the words of a much younger man, when he as Fr Joseph Ratzinger he wrote a commentary on the Second Vatican Council:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

So, in addition to the significance of this address to my own arguments about the relevance of the queer saints and martyrs, it also relates to the current theological ferment on sexual ethics and widespread criticism of the institutional church. When I then crossed to the Vatican website and read the address in full, I found even more in Pope Benedict’s words that can guide and inspire gay in lesbian Catholics in our struggles to withstand the hostility of the traditional, disordered teaching on homoerotic relationships. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Sexual Person” (Book Review)

I have just completed a first reading of “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions) “, by the Catholic theologians Todd A. Salzmann and Michael G. Lawler.  I stress here, “a first reading”, as I have no doubt that this will be for me one of those foundational texts that I return to again and again.  After just an introductory acquaintance, I have no intention of attempting here any kind of formal assessment or review, but I do want to share some preliminary thoughts, some of which I propose to expand into full posts a little later.

The constantly evolving, ever-changing  Catholic tradition.

Whatever it is that Vatican spokesmen mean when they refer to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, it cannot be what the plain English words appear to mean. Across the full range  of sexual ethics, Catholic tradition has changed constantly. This is not only an historical fact, it is also inevitable and in fact demanded by the Magisterium itself. I particularly like the words of a certain Joseph Ratzinger, which highlight the importance of identifying and correcting the “distorting tradition” in the Church:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

The Distorted Modern Teaching on Marriage and Procreation

The often repeated claim that marriage and sexual intercourse exist primarily for the purposes of procreation, is simply fallacious. It is clear from the Magisterium itself that there are several purposes to both. The additional claim by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” that every sexual act must be open to the production of new life, is in fact a distortion of clear earlier statements that the requirement is for the marriage to be open to procreation – not every single sexual act.

The bizarre parallel claim in Humanae Vitae that marriages which are sterile, or which deliberately avoid pregnancy by “Natural” Family Planning, raise serious doubts about the validity of the simultaneous insistence that homosexual activities are necessarily prohibited as not open to procreation.

The Distortions of Natural Law

“Natural law” is widely used as a pretext for the condemnation of homosexual acts, but the concept itself is poorly understood.  Salzmann and Lawler present extensive evidence that a more accurate reading of the concept is in fact supportive of sexual activities between men or between women, in specific circumstances, for people who have a homosexual orientation.

The Distortions of Scripture

It is by now well established that numerous scholars have shown that the traditional use of a half dozen verses from the Bible as clobber texts to condemn all homoerotic acts is based on distortion, relying on misinterpretation, mistranslation, or plain misrepresentation. “The Sexual Person” summarizes these familiar critiques, concluding that the most important feature of the very limited Biblical references to homoerotic acts is that they simply do not take account of the existence of a homosexual orientation as we know it to exist. Recognizing such an attraction, the authors submit, leads to the conclusion that the references to “unnatural acts” in Romans must imply that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, sexual activities with others of the same sex are entirely natural, and so not condemned by Paul.

On the other hand, attempts to force us into heterosexual marriage are indeed attempts to enforce what for us are “unnatural acts” – and so condemned by Paul.

(I would go further, and add that by extension, even enforced celibacy is unnatural, and so condemned by Paul, and also a contravention of natural law, properly understood).

The Distorted Teaching on Cohabitation

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me, was that on cohabitation.  I grew up with the clear understanding from my Catholic education, which I often heard repeated, that all sexual activity before our outside of marriage was expressly forbidden – and that marriage in effect commenced with the marriage ceremony, as solemnized in a Catholic Church, by a Catholic priest, in front of witnesses.  More recently, I have recognized that this idea of marriage as an obligatory sacrament, required before legitimate sexual intercourse, was a relatively modern one.

Until reading “The Sexual Person”, I did not realize quite how modern an idea it is, or how far it is flatly contradicted by the practice of the church for at least three quarters of Christian history, right up to the Council of Trent and even beyond.  Previously, the church wedding (if it took place at all) was not an event that began the process of marriage and legitimized husband and wife living together in a sexual relationship, but merely a public acknowledgement of a partnership that may have begun long before, with mutual consent consummated by immediate sexual intercourse. What today we would call “cohabitation” did not precede the marriage – it initiated it. It did precede the public wedding – but that was of no importance to the sacramentality of the marriage itself, or to the legality of the sexual relationshipthat accompanied it.

For most of Catholic tradition, it is then clear that any conception of sin in cohabitation before marriage was impossible – as soon as cohabitation began, the marriage commenced. Applying this reasoning to the modern situation, where (for good reasons) we accept the importance of a public commitment in a wedding ceremony, we should also recognize that marriage is a process, not a one-day event. The process begins with the private commitment to each other. As long as the cohabitation is part of a nuptial process leading up to marriage, and not a simple shacking up, Catholic tradition suggests that we should recognize and accept cohabitation prior to the wedding as part of the marriage, and so fully valid.

Gay marriage and Catholic Tradition.

Here I move on to more treacherous ground, but as I read in this book so many extracts from Church documents on our sexual lives and on marriage and family, I was struck by how littleamendment is needed to extend church endorsement of the value of marriage, as sacrament and as an institution furthering both private and public good, to include same sex couples alongside all others.

The Theological Ferment Under Way.

“The Sexual Person” has made waves in the press, largely as a result of the US Bishops’ criticism of it. However, it is far from unique in highlighting the contradictions and failings of current orthodoxy on sexual ethics. It now becomes clearer than ever to me that there is a fundamental rethink under way. This has not yet broken through into major papal pronouncements or Vatican documents – but I am certain that they will soon start to do so. When they do, they will no doubt be accompanied once again by the comforting assurances that these new, more human and sympathetic understandings of human sexuality have been around for decades (as they have), and so form part of the “constant and unchanging Catholic tradition”.

La plus ça change…..

 

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Heed the Message of Christ: Queering Galatians

As we continue to consider the person of Jesus Christ, we must think also of what he expects of us. Above all he sends us out into the world to carry his message. This is what is meant by “apostle” – one who is sent as a messenger. We are all (or should be) apostles, and the world we are to carry the message to is our own, contemporary world, with its modern conditions and circumstances.

It is in this spirit that  Rev Steven Parelli, executive director  of Other Sheep, has posted an adaptation and paraphrase of Paul’s letter to the Galatians., that he prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Equality March in Washington D. C. This is a text that he once memorized in an attempt to fight against his same-sex attraction – but reassessing it in personal, modern terms has given it a very different complexion:

When I was in my freshman year of Bible college, I memorized most of the book of Galatians by heart (and filled five notebooks with personal study notes) ….for the purpose of helping me to overcome my “temptation” to same-sex sex (which I now realise is not a temptation but an orientation).

Last night while on the bus that brought us home from the National Equality March in Washington,  D. C., I went over chapter 1 of Galatians in my mind as well as read it from the NT Bible I had with me. …….Once I queered the very first word “Paul” as “we who strive for the equality rights of LGBT people”, I was off and running. And then the text spoke to me, as many texts from the Bible have spoken to other oppressed peoples of former and present times.

Apostles for Today

Parelli’s queering of Galatians is helpful for the result – but also for the method, as a technique for making scripture more immediately comprehensible and applicable to our lives, today.

I begin with a restatement of the first part of the passage, in the familiar King James translation:

1 Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) And all the brethren which are with me, unto the  churches of Galatia: 3 Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us  from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: 5 To  whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Now, Parelli’s paraphrase for today:

We who strive for the equal rights of LGBT people are sent ones – not because some pro-LGBT organization has enlisted us – but because Jesus Christ – his earthly ministry to the oppressed and marginalized – has called us to do, at this time, what he did then in his day.  We are sent by him and the life-giving Creator with the good news of liberty for all.  2 We are not alone in this mission, for there are many with whom we work and who work with us.  Now, it is to the churches at large in the United States that we write this letter.  3 We begin with this greeting:  Grace and peace to everyone from God the Creator and from Jesus our Lord 4 who lived for the oppressed in society to such an extent that he died at the hands of those who hated his mission; he gave his life in the pursuit of delivering us from a world where men do evil to other men; he died for a just world for all – a world as God originally intended it to be. 5 For this sacrifice we give him the glory for ever and ever.  Amen.

He continues:

8 Now, why would you want to do that?  No, you would not wish to destroy the good news that has come to the marginalized of society even if an “angel from heaven” were to pretend that you should do so.  Even if we ourselves, for some unknown reason, were to ask you to tell forth a message different than what we have been saying right along – that Jesus is the liberator of all the oppressed in society.  If we were to change the “good news,” than by all means tell us that we have corrupted the message. 9You see how important the “good news” is.


10 We are writing not because we need to persuade any one, or even God the Creator, of what we are about.  Both men and God  know:  we are about the good news of setting the captive free, that is the marginalized – the despised and rejected of society.  Obviously this is not about pleasing society who would keep the oppressed in their place.  This is about being the servants of Christ by doing what he did.  11 Yes, indeed, this good news that Jesus came into the world to show us how to live for one another (which we do tell to everyone) is obviously – not at this time – the way of humanity (but it is “the way” of Jesus).  12 Society so often fails to model before us this message of good news, and therefore, we did not receive it from observing society or any institution, but instead learned it from observing Jesus, the one who teaches us to give to others the rights, privileges and freedoms we would grant ourselves.

Like it?  Read the full paraphrase, parallel with the KJ version (no, it’s not my favourite either), at Other Sheep National Equality March

“The Last Judgement”, and the Homoerotic Spirituality of Michaelangelo.

One of the great paradox’s of queer church history is that a period of extreme persecution of “sodomites” by the Inquisition, directly at their own hands or indirectly by secular authorities at their instigation, largely coincided with a remarkable series of popes who had sex with men, who protected family and friends who did so, or spent vast sums commissioning major works of homoerotic art. Of these, the most obvious and best known of these is Michaelangelo’s magnificent frescoes for then Sistine Chapel, which remains one of the must see attractions for any tourist visiting Rome. (Pope Paul III who commissioned these works for the chapel, also commissioned an obviously homoerotic theme, the Rape of Ganymede, for his bedroom.)

For the thousands of daily visitors, this is a powerful depiction of the second coming of Christ, and so a source of religious inspiration – but may have been based, in part, on scenes of male and female prostitution the artist saw in the Rome of his day.

A new study claims that the huge painting is also based on the seedy scenes the 16th-century artist witnessed at Roman public baths which doubled as brothels for male and female prostitutes.

“The figures descending to hell and ascending to heaven are inspired by the virile, muscular manual workers and porters Michelangelo would have seen during his visits to the baths, which are well documented,” said Elena Lazzarini, a researcher at the University of Pisa and the author of the study. “It was here he defined the build of the working man as the ideal physique.”

The public baths which proliferated in Rome at the time offered steam rooms, massages and basic medical treatments with leeches, “but also rooms offering scenes of promiscuity and prostitution, both male and female”, she said.

Lazzarini pointed out that in the painting, which spans an entire wall of the chapel where papal conclaves are held, one of the damned is being dragged down to hell by his testicles while men heading for heaven hug and kiss “in an ambiguous fashion”.

-Guardian

In what sense is this image of men kissing “ambiguous”?

So, there appear to be two paradoxes here. One is the historical anomaly of open male prostitution and papal tolerance or encouragement of homoeroticism while simultaneously executing thousands of Sodomites, often by burning at the stake. The other is the apparent anomaly of placing erotic art,  homoerotic and otherwise, in a papal chapel.

On the historical anomaly, I do not want to go further here. On the spiritual / erotic element, there is no contradiction at all. Eroticism, and especially homoeroticism,  frequently goes together with spirituality. As Chris Glaser notes in his introduction to “Coming out to God”, sexuality and spirituality can support and reinforce each other. They are not in conflict. Outside the Christian tradition, many religions have explicitly embraced sexuality in religious worship, from Hindu erotic temple art, to male and female temple prostitutes in the Middle Eastern ancient world. Many societies even recognize a specific association between spiritual gifts and homoerotic attraction or cross-dressing, as seen in the American berdache, African sangomas, and Asian hijras – or even the “skirts” worn by many Christian male clergy, and the high proportion of gay Catholic and Anglican clergy. The history of Christian spirituality is filled with examples which use male erotic imagery, such as John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, or images of male friendship -such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s “Spiritual Friendship”.

The homoerotic content of Michaelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere, is self-evident: all one has to do is to look at it. But this is not only erotic – it is also powerfully, deeply spiritual. Indeed, when the painter Veronese defended himself before the Holy Tribunal on charges of “inappropriate” imagery in his Last Supper, he cited The Last Judgement as precedent – and the Tribunal responded that Michaelangelo’s work was excused because of its great spirituality.

For most casual visitors today, the spiritual content of the “Last Judgement” is obvious: an inspiring image of the resurrection, and the prospect of everlasting life.  For observers of his own day, the message would have been more terrifying – a reminder of the danger of eternal damnation, and hence of the necessity of redemption through the Church. The frequent commissions by the church of scenes of the Last Judgement, Michaelangelo’s among many others, would thus have been a means for the church to remind the faithful of its own importance, and so consolidate its power over their minds. Robert Baldwin elaborates on this idea, and also observes that Michaelangelo himself, by showing his own self-portrait in a flayed skin held by st Bartholomew, sees himself as a victim of the Church’s obsession with control.

So, where is Michaelangelo’s spirituality to be found? I suspect that the clue comes in looking not just at his art, but at the man as a whole. His contemporary biographer Ascanio Condivi wrote that

Michelangelo ‘loved not only human beauty but universally every beautiful thing: a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood and every place and thing beautiful and rare after its own kind.. .’

-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland

This love of beauty was expressed not only in painting, but also in poetry, in sonnets (some of which are also clearly homoerotic in content).

A sonnet written when he was in his early seventies began with the declaration that every beautiful thing passed through his eyes instantly to his heart along a path open to thousands ‘of all ages and sexes’.

-George Bull, at Catholic Ireland

In his Mass to celebrate the restoration of the Sistine frescoes, Pope John Paul II had this to say of them:

‘The frescoes that we contemplate here introduce us to the world of Revelation. The truths of our faith speak to us here from all sides… The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor…in the context of the light that comes from God, the human body also keeps its splendour and its dignity. .. If it is removed from this dimension, it becomes in some way an object, which depreciates very easily, since only before the eyes of God can the human body remain naked and unclothed, and keep its splendour and its beauty intact…’

-quoted by George Bull

In his praise for the paintings as presenting the “theology of the body”, John Paul is careful to select the representations of male and female, but the work itself also celebrates another element of beauty in the human body: that of male and male.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman

The Pope’s visit to the UK later this year is turning the spotlight on Cardinal John Henry Newman – Newman’s scheduled beatification is the ostensible primary reason for the visit. There are many aspects of Newman’s life and work that will be worth considering: his story as a leading Anglican convert to Rome will focus attention on the relations between the two churches, on the privileged position of the Anglicans as the “established” church here, and on the legal disadvantages of the Catholic church. There will also be interest in his work as a theologian, which has led some to see him as a “progressive” for his insistence on the primacy of conscience, while paradoxically others hail him as an arch traditionalist. I hope to discuss both of these later. For now though, I want to consider another aspect of his life, his well-known intensely passionate love for a younger priest, Ambrose St John.

This love has led me, like others, to include Newman in my collection of“queer” saints and martyrs. At the Guardian, Jack Valero clearly disagrees. In his discussion of Newman, he complains, “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” My response to this, is that it is even more symptomatic of the modern Church that we conclude that anybody identifying as “homosexual”, or as gay, is not celibate. This is an important issue for the place of gay men and lesbians in the Catholic church, and of the treatment we receive.

First, let us consider the bare facts of Newman and his love, which are generally agreed. His love for St John is beyond dispute. “He loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable,” Newman wrote after St John’s death. This love was reciprocated, to the extent that it was his explicit wish that he wanted to be buried alongside his lover in a shared grave. This wish was understood and respected by his colleagues of the Birmingham Oratory, and so it was done. However, there is no serious suggestion that the intense love between the two was given sexual expression. They were, after all, both priests. Yet from the same set of agreed facts, one side acclaims him as a “gay” saint, another as obviously not “homosexual”. To make sense of this contradiction, I now want to explore some of the nuances behind the bare facts.

A priest’s desire today to be buried in the same grave as another priest would certainly be extraordinary, possibly even scandalous but in earlier times it was uncommon, but less remarkable. Alan Bray in “The Friend” describes many English churches which have tombs holding male couples, some of them priests. What is significant here, is that this practice of burying couples in shared tombs was far more commonly practiced for married couples – and many of the male couples buried together that Bray described are known to have been “sworn brothers”, made so in a liturgical rite exactly comparable to the rite of “adelphopoesis” that John Boswell describes in “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe”. Boswell and Bray disagree on the significance: Boswell presents evidence that these rites included many elements exactly comparable to the rites for opposite-sex marriage of the day. Bray argues that they should not be seen as a form of marriage, but merely as a sign of deep friendship – some of the men undergoing sworn brotherhood were also married to wives. Most of these predated Newman and St John by many centuries – by the nineteenth century the practice had all but died out, and there is no evidence that the men had ever formalized the relationship in any form of written contract or liturgical rite, Still, the symbolism of the shared grave remains powerful, given its historical context.
Now, consider Newman’s celibacy. Recall that he started life as an Anglican, for whom clerical celibacy was not a requirement. He quite specifically approved of marriage as a general rule, and believed that “country parsons” too should marry. Yet, even at the tender age of 16, he knew that he personally would not, believing that a single life was the “will of God” for him. If this deliberate celibacy in a priest should mean that he cannot be considered “homosexual”, does this mean that he is necessarily to be thought of as “heterosexual”? Surely not. Celibacy in itself is no indicator of sexual orientation. The common words simply are not of any help. Personally, I no longer think in terms of any category of “gay” saints: the modern word does not work outside of the modern period, and so I use the term “queer” instead, to denote anybody whose behaviour or choices stand clearly outside the standard, gendered role models for “heterosexual” men and women. On this basis, I have no hesitation in describing as “queer” a man who early on praised marriage in principle, but eschewed it for himself without any religious obligation to do so, and whose major emotional investment was a passionate (if sexless) relationship with a man, with whom he desired to share eternity.
Now, I return to the implications behind the opening statement in the Guardian: “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” The argument here, that celibacy denies “homosexuality”, can be turned on its head: there is an assumption behind it that “homosexual” implies sexual activity. This is a dangerous assumption, which leads to some of the more shameful aspects of pastoral practice in the institutional church. Vatican theory is quite different: the significant modern documents draw a clear distinction between the homosexual person, the “inclination” (or orientation), and actions. It is made clear that the “inclination” is not sinful, and that homosexual persons are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. Only homosexual “actions” are considered to be sinful. Yet Vatican teaching argues against protecting the persons from discrimination in housing or employment, even though such discrimination is clearly targeted at people for who they are, not for what they may have done. In defending this position, they claim that the “person” can remain free of discrimination by the simple expedient of keeping his “inclination” secret. “DADT”, in other words, in the Church.
This week, the English courts ruled on the validity of this argument as it applies to gay asylum seekers, looking for refuge here from serious homophobic persecution, even the risk of death, in their home countries. The British Border Agency, fearing that a sympathetic ruling would open the flood-gates to unwanted hordes of opportunistic refugees, had argued that gay Iranians, Sudanese and the like could escape persecution by the simple expedient of remaining closeted. The court sensible disagreed, stating that this was an entirely unreasonable and unjust expectation. It is even more unreasonable and unjust on the part of a Church which reminds us (in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, para 18) of the Scripture injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “the truth shall set you free”.
The problem is that the Vatican promise of “dignity, compassion and respect” does not apply to persons who are “homosexual”, but only to those who hidetheir sexuality. Why? Because if their “condition” is known, they are assumed to be not celibate – even when they give assurances to the contrary, as was the case of the Canadian altar server. This is not just a problem for the Vatican – it applies equally to the Anglican Church, and was the unstated problem that derailed the proposed selection of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark. John declares that he is celibate. However, he is known to be in a Civil Partnership. British law on these partnerships is clear that they are in many respects virtually identical to conventional marriage, but there are a handful of key differences. One of these is that unlike traditional marriage, there is no requirement of sexual consummation for the partnership to be legally valid. In terms of law, it is entirely possible for two men to be in a legal Civil Partnership, and celibate, just as John says he is. His opponents, however, simply refuse to believe this. To them, the simple fact that two homosexually identified men are living together is taken as “proof” that they are not celibate. In the commentary around John’s nomination, it was asked whether there was any “proof” (such as video footage) that their relationship was “chaste”. Why?

Now, let us return once more to Cardinal Newman. He never disclosed physical sexual activity, or its absence with St John, but in the absence of evidence, it is assumed that his close emotional relationship was suitable celibate. In the case of both the (Catholic) Canadian altar server, and the (Anglican) Jeffrey John, we have clear statements of both that their relationships with their partners are celibate, and so (presumably) exactly comparable to that of Newman and St John. Yet the popular assumption around these men is precisely the reverse of that applied to Newman. Whereas he is assumed to be celibate, they are assumed not to be. If modern standards had been applied to Newman, he should have been barred from the priesthood altogether, let alone raised to high office and a path to sainthood.

Books:

Boswell, John : Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Alan Bray, The Friend