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“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

Our Stories As “Sacred Texts”.

Our stories, in their simple unadulterated truth, offer the best defence we have against the lies that are the fragile foundation of formal Vatican teaching on same sex relationships. These plain lies are manifold, from the claim that our sinfulness is demonstrated in the story of Sodom (not so),  or the claim that it is “indisputable” that Scripture disapproves (immediately contradicted by the many theologians who have so disputed), or the bland assertion that homosexual “acts” are purely self-indulgent self-gratification. This last assertion, based on absolutely no evidence, is perhaps the most egregious of all.

Acts-of-faith

Even conservative Evangelical theologians, grounded in their own personal experience of how a personal, sexual relationship can lead both partners through mutual self-sacrifice closer to God, have recognised that precisely the same process can work in same sex couples. Vatican bureaucrats, starved in their own lives of this particular path to the divine, fail to recognize it in others.  Yet basic mathematics has a simple remedy: to disprove a proposed universal rule or law, all that is required is a single counter-example.

In my own life, I have already provided that counter example. My own experience was that the attempt to live strictly within Vatican rules on sexual ethics led me to drift away from the church. Living honestly as gay led me back  in.  Of  course, the counter argument could be that the proposition was never intended to be universal, just a general norm: then we need more than a single counter-example. We need a mass of them, all testifying and bearing witness to the error in the teaching.

The Vatican itself, in “Homosexualitatis Problema” urges us to remember the Biblical injunction to “Speak the Truth in Love“, and “The Truth Will Set You Free“. There are both theological and political reasons for telling our stories: there is a clear biblical instruction to do so, and doing so will go a long way to undermine the bland, entirely unjustified assumptions underlying Vatican hostility. Destroy the foundation, and we can pull down the entire edifice. This  Saturday, 12th June, I shall be going in to London for a meeting of the RCC of theLGCM (“Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement”), where this precise idea, of telling our stories. is the major theme for the day.

The principle, as I have summarised it above. is one I have long promoted. Duigan McGinley,   in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts“, goes one step further. He says that  telling our stories is not merely helpful, it is sacramental. The tales that we tell, he says, deserve to be taken seriously, as sacred texts.

“For too long, gay Catholic lives have been shrouded in the secrecy advanced by official Catholic teaching. For many gay Catholics, the “closet” remains a powerful metaphor for the secrecy and shame which keep many of us to keep our sexual identity hidden. At times, the decision to remain ”in the closet” is carefully calculated and deliberate. At other to,es, the closetis forced upon us from outside. Yet it is in this context that gay Catholic must reconcile their sexual and spiritual lives.  Gay Catholic autobiographical acts reveal the delicate interplay between  sexuality, spirituality, and the many other components of identity which make a person unique.These acts of self-disclosure – of confession – stand as revelations of God’s intervention and actions in hay Catholic lives.  I offer an interpretation of Matthew 10:27, on open and fearless confession:

What I say to you in the dark,  tell in the daylight. What you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

When a gay Catholic takes the risk of narrating his gay identity, transforming what was once secret and publishing it for public dissemination, his public act becomes a “whisper from the housetop”.

So, I say unto you…….

Obey the voice of Scripture, obey the clear command of the Church: tell it like it is, even if (especially if) in this respect, it is not what the ivory tower Vatican moralists want to hear.

Excluded From God’s People: The Problem with “Homosexualitatis Problema”

Question: Look carefully at this picture of assembled Catholic cardinals, and decide (carefully, now):  Which of these, in terms of Pope Benedict’s own reasoning, are “excluded from God’s People”?

Answer: If you are to follow the line of reasoning of Pope Benedict himself, in his earlier incarnation as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the answer should be plain to see:  all of them.

How so?

In the first Church document dedicated to the matter of homoerotic relationships, “Homosexualitatis Problema“, the “Problem (sic) of Homosexuality”, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) quotes two verses from Leviticus which appear to condemn homosexual relationships, and then leaps to the completely unsubstantiated assertion that, because these verses describe such actions as an “abomination”, the people so described are “excluded from the Kingdom of God.”

If we are to accept the reasoning as sound,  we should be able to apply it equally to the other behaviours which are similarly described as “abominations“, and so discover who else are “excluded from the Kingdom of God.”

These verses include in their condemnation those well-known disreputable sinners as the eaters of shellfish and rabbits, those wearing clothing of mixed fibres, and (it pains me to say this), those who have shaved their beards.  Now,  the picture shown does not show a great deal of detail, but I fail to see a single beard among the assembled throng.   To be consistent, on the basis of this argument we have only two options:  either we must accept that the illustrious cardinals shown (and the overwhelming majority of all clergy) are likewise “excluded from God’s people “, or we must accept that the reasoning is flawed.  Which is it?

Homosexualitatis Problema” concludes with two wonderful verses from Scripture:  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn 8:32), and “Speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), both stirring verses that I would endorse fully.  What enrages me, is the deceitfulness, the utter dishonesty, of a document which purports to be about “Truth”, but instead bolsters its claims (for that is what they are:  claims, not reasoned arguments) with a long series of palpable falsehoods.

I could accept in good faith a document that submitted ts claims and supported them with clear reasoning.  This document does not. Instead, it provides us with an excellent example of what Dr Mark Jordan has described as the typical rhetorical style of the Church: to present statements as unquestionably true, without justification, and then to bludgeon us into submission by sheer force of repetition.  These are examples of the statements made in exactly this way, without demonstration, that are demonstrably untrue:

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, in the course of describing the conditions necessary for belonging to the Chosen People, the author excludes from the People of God who behave in a homosexual fashion.

These verses from Leviticus are well known, and it is inexcusable that they should be so badly misrepresented. They do not condemn those “who behave in a homosexual fashion”, but a much narrower set of behaviors – men who lie with men “as with a woman”.  It does not condemn women’s relationships, nor does it condemn other kinds of “homosexual behavior” – such as caressing, or home-making, or cooking, or mutual love and support, or dancing, or…… Just what is behavior “in a homosexual fashion“?

“There can be no doubt of the moral judgement made there (in Genesis 19, of the story of Sodom) against homosexual relations”.

Note that this is not just a claim that the story is a condemnation of “homosexual relations”.  It is much stronger, and says that “there can be no doubt“. In fact the opposite is true – there is indeed a great deal of doubt.  Not only is there “doubt”, but even outright denial. Many reputable Biblical scholars now point out that there is in fact no condemnation of homosexual relations anywhere in Genesis 19. The story as told in Genesis does not in any way identify the infamous “sin of Sodom” – but it is identified elsewhere,  and it is not “homosexuality”.  (See “Countering the Clobber Texts” for more on the real sin of Sodom.)

The document goes on to claim that there is a “clear consistency within the Scriptures themselves on the moral issue of homosexual behavior. This is nonsense.  Among over 30 000 verses in Scripture, there are only half a dozen which appear to criticize some homosexual behaviors and even these verses are debatable.  (Over 300 verses carry admonitions against heterosexual behavior).  there are also very many texts which support loving same gender relationships (see The Gospel’s Queer Values) – but these the CDF simply ignores.

The Church’s teaching today is “in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and her own constant tradition.”

The Vatican likes to repeat this phrase about a “constant tradition” (or “unchanging” tradition) on “homosexual relations” at regular intervals.   In fact, there is no “constant” tradition, when you take a long view over history.  There is indeed “organic continuity”, but it has changed substantially over the two millenia of history, just as teaching has changed on many other issues:  on slavery, on usury, on women’s proper & expected subjection to the will of there husbands, on the sacramental nature of marriage, and the need for its solemnization in church (which was once required only for priests), on compulsory celibacy for priests, on the evils of democracy………..

On homosexuality, historians such as James Boswell, Mark Jordan and Alan Bray have shown just how much the teaching has evolved and changed over the centuries.  I have listed some of this at Queering the Church, in my post “The Church’s Changing Tradition“.

The church’s perspective “finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences

It does not.  The natural sciences, like the human and social sciences, clearly show the opposite view.  Zoologists have shown that homosexual behaviour occurs throughout the animal world.  (See “God is Slightly Gay“). Physiologists have found some differences between the brains of people with homosexual and heterosexual orientations. The professional associations of the medical and psychiatric professions agree that homosexuality is not pathological or in any way “abnormal”. (Anthropology and social history show the same, but let us stick with natural sciences for now, as the Vatican does.)   None of these natural sciences “support the Church’s perspective”, as the document fraudulently claims. But note the slippery rhetorical style:  it does not claim that all science supports it – just that the “secure” findings of natural science do.  In other words, those findings that do support Church teaching are “secure”, those that don’t can simply be dismissed as “insecure”, no matter what are the views of the scientific community as a whole.

“Homosexual activity prevents one’s own fulfilment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God.”

This outrageous assertion is one that the CDF would no doubt like to believe, but there is no basis at all for accepting it – nor is any justification provided. On the other hand, there are two clear reasons for rejecting it, at least as applied to persons with a natural homoerotic orientation. First, if this is the way we have been made by the creator, how can its expression be “contrary to the creative wisdom of God”? God does not make mistakes. Does the CDF really believe we are called to somehow repair God’s mistakes? The truth here, as so often in this document, is precisely the opposite of the claim presented. The lessons from psychotherapy are clear:  what is dangerous to mental health, and prevents human fulfilment and happiness, is the denial of one’s identity and personal truth, including one’s sexual identity. As John McNeill, the notable theologian and psychotherapist, endlessly reminds us in his books, bad psychology is bad theology.

The above are the most obvious, clear falsehoods in the statement.  There are others which are less extreme, but are also misleading:

St Paul, in 1 Cor 6:9 “proposes the same doctrine and lists those who behave in a homosexual fashion among those who shall not enter the Kingdom of God”;

This text does not list those “who behave in a homosexual fashion”.  It lists rather, “malakoi” and “arseneketoi“. Do you know what those are? No? Nor does anybody else.  Accurate translation of these terms has puzzled Biblical scholars, because their meaning is unclear, but could be associated with idolatry, or the practice sometimes described (inaccurately) as “temple prostitution”.  It most certainly does not refer to people who behave in a “homosexual fashion”, whatever that might mean.

1 Tim 10 “explicitly names as sinners those who engage in homosexual acts.”

Again, it does not.  It “explicitly” names only “malakoi“, for which – see above.

There are numerous other nasty rhetorical tricks employed by Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict in this document, from the choice of language and false contrasts he sets up, for example, by contrasting “homosexual acts” with “conjugal relationships”. For balance, he should compare “conjugal acts”,  with all their associations with a loving marriage, with loving homoerotic relationships.  Of course he does not – he totally ignores all consideration of such loving same sex relationships, writing instead only of “homosexual” (historically, a medical term) acts and behaviour, of the “homosexual condition” , and of “disorder”.

The very title of the document is deceitful:  it is headed “Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, but in fact the formal title of the work is “Homosexualitatis Problema“, again simply resenting “homosexuality” as a “problem”.  it is not.  The only problem here is the Vatican’s total failure to understand , or even to attempt to understand, the problem.

Even the choice of Scriptural verses is telling: “Speak the Truth”,  the document concludes. But what about listening? For all the claims of the modern church to be a “listening church”, there is not a shred of evidence in this document, or anywhere else, that the writers have made any attempt to listen to the people who know most about it – those who have learned from personal experience what it is to have a homoerotic orientation. Those churches which have in sincerity engaged in proper listening exercises have found that they have modified their previous views, and have recognized that their traditional views of Scripture on the subject were inadequate. There is a reason, though, why the Catholic Church refuses to do the same kind of listening,  and it is one that affects us all- straight or gay.

The lies, half truths and nasty rhetorical sleight of hand which the CDF has used in an attempt to stigmatize and condemn loving same sex relationships, under the pretence of pastoral care and speaking the truth, should be seen as much more than just a hostile act against a small minority.  It is, rather, just the most obvious symptom of a much wider malaise within the power establishment of the church, which threatens us all. This is of the utmost importance: the ecclesiastical obsession with control and power, and its frequent abuse at all levels, have been clearly shown to be one of the primary root causes behind the ongoing scandals of clerical sexual abuse – in Ireland, in the US, in Australia, and right around the world.

References:

“Homosexualitatis Problema” (CDF, “Letter to the Bishops of the Church on the Pastoral care of Homosexual Persons”)

Recommended Books:

Moore, Gareth OP: “A Question of Truth

Countryman, L William, “Dirt, Greed & Sex

Boswell, John: “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality

A Gay – Friendly Bible?

(The observation below is based on an e-mail newsletter I received from Other Sheep. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace the full report on their main website, so I am unable to provide either confirmation or a link.)

There are an increasing number of scholars who are rejecting the traditional translations and interpretations of the Biblical  ‘clobber texts’.  Now there is a new translation from the Evangelical Theological Society, (The “People’s Bible”), which is reported to have the fascinating interpretative footnote:

“Romans 1:24-27:  Heterosexual men should not exchange their nature for homosexual practices . . . On the same principle, we might infer that homosexuals should not exchange their nature, or orientation, for heterosexual practices.”  (My emphases).

i.e: If you’re gay, then it is straight sex that is sinful.  Amen to that.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate, on Sexual Justice.

During the difficult years leading to the final collapse and dismantling of apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu, then the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa, was an inspirational figure.  He was clear and forthright in his unequivocal condemnation of the evils of the apartheid regime, but also clear in his condemnation of cruelties inflicted in the name of the resistance. ON more than one occasion, he put his own life at risk to protect vulnerable people who had been set upon by mobs accusing them of collaboration with the authorities.  Without his intervention, some of these people would surely have been murdered I particularly gruesome fashion – by being burned alive in the infamous (“necklace” method).

After the arrival of democracy, he gained still further in stature by his wise and compassionate chairing of the “Truth & Reconciliation Commission”, which did so much to smooth the path towards national healing. (That healing has not yet been achieved, but is assuredly closer than it would have been without the commission’s work).  Since then, he has not been afraid to criticise the new, black politicians who have come to office when they in turn abuse their new power in pursuit of personal or group advancement.

For Desmond Tutu, the struggle against apartheid was more than just a fight for a disadvantaged group, one that he belonged to himself, but for the more abstract principle of justice for all.  As such, he has continued to be outspoken in his criticism of injustice perpetrated against all other persecuted groups – including against injustice inside the church. The passage below is taken from his introduction to the book “In the Eye of the Storm”, by his colleague Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire – and the controversially, the first openly gay bishop to be elected in the Anglican Communion.  (I will write separately of my thoughts on Robinson’s book.)

“For me, the question of human sexuality is really a matter of justice; of course I would be willing to show that my beliefs are not inconsistent with how we have come to understand the scriptures.  It is not enough to say the “Bible says………….”, for the Bible says many things that I find totally unacceptable and indeed abhorrent.  I accept the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, but I remember that the bible has been used to justify racism, slavery and the humiliation of women, etc.  Apartheid was supported by the white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which claimed that there was biblical justification for that vicious system.

Many of us were engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle.  Apartheid, crassly racist, sought to penalize people for something about which they could do nothing – their ethnicity, their skin colour.  Most of the world agreed that that was unacceptable, that it was unjust.

I joined the many who campaigned against an injustice that the church tolerated in its ranks when women were not allowed to be ordained.  They were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their gender.  Mercifully, that is no longer the case in our province of the Anglican Communion, and how enriched we have been by this move.

I could not stand by while people were being penalized again for something over which they could do nothing – their sexual orientation.  I am humbled and honoured to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who seek to end this egregious wrong inflicted on God’s children.

May I wholly inadequately apologise to my sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian bisexual, or transgendered for the cruelty and injustice that you have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of us, your fellow Anglicans, I am sorry.  Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you.

Cape Town, South Africa 2008.

When, do you suppose, the Catholic church will produce leading bishops able and willing to speak the truth as clearly and passionately?

Lutherans, Gay Clergy: Shifting Theology.

The decisions of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) this week have rightly received a lot of attention, and are clearly significant to Lutherans, and to the rest of us: but not only for the obvious reasons.Women meeting last week at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Chicago wore rainbow scarves to support gay clergy members. (NY Times)

First, it is hugely important to the openly gay & lesbian partnered pastors already serving the church, and to their congregations. In spite of the previous prohibition, there are many of these across the country, but because of the ban, they may not be officially recognised. The result is that there are listed “vacancies” where good people, who could not be recognised as legitimate simply because they were openly gay and partnered.

“To be able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream,” said the Rev. Megan Rohrer of San Francisco, who is in a committed same-sex relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations but is not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members. “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.” (NY Times)

Secondly, it is important for other recognised gay clergy who could not be open, or could not enter partnerships, for fear of losing their recognition. These people can now choose celibacy or marriage, as they prefer, without fear – provided they are serving, or can find, a supportive congregation (local approval remains important.) Note however, that the emphasis is on “committed”, as in legally recognised, permanent partnerships comparable to conventional marriage.

In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships. (Washington Post)

The assembly also signed off on finding ways for willing congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.” The church fell short of calling that gay marriage, but conservatives see that as the next step.(AP)

It will also pressure the Lutherans themselves to take further decisions on consecrating gay marriages in church. Else, how can they explain a requirement that gay clergy be married, but not allow them to be married in church?

Thirdly, it is important symbolically, encouraging gay and lesbian Christians, and lending momentum to similar pressures in other denominations and elsewhere. Over the past two years, American Presbyterians and United Methodists have declined to pass similar resolutions – but those votes will return in future years, and will be passed (sooner, rather than later, I would think).

“Those who have been actively campaigning for a change of this sort in the other mainline denominations will see this as a sign that they should intensify their efforts,” Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said in an e-mail. (LA Times)

But the most important aspect of all, in my view, with the furthest reaching implications for all of us, has largely slipped under the radar. The biggest headlines have been on the clergy decision, and on the procedural vote before it, as these are the most clearly dramatic – but in effect, simply regularise an existing de facto situation. In this, the decision resembles the abolition in South Africa of the abhorrent Group Areas Act, which enforced residential separation, and other laws of so-called “petty apartheid”. By the time of the final repeal, these laws had fallen into such disrepute, that they were being widely ignored. Many of the people who could afford to move into the “White” areas had already done so. The law was not so much ground-braking change, as a simple attempt to come to terms with the plain reality. To some extent, so it is here.

No, the really important part for all of us as lesbigaytrans Christians came buried in just a few paragraphs in an earlier decision, approving a revised statement on sexual morality. This statement, after eight years of study and preparation, sets new parameters for the interpretation of Scripture in defining sexual morality.

“Barbara Wheeler, a former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York who is now director of the school’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, praised the ELCA for laying a theological foundation for Friday’s vote by first approving a broad social statement on sexuality.

“It’s a completely theological argument toward openness to the possibility of faithful, committed same-sex relationships,” said Wheeler, who has played a central role in gay clergy deliberations inside the Presbyterian Church (USA). “What you’re seeing is two things: The society is in the process of changing its collective mind about the moral status of same-sex relationships, and there’s a parallel theological movement.” (AP)

For far too long, the struggle for gay rights has been seen as one that pits civil rights against Scripture. By taking these decisions after long deliberation, including careful consideration of Scripture in the light of modern scholarship, the ECLA has shown that he two are not inherently in conflict. This will lead other open-minded church people of good will to take a further look at Scripture for themselves, and some of hem too will find that the typical resort to Scripture as a basis for opposition is misguided. on the other hand, the bigots who continue to fall back on knee jerk calls to Scripture as a cover for their prejudice or hatred, will find that they no longer receive he automatic support they once did.

The Scriptural argument against same sex relationships is being defanged.

(See also The Wild Reed on the same topic;

and for exensive coverage of events from the inside, see Goodsoil)

Further Reading:
Countryman: Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today
Helminiak: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Catholic Church Consecrates Gay Bishop ( Gay Marriage & Gay Bishops in History)

Countering the Clobber Texts

Exodus International, ex-gays: Way Out, or In? Cure, or Disease?

Ex-gays, “cures” for homosexuality and the possibility of change in orientation are back in the news, with the APA conference now under way in Toronto.  One study, due for presentation this morning, is said to present evidence that contrary to the conventional view over the past few decades, “change” is indeed possible. This paper, by an openly evangelical Christian, was a longitudinal study of men who had undergone change therapy with Exodus .  The study was funded by Exodus, but results, he says, were not influenced by them. These showed that although the program was not successful in all cases, it was so with some of the subjects.Are you surprised?

Exodus Billboard
Exodus Billboard

Now, I am not particularly bothered by claims that change is “possible”.  Some LGBT commentators get worked up at the very suggestion, but I do not.  After all, it is fairly clear that we are not all uniformly “homo” or “hetero” -sexual:  most people sit somewhere on a spectrum.  Just a quick look at the very many out gay & lesbian people who have been married, and become parents, shows that it is at least possible to function in the hetero role. Change is possible in many areas of human behaviour.  Meat eaters routinely become vegetarians – and sometimes back again.  Lifelong couch potatoes can acquire an enthusiasm for the gym. And many people routinely change religious faith.  Christians become Muslims, Jews become Catholics, Catholics become Evangelicals, Evangelicals give up religion all the time.

And yes, even heterosexuality can be cured!

So I am not at all surprised by claims that there can be change in sexual practice.  Where I take strong exception, though, is with the idea that this can be called “therapy”, or is even desirable.   In fact, it is quite the reverse. The evidence from neutral psychotherapists, those with neither a religious nor sexual axe to grind, is that the best route to mental health is to live within your natural, primary orientation.  The evidence from personal stories of millions of gay men and lesbians around the world who have come out, confirms this. Nor is sexual “conversion” good for one’s spiritual health. Even within the Catholic tradition, theologians who are also professional psychotherapists confirms this. (See, for instance, Daniel Helminiak and John McNeill).   Exodus International is mistaking  the disease for the cure.  What is particularly scandalous in my mind, is the name they have chosen.

Moses Crossing Red Sea - Sistine Chapel
Moses Crossing Red Sea  (Cosimo Roselli, Sistine Chapel)

The Biblical story of the Exodus is one of liberation from slavery and oppression.  ”Let my people go” was a slogan taken from Exodus, freely adopted by the American civil rights movement, and by early black nationalists in South Africa.  Many LGBT commentators have proposed that gay Christians should use the book of Exodus as a theme for regular prayer and reflection in our own struggle against oppression by church and state and in our continual, endless process of coming out. (“Ex-odos”  is from the Greek for “way out”). More, in standard theology one of the primary tasks of the church is to take the “prophetic role” – that is , to speak up against evil and injustice. During my involvement with the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission back in South Africa, two texts that were endlessly repeated were  from Luke, and from Micah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Yet here we have a so-called Christian organisation appropriating the name to lead us not away from the oppression of the closet, but back into it.   If coming out is a spiritual experience, what words are appropriate for being led back in?

Am I going too far in suggesting “diabolical”?

Recommended Books

Daniel Helminiak: Sex and the Sacred

John McNeill: Taking a Chance on God

John McNeill: Sex and the Sacred

Richard Cleaver:Know My Name

Related Posts:

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

Homoerotic Spirituality

Truth Wins Out Leviticus International Peter Toscano (Quaker, queer, and ex ex-gay)

God’s Tricksters, Prophetic Vision, and Justice in the Church.

I’ve been reading about Catholic Bishop, Patricia Fresen . That’s right: Catholic Bishop, Patricia Fresen.

Bishop Fresen is one of three consecrated Bishops in the Womenpriests movement. Now, I’ve been fascinated by Bishop Fresen since I first heard of her a couple of years ago, but all my natural instincts are in turmoil over this. On the one hand, part of me says this can’t be valid – the Catholic Church does not allow women priests, let alone bishops. On the other, another part of me says, right on! After all, she appears to have been legitimately and validly consecrated by a (male) Catholic bishop in good standing, witnessed by three other male bishops, and other women bishops – who had previously been consecrated themselves, in similar fashion.

women priests

The second feature that appeals to me, that warms the cockles of my heart, is that I share one part of Bishop Fresen’s path of resistance. She and I both spent the major part of our lives in the church in South Africa. As legally “white”, we were both beneficiaries of the apartheid structure. As Catholics, we both accepted the national church’s insistence that it was right and appropriate to stand up against injustice, and to resist, even to disobey, unjust laws. I myself attended several meeting of peace and justice commissions, where the regular slogan was “If you want peace, work for justice”, and quite deliberately ignored and contravened some significant pieces of legislation, opening myself to real risk of prosecution.

Bishop Fresen logically applied church teaching on justice to her own position:

“As she left childhood, she realized that this neat division into black and white was not the Will of God. It was unjust. Through her experience in her Dominican community, which had broken barriers of white and black among the sisters and in their schools, Patricia came to understand that there is a moral obligation to change unjust laws and that this is often done by refusal to obey those laws. Therefore, when she heard about the ordination of seven Catholic women on the Danube in 2002, she immediately recognized that their ordinations were moral resistance to the apartheid of sexism in the Catholic Church.”

I do not know enough about canon law on what constitutes a legitimate episcopal consecration, but I do know that this issue is not going away any time soon. In addition to the women already ordained, they are training more – as well as married and gay men.

[UPDATE: By sheer chance, I stumbled upon this story on Clerical Whispers from 2007, focusing on one of the American women ordained. Have a look here, at the original source, for a different perspective.

I am also struck by the action of the (male) bishop and his colleagues who had the courage to initiate the ordination of womenpriests, and then the consecration of three women bishops, to continue the work. I have been reading Virginia Mollenkott on “God’s Tricksters”, in “Take Back the Word” (ed Goss & Webb).

MollenkottMollenkott argues that for those compelled to read Scripture, and to follow authority from “low and outside” (which includes women, gay men, and especially lesbians), it is sometimes necessary to adopt a certain amount of deception and trickery. This sounds dishonest, but she quotes convincing Scriptural precedents for the strategy (Jeannine Grammik has proposed something similar, for subverting Vatican authority from the inside). I also like Mollenkott’s observations on assigned authority. She is not here speaking of the Catholic Church in particular, but if the cap fits…

“Those who find themselves disadvantaged, on the outside, in the margins as it were, make use of trickery and other forms of manipulative behaviour because they do not have assigned power….Assigned power is just that: assigned (usually by the elite in favour of the elite) but masquerading as divinely ordained, cosmically correct and unquestionably true.” (emphasis mine)

It seems to me that the unnamed male bishops have done just that – used their legitimate authority to ordain & consecrate women priests and bishops. But because the people chosen are women, and therefore not approved in the modern church (the evidence is that this was not also the case: women deacons, and possibly priests, were certainly ordained in the early church), the identity of the consecrating bishops must be kept secret for now.

At Bilgrimage, meanwhile, William Lindsay has been critically discussing the stance of Archbishop Rowan Williams on gay marriage, contrasting it with that of the British Quakers. He notes that what is required here is not endless debate, commissions, scholarship and clear majority support, but the adoption of a prophetic stance against injustice.

“To my mind, what British Friends have just decided to do, and the theological rationale they advance to justify their decision, strongly supports the argument I offered yesterday against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s understanding of how churches change their moral minds. When social attitudes begin to show churches that certain practices they have long taken for granted are no longer morally defensible, churches usually change their moral minds not because they have reached wide agreement about a new moral consensus, or as a result of ongoing study and discussion about the new consensus.

They change their moral minds because prophetic, cutting-edge groups within the churches and outside the churches needle the churches into rethinking their complicity in practices that can no longer be justified on theological, biblical, or moral grounds. “

This is precisely what I was taught by the Church in South Africa, what Bishop Fresen has followed in her calling to the priesthood, and what the Quakers have now done.

See also:

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey “Reading the Bible from Low and Outside: Lesbitransgay People as God’s Tricksters ” in Take Back the Word, (ed Goss & Webb)

Wild Reed, Women Priests ordained in Minneapolis

Roman Catholic Womenpriests:

From the Womenpriests website:

“Roman Catholic Womenpriests Celebrate Eucharist at
CALL TO ACTION 30th Anniversary Conference
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Link to a 9:46 minute video on Google Videos
“Highlights from Roman Catholic Womenpriests‘ liturgy at Call to Action”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac

Link to a 3:55 minute video on Google Videos
“Roman Catholic Womenpriests Celebrate Eucharist at Call to Action”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac

Link to a 3:44 minute video on Google Videos
“A New Inclusive Model of Priestly Ministry”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac”

Same Sex Unions in Church History

The earliest church, in Rome and in the Slavic countries, recognised some forms of same sex union in liturgical rites of  ”adelphopoein” .  It is not entirely clear precisely what was the precise meaning of these rites.  They were clearly not directly comparable to modern marriage – but nor were the forms of heterosexual unions at the time.  Some claim that they were no more than a formalised friendship under the name of  ”brotherhood” – but many Roman lovers called themselves “brothers”.  Some of the couples united under this rite were certainly homosexual lovers, but it is possible not all were.  What is certain, is that the Church under the Roman Empire, for many years recognised and blessed liturgically some form of union for same sex couples.  As late as the sixteenth century, there is a clear written report of a Portuguese male couple having been married in a church in Rome.

This recognition also extended to death.  From  the earliest church until at least the nineteenth century, there are examples of same sex couples, both male and female, being buried in shared graves, in a manner exactly comparable to the common practice of married couples sharing a grave – and often with the parallel made clear in the inscriptions.

The modern Church likes to claim that in condemning same sex relationships, and resisting gay marriage and gay clergy, it is maintaining a long church tradition.  It is not.  To persist in this claim, in the light of increasing evidence from modern scholars, is simply to promote a highly selective  and hence dishonest reading of history.

Continue reading Same Sex Unions in Church History