Category Archives: Theology

“The Sexual Person”: Bishops, Theologians Clash on Sexual Ethics

In 2008 two Catholic academic theologians at a reputable Jesuit university published a book, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“,  on the Church’s sexual theology which represented a fundamental critique of its entire foundations. The United States Catholic Bishops have now launched a strong counter-attack, concentrating their fire especially on the authors’ section on homosexuality.

I am grateful to the Bishops for this attack: it has brought to my close attention a book that I was previously aware of, but had not considered too seriously. After reading some reviews and the extracts available at Google Books, I will now most certainly read it in full – and will later discuss its conclusions with my readers. As I have not yet had this opportunity to read the book for myself, I will not attempt in this post  to evaluate the content or conclusions. However, I have read the authors’ intent and methods as presented in the prologue, and can contrast these with the bishops’ disappointing response, which I have read and re-read in full.

Todd A Salzman and Michael G Lawler are both married, faithful Catholics who are careful in this book to work strictly within the Catholic tradition. However, as married Catholics living in the real world, they are compelled to recognize the well-known fact that most Catholics simply do not believe or follow the orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In response, they have considered the teaching in its historical development, considered the Scriptural foundations, and examined also the findings of modern science and anthropology.

The bishops reject their book primarily because they disagree with its findings.

As married men with real-life experience of sexual love in marriage, the authors are able to bring some personal insight to their discussion.

The bishops reject the value of personal experience.

Salman & Lawler recognize that sexual theological ethics are a complex web affecting many different aspects, including marital morality, cohabitation and the “process” of marrying, homosexuality and reproductive technology.

The bishops train their fire specifically on the easy target of “the gays”.

The authors discuss the many disconnects and contradictions in the Vatican’s own abstract pronouncements, such as those of “Gaudium et Spes” on the unitive value of conjugal love  and the failure of the Magisterium to give this formal expression, or between the guidelines on scriptural interpretation, and the complete failure of the Magisterium to follow these guidelines when pronouncing on homosexuality.

Even in the prologue to “The Sexual Person”, the authors point to the dependence of the Catechism on the Genesis story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality, whereas  most Biblical scholars no longer believe that this was remotely the point of the passage.

The bishops respond,

In the final analysis, all interpretation of Scripture is subject to the authoritative judgment by those responsible for the Church’s deposit of faith.

In other words, scripture means what the Church decrees that it means.

The medieval scholar Mark Jordan has shown from an analysis of its rhetorical style, that the Vatican is incapable of rational debate, instead depending primarily on techniques such as simple repetition of its own mantras. So it is here: in the  24 page document constituting their response to what is clearly a thoughtful, reasoned and thoroughly researched piece of academic writing which draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, the US bishops can refer only to the writings of the Church itself.

The book was prompted by the recognition that most Catholics simply do not accept the orthodox sexual ethics of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the bishops’ response to suggest that it will change anybody’s mind (or sexual behaviour).

The bishops’ full statement is here.

This is what some others have said about “The Sexual Person”:

“This superb volume courageously explores Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. The authors’ exploration of the biological, relational and spiritual dimensions of human sexuality engages Catholic teaching respectfully, critically, and creatively. The book is a significant contribution to both sexual ethics and moral theology generally.”

–Paul Lauritzen, Director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University.

“This book is a much-needed contribution to the contemporary Catholic discussion of sexual ethics. The authors utilize the most recent sociological and psychological data to supplement their careful parsing of the Catholic theology of sex, gender, and embodiment. It is a work that manages to be highly theoretical while addressing everyday concerns about premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and reproductive technology.

Salzman and Lawler embrace the model of theology as dialogue, and as a result, their treatment of both traditionalist and revisionist views about human sexuality is constructive and helpful. They succeed in moving a seemingly stalled conversation forward”.

–Aline Kalbian, associate professor, Department of Religion, Florida StateUniversity.

“A bold and brave book! Tightly argued and well documented, this book lays out an understanding of human sexuality that expresses the profound work that theologians do on behalf of the Church in order to find ever better understandings of what the Church teaches in light of the witness of scripture, the tradition, and our understanding of human experience.”

–Richard M Gula, SS, The Franciscan School of Theology. Graduate Theological Union

This is from the publishers’ blurb posted at Google Books:

In this comprehensive overview of Catholicism and sexuality, theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler examine and challenge the principles that any human genital act must occur within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and must remain open to the transmission of life. Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, they contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. “The Sexual Person” draws from Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and reproductive technologies.. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magisterium.

The bishops may disapprove, but this will not prevent this important book attracting careful attention from the growing band of Catholic theologians not tied to their apron strings, and from ordinary Catholics who place a search for truth above simplistic rule-book Catholicism.

I will have more on this once I have been able to source and read a complete copy. For a taster meanwhile, I list here the table of contents:

Prologue

One:     Sexual Morality in the Catholic Tradition: A Brief History

Historicity

Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Tradition

Reading Sacred Scripture

The Fathers of the Church

The Penitentials

Scholastic Doctrine

The Modern Period

Conclusion

Two:     Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Traditionalists

“Nature” defined

The Revision of Catholic Moral Theology

Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology

Traditionalists and Sexual Anthropology

Conclusion

Three:  Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Revisionists

Revisionist Critiques of Traditionalist Anthropologies

Karl Rahner: Transcendental Freedoms

Revisionists and Sexual Anthropology

Conclusion

Four:    Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology.

Gaudium et spes and a foundational Sexual Principle

The Relationship between Conjugal Love and Sexual Intercourse

Multiple Dimensions of Human Sexuality

Truly Human and Complementary

Conclusion

Five:     Marital Morality

Marital Intercourse and Morality

NNLT and Marital Morality

Modern Catholic Thought and Marital Morality

Marital Morality and Contraception

A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception

Conclusion

Six:       Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying

Cohabitation in the Contemporary West

Betrothal and the Christian Tradition

Complementarity and Nuptial Cohabitation

Conclusion

Seven:  Homosexuality

The Bible and Homosexuality

Magisterial Teaching on Homosexual Acts and Relationships

The Moral Sense of the Christian People and Homosexual Acts

The Morality of Homosexual Acts Reconsidered

Conclusion

Eight :  Artificial Reproductive Technologies

Defining Artificial Reproductive Technologies

The CDF instruction and Reproductive Technologies

Parental Complementarity, Relational Considerations, and Social Ethics

Conclusions

Epilogue

Come Out, Stand Proud. (The Catechism Commands It!)

Yes, really – in a manner of speaking. Browsing through the Catechism section on sexuality, which you will find under the sixth commandment, I was struck by two passages in particular:

“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” (2333)

and

“Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another” (2337)

Of course, that it is not at all what the Vatican means – the rest of the passage assumes that this can only be done by violating your identity in a heterosexual relationship, which we know from the experts in social science, from the testimony of others, and and from personal experience, is a violation of our identites, not an acceptance.  But then, the Vatican has never been noted for freedom from contradiction.

There are more compelling reasons though, than the Vatican’s mixed messages for coming out, and indeed for coming out in church. For “coming Out Day”, I want to look instead at some of these.

Rereeading Elisabeth Stuart’s “Gay & Lesbian Theologies“, I was struck by the realisation that she puts the start of the formal development of gay & lesbian theology to the early 1970’s.  the first notable text she discusses isLoving Women/Loving Men (eds Sally Gearhard and William Johnson), published as long ago as 1974 -fully 35 years ago this year, and “Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation”, edited by Malcolm Marcourt.

An essential aspect of this early thinking takes its cue from Paul Tillich, and his notion of “the courage to be”. In these terms, it is important to recognise our own experience.

Johnson accuses the church of being over concerned with “intellectual theology”, and  under concerned with the grounding of theology in experience.  It is therefore vital that gay people come out, articulate their experience and reflect theologically upon it, for “we who are gay know the validity of our experience, particularly the experience of our love. That love calls us out of ourselves and enables us to respond to the other. Through our experience we experience the presence of God………..

For Johnson, gay liberation is vital for the liberation of the Church to enable it to better incarnate the Gospel. The essay ends with a call to all gay men in the Church to come out, to  ensure that liberation takes place.” (Emphasis added.)

Previously, I have looked at Richard Cleaver‘s view that coming out is “Wrestling with the Divine” (Know My Name), and Daniel Helminiak‘s that is a “Spiritual Experience” (Sex and the Sacred)John McNeill, former Jesuit theologian and psychotherapist, makes similar points in “Sex as God Intended”.  Today, I want to look at the ideas of  Chris Glaser, who in a full length book presents his view of “Coming Out as Sacrament“. Glaser is one of those treasured writers on gay religion of whom it can said, as with James Alison, Daniel Helminiak and JohnMcNeill, that everything they write is worth reading, and accessible even to non specialists. Glaser writes from a backgroound in the Baptist and Presbyterian faiths, but as a Catholic I find this helpful, in broadening my perspective, rather than getting ini the way of his argument. The starting point for this book was some reflection on the importance of the idea of sacrament to lGBT people, who are so often denied access to the sacraments by mainstream churches.  Talking to a close friend (sympathetic, but not LGBT), this is how his thinking went:

“Having visited our Wednesday night Bible study, she told me that what impressed her most deeply, what she thougth was our sacrament as gay people, was our “ability to be vulnerable with one another” – in other words, to xperience true communion by offering our true selves.  As Christ offers himself in vulnerability,   so we offer ourselves, despite the risks. Being open and vulnerable may be preceivesd as weakness, but in reality it demonstrates our strength.  By sharing our  “brokenness”  – how we are sacrificially cut off from the rest of Christ’s Body – we offer a renewed opportunity of Communion, among ourselves and within the Church as the Body of Christ.”

Later, he added a conclusion that had not occurred to him earlier-

” that coming out is our unique sacrament, a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives – our worth, our love, our love-making, our context of meaning, and our God. “

Later in the opening chapter, he carefully notes the ways in which coming out has deep affinity with not just one, but each, of the traditional seven sacraments of the broader Christian community.  Above all, however, he says there is one where there is an extra special affinity: the sacrament of communion is intrinsic to coming out – it is hardly possible to come out entirely in private.

Coming out in public is important for one’s own mental health, and also for one’s spiritual being.  Doing so in the Church cam help the Church to recognise and proclaim the true Gospel message.  If you possibly can, do it:  quite literally,  for the love of God.

Further Reading:

Barefoot Theologians, Twitching Experience
Homoerotic Spirituality
The Road From Emmaus:  Gay and Lesbians Prophetic Role in the Church
Coming Out As Spiritual Experience
Coming out As Wrestling With the Divine

Heterosexual Acts, Loving Homoerotic Relationships

One of the nastier tricks of Vatican rhetoric, especially as displayed in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, is the uneven manner in which (approved) heterosexual relationships are described in terms of “conjugal love”, while (condemned) homosexual relationships are simply not mentioned, and the word “homosexual” is used only in terms of homosexual persons, “acts” (assumed to be genital), and “condition”.

The unfairness and lack of validity of this could be  quickly and easily demonstrated simply by reversing the procedure. How easy it it would be to lament the condition of the heterosexual male, intent only on self-indulgent sensual gratification, as demonstrated in the ubiquity of prostitution and pornography. Or, we could consider the one-sided nature of the institution of traditional marriage, marked by patriarchal domination, an expectation that male sexual needs should always be met, a disregard for the need (or sometimes even the possibility) of female sexual pleasure, and sometimes even domestic violence and marital rape.

Domestic Violence: Heterosexual Acts?

It would be easy, but I’m not going to go there. I am quite willing to accept that there must be many sound heterosexual relationships really are founded on genuine loving partnerships, based on equality of the partners. Logically, I am sure it is quite as possible for heterosexual marriages to be as emotionally healthy for both partners as homoerotic relationships.

Instead, I want to look at the other side of the comparison, at the quality of the love found in so many male couples, love which the Vatican resolutely fails to acknowledge.

Dugan McGinley (“Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“) discusses many of these relationships, as recounted in the autobiographical writings of a selection of gay male Catholics – and ex-Catholics. Reading these accounts, I was struck by how much these relationships are fully characterised by the intensity and quality of love and mutual giving to the other, and even to their partners’ families. These “acts of love” are quite as much “homosexual acts” as the merely genital acts with which the Vatican is obsessed.

Fenton Johnson, for instance, in “Geography of the Heart” describes how he made a fully conscious and deliberate decision to commit his life in love to his partner Larry, even in the full knowledge that Larry had AIDS, and would soon be dying a slow and difficult death, with all the implications that would bring in difficulties and burdens imposed  on himself. In accepting the responsibility, Johnson finds that the quality of his love draws him closer to God:

My deciding to take care of Larry as he goes through this is in part a religious decision – a decision to thank the power,  or powers,  that have granted me life. And it’s a humanistic decision, – a storing up, I can hope, of grace; if I stand at someone’s side during this hard portion of his journey, perhaps, I can hope, I will have someone to stand by me when my time arrives, be that one or five or fifty years away.

In caring for my lover I came to understand the tautological relationship between God and love.  My lover’s love for me and mine for him made me into something better, braver, more noble than I had imagined myself capable of being. I was touched by the literal hand of god, for this is what love is, in a way as real as I expected to encounter in this life.

Earlier in their relationship, with the first visit to Larry’s family, they took a decision out of respect for the sensitivities of the family, that Larry would sleep in the family home, and Fenton would go alone to an hotel.  After Larry’s eventual death, he continues to see and offer support to Larry’s parents, and especially to his mother after she finds herself alone and widowed.

John McNeill has often written of the importance of his own partner, Charles, and how important each has been to the other in the differing kinds of support they offer, and the sacrifices they have made for each other.

Despite, this, McNeill performs his act of love without question; he is committed to Charlie for better or for worse.

John also makes an important, often overlooked consequence of the church distinction between homosexual “acts” (of the genital kind) and homosexual persons. For by focussing on single acts as isolated sins, and denying the possibility of relationships, the Church is paradoxically encouraging the precisely the kind of promiscuous lifestyle that they decry, and assume to characterise the “gay lifestyle”.

According to the pastoral practice of the church, a man could have gay sex one night and then be absolved for his “sin” in confession the next day. If, on the other hand, he fell in love and moved in with a man, he would be denied absolution until he broke off the relationship. This is how he experienced his own coming to terms with his homosexuality as a Catholic: “Ironically the church fostered promiscuity and felt that the enemy was not gay sex but gay love”.

The point, which Vatican documents simply ignore, is that “homosexual acts” are not purely genital,  but include, are even primarily, acts of love.  As McGinley repeatedly notes in his book, it is impossible to separate the homosexual “person” from his “acts”, or from the “condition” that makes him who he is.

What of those who have attempted to live fully within church teaching? Some few, especially some of the priests, have successfully accepted the charism of celibacy. However, as we know from St Paul, not everyone is granted this charism.  For those who do not possess it, compulsory celibacy is simply oppressive:

The intention is to promote  lives of virtue for gay people, but the effect of trying to live according to  church teaching on homosexuality is usually the opposite. For example, the church insists on life-long celibacy for gay people, even though they may not possess  the charism necessary for such a commitment. Without the charism, the requirement is no longer life-enhancing, but rather death-dealing. It relies on an artificial separation of doing and being gay, and transforms into a bare bones order of abstinence – a suffering to be offered up, a cross to bear. As (Andrew) Sullivan says, “Abstinence forever; abstinence always; abstinence not just from sex, but from love and love’s hope and the touch of a lover’s embrace. Abstinence even from recognition, acknowledgement, family.”

(Bear in mind here, that notwithstanding the official insistence that the Church condemns only the “acts”, and that the “persons” must be treated with “dignity, compassion and respect”, the actual practice of the church frequently confuses the two the moment that a “person” openly identifies as gay. This was the case with the Canadian altar server, who remains unable to serve because he is living openly with a man, even though he insists that the relationship is celibate.)

This denial of love which Sullivan describes has lead many men into destructive marriages, or to suicide, or to both. These too are described in McGinley’s book, but I will not go into them here.   Instead, I simply want to remind you of the significance of McGinley’s subtitle: that gay Catholic autobiographies are sacred texts. Indeed they are, and telling and sharing our stories are sacramental acts.

Vatican doctrine on sexuality is dry, abstract, entirely theoretical – and not based on sound premises. Telling our stories, speaking the truth in love, as the Vatican itself urges us to do, is the one simple thing that every gay Catholic can do to contribute (over time) to the building of a new, sounder and reality- based sexual theology.

See also

Books:

Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart

McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts

McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal

Previous posts:

Excluded from God’s People?

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

Conscience Formation, Spiritual Formation, and The Holy Spirit

A dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, who is be...
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David Ludescher, a regular OT reader, has put to me some important questions on the formation of conscience. These arose in response to my post on empirical research findings on the current state of British Catholic belief, and some observations I made on the implications for our understanding of the sensus fidelium (on sexual ethics and priestly ministry in particular).

These questions were put in a comment box, which I have reproduced in an independent post for easy reference. Just follow the link to read the questions in full. This is my response:




Continue reading Conscience Formation, Spiritual Formation, and The Holy Spirit

John McNeill: Dignity Address

How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy’s Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?

On Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from the priesthood. My immediate reaction was great sadness for the Church I love, then rage at the injustice of it all, and then painful awareness of all those good and holy gay men in the priesthood who will feel betrayed and abandoned by their Church.  I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me discern what this is all about.

First, the Spirit assured me that this decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ. Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay members of the clergy. They ignored all the expert advice from psychologists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility for the crisis and any need on their part to reform the Church.




The Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our task as gay Catholics is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.

I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred people crowded into the room we reserved at GoodShepherd Church in Gramercy Park. Obviously, we were meeting a strongly felt need in the Catholic lesbian and gay community. I remember saying at that first meeting: “Dignity is not something that we can give ourselves, but with God’s grace, it is something that we can give each other!”

We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God’s love to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that “what is bad psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa.” The evidence is in that those who try to live out Church teaching on homosexuality frequently destroy their mental health and submit themselves to worshipping a God of fear. In Paul’s words: “You were not called to a spirit of slavery to let fear back into your lives again, you are called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God, Abba (Daddy).”

We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had redefined the Church as “The People of God”! Our naïve hope that the Church would change seemed confirmed a few years later in 1976, when my book, The Church and the Homosexual, which seriously challenged Church teaching, was given an imprimi potest by the General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (an action for which he paid heavily later by being deposed as General by the Pope) and I was granted permission to publish.

Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God’s love to our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill ever since.

The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians. A series of homophobic documents have been issued from Rome. The final most egregious document read: “The homosexual inclination, though not in itself a sin, must be considered objectively disordered.” We gay and lesbian Catholics, who know that we were created homosexual by God, see this statement as a blasphemy against God by claiming that God created something that is intrinsically ordered to evil.

Now we are told that a document will be issued by Rome, using the teaching on “objective disorder’ that forbids any seminary from accepting a gay candidate no matter how qualified, and forbids bishops to ordain an openly acknowledged gay candidate.

This should come as no surprise. Twenty five years ago, friends in the Vatican sent me a copy of a letter sent by the Congregation of Bishops that deals with seminaries on the issue of accepting gay candidates for priesthood. At that time, the Congregation asked all seminary directors to carefully scrutinize gay candidates and determine whether their homosexuality was egosyntonic or egodystonic. This psychological jargon distinguishes those who accept and are comfortable with their homosexuality over against those who see their homosexual orientation as something to be hated and rejected. Only those candidates whose homosexuality was egodystonic should be accepted as candidates for the priesthood. In other words, only the mentally sick should be accepted and the healthy should be turned away. Fortunately, most seminary directors ignored this directive. Now the Vatican intends to enforce it.

Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for the priesthood today have an egodystonic attitude of self-hatred. So the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.

I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood, limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing.  I can think of no action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse of that priesthood – a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new form of shepherding in the Church.

In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two examples of that.  The first is my friend and colleague, Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved fire-fighters in the 911 collapse of the WorldTrade Towers. Mychal and I worked together in ministry to Dignity/New York and in a special ministry to homeless people with AIDS in Harlem. Mychal had a deep awareness of God’s love for him and felt a strong desire to reach out and bring the message of God’s love to all those the Church and society had abandoned. Another example of the Holy Spirit’s shrewdness: as Mychal was dying at the foot of the World Trade towers, bureaucrats in Rome where busy preparing a document to expel gays from the priesthood. Mychal recited this morning prayer every day:

Lord, take me where you want me to go,

Let me meet who you want me to meet,

Tell me what you want me to say and

Keep me out of your way.

Mychal was a perfect model for a renewed priesthood. His priesthood was not primarily in the sanctuary but with the homeless in the streets or with the sick, the suffering and the dying.

A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:

People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the feminine) than is usual…. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their call and respond to it in fruitful ways.

Jesus gave us a marvelous example of how to deal with scapegoating in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. The Gerasene community had picked one troubled individual and made him their scapegoat, throwing him out of town. The demoniac had accepted their judgment on him, interiorizing self-hatred, tearing off his clothes, breaking the chains that bound him, howling and gashing himself with stones. As soon as Jesus entered his presence, he became aware of God’s love and that he himself was not evil but worthy of God’s love and compassion. Jesus, by his love, drove out the legion of demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. They entered into a herd of pigs and their destructive evil was immediately manifested by the fact that the pigs rushed down the hillside and threw themselves off a cliff into the sea.  The people of the village came out and found the former demoniac “sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind.”

The people of the village became frightened because they had lost their scapegoat and begged Jesus to leave. The former demoniac asked Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus refused and instead told him: “Go home to your people and tell them all the good things the Lord has done to you. Give witness to God’s love for you!” So the man went off and proceeded to spread throughout the Decapolis all that Jesus had done for them. And the people were amazed.

There is striking parallel here with us lesbian and gay Catholics. We too are being scapegoated by our Church. Many of us in the past interiorized the Church’s homophobia, resulting in self-hatred and self-destructiveness. But Jesus’ Spirit at one point touched our hearts and freed us from all self-rejection by giving us a clear, undeniable experience that God loves us in our gayness. Our ministry, then, like the former demoniac, is to witness to our people all the great things that God in her mercy has done for us. Our first task, then, is to call in the Holy Spirit to grant us such an overwhelming experience of God’s love that we are healed of all self-hatred and self-rejection and rendered immune to the persecution of the institutional church.

We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church? James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears to have little relevance to Jesus’ mission. As Mark noted, after the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and looked around but immediately left forBethany with the twelve. Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus’ best friend. Here was Jesus’ church – a true community of love.

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “it is necessary that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this: unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and immediately in our own experience.

Paul sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of this prophesy of Jeremiah:

Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel…..I shall plant my law, writing it in their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to teach neighbor, saying “Learn to know Yahweh” No, they will all know me, the least to the greatest.

We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the institutional church, whether that be to have their approval or the equally destructive attachment that comes from the anger at the Church’s injustice. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God’s hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.

James Allison shares with us his experience of being called by God to ministry to the gay and lesbian community. He was on retreat in a Jesuit retreat house in Santiago in Chile. He had been dismissed from the Dominican order for acknowledging his gayness. The first grace he received from God was a profound awareness that all the homophobic violence and injustice in the Church has nothing to do with God. This was the human Church caught into its own blindness and sinfulness.

He was trying to discern in prayer with was God’s will for him. One day he went on a walk in a gay cruising area. He found himself looking at some young gay men cruising in the park and felt a strong liking for these young men and wishing them well.  When he returned to the retreat house, he went into the chapel feeling somewhat guilty for his mixed motives for going to the cruising area. He was suddenly given the grace to realize that the warm affection he felt toward the young gay man was not just his feelings but the feelings of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart. Then he heard a profound voice telling him “Feed my sheep!”

He realized that that voice was God directly calling him to a ministry to lesbians and gays. That call from that moment on was an essential part of his identity, a call to priestly ministry that he could not deny or run away from with out denying an essential dimension of himself. This call in no way depended on validation from the institutional church but was his direct and immediate commission from God.

Ezekiel, in Chapter 23, saw God in a vision detaching himself from the Temple in the shape of a chariot, becoming flexible and mobile. Ezekiel then had a vision of  God upbraiding the shepherds of Israel (the Temple priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and abandoning them to meet their own self-interests. God revealed a new understanding of shepherding, in which God Himself will undertake the shepherding. “Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep”

Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the creation of text based Judaism. And again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.  In every case, the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to us and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us. It took a long time but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any intermediary.

In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit.  Allison feels sure that anyone who has experienced God’s love and has been freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step of freeing themselves from external Church authority will also hear the same call to ministry in their heart.

A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale. He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it was over he was sure of God’s love for him as a gay man and felt a strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13thcentury there would come a day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them, everyone an authority.

For example, who knows what God wants from lesbians and gays? – Obviously, only lesbians and gays. No one can tell us from outside what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and brings with it that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Congratulations Dignity/Chicago on thirty years of faithful service to the Catholic lesbian and gay community! You have prayerfully discerned and carried out the commission the Spirit has given you. You are a foretaste of the future Church of the Holy Spirit. Continue to prayerfully discern what God is asking of you and follow that voice. Keep in mind the famous insight of Maurice Blondel: “Our God dwells within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!”

John McNeill

2 October 2005

The Obligation to Dissent

The teaching authority of the church is an important concept, well – known and widely accepted.  Less well-known is the   importance of conscience, at the level of the individual, and of the ‘sensus fidelii’ at the communal level. This leads me to a notion of an ‘obligation to dissent’ in certain circumstances.  This is a theme I will return to repeatedly.  In the meantime, The Wild Reed has drawn my attention to an important article,  Balancing Integrity and Obedience,in which Collen Kochivar – Baker (of Enlightened Catholicism) explores the same theme in different words.

For a short extract from this article, see  The Wild Reed .   For a fuller exploration of the idea, follow Michael’s links at the foot of the extract, or explore his useful archives.