Gay Lovers in Church History

At a time when some Catholic bishops are actively intervening in the political process to prevent gay marriage and gay adoption, it could be helpful to remember that in the long history of the Christian faith, outright hostility to same sex relationships has not always been inevitable. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in the early, medieval and modern church, there have been numerous examples  of Christian recognition of same sex relationships, both as formal rites and procedures, and by personal example.

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.
SS Sergius & Bacchus: Gay lovers, Roman soldiers, martyrs and saints.

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In Scripture:

  • God & Adam:  Chris Glaser (“Coming out As Sacrament“) has observed that the very first love story in the Bible, and certainly the most important, can be viewed as between two “males” – that between God and Adam. Yes, it is completely false and simplistic just to accept the conventional pronoun and to think of God in purely masculine terms, but the point is an important one. Whoever we are, male female or neither, we know that God loves us. We may think of God in whatever gendered terms we like – and that could certainly include a same-sex relationship.
  • David & Jonathan: Many people protest that there is no evidence that the relationship between these two took physical form, but a more compelling argument is that there is also no evidence that it did not – and there is substantial evidence of its emotional intensity. It is also one of the two relationships which represent the longest love stories in the Bible. The other is another which is about a same sex pair – Ruth and Naomi.
  • Ruth & Naomi Here too there are naysayers arguing that this is “just” a family relationship, but this misses the point. Whatever else it is, this is clearly a story of a deep emotional love and mutual commitment between two women.
  • Jesus &  the Beloved Disciple:  We cannot know precisely the nature of this relationship, but it was clearly a close one. We also do not know for certain the identity of the Beloved Disciple, although many people assume it is John the Evangelist. (There was even a long standing tradition in some parts of the Church, that the couple being married at Cana were Jesus and John). Others disagree, suggesting Lazarus, among other possibilities.
  • Martha & Mary – Described in the New Testament as ‘sisters’, but this may have been a euphemism for lesbian lovers.
  • Philip and Bartholomew:  Included in the Apostles, cited together in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, these were frequently named as a couple in the early liturgies of same-sex union.
  • The Roman Centurion and his “pais” (= slave/lover) represent the clearest possible evidence that Christ himself did not reject people in same -sex relationships, and was even willing to go into the home of the Roman  – an extraordinary thing for a Jew to do, in the  context of the deep resentment against the Roman military occupation.
  • St Paul and Timothy are sometimes named as possibly having a relationship that was more than just spiritual.
  • Euodia and Syntyche of Phillippi were a missionary couple active in the early church , mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:2-3)
  • Tryphaena and Tryphosa were a further missionary couple active in the early church, mentioned in in Rom 16.

The Early  & Medieval Church

In the early church, many saints and martyrs are remembered as pairs of lovers. The church also created and used formal rites for church blessing couples committing to each other in same sex unions. In addition to liturgical recognition of these unions at their start, some couple also achieved church recognition at their dissolution in death, by being buried together in church tombs, in a manner exactly comparable to that widely used for conventionally married couples.

Here are some examples:

  • SS Sergius & Bacchus, Roman soldiers, lovers, martyrs and recognised as saints by popular acclamation, are by a long way the best known of the so-called “gay saints” (although I prefer to use the descriptor “queer”).
  • SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, are not as well known as Sergius and Bacchus, but like them were Roman soldiers and martyrs who became recognized as saints. They are frequently named together in the liturgical rites of same-sex union.
  • St Paulinus of Nola was a Bishop who also wrote homoerotic poetry to his male lover, Ausonius

Other paired saints who were often named in these rites and other liturgies (including, in some cases, the Mass) are

  • The  ‘two Theodores’, one a foot soldier martyred in the fourth century, and the other a general invented in the ninth century to form a pair, are often depicted with their arms around one another, and they are paired together with Serge and Bacchus in Kievan icons dating from before the twelfth century.
  • Peter and Paul
  • Peter and Andrew
  • Jacob and John
  • Philip and Bartholomew
  • Cosmos and Damian
  • Cyrus and John
  • Marcellus and Apuleius
  • Cyprian and Justinus
  • Dionysius and Eleutheris
  • George and Demetrius.

Some couples who were found by archaeologists to have been buried together in Macedonia in the 4th to the 6th centuries were:

  • Faustinos and Donatos (at Phillippi),
  • Posidonia, and Pancharia,
  • Kyriakos and Nikandros,
  • Gourasios and Konstantios,
  • Euodiana and Dorothea (at Phillippi),
  • Martyrios, a presbyter, and Demetrios, a lector (at Edessa),
  • Eudoxios, presbyter, and John, a deacon described as “the sinner” (at Edessa),
  • Droseria and Eudoxia (at Edessa),
  • Athanasios and Chryseros: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.
  • Alexandra and Glukeria: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  6th century
  • St Patrick of Ireland:  after his escape from early slavery, Patrick worked for time as a male prostitute. A recent history of Irish homosexualilty suggests that he may have taken a male lover in later life
  • St Brigid of Ireland may have had a female lover, Darlughdach – although, as with many of the early saints, the historical details of her life are sketchy and unreliable.
  • Several Bishops of the medieval church are known to have have had male sexual partners. Archbishop Ralph of Tours even got his boyfriend John, who had a well-deserved reputation for promiscuity, named as bishop of Orleans. Other bishops were renowned for the poetry and love letters they wrote to their boyfriends. (SeeThe Homoerotic Flowering of the Medieval Church)

It was not only the Eastern church that sometimes buried same sex couples in shared tombs. The historian Alan Bray (“The Friend“) has described the shared tombs of the Irish and English couples

  • Dicul and Maelodran the wright (Delgany, County Wicklow);
  • Ultan and Dubthach (Termonfechin, County Louth);
  • John Bloxham and John Wyndham (Merton College Chapel, Oxford,  14th Century);
  • William Neville & John Neville:  English knights, buried together in Galata, near Constantinople 14th Century.
  • Nicholas Molyneux and John Winters: made a compact of ‘sworn brotherhood, made in the church of St Martin of Harfleur. 15th century.

Renaissance to Modern

  • John Finch and Thomas Baines were buried together in Christ’s College Chapel, Cambridge (17th Century).
  • Fulke Greville & Sir Phillip Sidney: the joint monument Greville planned for himself and Sidney in St Paul’s cathedral was never built.  But the simple intention alone indicates the natrure of the relationship, as also its recognition by the church.
  • Cardinal John Henry Newman and Fr. Ambrose St.John were buried together, 19th C. There is no suggestion that their deep love was anything but celibate, in keeping with their vows. All the same, reflection on this relationship raises important questions about the response of the Catholic Church to same sex relationships in our own day.

Holy Spirit at Work? – James Alison

In a penetrating article on his website, noted theologian James Alison examines the recent furores in the Church over matters gay, and reaches what he calls a ‘suprising’ conclusion.    There is a huge amount of meat in here, which requires long and deliberate chewing (as always with Alison), so I cannot attempt to cover it all, certainly not after just one read.  It is though, an important and hopeful post, so I do want to share what seem to me to be some of the most important issues.

Being the thoughtful theologian that he is, Alison has deliberately avoided the temptation some of us fell into of responding in the heat of the moment to the flurry of apparent slights to the LGBT community in the closing weeks of last year and early this year.  Instead, he has given the issues time to settle, and responded only after careful (and no doubt, prayerful) reflection.  His conclusions are all the more important for this. Note, by the way, that he has entirely ignored the latest kerfuffle over SPXX – the dust is still settling on that one, and it is in any case only incidentally an issue of the church and homosexuality, which is Alison’s sole focus.

In examining the widely publicised curial address before Christmas, Alison notes (as others have done), that homosexuality is not directly mentioned at all – although he concedes that there is some reference to social constructions of gender, he finds that ” in the end, I don’t know what he was referring to. Not for the first time, his style tends to leave hostages to fortune.” For him, the importance of the address does not lie in any “donnish sideswipes” at homosexuality or gender issues, but at the deeper core of the message and four points on the workings of the Holy Spirit (of which the fuss was about just half of one of these points).  In drawing attention to the holy Spirit, Alison finds grounds for encouragement:

“If the Roman Curia, which he was addressing, regularly understood its task as responding to the Spirit rather than applying laws, we would certainly be a better Church.”

This is just the point I made (with far less insight and clarity) in my own response to the full text, but which I have not yet seen elsewhere.   The importance of this for LGBT persons, he elaborates in further reflection on how Benedict sees his role in the Church as the representative of Peter.  To make sense of this, I must first refer to two other recent incidents – one widely, but inaccurately, reported, the other not reported at all in the popular press.

Referring to the outcry over the document on seminary training, and the popular outcry at the time over its claims about ‘homosexual’ activities in seminaries, Alison notes that this document in fact barely mentions the subject.  The main focus lay elsewhere entirely, and much of the popular commentary focused on quotations that simply did not appear in this recent document .  I will not go into how this misreporting arose: what is important is to contrast the tone of this recent document with an earlier one, of  2005. In this, Alison finds evidence of retreat from the earlier hostility:

“My take on it is that it is transitional, as though a new team at the Dicastery for Catholic Education were trying to move on from the hole into which Cardinal Grocholewski and the 2005 document forbidding gay people to enter the priesthood had got them.”

The other important event was completely bypassed in the popular press, but is probably the most significant of all. This is an article  from the January 7th 2009 edition of Avvenireby Vittorino Andreoli:

“The article, one in a long series about priesthood, is about priests and homosexuality, and its author is a respected mainstream doctor and psychiatrist. While making the usual appropriate acts of reverence to the teaching authority of the Church in moral matters, and the right of the Church to choose whomsoever it wants for its presbyterate, what is striking about the article is that its author is perfectly clear and straightforward that he does not consider it to be scientifically acceptable to regard homosexuality as a form of sickness.” (This please note, not in a newspaper like the Guardian, but in the official organ of the italian Bishops’ Conference. )

“The first two documents in Church history to try to say something professional about homosexuality … both sought to define homosexuality in such a way that it could not be regarded as something neutral. ….And yet now, quietly, and without much fanfare, it rather looks as though it is perfectly possible publicly to maintain the opposite position in a properly Catholic context without fear of immediate retribution. Proper discussion has broken out.”

From this, together with his lengthy and tightly reasoned reflections on the earlier events, Alison appears to conclude that the Holy Spirit is presently at work in the Church, guiding  Benedict as the representative of Peter on earth, together with some other infulential figures, to prepare the Church for a gradual recognition of the past errors on matters of homosexuality, and to bring it into the modern world.

I have drawn attention previously to other notable theologians who are discerning signs of just this current action of the Holy Spirit transforming the Vatican.  Alison is the latest of several, but he is the first I have come across to reason the case so tightly, with such clear presentation of the evidence.

There is much else in this article that is worth taking on board:  a poignant reflection at the beginning,  on the pain inflicted by the church on its LGBT people; a  fascinating observation  that in their divergent approaches to the emerging issue of same sex marriages or civil unions in so many countries across the world, many national bishops’ conferences are taking positions directly in conflict with the Vatican’s own directive; the interplay of awareness by the Vatican press corps of the closeted gay lives of certain prelates, and those prelates’ own awareness of that knowledge .   All these have a fascination of their own.

The overriding message of this article though, appears to be a simple one:  Benedict has recognised, or is coming to recognise, that past hostility to ‘homosexuals’ has been misplaced, and is leading the hierarchy through a process of downplaying past condemnations, which will lead in turn to an increasing recognition of the need for a new theology of homosexuality.  This is a development, says Alison, that he has long anticipated, but it is occurring sooner, and more subtly, than he had expected.

It is this perception that explains the second part of his title :    “The Pain and the Endgame: Reflections on a Whimper.”

I have not remotely covered all that is important in this article:  I hope I have shown you that is worth going to for yourself.  To quote Josephus on Salus Animarum, who drew my attention to it:

Tolle, lege! (Take up and read!)

Thank you, James Alison

More ‘Cross-Dressing Saints’

Today and tomorrow the church commemorates two more of the band of ‘transvestite saints’ – women who disguised themseves as men to live out their lives in male monasteries.  Wednesday 11th February is the feast of  St Euphrosyne ( later known as Saint Smaragdus), who died in 470.   Tomorrow, Thursday 12th February, is the turn of St Mary (later, Marinos) of Alexandria.

From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

” Euphrosyne was the only daughter of Paphnutius, a rich man of Alexandria, who desired to marry her to a wealthy youth. But having consecrated her life to God and apparently seeing no other means of keeping this vow, she clothed herself as a man and under the name of Smaragdus gained admittance into a monastery of men nearAlexandria, where she lived for thirty-eight years after. She soon attracted the attention of the abbot by the rapid strides which she made toward a perfect ascetic life, and whenPaphnutius appealed to him for comfort in his sorrow, the abbot committed the latter to the care of the alleged young man Smaragdus. The father received from his own daughter, whom he failed to recognize, helpful advice and comforting exhortation. Not until she was dying did shereveal herself to him as his lost daughter Euphrosyne. After her death Paphnutius also entered the monastery. Her feast is celebrated in the Greek Church on 25 September, in the Roman Church on 16 January (by the Carmelites on 11 February).”

St Mary of Alexandria is said to have been brougth to the monastery originally by her father.  She is sometimes known as a  “Desert  Father in Disguise”,

Unfortunately, it is also claimed by some that her story,  like others of the transvestite saints, is a fiction.

“Sex As God Intended” (Book Review) February 9, 2009

SAGISCAN

John McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill.  Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a “Festchrift”, by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new.  I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of  sections of  “Taking a Chance of God.” So big chunks of this are not new material.

Also irritating was the poor editing.  McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker – but paid insufficient attention to grammar.  There were many instances  where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.

Celebrating John McNeill

But these were irritations only.  It does not matter that this is not all new writing by McNeill, and should not be treated as such.  The Festchrift is the clue: this is not a continuation, but a celebration, of the earlier work.  Just running down the contributors, all of whom have made major contributions of their own to the continuing struggle of LGBT Catholics, is testimony to the importances of McNeill’s work as theologian, as writer, and as therapist. (One of the contributions is titled  “You saved My Life”  this is intended to be taken quite literally). Amongst the contributors, I was already familiar with the work of  Toby Johnson, Mark Jordan, Robert Goss, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Daniel Helminiak.  The contributions of others has left me wanting to explore their work too.

So what is this life work of McNeill, and why should we celebrate it?

“The Church and The Homosexual”, published back in 1976, was groundbreaking.  Many writers since have testified to the liberating impact it has had on their own lives, and it has become a staple in the exploding bibliographies on the subject ever since.  It was originally published with the blessing and ‘imprimi potest’ of his Jesuit order, but soon attracted the displeasure of the Vatican.  Ordered to refrain from publication and teaching on the subject, McNeill initially complied, and fell silent for some years.  In conscience though, he felt compelled to continue to write and to speak out. Like so many others, he left the priesthood and embarked on a precarious career as writer and psychotherapist. Subsequent books included “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, “Taking a Chance on God”, and “Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair.”

“Sex as God Intended”

In the current book, McNeill examines systematically the treatment of sexuality, particularly in same sex relationships, and finds conclusions rather different to those usually used against us.  As he and others have done before, he dismisses the old interpretation of the story of Sodom as a gross misinterpretation  The sin of Sodom was not that of sexual relationships between men, but the failure to offer hospitality to guests – an important traditional obligation in a desert society.  Where McNeill differs from so many other writers who have made the same point, is that he is not content to simply argue against the old ‘clobber texts’.  Rather, he goes further, arguing for the positive place of sexuality in the Old Testament.  Highlighting Genesis 2 (the older version) rather than the more usual creation story in Genesis 1, he shows how Eve was created because Adam needed a companion, not just a mother for his children. This balances the procreative nature of marriage, so beloved by our opponents, with that of love and companionship.

An important piece of new writing in the book is a celebration of the Song of Songs, as a scriptural basis for sex as play. He also presents evidence that this may have been written to celebrate love been men.  The gender of the protagonists, though is ultimately not important.  The passion and ardour expressed is sufficiently powerful that the Song can be read with any interpretation you choose – but impossible to come away with the idea that sex is only about procreation.

Similarly, in examining the New Testament, McNeill’s focus is on the positive messages for LGBT Christians, rather than a repetition of arguments against the clobber texts.  He shows for instance, that in his family of choice, Jesus is associating with same sex groups rather than with ‘traditional’ family groups. His analysis of the healing of the (male) ‘servant’ of the Roman centurion shows how this servant was almost certainly a sexual partner, even  lover, of the centruiion.  He also draws attention to the special attentions paid to John  the Evangelist as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.”  It has often been noted how Jesus in the Gospels has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality.  John McNeill has shown clearly that in His actions, the Lord goes much further than words in acknowledging and accepting such relationships.

Joy and the Holy Spirit.

The joy of McNeill’s writing is always his emphasis on the positive.  His recurring refrains are a quotation from St Irenaus “The glory of God is humans fully alive”,  an insistence that healthy psychology and healthy theology go hand in hand (and healthy psychology requires in turn healthy sexuality), and  a strong underpinning of Ignatian Spirituality, in which we find God in all things – even in persecution and exclusion by the church.   You can take McNeill out of the Jesuits, but you cannot take the Jesuits out of McNeill, and I thank the Lord for that.

Central to this thinking is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the world.  In a context where official teaching on sexuality out of Rome is so obviously misplaced and psychologically unhealthy, it is too easy too lose one’s spiritual bearings.  McNeill reminds us that where Rome fails, the Holy Spirit is permanently at hand for guidance  – we need  only ask.

He goes further. In an important address to Dignity, reprinted in this book, he speculates on the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the church of today,  directly intervening in a ‘Kairos Moment ‘ to restore a proper balance between what has been the unbridled power of the papacy and the rest of the Church.  (I am delighted that I have secured permission from McNeill to post this address in full  on this blog, here.) At the time of writing, it was prescient.  Given the turmoil in the church in recent weeks, and the resistance of so many to the series of Vatican fiascoes, I suspect we may now be seeing signs of just this intervention.  As evidence, just see how Benedict has been forced to react to outrage over the most recent disaster concerning the SSPX by completing a nearly complete turnaround. What at one time appeared to be a slap in the face for the spirit of Vatican II has now become a firm endorsement of it!

This book may not contain significant new writing by John McNeill, but no matter.  If you have not yet had the benefit of enjoying his exuberance, this will be an excellent introduction.  If you have read the earlier books, then you should still buy it, read it, and circulate it, to join the celebration.

John McNeill, thank you.

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The Church’s Changing Tradition.

The CDF’s famous (or infamous) letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”  makes the claim “Thus, the Church’s teaching today is in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and with her own constant Tradition” , and later states “Scripture bids us speak the truth in love”.  This is the image that the established church so likes to proote – of an authoritative, unchanging tradition “speaking the truth” for all time.  The image favoured by the church, howeer, is a false one.

In the context of current arguments about the papacy and its authority, it is worth recalling just how false is this proposition: for the tradition has not been “unchanging”,  nor has it always spoken “truth”. Indeed, the only constant over 2000 years of church history has been that of constant change.

Josephus at “Salus Animarum” has been posting on reflections prompted by reading of Alan Bray‘s “The Friend”, and sharing thoughts on church history. This is a useful point then to remind readers of just how much church practice concerning same sex relationships has changed over two millenia.  The present intransigent attitude of the church against “gay marriage”, or even against civil partnerships, obscures the fact that in other times and places the church has sanctioned some form of same sex relationships, and even provided them with liturgical recognition.

John Boswell was the first scholar to establish in his research that the early church included a liturgical rite of “adelphopoeisis”, or “making of brothers”.  This he identified as having some of the characteristics pertaining to the marriage forms of his day.  In his two books, he also drew attention to the number of prominent churchmen and women in earlier times who are known to have had intimate same sex relationships in their own lives.  Bernadette Brooten has extended this research into same sex relationships in early Christianity with a particular focus on women, while Alan Bray approached the topic from a different angle:  in “The Friend”, he examined a number of instances of English and other churches where tombstones and church records tell of same sex couples buried in single graves, in exactly the same way that married couples sometimes were.  Like Boswell, he too finds evidence in the early church of a rite of “adelphopoeisis”. Like Bray, in tun, Valerie Abrahamsen has examined evidence of same sex burials – from Macedonia in the 6th Century.

Scholars, of course, differ amongst themselves about the precise significance of these findings – in particular, whether these relationships can be thought of as  resembling marriage rites, or even if there is likely to have been any erotic implications to them at all.  I do not wish to go into these nuances – it is enough for my purpose simply to show that liturgical practice concerning same sex relationships has changed.  Today they are vigourously opposed in any form, but in earlier times, from the early church in Rome and Byzantium, to much more recent periods in Western Europe, the Church has provided liturgical recognition for some form of same sex relationships at their formation, and at their dissolution at death.

Many other examples of changes in church teaching and practice could easily be produced – priestly celibacy was not required for the first millenium of history, marriage was not recognised as a sacrament, the church before modern times endorsed slavery and the inferior position of women (in its practice, it still does – but I am not going to venture down that path at present).

But most important, is to recognise that the papacy and the institution of papal power have themselves been subject to constant change.  It is worth remembering that the origins of  the current fuss lie exactly in the repudiation by the SSPX of the Second Vatican Council – a council notable, among other things, for its attempt to recast the balance of power within the Church, with a much enhanced role for the laity. Even the doctrine of papal infallibility, so widely known but so widely misunderstood, is of relatively recent origin.

Even the institution itself does not extend back to the earliest days of the church.  Before there was a pope, the Bishop of Rome was just one among many, then one of 5 patriarchs of equal stature.  After the rise of Islam placed the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandra under Muslim domination, just two patriarchs, of Rome and Constantinople, remained. In time, the Bishop of Rome acquired special status and power in the Western church, while that of Constantinople did so in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I have come across a fascinating series of articles by Tom Lee in the Australian internet forum “Catolica”, which has been tracing in weekly instalments, the story of the first 500 years of the Christian church and “the invention” of the papacy.  I have found the early chapters riveting reading, for the insightful picture they paint of the historical setting for the Gospels, and the beginnings of the spread of the Christianity.  I look forward to reading the rest.

As we continue to watch, fascinated, the extraordinary machinations in Vatican City over SSPX, or despair at ongoing stupidities on sexuality, we can perhaps take comfort from the changing past.  The one thing we know for sure is that the papacy and its teachings, as we now know them will certainly change.  What we don’t yet know, is how – or when.

More Book News: Bullet Proof Faith February 8, 2009

I have noted before that I have no personal knowledge of this book other than the author’s own determined self-publicity, but I like the title and what it implies.  Now I have a review, which I found in  “Gay Religion”

“As someone who has both witnessed and participated in my share of verbal battles about the six passages in scripture that seem to condemn homosexuality, I found it refreshing that the Rev. Chellew-Hodge moved to a different focus for reflection and discussion. According to Chellew-Hodge, the purpose of “a bulletproof faith is not to defeat others in battle but to become so bulletproof that we no longer feel the need to fight.” Now I like it even more.

Changing the Church.

I have commented several times on John McNeill’s thesis that we my be in a ‘Kairos Moment’ in which the Holy Spirit intervenes to change the direction of the Church.  Against the background of extraordinarily strong reaction to recent statements and actions from the Vatican, and previously unprecedented signs of Vatican sensitivity and response to such criticism, J.S. O Leary on his web page has agreed that the Kairos Moment is with us. It is appropriate then to revisit just what McNeill meant with his suggestion.

The argument was first put forward in an address to the Dignity conference back in October 2005, reprinted in his book “Sex as God Intended” (My review of the book will appear here on Monday 8th). I am delighted that with McNeill’s help, I am able to post the full text of the Dignity address here.  Have a read, then consider:  are we experiencing the fundamental shifts in church power that both McNeill and O’leary are discerning?

John McNeill: Dignity Address February 6, 2009

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 Gospels’ Queer Values. January 26, 2009

Jesus & Family

The opponents of gay same-sex marriage and of the “gay lifestyle” (whatever that is), like to claim that their opposition is rooted in traditional family values, “as found in the Bible.”   This claim is so completely spurious, is is remarkable how seldom it is challenged.  Just a little thought and reflection shows not only how the Gospel values have little to do with modern Western conceptions of the “traditional” family, but they are so far removed from it, that the real values espoused can certainly be described as certainly “queer”, if not quite as specifically gay.  In reaching this conclusion, I have been reading and reflecting on the social context of the ‘family’ as experienced in Jewish society and the broader social environment, at Jesus’ own ‘family’ in childhood and maturity,  at His actions, and at His words.

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The Jewish Family.

It is important to recognise that traditional Jewish society did indeed place enormous importance on the idea of family, both in the narrow sense of the immediate biological family, and in the broader sense of the ethnic Jewish community.  This was so important that on the one hand, everyone was expected to marry and produce l, and on the other, that those outside the narrow ethnic group were regarded as inferior, even unclean.  The  detailed dietary and other regulations well -known from the Old Testament were part of an elaborate legal structure to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Jewish nation. The Jewish family, however, was very different from our modern conception, deeply patriarchal, and with uneven treatment of men and women. Women were were expected to show rigorous sexual fidelity to their husbands, and were thought of as the ‘property’ of their men.

In the broader social environment, the Jewish state in Jesus’ day was under Roman military occupation.  Like the Greek society of the time, the Romans too had a deeply patriarchal society, and one in which there was not the modern distinction between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ activities.  Distinctions were drawn rather, on the social class of one’s sexual partners, and male citizens would routinely have sex not only with their wives, but also with other lovers, prostitutes and slaves of either gender.

Jesus’ Families.

My reflections on this theme were initially prompted by a posting on “Nihil Obstat” for the feast of the Holy Family, in which she pointed out how very atypical for the time was the Lord’s own childhood family, so often quoted as a model for all Catholic families.

But our childhood families are not the only ones we live with.  More important as we grow older are those adult families we make for ourselves, usually by forming couples in marriage or out of it, and with or without children.  As LGBT people we are also very conscious of how often we may remain single, but still form looser groups of friendship, who may in a real sense become our ‘families’ of a different sort.

So what were the adult ‘families’ that Jesus made for himself?

First, and famously, He did not marry.  This alone is remarkable, given the expectation in Jewish society of marriage and procreation.  So, what were His other relationships – what informal ‘families’ did He form?  We get the answer to this easily enough by looking at the Last Supper.  The Jewish Sabbath meal, and most especially that of Passover, are the occasions above all when Jewish people get together as families.  It is significant then that the Lord spent his own Passover meal – which we know as the ‘Last Supper’, with the 12 apostles:  these were the people we must take to represent His closest family.  Who were these men?  If they ever had wives and families of their own, they had been set aside to spend the rest of their lives with Jesus.

Think about it:  on the most solemn holy day of the Jewish calendar, when it was customary for all Jewish people to share a ritual meal with their closest family, Jesus and the apostles spent the evening as a group of single men.  Does this not sound remarkably like a modern group of urban gay men spending our equivalent family festivals sharing meals together, away from biological families?

Single people know, of course, that the concept of “family” can be fluid. In addition to our closest, most intimate circle, there are often others who might be very close, almost family, but not quite in our innermost circle. Who represented this ‘almost family’ circle to Jesus Christ?  The most obvious candidates to me are the household of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom He had an obviously close and special relationship.  What was the nature of this household?  Once again, very far from the expected “traditional” family.  The two women are described as ‘sisters’ and come across to me as the stronger, more vividly drawn characters:  Lazarus is famed more for his death and rescue from it, than for anything in his life.  Even at face value, this is an unusual household:  Jewish women would typically have been married off at an early age, not still living as adults with their brother.  Where such households did exist, it would normally be the brother, as the only male, who would be expected to dominate the household and be the focus of attention.  For a clearer understanding of the household, it is worth remembering that the word ‘sisters’ may have been used euphemistically: it is at least possible that Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple, living with a gay friend as lodger.

So: in His families of choice, the Lord spent His time either with a band of single men, or with a household of two single women  (possibly a lesbian couple), and yet another unmarried man. Even in the broader social circle, I am not aware of any instance where He is reported as spending time with a a conventional married couple with children.  Thus far, in examining the Lord in His own family context, we have found not an endorsement, but a repudiation, of the traditional family.

I still need to show that this repudiation of the traditional family is continued in His words and actions.  That I will do later in a  follow-up post.