Heterosexual Privilege June 24, 2009

I am grateful to kevinchi, at Pam’s House Blend, for a link to a listing of  ”heterosexual privilege.”  The list is long, and easily extended: it took me about 2 minutes to add 4 of my own:

Growing up straight:

*   Growing up straight means that I have abundant suitable role models on which to model my behaviour
*   Growing up straight means that I have appropriate socialization to show me the rules of the dating game, and how to come on to someone that I want to attract.
*   Growing up straight means that I will not be rejected by my family for my sexual orientation
*   Growing up straight means that I am dramatically less likely to be driven by bullying to take my own life.

Go ahead, read the full list here.  How long will it take you to add four of your own?

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The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Until the 12th century, Christian priests led sexual lives resembling those of lay people: some priests and lay people alike embraced voluntary celibacy,  others did not.  Then, at the First Lateran Council of 1123 ,  celibacy was imposed as a rule on all priests. The circumstances and reaction at the time are interesting. John Boswell argues that among the groups strongly promoting the rule were priests who had no wives or concubines, but did have boyfriends.  After noting that Pope Leo IX, who was the first pontiff to take action against married clergy, had shown no interest in acting against homosexual practices by priests or bishops, Boswell continues with:

Contemporaries, at least, were quick to note that gay priests were more willing than heterosexual ones to enforce prohibitions against clerical marriage“;

and again

There is some evidence of a power struggle between gay and married clergy over whose predilection would be stigmatized.”

In the Eastern church, orthodox priests never adopted the rule, and were horrified by the practice in the West. An anonymous Byzantine tract of c 1274, quoted in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium“, asks plaintively,

“Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry.  Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.”

In the centuries that followed, this charge (that clergy at all levels no longer married, but continued active sexual lives with concubines) was widely accepted. Indeed, sexual scandals even at the level of the papacy were one of the factors that led to the Reformation.  Somehow, in subsequent centuries, many Catholics seem to have adopted the belief that since celibacy is the rule, it is now also the practice.  This is hogwash.  It never has been, and never will be.

It is well known that there has been a haemorrhaging of good men from the priesthood over the last half century, many of them leaving the priesthood explicitly to marry.   It is delusional to suppose that these men kept themselves sexually chaste until after leaving;  it is equally delusional to suppose that all those who maintained active sexual relationships, left the priesthood.  I myself have a personal friend who left the priesthood only when he ‘had to get married’ to the religious sister he had impregnated.  Note the sequence:  first he got her pregnant, then he left the priesthood.

In the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism”, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine , and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success, to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these contentions.  In The Future of the Celibacy Debate lies in Africa, not Miami Collen Kochivar-Baker writes about the situation in the Central African Republic, where it seems that bishops and priests for years have been living openly with wives and families:

“Africa News had reported Monday that Archbishop Pomodimo and several priests in his archdiocese would be sanctioned ‘for adopting a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with their commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty and obedience’.”

In Zimbabwe, the otherwise impressive and respected Bishop Ncube has resigned after as sexual scandal.  From Rocco Palma’s “Whispers in the Loggia”:

“Ncube’s resignation was accepted after the 62 year-old prelate was accused of adultery in what, at the time, the archbishop maintained was a “well-orchestrated plan” by Mugabe and his allies to discredit Ncube for his globally-noticed protests of the country’s authoritarian rule.

Several months later, the prelate admitted to the affair in a documentary interview.” In the same post, Pollo  also refers to situation in Bangui.

There have been many instances publicised in the West (and many more unpublicised), of which  the case of Fr Mario Cutie in Miami is just the most recently prominent.    Nor have the sexual partners been restricted to women.   Censor Librorum at Nilhil Obstathas written on the voracious sexual appetite of the late Cardinal Spellman for young men, and former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland has recently come out publicly on his experience as a gay Bishop in the church.

A  sexual appetite is a fundamental human urge. Modern research shows clearly that healthy, active expression of this urge contributes to physical and mental health. While I fully accept that voluntary celibacy is entirely possible and acceptable for those who embrace it willingly in maturity, I have grave misgivings about imposing it by compulsion.

The pretence of priestly celibacy is not just a myth:  the consequences are intensely damaging, in many ways, to the whole Church and its people.  I will expand on these consequences later.

My Journey in Faith  

 One of my readers has asked in a comment to meet and interview me about my experiences as a gay Catholic. In preparation for this meeting, I have put together a brief description of the key influences on my journey in faith, which I now share with you all.

Childhood & Education

I was born in a Catholic family in South Africa, and educated entirely in Catholic schools.  In particular, my secondary schooling was in a small school run by priests, in the ears immediately following Vatican II.  For 5 years, religious instruction was a daily part of the school syllabus, delivered by a man with a strong commitment to the VII reforms, and (for the time) an unusual emphasis on Scripture. I remember in particular an extended period of instruction on Biblical ideas on the nature of God, along the lines of “God is…..” , such as “God is Truth”, “God is Life”, “God is Light”, “God is Hope”, “God is Wisdom”, and above all, “God is Love.”   For each of these statements, we laboriously wrote out and memorised endless biblical texts in support of these themes, together with their chapter and verse references.   I regret that I no longer remember any more than a handful of these texts, but they strongly coloured my perceptions of the nature of God. If I have forgotten the details of the texts, I clearly remember and treasure the themes, as listed above.

At university, my religious education was continued less formally by active participation in student Catholic societies.  Against the background of strong student opposition to expanding apartheid repression, I developed a strong commitment to the social Gospel, and was influenced by ideas around liberation theology and what later became known as contextual theology.

Sexual Awareness & Marriage

From a very early age, I was aware that in many ways I was ‘different’ from other boys, sharing several interests more usually found in girls.  Through adolescence, I came to realise that this was based on sexual attraction to boys, and began to wonder seriously if I might really be ‘homosexual’.  By the time I reached university, I clearly recognised my ‘inclinations’ but very conscious of Catholic teaching on sex, attempted to repress them.  I then, with far too little thought or premeditation, at a young age rushed into marriage to an equally young Catholic woman. Adhering to Catholic teaching on contraception, two young daughters followed soon after.  The experience of parenthood while still very young, before either of us was properly ready for it emotionally or financially, soon placed the marriage under increasing stress.

After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

Coming Out.

During the gradual breakdown of my marriage, I came increasingly to recognise that I was ‘probably’ primarily homosexual.  Once the marriage had ended, I finally recognised the truth, and came out:  first to myself, and then to others.  I became active in ‘Gasa Rand’ – the local gay activist association – where I met Bruce, who became a major part of my life for nearly 20 years.  During the time leading up to and after coming out, I sought out and read as much as I could find on ‘gay lit’, including fiction, gay history, and gay politics.  In South Africa in the 1980’s available supplies were limited (a function of censorship, significant relative expense, and a small market).  Still, my reading became extensive, if eclectic.

A year after meeting Bruce, we moved in together (sharing our lives for the next 18 years).  At the time we met, he too was not practicing any religion, but had been raised an Anglican. (As a young man, he had thought of becoming a monk) After a few years together, he began to attend church services once again, in an Anglo-Catholic parish.  Later, he became more interested in Catholicism, and began to attend the Latin Mass of the ‘traditional’ Catholics.

This left me increasingly uncomfortable, because it through into the foreground my conflict with the church over sexuality, and because the traditional Catholics offended my strong Vatican II sympathies.  Still, we agreed to differ on religion, while agreeing that in spite of religious teaching, homosexuality itself was not intrinsically immoral, and that our relationship, being committed and monogamous, was as valid as any legal marriage.

Return to the Church

Later, there came a point when I considered returning to the Church.  I learned that a former student friend had become a Jesuit priest, and was then parish priest in the university parish where I had been many years earlier. I went to see him to discuss my reservations.  Among the very important observations he made were that faith was a matter of experience, not of reason or dogma; that I should not prejudge the Lord’s (or the Church’s) response  to my sexuality;  but that he personally did not believe the Lord would expect me in a committed and loving relationship, to live to harsher standards than anyone else.  Above all, he urged me to make a leap in faith, and see how things worked out, which is what I did.

The resulting experience was wholly positive and enriching.

When I told Bruce that I was thinking of returning to church, he immediately responded that he would abandon the traditional Catholics and join me at that same university parish.  My daughter Barbara, who by that time was herself a student and was then living with us to attend uni, also said that she would like to join us, and so we began regular Mass attendance as a family. Over the years, we were both drawn ever deeper into the life of the parish, assisting in many branches of parish life, and even serving together for several years on the Parish Pastoral Council.  Although we very much visible as a couple, in a relationship that was obvious to all, we found no hostility from anyone, and a very warm welcome from many.

As a Jesuit parish, we were also drawn gradually into exploration of Ignatian spirituality, and in time into deeper exploration thereof in the Christian Life Community (“CLC”).  Amongst the key Ignatian ideas that became of great importance to me were:

– the idea that the Holy Spirit is constantly attempting to communicate with us.  By learning to read, or ‘discern’ the movement of the Spirit within our hearts, we can come to hear God speaking to us directly;

– the importance of regular (ideally daily) ‘examen’ of consciousness.  This is a form of prayer, in which we reflect on our experience and the resultant emotions, in order to discern those movements of the Spirit.

-‘Ignatian indifference’:  the idea that the moral value of things or states lies not in themselves, but in what we do with them, and how we apply them to building God’s Kingdom on earth.  (The “Principle & Foundation” speaks of “seeking neither riches nor poverty, neither sickness nor health”)

– the value of communal sharing and reflection with others, to assist in the process of discernment

– ‘Mission’:  the idea that the Lord has a unique task for each of us, with which we are sent into the world to do his will.

A further idea that hit me with powerful force was not specifically Ignatian, although I did first encounter it in the CLC group.  This was the argument promoted in the book ‘Redemptive Intimacy’ by Dick Westley, that revelation is not something that was given in biblical times, and then static, but is continually unfolded by the Holy Spirit, and needs to be constantly reinterpreted for changing times.  (I have since learnt that this idea is widely accepted by theologians, and was restated by Benedict XVI in one of his Christmas addresses). Westley argues that all of us, laity as well as clergy, have a part to play in interpreting this unfolding revelation by communal sharing and reflection on our experiences.  In short, theology is constantly being remade, and we all have a part to play in making it.

Under the impact of Ignatian ideas, I regularly took into prayer, alone, under the guidance of Spiritual Direction, or on silent retreat, the whole question of sexuality and faith.  On every occasion, the resulting conclusion was that I was reaffirmed in my existing conviction that homosexual expression in my relationship was not sinful, but on the contrary was good and life-giving. (I did not then explore issues of sex outside such a relationship).

Emigration

Eventually, we both reached a decision, taken after extensive research, thought and prayerful discernment, to leave South Africa and to emigrate to the UK.  We were then both teachers, and before departure secured posts in English schools.  However, the school year had barely begun when Bruce concluded that he had made a mistake in emigrating, and after a few months returned to Johannesburg.  I reached a different conclusion, and remained behind.

This put me into a very difficult emotional position, having to deal alone with the simultaneous stresses of adjusting to emigration, the sudden break-up of a long relationship, coping with a dramatically new and different school environment with more challenging pupil behaviour, and adjusting as a single person to dramatically different financial calculations to those I had expected.  All this in a country I did not know, where I had no personal friends, and indeed knew nobody other than school colleagues, and (fortunately) my daughter Robynn, who had preceded me to London a year before my own move.

With no existing support system, I deliberately set out to create one.  I sought out my local parish and parish priest (but signally failed to find the sort of community I had previously been accustomed to).  I joined a local gay friendship group, and signed on to Gaydar internet dating.  In time, I met up with the Soho Masses where I found a very strong welcome and sense of community, and where I became a regular participant.

Once again, I was forced to reconsider the question of reconciling faith and sexuality.  I took myself off to a rural monastery for a short private retreat, and steeped myself in prayer.  Once again, I found myself reaffirmed in the belief that my sexuality was not intrinsically immoral, and this time more:  I began to believe that finding other gay Catholics and working together with them for mutual support, was an important part of the ‘mission’ that I needed to undertake, indeed, was part of the reason that God’s plan had brought me here.

Reflecting on my experiences in the (gay) support network I was developing, as well as the few sexual experiences I had found, I saw that some of these at least had been enormously beneficial – good sex can be a powerful antidepressant.  And so, I came to recognise, in the light of experience and discernment, that sex does not necessarily have to be in the context of a relationship to be healthy and valid.  (But also, that not all sex is good).

Soho Masses

I have now been attending these regularly for almost 6 years, even though the journey into Soho from my home in Surrey is time consuming (for every Mass or meeting I set aside 4 hours total travelling time).  I have been gradually drawn ever deeper into the activities, first as a reader, then as a Eucharistic Minister, and then as a member of the Pastoral Council.  I have also joined other lesbian & gay Catholics in London’s annual Gay Pride March through central London.

The rewards are incalculable.

First of these is the Mass itself, which is always uniquely rewarding:  the liturgy is invariably rich, the homilies intelligent and thought provoking, the congregational singing vigorous and the occasional additional music superb.  The welcome, sense of community, and friendships formed are invaluable.

There have been specific, less routine highlights. First, I was privileged to have been serving on the Pastoral Council when the Diocese approached us about a move from the Anglican premises we had been using to a Catholic parish, and so was drawn into those negotiations, and into the process of discernment within our congregation of the most appropriate response.

In an ongoing attempt to wrestle with the tension between the gift of sexuality that the Lord has given me, and the formal teaching of the church, I have been deeply grateful for the extensive reading lists and direct access to selected books for sale, that I have had access to through the Masses.  These have been complemented by some intensely moving workshops, retreats, lectures and days of recollection on ‘matters Catholic and gay.’

At a strictly personal level, it was emotionally gratifying when my new partner (an Anglican) joined me for some of the Masses at our former home at St Anne’s, and when the civil partnership we entered into a few years back was noted in the bidding prayers.

A Paradox.

Arising out of the negotiations concluded with the diocese, there is one important paradox and source of tension.

During the discussions, it was made clear that the diocesan expectation was that the Masses should be strictly ‘pastoral’, and should not be used for ‘campaigning’ against church teaching.  This we were (broadly) happy to accept, although there was never any clarification of just what was meant by the terms. It is my belief that the distinction between them is not nearly as clear cut as the Bishops seem to assume. Also, the public statements from the Cardinal at the time and after clearly stated that there would be an expectation that those living would be living ‘in accordance with Catholic teaching’, that there would be no ‘ambiguity’ in our presentation of church teaching, which should be presented ‘in full’.

This presents an obvious paradox, as many of us, including myself, appear to be living in a manner clearly in conflict with official teaching, and some of us believe that we have a moral obligation to other LGBT Catholics to provide them with sound counter arguments to official teaching, and also to work towards changing this teaching.  (Does this constitute ‘campaigning’ against the teaching, or contributing to the development of new theology?)

Part of this tension, on living in accordance with teaching, I resolve precisely by looking to the teaching ‘in full’:  that is by looking not only at sexual theology in isolation, but also at teaching on conscience, on justice and peace, on how the process of making theology works, at the contextual background and history of how the theology was developed, and on the importance of prayer and personal discernment in the formation of conscience.  Against this wider background, I would argue that I am living not in a state of sanctity or free of sin, but certainly in as much accordance with church teaching as most other Catholics  – and with somewhat more reading and reflection than the average behind my decisions.

The second part, the restriction on using the Masses for ‘campaigning’, I resolve by recognising first, that in a very real sense the pastoral is political: our simple presence makes an important statement.  But further, there remains, I believe, an obligation to work more directly and actively towards countering and changing the standard official teaching.  This I resolve by separating my activities with the Masses, and elsewhere.  Specifically, it is to play my part in this respect that I set up my blog in the first place.

Seduced by Grace

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other occasions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder ofRainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.

What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book, Seduced by Grace.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over. Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

More Worms (Sexual Abuse and Me: continued.)

Preamble:

Scroobious responded to my previous post by quoting Chandler from Friends: “Can – open. Worms – everywhere!”  Sorry to do this, Scrooby, but today there are more cans and more worms – and they’re breeding.

The content of this post does not belong on this blog.  It has (almost) nothing to do with the church, and nothing strictly to do with LGBT/queer.

It is also not easy to write (especially as my daughter is one of my most loyal readers), and may be disturbing to read. Those of a sensitive disposition – be warned. However, it is an important  sequel to my last post on the subject, and an essential prelimiary to my more important observations on abuse in general, and of the church in particular.  And so it must be done.

The Gang Show, Johannesburg, 1960′s.

In my early teens, I spent some very happy years as a boy scout in a troop affiliated to our Catholic parish (although the church connection is only minimally relevant here).  A highlight of these years was my annual participation in the local “Gang Show” – a variety concert produced annually as a regional fundraiser, by individual boys and adult scouters drawn from scout troops across the city.  From my own troop, there were three adults fully involved (sometimes more), and 6-8 boys.  Transport was provided for the whole group by the dedicated scoutmaster, who drove a typically 60′s VW ‘Kombi minibus, in which we all travelled twice a week to rehearsals, and later to performances.

During the third year of my participation, when I will have been about 13, I found myself being befriended by a man who was the District Commissioner for my own troop.  It did not occur to me to question why I should have been singled out for his attentions – although I did become aware that he had a reputation for having befriended other pretty young faces in previous years.  On a few occasions, he volunteered after rehearsals to drive me home in his smart red convertible.  These trips were without incident – exccept for the  icecreams he treated me with en route.

The climax of the rehearsal period always came with a weekend scout camp, for intensive rehearsals, wardrobe fittings, and technical preparations,  as well as more conventional scouting fun things – an evening campfire and the like.   Given the large numbers attending, there were not tents for all, so the boys and some of the adults spread our sleeping bags in a large shed of some kind:  30 or 40 boys, and perhaps 6 or 8 adults.  Surprise:  one of those adults was my district commissioner, who contrived to lay his sleeping bag next to mine.

After lights out, after quiet had begun to settle, he began to whisper endearments, then surprised me by slipping  his hand inside my sleeping bag, and caressing me – before giving me my first experience of fellatio.  I vividly remember two incidental features in particular:  his constant assurances that what he was doing was not wrong, as he was simply expressing his great affection for me; and the after action cigarette he lit up, the red coal glowing brightly like a beacon in the night.   (Complaints from the other adults about the smoking made it clear the other adults were not yet all asleep).

During the 40+ years since, I have never thought of the experience as particularly traumatic.  What I found remarkable, and want to stress now, is not that the event occurred, but the obvious (albeit passive) collusion of the other adults around us.

This man will have been well known to the adults of my own troop – he was our district commissioner. They must surely have known of his reputation – if I, in my innocence and naivety, overheard rumours of his attentions to other young boys, so would they.  Yet they went along with him in allowing him to butter me up on transport home.  Then, on the night of the camp, could the other adults n the shed really have been oblivious to what was going on amongst them?  Even if they did not realise the full extent, nor made out the actual words, surely they must have realised that the constant low murmuring was from an adult man addressing a young boy under cover of darkness?

Final reflection:

Whenever I have had cause to recall these events, I have felt and believed that I did not  feel particularly ‘traumatised’ or ‘victimised’.  That was certainly so at a conscious level. However, in starting to write this series of posts, and thinking about this one in particular, I have found myself emotionally affected at a level I have not done before.  I also now recall something previously forgotten – a deep feeling of confusion and panic as I realised he was doing down on me.

Now I have to ask:  if writing about psychological trauma is healing and therapeutic, but I have never before felt traumatised, why have I now felt the need for healing?

I hope this has not been too uncomfortable to read, but you were warned. Thanks for sticking with me.  Now there will be no more dirty lttle secrets – the next instalment will move on to the lessons and conclusions I draw from the experiences.

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Marriage Equality & the Church.

Wedding cake of a same-sex marriage, photo tak...

In the wake of the disappointing, but expected, Californian ruling on Prop 8, it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the gains elsewhere, and especially on the impact on the churches.

It is well known how rapidly legal recognition of same sex marriage has progressed: first in Iowa, by court order, then in rapid succession Vermont and Maine by legislative action. New Hampshire is not quite there yet, but it is likely just a matter of time – as it is in New York and New Jersey.  DC has voted to recognise marriages legally conducted elsewhere, Washington has approved expansion of their civil union regime to ‘everything but marriage’, and in many other states and city jurisdictions, there have been less dramatic, incremental gains.  These have been widely reported and celebrated.

One big advance, and the one that I suspect may be more important for its long term impact on the churches of the world, has drawn remarkably little attention.  The day before the Iowa announcement, and drowned out of the news by the drama of developments in Iowa and New England, The Swedish parliament, with the minumum of fuss or fanfare, and the support of all the major parties, voted to make Sweden the fith country in Europe to recognise same sex marriage.   For those of us in Europe, especially if we are committed to the ideal of ever closer union, this is obviously more significant than the stop-start progress in some minor American states and cities. But I believe that the siginificance for all of us is substantial, particularly if we are professed Christians.  Why?

In the US, and also here in the UK, the legal provisions for same sex marriage or civil unions/partnerships, where they exist, are quite specifically for ‘civil’ marriage or partnerships.  Indeed, the British legislation specifically prohibits the use of religious language or premises for the ceremony; increasinlgy, US legislators are cradting thier gains by spelling  out the the legislation proposed places no obligations on religious minsters, or even staff.

The Swedish situation is quite different. The legislation quite specifically provides for legal recognition of either civil or church marriage. This has huge implications for the Swedish Lutheran Church, which until recently was the official state church of the country, with special status, even funding, in the legal system.  This has changed, but the informal ties and status remain strong.  So what was the response of the church?   Did they start weeping and wailing and gnashing there teeth? Did they lament the moral decadence of the country?  Did they offer grudging toleration, with ifs and buts to demand a right of opt-out?  None of the above.  a final decision awaits a full synod later in the summer, but the provisional, formal response was that the church would understand and ‘excuse’ any pastor who, as a matter of conscience,  felt s/he could NOT preside over same sex weddings.  That’s right – the specail consideration and understanding goes to those who are opposed:  the default position, buy Sweden’s major church, is to take in their stride same sex marriage conducted in church. Unless I have wildly misread the situation, this is likely to be the standard position after the synod later this year.

This will have important ripple effects, notably elsewhere in the EU.  Pressure for marriage equality will undoubtedly continue to spread across the EU, particularly in Western Europe.  When (not if), equality reaches Germany and Austria, the German Lutheran church, and also the German and Austrian Catholic churches,  will have to consider carefully their position.  All of them have special state recognition and funding.  Even in advance of legislation, just the propect of pressure for marriage, is forcing the churches into hard tactical consideration – faced with an emergin gay marriage lobby, the Portuguese Bishops proposed civil partnerships as a compromise solution – thus embracing the very proposal that there English counterparts strongly opposed a few years back.

In the English speaking world, the troubles caused to the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopalians) by disputes over homosexuality are well known. But while skirmishing continues, it is clear that over the longer term view, the tide is clearly turning in the direction of greater acceptance. The continuning expansion of legal recognition of civil marriage across the USA is already forcing more and more individual pastors, and local jursdictions, into fresh consideration of their own stance – and an increasing minority are  coming down on the side of at least blessing, and possibly solemnising, these unions in church.  Every synod season sees new debates on these. Where there is not yet victory, the margins of defeat are generally narrowing.

For me, the most heartening aspect of this, is the increasing number of reports I am seeing of sincere religious clergy of goodwill, who have found themselves prayerfully re-examining scriptures, theology and church history in search of guidance – and concluding that established church strictures against homosexuallity are without scriptural foundation, and misguided. (The recently released survey of ‘mainline protestant clergy’ attitudes to SSM has some fascinating figures on this).

There is no longer any doubt:  marriage equality is spreading steadily across the world, and across the US.  As it does so, the churches will increasingly be forced to grapple with, and re-examine, their own beliefs.  In doing so, many will reverse long-standing opposition to same sex relationships, and see the value of recognising commitment, whatever the orientation or gender of the partners.

The Catholic church will be behind the trend – but will not resist indefinitely.  Here, too, truth will triumph in the end.

Same Sex Marriage:  coming (soon) to a church near you – but not yet to a Catholic parish.

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The Paddywhack and Me.

“The Time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things:
Of school, and sex, of paddywhacks, and too, of boy scouting.”

Preamble

I have up to now steered clear of much commentary on the persistent and abundant stories of clerical abuse.  There is however a limit to how long one can hold one’s tongue.  The reasons for my silence up to now are simple:

1)   This is personal.

2)   The issues are far more complex and multifaceted then press reports, or popular commentary, would lead us to believe.

3)  Too often, those attempting to spell out in honesty the complexities and subtleties of the issues, are simply branded as apologists for evil.

So, silence has been easier. Now, however, reports are coming closer to home, and I can no longer bite my tongue.   Before spelling out my take, though, some obvious points in full disclosure.

First, I speak not from abstract knowledge, but from personal experience.  I was myself at the receiving end of some of these things, in two separate contexts.  To my own experience, I have added reflections on stories I have heard from others, and from published sources.

Second, I take it as axiomatic that any form of abuse of young children, whether sexual or physical, or evn simple neglect, is inexcusable and unacceptable.

I state freely that my own sexual orientation is primarily homosexual; – that is, I am attracted sexually to other men.

This attraction, however, is emphatically to men – adult men – and not in any way to children, adolescents, or even to young men.  My own attraction has always been to those of around my own age.

I have no intention whatsoever, of excusing, explaining 0r justifying sexual abuse by anyone.  And yet…..

The Problem

The problem as I see it is that too much of the standard reaction is one of near hysteria, bundling a wide range of behaviours into the catchall ‘abuse’, and assuming that all instances of inappropriate behaviour by adults with children are damaging to the child’s future development.  I am not so sure.  Further, there needs to be a little more recognition paid to the allocation of responsibility in these matters:  at least in the case of older children, some at least are at times complicit in welcoming,  encouraging or even inviting inappropriate attention from adults. there is surely a huge gulf in significance, and possilbe longer term harm,  between the vicious rape of a young child, and inappropriate touching or caressing of a flirtatious teenager.  Yet both of these extremes are loosely and carelessly lumped together, along with other behaviours, under the blanket term ‘abuse’. I am also a little cynical about at least some of the claims being made, and wonder if the case for substantial monetary compensation is always fully justified.  Finally, discussion of the problem of clerical abuse frequently struggles with the issues of just where, realistically, one can apportion responsiblity and blame, and what is to be done to prevent future problems.

Trying to spin out these complexities will take me down several byways, sharing experiences and reflections, and cannot be brief.  To avoid a tediously lengthy post, I will spin it out into several bites: my primary school experience with the Christian Brothers;   secondary school with the OMI priests; parallel experiences in the boy scouts; my thoughts on the lasting impact on my life; and my conclusions on the implications for the church.

My experience: Double abuse with the Christian Brothers.

Reports of clerical sexual abuse of children have been emerging for several years now, particularly from the USA, but also form other countries. The reason I have been personally stung in particular by the latest scandal, is that they emerge from Ireland, that great source of missionary educators during the 20th Century, and at whose hands I and my sister received a substantial a substantial part of our schooling in South Africa.  Much (not all) of what is described in the Irish reports is immediately recognisable to me, as having been directly replicated by Irish men and women transplanted across the globe.

My earliest schooling was in co-educational classes in local convent schools in Cape Town, later in Johannesburg, run by two orders of religious sisters, about which I have nothing to say – my memories are blurred but generally positive.  I was then removed from the increasingly female environment, to a Christian Brothers school some substantial distance from my home, where I stayed for two years, before transferring, with great relief to a small secondary school much closer to home.  Those two years with the Christian Brothers were, without any doubt, the unhappiest years of my school career.  Over the ensuing four decades, whenever I have met people who like me have experienced education with the Brothers, I have shared my views – and always found agreement.  ”The Christian Brothers are notorious”, has been a common response.

I freely acknowledge there were external, unavoidable reasons why I would in any case have been ill-disposed to the school:  a long, cumbersome journey involving a bus, a train, and a lengthy walk were too much for a ten year old;  I did not enojy compulsory participation in a sport (rugby) that I did not care for or understand; and suffered as an outsider for arriving as a painfully shy, sensitive bookish lad two years later than most of my classmates had done – by which time friendship groups and social routines had been long set.  I was never going to fit in too easily.

But those I could have coped with.  The real problem, shared by so many others I have spoken to, was the unrelenting regime of physical punishment. I make no claims to angelic virtue, but as a bright and naturally quiet student who enjoyed schoolwork, I cannot imagine that my behaviour can have been particularly bad, while my academic results were consistently good.  Yet my memory (probably faulty) was that scarcely a day passed when I was not beaten in one way or another, for some misdemeanour at least once during the day.  It must surely have been worse for naturally rowdy boys, or for those who were punished ( as some were) for simple ignorance or substandard work.

Not all the Brothers were equally vicious, although there was a general expectation that most would use the cane or the strap as the first line of correction for any fault, whether of behaviour, academic slackness, or ignorance.  Two exceptions stand out in my memory:

The first, exceptional as being even more vicious than the others,  was one man who had a particular fondness for the “paddywhack”, an infamous Irish instrument of schoolboy torture constructed of strips of leather stitched together down the edges, containing within it pennies – hard coins to give  the instrument additional weight and bite. I can still see the distinct gleam in his eye as he caught sight of some poor boy caught out in minor wrongdoing.  ”Lookitt, lookitt”, he would cry at frequent intervals through the day, before bringing the weapon down hard on the miscreant’s outstretched palm.  This creature terrorised me for almost half my lessons, over both the two years I was there.

The other was exceptional in quite another way.  This was the teacher of religion, whom we saw for just one lesson daily, for one of my two years.  He was gentleness itself, seldom (if ever) resorting to physical punishment. Instead of the stick, he preferred to use the carrot of praise, with which he was generous to a fault.  If any one achieved any minor success in written or oral work, he would be sure to find himself called to the front of the class for public recognition, where he would find himself standing on top of teacher’s desk, for all the class to get a better look at the little saint.  To further show his approval, this teacher would then give the boy a gentle little pat on the knee, while explaining just why the achievement in question was so worthy.  In doing so, the hand would somehow remain in place on the knee, and then slowly sidle up the thigh, and under the shorts.  Even at ten years old, and widely ignorant of the ways of men, we knew just what he was doing, and snickered about it amongst ourselves.

The Irish report describes three broad categories of ‘abuse’:  physical neglect or harsh conditions, excessive physical punishment, and sexual abuse.  I have no experience of the first, but do have direct personal experience of both the others. What was the impact on my life?

There is no doubt I resent the beatings. Physical punishment of course was not unusual at the time, and I experienced it also in my later school – but not to anything like the same degree of frequency or severity, and I was able to take in in my stride.  But my experience of punishment from one of those Christian Brothers in particular was so gratuitous, so clearly sadistic, that it has always remained a bitter memory, colouring my recollection of the order as a whole.

The touching (more accurately, groping) was entirely different.   Viewed with adult eyes, this was clearly sexual in intent, and entirely inappropriate, as even at that age we recognised.  But to us at the time it was more a joke, the weakness of a sad old man, than actual harm.  I did not then resent it, nor do I now.  Indeed, it would be true to say that I welcomed the attention and delighted in the praise.  If the price was a little bit of touching up on my thigh, that was fine by me.

The nature of my experience was, of course, much less severe than that experienced by many others, nor can I imagine how others on the receiving end might have viewed their own experiences.  But given how so much of the standard media attention focuses on the sexual abuse, I have to point out that for me, this was not what mattered.  I condemn unreservedly any abuse of the very young, and of more substantive sexual contact.  But I do have to ask, in the light of my own experience, are the milder forms of inappropriate touching really as heinous as the public outcry usually suggests?  Ek vra maar net.  (Afrikaans:  ”just asking”)

I should also add, as an aside, that my sister says her own experience of what she saw as the sadistic punishments meted out by the convent sisters, was enough to turn her against the Catholic Church, and organised religion, for life.

More, later.

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Catholic ‘Dissent’ March 11, 2009

As a child in Catholic primary schools, I vividly remember memorising, page by page, the catechism of the church:  first a slim little red version, later a slightly fatter grey-green version for older students.

“Who made you?
God made me.”

“Why did God make you?
To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world,  and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”

But by the time I reached secondary school, Vatican II was in progress, enthusiastically embraced by the priest who taught me RE for the next 5 years. I never again saw that little catechism.

There is a quaint view in some quarters that to be a Catholic requires that one suspend all powers of the intellect, and meekly agree to believe, and to live, exactly as one is told.  This view I emphatically reject.  One of the key parables in the Gospels is that of the 10 talents. We are taught that the Lord requires us to use all the talents we are given, for his greater glory and to further His reign on earth.  Surely the intellect is one of the greatest talents He has bestowed on us?  (Another is our sexuality, which should also be used – but that is another story.)

Michael Bayley, at The Wild Reed, writes an impressive blog from what he calls a ‘progressive, gay, Catholic perspective.’  I am a regular reader, admiring in particular the way he has of presenting not only stimulating personal views, but also the best of writing from a range of others.  He also has excellent cross-references and links, so that I find that his archives alone are worth spending hours on, to explore specific themes.  But in yesterday’s post, he shares a letter he has received from a reader who states that

“this blog is just an exercise in false advertisement. For while you may in fact be progressive and gay, you are most definitely not Catholic.”

In making this assertion, the writer cites as evidence Michael’s regular criticisms of the hierarchy, his occasional writings on other faith traditions, and on some of his other activities, such as the work of the Spirit of St Stephen’s.  The comment boxes at the Wild Reed have been filling rapidly, with readers rushing to Michael’s defence.  I made my own response there, so I do not intend to elaborate further on Michael, and my support for him.  (Go to the Wild Reed yourself. Read the interchange, the recent posts which led to it, mull over the comments.  But also explore his valuable archives on dissent, and on what it means to be a Catholic).

What I do want to do here is to explore some of my own reflections on this interchange, as it affects me and this blog.

Ever since the approach of Lent, I have been struggling to get my thoughts down on the keyboard, and this is part of the reason.  I have never been one to see Lent as primarily a time of sacrifice:  rather, it is for me a time of reflection, in preparation for the great feast of the Easter resurrection.  My reflections this year have left me wanting to resolve some personal issues in developing a closer relationship with my local parish and diocese.   These do not lend themselves to public writing.

Furthermore, in setting up this blog in the first place, it was never my intention to devote it to reflexive, incessant attacks on the established church. This is what I wrote in my founding statement:

“….to all you who are gay Catholics or lapsed Catholics, a plea and invitation:  come in and come out. If you have lapsed, come back in to the Church, and help to make a difference.  If you remain a regular churchgoer, come in deeper – take on more active ministry.  Let there be no doubt of your credentials  as Catholic. Then, cautiously and gradually, come out as gay

…….. Coming out in the church will be more difficult, so you will need even more support.  I hope that this site will help you to find a suitable support network for face to face contact and discussion.  But the virtual society of the blogosphere can also represent support of a kind – and that, we definitely aim to provide.”

My track record since then has been less balanced.  (Unfortunately, simple responding to current news has left me with little choice).  Still, I am mindful that my intention from the start was to focus on the ‘Good News’ that is inherent in the Gospels, in the gift of our sexuality, and in the great tradition of the Catholic Church.

So, the debate at the Wild Reed has brought into focus how I can (belatedly) reflect in this blog, part of my own Lenten resolution. For the next few weeks, I will be attempting to present a more positive view of the Church which, for all its failings, remains my spiritual home.

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 Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).
Confronting Power and Sex

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

Continue reading  Church, Power & Abuse