Category Archives: 20 Church Teaching / Tradition

The Church’s Changing Tradition.

The only part of Catholic tradition that is truly constant and unchanging, is the permanent presence of (gradual) change.

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.

A Kairos moment for Queer Catholics

Former Jesuit, theologian, psychotherapist and author John McNeill (The Church and the HomosexualFreedom, Glorious FreedomBoth Feet Firmly Planted in MidairTaking a Chance on God and Sex as God Intended) has written an angry open letter to the U.S. bishops. He begins by slamming the bishops for ignoring the call to dialogue made by Dignity 30 years ago, and continues by lamenting “the enormous destruction recent Vatican documents have caused in the psychic life of young Catholic gays, and of the violence they will provoke against all gay people.”Gay Catholics, he says, have had “Enough!” With repeated cries of “Enough! Enough of …….” opening each section, his declaration rises in power and anger to its climax.
Holy Spirit in action?.

To me, the most interesting feature is not the anger or the arguments: these are all too familiar. But at the end of the letter he claims to be sensing a “Kairos moment” – a time ripe for significant change. The last time heard such a claim from churchmen was back in South Africa, in what seemed to the rest of us the darkest days of apartheid. I think it was within just a year or two that aprtheid had been officially disowned, Mandela had been released, and the new democracy was firmly on its way.
Is McNeill right? The point of a Kairos moment is not just to sit back and wait for things to happen – it is a time of potential only. To achieve the realisation of this moment, we need to grasp the opportunity, and force the change that is coming.

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Welcome. Come In, and Come Out

Welcome to your world

As gay Catholics, we have often found ourselves double outsiders. As a sexual minority in a world where heterosexuality is routinely taken for granted, and even suffered ridicule, discrimination, violence or worse, we have often felt excluded, left out – or even invisible.  Typically, we have felt even more rejected in the churches than in the secular world, with widespread condemnation of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality.

This hostility from the religious establishment has led to a counter-reaction from many in the LGBT community, who see religion as the architect and driving force behind our ‘oppression’, and consequently refuse to have any truck with organised religion.  The result for gay Catholics is too often, exclusion by both camps.  I have often heard the observation from my gay Catholic friends, that it can be as difficult to be out as Catholic in the gay community, as it is to be out as gay in the world at large.

However, in the secular world at least, things have changed. Ever since Stonewall, may of us have discovered the power of coming out publicly.  At a personal level, affirming, not hiding, our identities has been personally liberating for our mental and even physical health;  at a public level, the increasing visibility of persons of diverging sexual identities has played a big part in breaking down stereotypes, prejudice, and increasingly, discrimination.  For young (and not so young) people who are beginning for the first time to face the idea that they do not fit inside the sexual roles their social conditioning has led them to expect, this increased visibility of public role models also makes it easier for own coming out, than it was for earlier generations.

This increased visibility has not yet significantly reached our parishes, cloisters, or ecclesiastical parishes, partly because so many of those who are most comfortable identifying as gay, refuse to identify as churchgoers.  But in parallel with the secular world, the more we are indeed out in the church, the easier it will be for us, and for those who follow.

So, 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.  If you can not trust your parish to be accepting, find one which will (welcoming communities do exist.  This site will help you to find one.)  Or, if you prefer, seek out  a special Mass for an LGBT congregation.  These too exist in many bigger cities, even if not on every Sunday. For most people, coming out in the secular world was not easy.  You  probably needed help and support from LGBT friends, and may have deliberately sought out explicitly gay public venues as much for affirmation as for the objective services offered (I know I did.  Why else pay higher prices for a pint in Soho than in your neighbourhood local?)

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.

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