In Memoriam: Fr Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist

“Since Jesus had table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”
-Fr Robert Carter
There is no contradiction between being Catholic and gay or lesbian. Indeed, just as Robert Carter says he was most fully a Jesuit when he cane out publicly, so for many of us, we are most fully Catholic when we too come out in Church.  (I say deliberately “for many of us”, as coming out is always a deeply personal decision, which may not always be feasible for all.)

Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist, Dies at 82

The Rev. Robert Carter, who in the early 1970s was one of the first Roman Catholic priests in the country to declare publicly that he was gay and who helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, died on Feb. 22 in the Bronx. He was 82.
  Robert Carter, right, with Dan McCarthy, left, Bernard Lynch and John McNeill at a gay pride march in the early 1980s

 

His death, at a Jesuit health care facility, was confirmed by the Rev. Thomas R. Slon, executive assistant to the provincial of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus.

Father Carter’s coming out was a very public one. In October 1973, Dr. Howard J. Brown, a former New York City health services administrator, announced that he was gay and that he was forming a civil rights organization for homosexual men and women. Then called the National Gay Task Force, it later became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
An article about the group in The New York Times said: “A number of homosexual and lesbian organizations were represented on the board. One member was the Rev. Robert Carter, a Jesuit priest and professor of historical theology.”
Soon afterward he was visited by a subprovincial of the Jesuit order. “It seems that they were afraid I had had a psychotic break or something,” Father Carter wrote in an unpublished memoir.
Although there were calls for his expulsion by irate “Jesuits, parents and alumni of our schools,” Father Carter continued, he was not disciplined. In those days, the church and the Jesuit order were somewhat more accepting of gay people.
The church continues to hold that while homosexual attraction is “disordered,” gay people who are celibate are not inherently sinful. In 2005, however, the Vatican issued a document saying the church would not admit to a seminary or ordain “those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ ”
Father Carter helped found the New York chapter of DignityUSA, a support group for gay Catholics. In 1972, with the Rev. John McNeill, he hosted the first meeting of the chapter at the Jesuit chapel on West 98th Street in Manhattan.
“I refer to him as the heart of Dignity,” Father McNeill, the author of “The Church and the Homosexual” (Beacon, 1976), said in an interview. “I was doing all the writing, but he was on the front line, meeting with people, counseling people.”
When the Catholic authorities said Dignity could not meet on church property, Father Carter celebrated Mass in apartments all around Manhattan. He led blessing ceremonies for gay couples. He testified in support of the gay rights law proposed by Mayor Edward I. Koch before it was passed by the City Council in 1986. He urged Dignity to march in gay pride parades and marched himself, in his clerical collar.
Although he was a classics scholar, he was also a trained social worker who counseled gay priests and hundreds of lay Catholics. “As I sought to reconcile being gay and Catholic,” Brendan Fay, a longtime gay rights activist, said in an interview, “Bob Carter helped me move from self-hate to self-acceptance and then to a place of gay activism. He was like a Catholic Harvey Milk.”
Robert Earl Carter was born in Chicago on July 27, 1927, the son of Earl and Ila Grace Smith Carter. His father managed several music stores. He is survived by his sister, Nancy Glader of Prospect Heights, Ill.
Father Carter’s parents were Protestants who worshiped in a series of denominations as he grew up. Then, at the University of Chicago, he read James Joyce’s semiautobiographical “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It introduced him, he wrote, to “the centrality of Catholicism in the history of Western civilization.”
He graduated in June 1946 and the next day was received into the Catholic Church. Three years later, he completed a master’s degree in Greek studies at his alma mater, and in 1953 he received his doctorate there. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1954 and was ordained in 1963.
Father Carter went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Columbia in 1981. By 1985 he was counseling AIDS patients at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx; he later became a supervisor of the outpatient AIDS program at the Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan.
For him, there was no contradiction between homosexuality and Christianity.
In his memoir, Father Carter wrote: “Since Jesus had table fellowship wi
th social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”

Gay Bishops: John of Tours (promiscuous, gay) and Ralph of Tours

In  1098!

With all the current fuss about the decision of the US Episcopal Church to consecrate openly gay bishops, and the Catholic Church’s declared hostility to gay priests and to gay marriage or even civil unions, we forget that in the older history of the church, it is not gay priests and bishops that are new, or gay marriage, but the opposition to them.  Many medieval and classical scholars have produced abundant evidence of clearly homosexual clergy, bishops, and even saints, and of church recognition of same sex unions.

gay bishops

Gay Bishops in Church History

One story is particularly striking.  At the close of the 11th Century, Archbishop Ralph of Tours persuaded the King of France to install as Bishop of Orleans a certain John  – who was widely known as Ralph’s gay lover, as he had previously been of Ralph’s brother and predecessor as Bishop of Orleans, of the king himself, and of several other prominent men.   This was strongly opposed by prominent churchmen, on the grounds that John was too young and would be too easily influenced by Ralph.  (Note, please, that the opposition was not based on the grounds of sexuality, or even of promiscuity.)  Ivo of Chartres tried to get Pope Urban II to intervene.  Now, Urban had strong personal reasons, based in ecclesiastical and national politics, to oppose Ralph.  Yet he declined to do so. In spite of well-founded opposition, John was consecrated Bishop of Orleans on March 1, 1098, when he joined two of his own lovers, and numerous  others, in the ranks of openly homosexual Catholic Bishops.

An earlier example was St Paulinus of Nola, whose feast day was celebrated earlier this month.  Paulinus was noted as both bishop and poet: his poetic “epistles” to his friend Faustinus are noted in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia.  What the CE does not remind us, is that Pulinus ans Faustinus were lovers, and the “epistles” were frankly homoerotic verse, which may be read today in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.  Church history for its first twelve centuries at least is littered with further stories of male and female clergy, some canonized or popularly recognised as saints, with clear homosexual orientations.  Some of these, as clergy, probably lived celibate lives.  Many clearly did not.

In England, there was Bishop Longchamps, the bishop that Richard the Lionheart made Regent. The well-knonwn line on him was that the barons would trust their daughters with him, but not their sons.

Gay Saints in Church History

Church history for its first twelve centuries at least is littered with further stories of male and female clergy, some canonized or popularly recognised as saints, with clear homosexual orientations. Some of these, as clergy, probably lived celibate lives. Many clearly did not. Among many examples from Church history, some of the better known are:

Aelred of Rievaulx (probably celibate, but wrote intensely ardent love letters to male friends);

St Patrick (believed to have worked as a prostitute in his youth, and may have taken a male lover in later life);

SS Sergius & Bacchus( Roman soldiers, lovers & martyrs)

St John of the Cross (Well known mystic, whose metaphorical poetry of his love for Christ uses frankly homoerotic imagery)

Cardinal John Henry Newman (soon to be beatified, was so devoted to his beloved friend Aubrey St John, that he insisted on being buried with him in the same grave.)

Same Sex Unions in Church History

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

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

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

See also on “Queering the Church“:

From the “Lesbian and Gay Catholic Handbook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also available on-line:

Burials in Greek Macedonia (Valerie Abrahamsen)
Books:

  • Donald Boisvert:  Sanctity and Male Desire – a Gay Reading of Saints
  • John Boswell:  Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality
  • Jon Boswell: Same Sex Unions in Pre-Mopdern Europe
  • Matthew Kuefler (ed): The Boswell Thesis
  • Bernadette Brooten:
    Love Between Women  -Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism
  • Alan Bray:  The Friend
  • Andrew Harvey: The Essential Gay Mystics

Gay Popes: The Embarrassing Death of Paul II

I’ve been reading Martin Duberman’s anthology, “Hidden From History”, and in particular James Saslow on Homosexuality in the Renaissance. One of Saslow’s key points is that at this time, men who had sex with men were not exclusive – in modern terms, they w0uld more likely be described as “bisexual”. In a passage about how the rich and powerful freely made sexual use of their subordinates, I came across this throwaway reference:

Similar patterns prevailed among the clergy and educated humanists. Charges against Paul II and Julius II centred around their seduction of much younger men; Cellini’s autobiography records a beautiful and talented youth, Luigi Pulci, who made a career out of service to Roman bishops.
Now, I knew about Julius II  – and for that matter, Julius III – but this was the first sexual gossip I have come across concerning Paul II, so I explored further.  This is what I found: it seems he died while being sodomized by  a page boy.
Paul II died, on July 26, 1471 of a stroke, allegedly whilst being sodomized by a page boy. After his death, one of his successors suggested that he should rather have been called Maria Pietissima, “Our Lady of Pity”, because he was inclined to break into tears at times of crisis. Some historians have suggested the nickname was rather due either to Paul propensity to enjoy dressing up in sumptuous ecclesiastical finery, or his likely homosexuality.

Nor was he the only cleric who enjoyed some male company.  Here’s Saslow again:

The intimate living arrangements of the all-male clerical world and the opportunities that educational and religious duties afforded for privacy and empiotional intimacy, while not themselves “causes” of of homosexuality, may have contributed circumstantially to their expression.  Priests in fifteenth century Venice and Stuart Sussex were convicted of sex with young parishioners, unpublished records of church trials in Loreto, Italy, in the 1570’s detail the activities of a choirboy who slept successively with various older monks……

Remember, while Paul II was enjoying his adventures with co-operative pages, elsewhere in Italy and the rest of Europe, “sodomites” were being burned at the stake for their “sin”.

Nor was it only Paul’s interest in boys that got my attention.  On his election as pope back 1464, the cardinals tried to rein in papal power (and thus to increase their own), by imposing s range of tight conditions, which:

  • bound the future pope to continue the Turkish war;
  • forbade him to journey outside Rome without the consent of the cardinals;
  • limited the number of cardinals to a maximum of twenty-four,
  • all creations of new cardinals were to be made only with the consent of the College of Cardinals.
  • Upon taking office, Paul II was to convene an ecumenical council within three years.

Alas, for the best laid plans of mice and men……

Paul II simply ignored these requirements, declaring  that election “capitulations”, which cardinals had long been in the habit of affirming as rules of conduct for future popes, could affect a new pope only as counsels, not as binding obligations. He then created a whole slew of new cardinals from his own loyalists.

Now, a half a millenium and more later, why does all this sound so familiar?
(Among his “achievements”, he was friendly to Christian scholars; he restored many ancient monuments; made a magnificent collection of antiquities and works of art; built the Palazzo di St. Marco, now the Palazzo di Venezia; and probably first introduced printing into Rome. Paul embellished the costume of the cardinals, and collected jewels for his own adornment.)

Pope Julius III

In his early career in the Church Julius established a reputation as an effective and trustworthy diplomat, and was elected to the Papacy as a compromise candidate when the Papal Conclave found itself deadlocked between the rival French and German factions. As Pope he lost, or failed to show, any of the qualities which had distinguished his previous career, devoting himself instead to a life of personal pleasure and indolence.  His lasting fame, or notoriety, rests rather on his relationship with the 17 year old boy whom he raised to the position of Cardinal-Nephew, and, it was said at the time, with whom he shared his bed
Julius_III
At the start of his reign Julius had desired seriously to bring about a reform of the Catholic Church and to reconvene the Council of Trent, but very little was actually achieved during his five years in office; apologists ascribe the inactivity of his last three years to severe gout.
In 1551, at the request of the Emperor Charles V, he consented to the reopening of the council of Trent and entered into a league against the duke of Parma and Henry II of France (1547–59), but soon afterwards made terms with his enemies and suspended the meetings of the council (1553). (For the history of papal conflicts with councils, see conciliar movement).
The Innocenzo scandal
Julius’s particular failures were around his nepotism and favouritism. One notable scandal surrounded his adoptive nephew, Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, a 13 or 14-year old beggar-boy whom the future Pope had picked up on the streets of Parma some years earlier and with whom he had allegedly fallen in love.On being elected to the Papacy Julius raised the now 17-year old but still uncouth and quasi-illiterate Innocenzo to the cardinalate, appointed him cardinal-nephew, and showering the boy with benefices

Artistic legacy

Julius spent the bulk of his time, and a great deal of Papal money, on entertainments at the Villa Giulia, created for him by Vignola. Julius extended his patronage to the great Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whom he brought to Rome as his maestro di cappella, Giorgio Vasari, who supervised the design of the Villa Giulia, and to Michelangelo, who worked there.

"And Grace Will Lead Me Home": A Conservative, Evangelical, Theological Case for Gay Marriage

There are, thankfully, many sources available today which can counter and debunk the infamous clobber texts which have for so long been used abused in the course of bigotry and exclusion. There are also an increasing number of progressive theologians who have thoughtfully addressed considered matters from an LGBT or queer perspective, and developed a growing body of gay and lesbian, or queer, theology. What we do not often see is sympathetic theology from a conservative evangelical straight ally.
I was delighted therefore. to come across a recent paper by Dr Mark, Achtemeier, who describes himself as can “out, self-affirming, practicing conservative evangelical”, in which he tells of the process of theological enquiry which led him to reverse his longstanding opposition to LGBT inclusion, and instead to argue in favour of same –sex marriage and ordination. Addressing the Covenant Network of Presbyterians on November 5 2009, Dr Achtermeier begins cautiously:
I have every confidence in the ability of my colleagues to address this discussion with genuine wisdom and deep insight. For myself I confess the topic makes me nervous. The reason is this: if you had told me just eight or nine years ago that on this date I would be standing before this group, speaking out in favor of marriage and ordination for lesbian and gay Christians, I would have declared you out of your mind.
But here I am, and here you are. And all I can say is that because of this experience I have learned never to make confident predictions about any situation in which God is involved.

This point about God’s own involvement is crucial. A further key point, one which we as gay men, lesbian and trans people of faith would do well to a ponder carefully, was that the transition began when he started to speak with gay and lesbian Christians themselves, and came to see how false were the stereotypes and assumptions that he had previously taken for granted. God, he says, “had other plans” than his earlier equanimity, and led him to serious conversation and friendship with some gay Christians. Getting to know them, talking to them, showed how deeply his earlier assumptions had come out of reading only the authors he already agreed with, and was based on the popular stereotypes of gay people. Talking to these people, he says, was a surprising and unsettling experience, because he discovered that entirely against his preconceptions, he found that these people shared a deep Christian faith similar to his own, who were willing to engage with him in frank and conversation in spite of their knowledge of his own deep opposition. He then found how his earlier “comfortable settled convictions started to crack”.
These false assumptions were:
  • Homosexuality is a destructive addiction – which means that talk of “justice” , “rights”, or “compassion” are meaningless.
  • Homosexuals are self-indulgent, putting their own self-gratification above all else
Instead, he found what is well known to us, and to any one who has looked at the research evidence. A same sex orientation is deep-seated in our make-up, not amenable to “change”, and that the people he was talking with were “devoted Christian believers, filled with grace and a loving concern for the downtrodden…and deeply engaged in spiritual discipline”: typical Christians, in fact, just like him. He was also surprised to find that they resembled him in another important respect – their lifelong commitments to partners.
One of the religious arguments against “homosexuals” is that such “acts” are said to lead us away from God. Talking to real people showed Achtemeier how by focussing instead on the relationships, he discovered that these were leading people not away from God, but to Him – in exactly the same way that he believed his own marriage drew him closer to God.
However, he also faces the fact, uncomfortable for evangelicals with a strict respect for Scripture, that he is, or may be, putting experience ahead of scripture. Struggling with this, he remembered a story from Augustine, who quotes from I John 2:6, that we should “walk in the way of the Lord” – and then refers to the celebrated passage in which the Lord walked on water. Quite clearly, it is not possible to accept every text precisely literally. He then concludes that what he is doing, in reflecting on his experience, is not putting above Scripture, but using it to interpret Scripture.
Looking again at Scripture, he found a powerful Scriptural basis to argue in favour of marriage equality. In Genesis 2, God says “It is not God for man to be alone. I will give him a companion to help him.”
This leads him to an extended discussion of the standard Calvinist theology against celibacy. (This is based on the idea from Paul that although celibacy is an ideal for those who are able to practice it, most people are unable to. To protect weaker men (which means most of us) from the sins that this inability will lead to, Paul encourages marriage). He recognises from his own life that living singly, before marriage, He realises that many of the stereotypes he has acquired of gay people are based on single people, deprived of the opportunity of marriage.
This is an excellent, thought-provoking article, which deserves to be read in full (do so here), especially by other conservative evangelicals. However, they are unlikely to be reading “Queering the Church”, so I will restrict my comment to its significance for queer Christians – and especially my cp-religionists in the Catholic Church.
First, note the importance of conversation. Dr Achtermerier’s conversion would not have begun without the dialogue with gay Christians who were willing to engage with him in full frank and friendly conversation, even though they knew (to start with) that he was strongly opposed, on firm religious grounds, to everything they stood for. Yet they persevered, and in this case, won a valuable ally. (I am quite sure that not every conversation results in a conversion. There will be many disappointments. The perseverance in the face of other setbacks is what makes the achievement of Dr Achtermeier’s friends especially notable.)
To get these conversations going, the “welcoming and affirming” programme now found in several denominations (such as the Presbyterian Moe Light churches) are invaluable.
In the Catholic church, opportunities for such interaction with Catholic decision makers are limited – Catholic bishops are not renowned for their skills a the “listening church” they proclaim themselves to be. However, there are opportunities to talk one to one with ordinary Catholics in conventional congregations, and with local parish priests. Mark Jordan “The Silence of Sodom” warns against the futility of trying to argue rationally with the institutional Church, and he is right. But it is certainly possible to talk rationally with ordinary Catholics, and often with the local priest as well,
This is why dedicated, explicitly queer congregations such as London’s Soho Masses are not enough. T
here have enormous value, as moral and emotional support for those who are just beginning to face the facts of their situation in the institutional Church, as support and spiritual sustenance for those of us who have moved on to advance the struggle by other means, and for their symbolic value. But they do nothing to change the perceptions of ordinary Catholics, in ordinary congregations. For that, we also need people to participate in local parishes, to become visible, and to engage in frank conversations with their new co-parishioners.
Secondly, note that we are not alone in this. Early in his address, Fr Achetemeier refers to God’s role in moving his ideas along “God had other ideas”). As Catholics, we tend to be less aware of this than the Protestants, but it is an important point. Fr John McNeill has repeatedly reminded us that the Holy Spirit has a way of turning te most unpromising circumstance to her advantage, and my be doing now, with the abundant evidence of clerical failings all around us. He is right.
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Lest We Forget: The Ashes of our Martyrs

For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored.  We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively.

So it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to .    and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome:  I do not wish to belittle it in any way.  However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.

For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period.  During the 11th century,  Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,

classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour

In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.

All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts.  Although this  penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.

Templars

Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying.  In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy.  (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the Templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).

To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused.  In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.

Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions;  and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted).  These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.

The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place.  Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) .  Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.

Protestant Europe

After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).

The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in  England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.

Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries.  It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.

It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith.  It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.

Sources:

Michael B Kelly on Gay Catholics and "The Church in Four Dimensions" (Part I)

A comment to my recent post at the Open Tabernacle ,“Excluded from God’s People: the Problem with Homosexualitatis Problema” puts the question, “Why not just join the Anglican Communion?”, a frequent question whenever I write about the flaws in the official Vatican line on “homosexuality”. (This is odd, as I have never yet seen the same question put to people who question the teaching on contraception, for instance.)
My short answer was:

Why, indeed? I may disagree (strongly) with the Vatican on certain issues, but the Catholic Church is far more than just a handful of power obsessed clerics in Rome, and far more than the bizarre teachings on sexuality. I will be writing more on this shortly.

My longer answer goes along the lines clearly expressed by the Australian Catholic theologian Michael B Kelly, in an address he gave in the Melbourne City Hall, at the invitation of the Cultural Affairs Office of the city of Melbourne in January 2004. This is contained in his excellent book, “Seduced by Grace: Contemporary spirituality, Gay experience and Christian faith”, which I was reading just yesterday, and which I summarize below.

Kelly’s preamble
Before discussing this specific question, Kelly reflects on the irony of the invitation he has received from the city where he grew up, a city with a past and culture which in many ways was deeply homophobic, where for many young people gay-bashing was seen as simple “sport” and recreation. He tells of a meeting he was once invited to, with two directors (one of them a priest) of of one of the most important Catholic social welfare networks in Melbourne. This organisation, he writes,

Does real grassroots work with prisoners, drug addicts, homeless lads, street workers, refugees. They represent the Church at its best.

Kelly had been invited to this meeting because field workers had identified the fact that a high proportion of the homeless young people were gay, and they wanted to know if he could offer guidance on how this agency could best use its resources in helping them. They had, he says, a useful discussion, he had to put to them a question of his own. Turning to the priest, he asked:

“Have you given any thought to how your organization might begin addressing the problem at source? How about changing the attitudes of people in homes and schools and parish churches and rural communities so that these people don’t end up on the street in the first place?”

(I should interject here, with the observation that around the world, verbal and physical bullying of gay youth are a major reason why young gay and lesbians are not only more prone to homelessness, but to a much higher rate of youth suicide than other groups.)
Of course, the directors had to admit that such an obvious approach to tackling the problem at source, would be way outside the mandate of a church-based agency.
The question and answer
In his address, Kelly then puts the key question:

I need to ask then, how I, as a gay man, can remain a Catholic.I many ways it would be easier for people like me to walk away from the institutional churches, shaking the dust from our feet as we go. I must say that, for many gay and lesbian people, they may need to do just that.
It is also worth noting that in the past few years the struggle within the churches has emerged into the spotlight worldwide. This is beginning to look like a watershed, defining concern for Christianity in the twenty-first century.
I would like to reflect with you on this experience of being gay and Catholic today. Because the topic is huge and time is short I am going to do so in broad brushstrokes. I would like to approach the topic under four headings: length, breadth, depth and height.

Length
By “length”, Kelly is referring to the long sweep of historical time over which current teaching has developed. He points out that the origins lay in a time when, with the supposed imminence of the second coming, virginity and celibacy came to be seen as ideals for all. Parallel with the exalted ideas about virginity and the celibate state, were also embedded older ideas from Hebrew culture embracing a “quagmire of ancient misogyny” embedded in the Jewish purity codes. Of course, marriage and family continued for some, but at the cost of developing an entrenched class-based society of two casts:

In those early centuries the developing church faced intense struggles between the reality of marriage, “house-holding”, procreation and the need for stable, structured forms of human community, and the radical “spiritual” renunciation of of time-bound, earthly, fleshly lifestyles..By the end of the Patristic period , a kind of “deal had been struck. In short, the church embraced the idea that permanent virginity, celibacy and total sexual renunciation were always to be preferred as a higher form of Christian life.However, marriage, sexual activity and procreation were to be permitted within specific norms……. for the purposes of procreation.

So, what we had developing here were not just two approved lifestyle for Christians, but two classes. Virgins, monks and committed celibates formed the higher class of Christian. Married people formed a lower class….. This “deal” was amazingly successful. So successful, that we have it still.

However, in the twentieth century, there emerged a major change in Church thinking about sex. It was finally recognised that sexual expression within marriage is not only about procreation, but also has a unitive value, and can be good i itself. This was recognised in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae”. This is best known for its controversial rejection of artificial contraception, but its acceptance of “natural” family planning, says Kelly, was in fact of enormous importance. This shift has not yet embraced gay people (or “artificial” methods of contraception, but it could.

“Of course, it is not a big step from here to suggest that same-sex couples can be committed, loving, generous and responsible in their sexual activity – and so they can be. When they come forward i the Church, however, and seek honest acceptance, support and blessing, only the collapse of the ancient “deal”, the old mentality around sex, body, pleasure and holiness comes into sharp focus.

This is one of the key reasons why gay relationships are becoming a watershed issue in the church. They make it clear that the structures, theology, legislation, and spirituality built up around the ancient “deal” regarding sexuality are falling apart. they call for honest change – or rather, they call for change to be faced honestly.

When I, as a gay Catholic, seek to engage with the institutional Church I need to be aware that I am at the centre of a maelstrom. I also need to see that the long and complex history I have so briefly sketched will continue to unfold, and that my life, faith and experiences are part of that. The “story” is far from over.

*****
To Kelly’s analysis of the history (which I endorse fully), I would add some further observations of my own. The historical development as he outlined it, did not unfold in a simple straight line. As medieval historians like John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, there were periods in the first millenium (and more) where the Church showed rather greater tolerance for homoerotic relationships than is commonly recognised – just as the following centuries saw vicious, active persecution under the Inquisition.
The early theologian, St Paulinus of Nola, is credited in the Church history with accomplished religious verse: elsewhere, he is remembered for the frankly erotic love poems he addressed to his male lover. Saints Sergius & Bacchus, and also Polyeuct & Nearchos, were two pairs of early martyrs – and both pairs were also lovers. In the medieval period, the saints Anselm of Canterbury, Alcuin and Aelred of Rievaulx were all renowned for their passionate (if celibate) male love affairs.
In the 11th century, a young man in France, John, was named as Bishop of Orleans. It was well-known that he had a history of promiscuous male love affairs, which included the king of France, Ralph, the Archbishop of Tours, and the previous Archbishop. The appointment was strongly opposed – not on the grounds of his sexuality, or even his promiscuity, but his youth. Nevertherless, the pope refused to intervene, and the consecration went ahead.
When Saint Peter Damian proposed a number of reforms to the practice of the Church, he included a plea for harsher condemnation of homesexual activity, which he claimed was rife in the monasteries. All his proposals were accepted by the reform- minded pope – except that on homosexuality.
Where the Church’s teaching and practice have fluctuated over the centuries, it will surely change again, just as it has already done on so many other issues of both doctrine and internal regulation.
(To come, in Part Two:
Kelly’s discussion of his other three “dimensions”- breadth, depth, and height.)
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Reclaiming Our Consciences

At NCR Online, Joan Chittister has a thoughtful reflection on the Irish Bishops’ Vatican visit – from a perspective inside Ireland.  After noting that there are fundamental differences between the responses of people in Ireland and America, where the response was  that “people picketed churches, signed petitions, demonstrated outside chanceries, and formed protest groups”, in Ireland the response appeared much more low-key – but in fact was deep, and may well be far more significant for the future of the Church, over the longer term.

In Ireland the gulf got wider and deeper by the day. It felt like the massive turning of a silent back against the bell towers and statues and holy water fonts behind it. No major public protests occurred. “Not at all,” as they are fond of saying. But the situation moved at the upper echelon of the country relatively quietly but like a glacier. Slowly but inexorably.

A country which, until recently, checked its constitution against “the teachings of the church” and had, therefore, allowed no contraceptives to be sold within its boundaries, unleashed its entire legal and political system against the storm.

They broke a hundred years of silence about the abuse of unwed mothers in the so-called “Magdalene Launderies.” They investigated the treatment of orphaned or homeless children in the “industrial schools” of the country where physical abuse had long been common. The government itself took public responsibility for having failed to monitor these state-owned but church-run programs. And they assessed compensatory damages, the results of which are still under review in the national parliament.

This point of the state getting involved is what for me, makes the Irish saga so riveting.   For the first time, the state is attempting to hold the church accountable. Are hey succeeding?  Clearly, the Church thus far is not accepting the responsibility. There have been assurances of outrage, but there has still not been any acceptance of the findings of the Murphy report, nor have any bishops yet accepted personal culpability. This has already done untold damage to the reputation and standing of the Church in Ireland.  Unless the institutional Church, and individual bishops, do start to acknowledge their culpability, there could easily be more damage. So far, only the Dublin diocese has been investigated. Public anger could easily force an extension to the rest of the country. I would not be surprised if the Irish example should lead, in turn, to similar state backed investigations in other countries. (UPDATE:  Already, there are signs that this could be happening in Germany, where the magazine Der Spiegel reports that the government wants the church to “come clean”)

No bishop, in a land where the burden of guilt fell heavily on the backs of Irish people, has admitted his own guilt, his own defense of the institution rather than the care of the children. No one has said, “The church — I — was wrong in the handling of this scandal. Therefore, I, too, am responsible for this abuse.”

So how are the Irish people reacting to the impasse? Well, as they opened Catholic Schools Week in Ireland this month, the Market Research Bureau of Ireland was reporting that 74 percent of the population think that “the church did not react properly to the Murphy Report” and that 61 percent of the population “want no Catholic control of elementary schools.” Little more than half of the respondents think the church will really change to prevent abuse in the future, and 47 percent feel more negative than before toward the church.

There is some small benefit emerging, though.  Instead of meekly and unquestioningly accepting the judgment of the Church on all matters of morality, ordinary Catholics are now recognising that the priests and bishops, like all humans, can sometimes err and fail, forcing the Irish people to recognise the value of their own consciences.

Meanwhile, the average Irish person in the pews digested the information and, at the same time, calmly but clearly to declare a separation between “the faith and the church,” between the sacramental system and the individual conscience. The sacraments they continued to respect, but church attendance has tumbled in the cities. Their individual consciences, on the other hand, they reclaimed. “They won’t be telling us what to do anymore,” an old man on the street said in one of the earliest public interviews on the problem. “We’ll be deciding that for ourselves.” And, to judge by local conversations and polling data years later, nothing much has changed in that regard.

Reclaiming our consciences: an example we could all usefully follow.

Read the full reflection at NCR online

AMA Condemns the Dangerous Heterosexual Perversion.

Well, not exactly – but they could just as well have done, as I will explain later.  first, what they actually did say:

“The nation’s largest doctors’ group has agreed to join efforts to repeal the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

The American Medical Association also voted to declare that gay marriage bans contribute to health disparities for gay couples and their children.

Both gay-rights policies were adopted Tuesday at the AMA’s interim policy meeting in Houston.

The AMA says the ‘don’t ask, don’t-tell’ law creates an ethical dilemma for gay service members and the doctors who treat them.

The other measure declares that marriage bans leave gays vulnerable to being excluded from health care benefits, including health insurance and family and medical leave rights. The new AMA policy stops short of opposing the bans.”

American Medical Association

There is a delicious irony in a medical group condemning discriminatory practices against gay and lesbian people, as it is well known that the much abused word “homosexual” was originally coined late in the 19th century as a medical term to denote what was then seen as a pathology.
Time has moved on, and personal orientation is no longer seen as a pathology for medical treatment, no matter what NARTH and the so-called “ex-gay” movement have to say about it.    Even the Catholic Church agrees that the “inclination” in a person is natural and not in itself sinful – they just need to allow their theology to catch up with the implications of this. Unfortunately though, the simple recognition that there is no pathology is not enough:  the damage has been done.

Let us now look at that late 19th century coinage, “heterosexual”. Yes, this too was a word invented in the 19th century, after its counterpart “homosexual”, and was also originally a medical term, used to denote a pathology.  Yes, that’s right – a pathology – specifically,

“a morbid obsession with the opposite sex.”

Now, “homosexuality” is no longer taken seriously as a pathology, but I submit that heterosexuality, as “a morbid obsession with the opposite sex”, is indeed a pathology and requires serious attention.  Let me explain.

In the context of a simple orientation, or as specific sexual acts, I obviously do not suggest that “heterosexuality” is diseased or unnatural, any more than I would make that claim about any other sexual orientation or activity.  However, at the level of society as a whole, the 20th century fixation with heterosexuality as a cultural norm to be imposed on all, fostered by this belief that it was “diseased”, aided and abetted by religious misinterpretations of Scripture and selective extracts from theology purporting to show that it is grievously sinful”, can certainly be called a morbid fascination, which has caused untold damage to the mental and physical health of many millions of people.  It is this insistence that people conform to externally imposed sexual norms, quite contrary to innate orientation and psychological health, that has caused much higher rates of youth suicide among gay and lesbian youth than among their peers; that has led to the bullying that is often the proximate cause of the suicides; that leads people in to lives of duplicity and fear in a closet; that has led to active persecution by many governments, from Nazi Germany to Iran, Sudan and Uganda today – and which lies at the bottom of the bans on gays in the military, or on gay marriage, which are the immediate issues addressed by the AMA.

This obsession is entirely unnatural.  Le t me restate once again, what should by now be well known, but sadly isn’t:

The homoerotic orientation is entirely natural, and has been found in all periods of history, in all parts of the world, and in most animal species.

Scientific research suggests that most people are neither exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, nor exclusively to the same sex. We lean more or less strongly to one or the other, but most of us are capable of responding to at least some degree to either.  Social pressures however, influence how we deal with this.

Societies too are not typically exclusively modelled on the patterned on the modern, misnamed Western idea of “traditional” marriage. This model, a monogamous union of one man and one woman joined in a love relationship consecrated in church to raise children, is unique to the last two centuries in the West. Before that, Western marriage was primarily about protecting property and inheritance rights. In many parts of the world, and among the Hebrew patriarchs, polygamy was commonplace. In classical Greece and Rome, where European culture largely began, men did not expect to find sexual or emotional fulfilment in marriage, but took it from slaves, prostitutes, concubines or male lovers – if they were privileged citizens. If not, chances are their sexual lives were determined by their owners or masters, not by themselves.

Among Christians, marriage in church was not required (and was sometimes not possible) until the 12th century. Indeed, it has been suggested that a church ceremony was obligatory only for priests who chose to marry.

Outside of Europe and North America, the so-called “traditional”, “time-honoured” model was even less typical until it was imposed by Western missionaries and colonial powers.

Even in the animal kingdom, exclusive heterosexuality is rare. Some degree of homosexuality is now known to occur in many, possibly most, animal species.

In short, the evidence from psychology, medicine, anthropology, history and zoology is that whereas homoeroticism is entirely natural if not common, exclusive heterosexuality is both unnatural and rare.  As such, I have no hesitation in labelling the social “morbid obsession with the opposite sex”  orientation as exclusive practice, and the resultant insistence on heterosexist laws and theology not only a social sexual perversion, but an extremely dangerous one.

Noah’s Queer Ark

Well, isn’t the rainbow part of the story, as well as a major gay symbol? What other couples would you expect? Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love blog has some wonderful shots of a painting by Paul Richmond, depicting well -known gay coples, and same sex animal pairs, enjoying married bliss on the decks, with prominent foes of equality drowning in the sea.

Noah's Gay Wedding Cruise, Marriage Evolved Edition

 Kittredge writes:

He was moved to create the work after California’s Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage last fall. Demonstrations across the United States in support of marriage equality inspired Richmond to paint a wickedly funny satire on the classic Bible story.In Genesis 6-9, God commands Noah to gather his family and heterosexual pairs of animals into a boat to rescue them from the global flood sent to destroy human evil and the violence of nature. After the flood, a rainbow appears as a symbol of God’s promise never again to destroy all life on earth.

How appropriate that the rainbow has become a symbol of GLBT pride! Richmond puts a fresh twist on the Biblical epic with his sweeping vision of a gay-positive new world. A rainbow flag flies high on the mast of Noah’s gay cruise ship. “As the clouds begin to part, a heavenly rainbow appears in the sky to remind hopeful voyagers that full legal recognition and acknowledgement of same-sex love is just over the horizon,” Richmond explains.

This is huge fun, with the visual puns spelt out for those unable to instantly recognise each face.  Just what we need to cheer us in the aftermath of the loss in Maine:  a reminder that victory in the long run will still be ours.

Apart from fun, of course, the idea of gay couples on the ark is entirely appropriate. Sexual diversity is everywhere in the animal kingdom, just as it is in human society. See “Natural Families: The Wildlife Rainbow“, at Queering the Church.


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