Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Blood-Soaked Thread

In their understanding and treatment of gays,
aspects of both
Roman Catholicism and Islam
share a common, blood-soaked thread.

Above: Gay Iranian teenagers Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari being publicly executed in Iran by the Islamic fundamentalist government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Sadly, the putting to death of homosexual persons is also part of Roman Catholicism’s history. And to this day, the Vatican continues to dehumanize gay people through its language, its support of discriminatory legislation, and its arrogant refusal to listen and learn from gay people’s experience of God in their lives and relationships.

Many have been quick to condemn the comments on homosexuality made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a speech he delivered yesterday at Columbia University in New York.

Along with questioning the official version of the September 11 attacks and defending the right to cast doubts on the Holocaust, the hard line Islamic leader, when questioned on the execution of homosexuals in Iran, declared: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

With the audience laughing derisively, he continued: “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.” What was lost in translation was Ahmadinejad’s accurate observation that openly gay people do not exist in Iran. And given the view and treatment of gay people by certain aspects of Islam, I can understand why.

Nothing to crow about

Some Christians – including Catholics – have seized on President Ahmadinejad’s remarks as proof that Islam, in general, is backward and worthy of disdain. There’s an obvious “holier than thou” attitude at play.

But let’s be clear: Roman Catholicism has nothing to crow about when it comes to an enlightened and compassionate understanding and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Like the reactionary form of Islam promoted by Ahmadinejad, the theology of the Vatican discourages affirmation of gay identity. Oh, to be sure, the pope isn’t calling for our execution. Yet as internationally-renowned advocate for the abolition of the death penalty Sr. Helen Prejean reminded Catholics at the Sixth National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality held earlier this year in Minneapolis, the first step in denying and “removing” a human being is to declare them “somehow not quite human, not like how we are . . . to say that they’re ‘disordered’” – a reference to the dehumanizing language used by the Vatican to describe the orientation of gay people.

Such terminology, Prejean insists, fails to recognize the full dignity of all human beings and thus contributes to the “greatest form of disrespect.”

Getting to know our own history

This disrespect infuses the official teachings of the Vatican on homosexuality, for as Fr. Joseph O’Leary has observed: “The objective immorality of gay sexual expression in all circumstances, along with its logical correlative, the “intrinsically disordered” character of the homosexual orientation itself, form the core of current Vatican teaching.”

In his 1998 article, “Mother Church and Her Gay/Lesbian Children,” O’Leary delivers a devastating critique of the historical record of Roman Catholicism’s treatment of homosexual persons:

When the Vatican formulated its official apology for the Inquisition [in 1998], the multitudes burnt as heretics and witches were duly remembered. But no mention was made of the thousands of gay people burnt directly by the Papal States down to 1750 and executed in other states with papal approval.

Above: Accused of sodomy by the Inquisition,
the knight of Hohenberg and his servant
are burnt
at the stake before the walls of Zürich in 1482.

“Sodomites” were demonized in exactly the same style as “witches” were, and treated with equal brutality. Sixteenth century missionaries had sodomites burnt in the Philippines at the same time as they were having Jews burnt in India. But there is no evidence that this weighs on the Vatican’s conscience.

Today in Afghanistan gay men are commonly “stoned”, with the help of walls and bulldozers. The Vatican, which collaborates with fundamentalist Muslims on family planning issues, can scarcely condemn this, since in its own teaching it still gives prominence to the texts in Leviticus that call for such stonings.

Even in the contemporary Western world, the Vatican is complicit in the oppression, suffering, and death of LGBT people. For as O’Leary notes: “Where the human voice and the questioning intelligence have been silenced [by the Vatican], it seems that blood has to speak instead. I am thinking . . . of the many gay teenagers who have been pushed to suicide by the failure of parents and clergy to speak a word of acceptance.”

The blood-soaked thread of violence

There is a blood-soaked thread of both physical and spiritual violence against LGBT people that runs through human history, and it is the inevitable result of ideologies that, in one way or another, perceive and label LGBT people as intrinsically “the other.” And when one acknowledges that the foundational texts of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all declare that such “otherness” must be punished by death, is it any wonder that the histories of these religions are soaked with the blood of LGBT people?

Above: Franciscan friars, convicted of sodomy,
being burned at the stake.

As we’ve witnessed recently in Iran, Islam’s called for punishment of death is being enacted in the public hanging of gay men. Roman Catholicism, to its credit, has chosen to renounce the biblical call for death to homosexuals. Accordingly, it has moved beyond burning “sodomites” at the stake – its once-preferred method of execution. Yet the impulse to demonize and thus, by extension, destroy “the other,” lies just below the surface of the Vatican’s rhetoric concerning gay people.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder: if aspects of secular society had not led the way in the movement towards democracy and enlightenment, would the Vatican still be manifesting its intolerance of those who dare dissent by publicly executing “heretics,” “witches,” and “sodomites”? Perhaps to answer this question we need only to look to modern-day Iran, a country dominated by a religion that, unlike Christianity, is yet to experience any significant form of reformation (prompted, in part, by progressive movements within secular society).

The mindset of intolerance

The Vatican would strenuously denounce and deny all of this, of course. But without doubt, the current official Vatican stance is that it will not tolerate any alternative way of thinking about homosexuality. It and it alone has the truth! Dissenting voices will not be tolerated!

Yet according to Nigerian writer and human rights activist Wole Soyinka, it is this mindset of intolerance that “destroys the creative or adventurous of any community.” Those who are consumed by such thinking, he notes, seem “permanently in the dark ages, in the darkest ages of superstition.” The minds of such people are set “not on questions, but on the mantra, ‘I am right, you are wrong.’”

Such a mantra is relentlessly echoed in the Vatican’s pronouncements on homosexuality. And this mind-numbing echo is a subtle and sophisticated way of meting out a life-denying punishment to gay people. Listen to it long enough and you go mad – or at least you’ll be diminished as a fully functioning human being of reason and compassion. Why? Because the echo ensures that genuine acceptance, affirmation, and love are denied to LGBT people. Furthermore, we’re reduced to objects.

As gay British theologian James Alison has observed, “[In Vatican documents], we are only a ‘they’ – objects referred to. . . We are not capable of being subjects by virtue of our having ‘come out,’ our having come to regard being gay or lesbian as part of our lives to be welcomed. The only ‘homosexual’ persons who might be subjects in such discourse are those who accept that [in the language of the Vatican] their inclination is a more or less strong tendency towards acts which are intrinsically evil, and must therefore itself be considered objectively disordered.”

Broken spirits, broken sexualities

What are the consequences of such denial and objectification? I believe Thomas Stevenson provides a realistic, though disturbing, answer in his book, Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men.

Writes Stevenson: “As a direct consequence of the profound lack of love for their homosexuality – lack of love from families, from society, from religions, from other gay people – the spirits and sexualities of gay people are often broken. As a result of this brokenness, I believe there are often two predominant, related, and calcified responses to sexuality in the lives of gay people. These are self-hated and despair.”

Tragically, for many LGBT Catholics, when their God-given nature is maligned and condemned by the Church, their “execution” (spiritually and/or physically) is often self-inflicted – via drug abuse, promiscuity, and any number of other self-destructive behaviors and actions common among the “broken.”

Weaving a new theology

What is to be done? Well, for a start, the Roman Catholic Church must admit that its teachings on sexuality (including homosexuality) do not reflect the fullness, the totality of this wondrously diverse aspect of human experience.

Next, at the official level, the Church must apologize for the great harm that it has done over the centuries as a result of believing (for whatever reason) that it does have a monopoly on truth with regards to sexuality.

The Church must then declare itself ready to listen and to learn. Only then can we begin the process – the journey – by which a healthy theology on human sexuality is weaved and articulated by the Roman Catholic Church.

And in weaving this theology, this way of talking about God’s loving presence in human life, we must recognize, as Catholic historian Gary Macy reminds us, that “dogmas of tradition exist not as truths complete in themselves, but rather as resources for helping us discover the ever greater glory of the God whose gift of self pervades all possible experience.”

All such efforts and resources in this “discovering” must heed the imperatives of moral authenticity spelled out by Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, S.J.: We must pay attention; we must be intelligent; we must be reasonable; and we must be responsible.

If, as Catholics, we can commit to these basic imperatives while undertaking an ongoing journey of discovery with regards to human sexuality, then we may yet cut ourselves free from that blood-soaked thread that connects us not only to our own past and present sinful attitudes and actions, but to the atrocities taking place today in Iran and, indeed, in any place where the lives and relationships of LGBT people are diminished, dehumanized, and destroyed.

Image 1: Homan: The Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization, Inc.
Image 2: Diebold Schilling, Chronik der Burgunderkriege, Schweizer Bilderchronik, Band 3, um 1483, Zürich, Zentralbibliothek).
Image 3: “The Punishment of Sodomites.” Franz Hogenberg (15th century), Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. - Van Stolk collection, Rotterdam - Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam.
Image 4: “Despair” by Herdwhite.
Image 5: “Touched” (1997) by
Steve Walker.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Listen Up, Papa!
Inclusive Catholics Celebrate Gay Pride
A Catholic’s Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal and Reform
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men - A Discussion Guide
An Unholy Alliance in Iraq

Recommended Off-site Links:

Witnesses to an Execution - Richard Kim (The Nation, August 7, 2005).
Iran’s State-sanctioned Torture and Murder of Lesbians and Gay Men - A report by Simon Forbes.
Homan: The Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization, Inc.
The World History of Male Love
The Gay Holocaust

1 comment:

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thank you for this powerful post on an important topic. I especially appreciate how you include details on the 2005 execution in Iran and make the connections between historical time periods and religions. I included a link to this piece today at the Jesus in Love Blog:

Ash Wednesday: A day to recall queers executed for sodomy