Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon

To mark the day traditionally dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, I’d like to share an excerpt from Donald L. Boisvert’s book Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints.

Boisvert maintains that human desire has the potential to serve as a path to spiritual wholeness, and in Sanctity and Male Desire he looks at how saints - and one’s devotion to them - can be sites for the confirmation and celebration of homoerotic desire. He comes to the topic as a gay scholar of religion and draws upon his own experience of saints - including his years in seminary beginning at age thirteen.

Following are excerpts from Boivert’s reflection on Michael the Archangel.


Tradition has it that Saint Michael fought against the forces of the angel Lucifer at the beginning of the world, when the latter rose up in rebellion against God and was flung into the eternal fires of hell after the primeval battle between good and evil. Because of this, Michael has always been cast in the guise of a warrior, and customary images show him standing proudly and triumphantly on top of a dragon – the devil himself – with victorious spear or sword in hand. He is always handsome. Some traditions maintain Michael was the angel sent to drive Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and that he was also the one who guided the Israelites through the desert.

In conventional Catholic teaching, he is seen as the fearless defender of the church against the forces of a heretical world. Saint Michael the Archangel has always been characterized as a protector of what is right, just, and good. In fact, he has been used time and again as a staunchly conservative symbol of defense against the apparently corrosive evils of liberalism and communism.

Before the revision of the church’s calendar of saints in the 1970s, he shared his feast day, September 29, with the two other important angelic figures of the Bible: Gabriel and Raphael, messenger and guide, respectively. This day now belongs not to the three archangels, whose existence can’t really be proven, but to a series of minor and far more prosaic Blesseds, thereby demonstrating how far the mighty can sometimes fall. Michael, who no longer officially has a feast day of his own, is also one of the few saints shared by different religious traditions, a sort of ecumenical go-between. He is God’s right-hand man, the one who gets the job done and who always does it so well.

As an angel, Saint Michael is, of course, a spirit. Strictly speaking, no one really knows what he looks like, though one can always argue about how many of his angelic companions can dance on the head of a pin, as medieval theologians were so fond of asking. It is therefore possible to picture him as we see fit.

Angelic creatures are usually portrayed as either female or as highly androgynous. Images show them as soft, slightly vaporous beings. They are usually clothed in flowing pink or powder-blue pastel robes. Michael, on the other hand, is a military man, a gladiator, a born fighter. In Catholic tradition, he is also the patron saint of policemen, a highly masculinized and violent profession.

One is struck, however, by the almost contradictory way in which his face is depicted. At times, he has the sexually ambivalent look typical of angels; at others, he resembles a modern athlete, that paragon of manly energy and charisma. There is an inherent ambivalence to the figure of Michael: he is either very masculine-looking or he is genderless (or perhaps even bisexual, depending on your perspective).

The defender of the Catholic Church is therefore a sexually uncertain creature. This is highly symbolic, I would argue, of the church’s discourse on eroticism generally – a discourse which, while claiming to be clearly unambiguous in its defense of gender roles, nonetheless harbors a strangely flirtatious pull towards sexual equivocation.

This equivocation should come as no surprise. The most visible champions of Roman Catholic orthodoxy have always been portrayed as strongly and capably masculine, while beneath their ermine robes there lingers the musky scent of homoerotic desire. Whether they be pope, bishop, theologian, or saint, their shrill clamors for sexual uprightness and doctrinal certitude go hand-in-hand, bespeaking their own ambivalence and confusion. But reality always shines through, and the cassock is sooner or later revealed as the drag outfit that it truly is. It therefore makes perfect sense that the angelic guardian of the Church of Rome should be so sexually charged in his masculinity, but that he also carry a suggestion of same-sex ardor and desire, of gender ambivalence and erotic ambiguity.

. . . Portraying Michael as defender and champion is to represent him in the guise of virile masculinity. It is this notion of masculinity, that of the male figure as protector, that mirrors an unconscious desire we have as gay men, individually and collectively, to feel safe and secure, and that reveals the potential use of Michael the Archangel as a gay icon.

As a community, we do not have very many religious archetypes. Some, such as our identification as a “tribe,” make reference to a Judeo-Christian biblical discourse stressing our unique historical role; others, alluding to special individuals such as “two-spirited person,” are more culture-specific. There are personages, such as Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, or Matthew Shepard, who have even attained the uniquely sacred status of gay martyrs.

All these, in some way, speak to an overwhelming need to give spiritual voice and vision to our common experience as gay men. From a catholic – that is, universal – perspective, Michael could exemplify strength and firmness in the face of another evil, that of homophobia. The sword-bearing, handsome archangel could be the one who comes valiantly to our rescue. He could be our “shield of righteousness” in our moments of adversity and rejection: Michael as both defender and comforter.

Michael is also the favorite of the deity. In his role, he touches upon, and could reflect, our privileged role and place as gay men in the economy of salvation. In our identification with him, we also become favorites of the divinity, despite our status as sexual outcasts. A source of affirmation, this unique and positive position with respect to the sacred calls forth and makes possible a greater acceptance and celebration of our erotic difference. It points furthermore to a view of sexual difference as a moment of redemptive potentiality.


Donald Boisvert concludes his chapter on Michael the Archangel with the following prayer:

Blessed Michael the Archangel,
favorite of the deity, carrier of light, stand by our side.
Be our breastplate in times of doubt and uncertainty,
when the world would rather we not exist.
We know we have been blessed with a holy purpose.
Cover us with your strong and gentle wings.
Shelter us under your noble and manly cloak.
Lead us in our battle against the fear
and hatred of sexual difference.
And may your angelic face
smile upon us forever.


Recommended Off-site Links:
St. Michael the Archangel in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Toby Johnson’s review of Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of the Saints.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic High Mass: Beautiful and Inherently Gay?
Real Holiness
In the Garden of Spirituality: Toby Johnson
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
A Fresh Take on Masculinity
Bless Me, Father

Saturday Night

Yes, Friday night is usually “music night” at The Wild Reed, but the title of the song I’d like to share this evening makes tonight much more appropriate.

It’s “Saturday Night” by one of my favorite bands, Suede.


We’re going out tonight,
out and about tonight.

Oh, whatever makes him happy
on a Saturday night.

Oh, whatever makes him happy,
whatever makes it alright.

For more music on The Wild Reed, visit:
Engelbert Humperdinck: Not That Easy to Forget
Yeah, Baby, Yeah!
Rules and Regulations – Rufus Style
The Man I Love
Fleetwood Mac’s “Seven Wonders” – My Theme Song for 1987
Crackerjack Man
All at Sea
The Beauty and Wisdom of Rosanne Cash
Actually, I Do Feel Like Dancing
“And A Pitcher to Go”
Classic Dusty
Soul Deep

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

General Strike for Peace

Recently, two national initiatives – the Iraq Moratorium Committee and the General Strike for Peace – have called for making the third Friday of every month a day of activity against the Iraq War.

The first of these “days of activity” (or inactivity, I guess, in the case of the General Strike!) was last Friday, September 21. Accordingly, I joined with approximately 40 others for an anti-war protest and bannering at Mayday Plaza on the West Bank in Minneapolis.

As a member of the Minnesota War Resisters League (Sister Rita Steinhagen Chapter), I’ve worked with a number of others (including my friends Shane and Lauren, pictured in the opening photograph) in organizing and promoting the General Strike for Peace initiative. Indeed, this national initiative grew out of our local chapter.

We believe that the general strike is the most powerful action we can take to show our opposition to the actions of those in charge of the U.S. war economy or “war machine.” Much, if not all, of the power that fuels this machine is derived from our labor and our consumption of products. Accordingly, every bit of labor we withhold and every reduction in our consumption translates as power withheld from this death-dealing machine.

I mean, think about it: George W. Bush’s advice to the citizens of the U.S. after the 9/11 tragedy was to go out and spend. He and his fellow war profiteering buddies know full well that a portion of every dollar we spend and every dollar we earn is siphoned to finance war and to provide profits to the military contractors – the “merchants of death.”

Yet as Gandhi recognized in India during the struggle against British colonial rule, ordinary people have the power to keep money and resources from those in positions of power. And change – radical change – can occur as a result. It’s the age-old strategy of active non-cooperation.

While it is obvious that in the current economic framework of our society we must work and spend in order to survive, we can for a day, or part of a day, withhold our labor and refuse to spend any or some of the money we have earned.

To be sure, the U.S. “war machine” can operate in the face of a certain amount of dissent. Its ability to do so, however, is ultimately limited. There is a point at which sufficient solidarity between the people can cause the war machine to grind to a halt.

Our goal in the months ahead is to get sufficient participation in the “third Friday of the month” General Strike so as to raise the level of dissent beyond that at which the war machine can continue to operate. We can make it happen!

Okay, enough of the political speech! Following are photos from last Friday’s rally at Mayday Plaza.

Above: My friend Marv Davidov was the founder of the Honeywell Project, a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride of 2003.

Currently, Marv teaches in the University of St. Thomas’ Justice and Peace Studies Program, heads the Minnesota War Resisters League, and is working on his autobiography.

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering 9/11 and Its Aftermath
Let’s Also Honor the “Expendables”
Praying for George W. Bush
An Unholy Alliance in Iraq
In Search of a “Global Ethic”
When Terror is the Foil
More Propaganda Than Plot?
John le Carré’s Dark Suspicions
A Reign of Ignorance and Fear in the U.S.
John Pilger on Resisting Empire

Better Late Than Never


I’ll be the first to admit that I can be pretty tardy in responding to comments left on The Wild Reed.

At times, this tardiness is to do with the fact that I’m way too much of a perfectionist when it comes to my writing. I just can’t slap together any old response! I feel that as much care and thought needs to go into them as into the various posts that comprise the main part of this blog. As a result, unless I feel I can devote the time and energy required, I often don’t respond to comments left by others.

I did, however, finally respond to a comment left by “Dan” to a commentary I posted on The Wild Reed in March of this year. But there’s a bit of a story concerning why I decided to finally respond, so please bear with me!

When this same post of mine was republished as a commentary in the Spring 2007 issue of
CPCSM’s Rainbow Spirit journal, I gave it the title, “Come As You Are.” And it was this title (along with the overall message of my commentary) that served as both the name and theme of a recent retreat for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics that took place at Dunrovin Christian Brothers Retreat Center (pictured below), just outside of Stillwater, Minnesota.

“Remembering and Celebrating Our Spirit-led Journeys as Catholic LGBT People” was the name I gave to the part of this retreat that I had the honor of facilitating. Specifically, I facilitated a discussion on our journeys as LGBT Catholics, and the whole idea of journeying as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

The opening reflection I used spoke of transcendence having to do with the different and clearer perspective gained as a result of “claiming and proclaiming” our “inner reality of sacredness brought to consciousness by delving deep within and engaging our true self – that part of us most infused with God.”

Indeed, the whole retreat sought to provide opportunities for this “delving deep within,” this engaging with our deeper selves and with God. And the hope was that through this engagement with self, God, and each other, we would come to a greater awareness and appreciation of God’s loving presence in our lives and relationships as LGBT people. And indeed, I felt that those participating in the retreat experienced this “greater awareness and appreciation.”

Because the theme of the retreat was inspired by my commentary, “Come As You Are,” I felt it important to share Dan’s response to this particular piece of writing – one that at The Wild Reed was originally published as “Trusting God’s Generous Invitation.”

Here’s part of what Dan had to say:

You state that you disagree that this “deep longing” is disordered and that the Vatican is wrong for condemning homosexual intimacy. I’m sure that you, as do I, have many other interior desires that you do not act upon because you believe them to be wrong. Why is this desire singled out as good, in contradiction to traditional Christian teaching? How do you tell the good from the bad?

The call to repentance implies the existence of certain habits that must be rejected as incompatible with following Jesus. Again I ask, how do you tell the good habits from the bad ones?

Do you really think Jesus taught “just come as you are” and don’t worry about changing how you live? Where is that in the gospels? Are there NO ways of living that Jesus would disapprove of?

Following are the four questions I devised to help facilitate discussion at the retreat around Dan’s response to my commentary:

1. These are valid questions that Dan raises. How would you respond to them?

2. What do Dan’s comments and questions tell you about his understanding of God and the Church?

3. How are they different from your understanding? How do you account for this difference?

4. How do you generally respond to the Dans of the Church? How should we respond as LGBT persons of faith? Is dialogue possible?

In preparing these questions I soon realized that I needed to respond to Dan, and so wrote the following, posted it on The Wild Reed and, days later, shared it with those in attendance at the retreat:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for stopping by The Wild Reed and sharing your perspective.

You asked: “How do you tell the good [teachings] from the bad?”

First, I wouldn’t use the term “bad,” but rather “inadequate.” These inadequate (or poorly thought through) teachings don’t lead to either individual or communal flourishing. In other words, for the vast majority of LGBT people, these teachings don’t lead to that “fullness of life” talked about by our brother Jesus.

Gay people who accept who they are, view their sexuality as a sacred gift, and share this gift with another through a loving relationship, flourish as people. And healthy, happy, and flourishing people contribute to a healthy, happy, and flourishing church and society. The Church’s teaching fails to reflect this truth.

Thus these teachings are inadequate as they fail to draw on people’s lived experience of God in their lives and relationships. They also fail to draw from the findings of science – including the social sciences. Because of this failure these teachings do not inspire or give hope. How could they when they’re so inadequately formulated and expressed? LGBT folks (and others) instinctively sense this about these particular teachings and, as a result, dissent from them, trusting instead their experiences of God’s love discerned in their lives and relationships. Such dissent is an act of integrity. Such trust is an act of faith.

You ask: “How do you tell the good habits from the bad ones?”

Again, it’s all about what they lead to. And to ascertain the truth about this, you have to be prepared to talk and listen to those who are actually engaging in what you’re terming “habits.” In formulating and developing its teachings on homosexuality, the Vatican has closed itself off from the Spirit by its refusal to listen to the experiences and wisdom of science and of LGBT people themselves.

You ask: “Are there NO ways of living that Jesus would disapprove of?”

Of course there are, and they’re to do with acting in ways that dehumanize and objectify one self and others. In the realm of human sexuality, anyone – gay or straight – is capable of such “ways of living” (not that I’d call them really “living”!) Yet at the same time both gay and straight people can choose to live and love through their sexualities in life-giving, caring, and respectful ways. Such ways led to lives and relationships of awareness, compassion, integrity, and wholeness. They also lead to that individual and communal flourishing, that fullness of life, I spoke of earlier.



Photography of the natural beauty around the Dunrovin Christian Brothers Retreat Center by Michael Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
The Many Forms of Courage

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Listen Up, Papa!

A friend recently brought to my attention an interesting article by Fr. Paul Surlis.

Published in the April 2007 issue of the Irish journal The Furrow, Surlis’ article calls upon Pope Benedict XVI to listen and dialogue with God’s hurting people – women, survivors of clerical sexual abuse, priests who have retired to marry yet who continue to feel called to active ministry, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics.

Following is that part of Fr. Surlis’ article that deals with this latter group of Catholics.


Benedict should listen to gay, lesbian, and transgender Catholics who presumably are around 6% of all Catholics, as they are of the general population. He should reflect on their affirmation that sexual orientation is a discovery not a choice, an insight unknown to biblical writers two and three thousand years ago who assumed that all persons were heterosexual and only the perverse opted for homosexual relationships.

This insight alone invalidates the shaky biblical strictures condemning homosexuality, which have much to do with taboos against non-procreative sexuality when infant mortality was high and a beleaguered Israel needed soldiers and workers for its very survival.

And Benedict would be asked to ponder the fact that slavery is endorsed and even mandated far more strenuously than homosexuality is condemned in the Bible. Yet, today slavery is regarded as intrinsically evil and is everywhere condemned, even if practiced in places. But if such a turnaround of biblical teaching can occur in the area of slavery, why may we not witness a reversal of centuries of misguided condemnations of homosexuality which is increasingly recognized as neither disordered nor sinful when consensually embraced in equal relationships?

Benedict is too good a theologian not to recognize that describing moral rules and strictures that are changeable and are culturally conditioned and have varied over time, as Catholic teaching is misleading both to Catholics and those who are outside the Church but influenced by its positions.

There is a hierarchy of truths in Catholic teaching and these revolve around the good news of the divine mystery communicating a share in divine life to humans through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

Fr. Paul Surlis was professor of Catholic Social Teaching at St. John's University, New York from 1975-2000. He is now retired in Crofton, Maryland, writing and doing occasional parish ministry.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Beyond a PC Pope
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
The Bible and Homosexuality
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced”
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
The Many Forms of Courage
What it Means to be Catholic

Saturday, September 22, 2007

St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality

In part of his book, The Lessons of St. Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life, John Michael Talbot reflects on what we can learn about human sexuality from St. Francis of Assisi.

An avowed celibate, Francis, writes Talbot, nevertheless “displayed an amazing balance when it came to sexuality. On the one hand, he respected its beauty and power. On the other hand, he wasn’t naive about his own - or anybody else’s - ability to let his spiritual values guide sexual behavior.”

Following are some of the insights on sexuality that Talbot discerns from the life and spirituality of St. Francis. Note how these “lessons,” as understood and expressed by Talbot, are readily applicable to both straight and gay people.

– Cherish your sexuality, and be aware of how important it is in your personality and your life.

– Receive your sexuality as a God-given gift. Don’t overvalue or undervalue it. Don’t be afraid of it or addicted to it.

– Allow sex to help you in your relationship with God and others, building love and intimacy rather than causing tension and jealousy.

– Use sex in an appropriate way, in a holy way, and in a way that respects God and others.

– Don’t be too conceited about your ability to resist whatever temptations come your way. Set sane limits for yourself and live within them. And define limits for you and your partner that you can both agree on and that increase your level of trust and intimacy with each other.

– Finally, think of sex as a means of communication, not primarily as a means of pleasure. Look at it as a way of giving pleasure to your partner instead of taking pleasure for yourself. This is how sex begins to be more like divine love. As we grow in sexual wholeness, our sexuality can be united with our spirituality, giving us a hint of what ultimate spiritual union is like.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
St. Francis of Assisi: Dancer, Rebel, Archetype
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
The Sexuality of Jesus
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part I)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part II)
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men - A Discussion Guide
The Many Forms of Courage

Image: “Surrender” by Kevin Raye Larson (St. Francis of Assisi surrendering the material world, from Larson's “Saint” Series).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Gay World Cup

The 10th Gay World Cup kicks off this week in Buenos Aires. It’s the first time the tournament has been held in Latin America – a region, notes the BBC, “dominated by macho culture and traditional [Roman] Catholic values.” Yet it’s also “a continent mad about its football.” As a result, football fans throughout the region are showing support for the Gay World Cup.

Gay and lesbian football teams began to appear on the scene almost three decades ago and the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association was soon formed to act as a governing body for the sport. The goal of the organization is to “engender respect and understanding from the non-gay world, through the medium of football (soccer).”

Close to 30 teams from nine countries are competing in this year’s Gay World Cup – one that’s expected to be the biggest ever, with categories for both men and women.

Mexico’s gay soccer team with, presumably,
one of the team member’s mother!

According to the BBC report I watched earlier this evening, “the world of soccer is one facet of life that many gay fans say they feel isolated from. The International Gay and Lesbian Football Association says this tournament gives players the chance to compete in the sport they love without fear of discrimination.”

For some of the players it’s also a chance to dispel stereotypes about gay life: “We want to abolish the belief that the gay community is always found in nightclubs – drinking, looking for sex, and taking drugs,” one player told the BBC.

The event will be played in Buenos Aires’ Sarmiento Park and is supported by the Argentina Soccer Association (AFA), the Argentine Homosexuality Community (CHA), and football’s international governing body, FIFA.

AFA vice president Julio Grondona said: “The World Championship is a sports and political event with a clear message: every player has the right to calmly express his sexual orientation without any kind of prejudice.”

Gay soccer player Diego Alfonso

The opening ceremony for the tournament will take place on Sunday, September 23rd, and will kick off the week long event.

In 2008 the Gay World Cup will be held in London.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Soccer
Germany’s Gay Soccer Players Stuck Firmly in the Closet
Gay World Cup Reaches Its Anti-Climax - Monkey Woods (, May 9, 2007).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!

What It Means to Be Catholic

The United Church of Christ has recently launched a fun new outreach campaign in which sixteen reasons are shared for why members love their church.

Reason number one for loving the UCC? “Because it’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz – it’s about having a heart and a brain. And courage!”

What a pity that these words can’t be used to describe the Roman Catholic Church.

Do you think I’m being too harsh? Perhaps. Certainly throughout its history the Roman Catholic Church has done some great and noble things, and has undoubtedly been a light of hope, strength, and guidance for many. I think of the great Catholic “cloud of witnesses,” populated by such inspiring people like St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Bede Griffiths, Mother Teresa, Mychal Judge, to name just a few. All of these Catholic men and women embodied, in numerous and diverse ways, the healing and transforming love of God.

Yet in the area of human sexuality, I think a pretty clear case can be made that,
throughout its history, the institutional component of the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated a lack of wisdom and compassion, has discouraged people from thinking and raising informed questions, and has dismissed and maligned courageous acts of truth telling.

As a Catholic, I lament this sad and sorry state of affairs. Yet I remain dedicated to working with others so as to bring about reform, renewal, change, and transformation – convinced, as I am, that such work is inspired and led by God’s spirit.

Recently, my friend Mary Beckfeld, a fellow worker in the holy work of renewal and reform, shared with me an article from the May 30, 2005 issue of America Magazine. Written by Fr. James J. DiGiacomo (left) and entitled “Little Gray Cells,” this article begins with DiGiacomo relating an exchange between himself and a parishioner (whom he refers to as “Virginia”) who had expressed shock that DiGiacomo had brought up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood. After all, “Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue out of bounds.”

As DiGiacomo notes early in his article, “This dispute was not just about women’s ordination but about something much more basic. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic, and it sheds light on the divisions that presently trouble the church and threaten to tear it apart.”

Following are excerpts from DiGiacomo’s article – one that with heart, intelligence, and courage attempts to grapple with that crucial question of what it means to be Catholic.


Virginia and I are like two ships passing in the night, and we both have millions of companions on our respective vessels that seem to be drifting farther and farther apart.

It would be well to point out, at the outset, that we are not disagreeing about some article of the Creed or other basic dogma. As in other derivative issues, like artificial birth control, capital punishment, and end-of-life care, the substance of the faith is not at stake. These questions are important but must be kept in perspective. And there should be room for serious adult Catholics to reflect, question and debate such issues without reading one another out of the church. This is not to say that one opinion is as good as another, or that sincerity is all that matters. We’re talking here about a search for truth. The question is, how should we search for the truth?

For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith.

But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.

In the final analysis, it’s all about loyalty. How can you refuse to give unquestioning assent and still call yourself a loyal member of the church? Isn’t the very notion of loyal opposition a contradiction in terms?

It depends. I question the wisdom of some church policies and disagree with some decisions, but I do not leave the church. I work within the community of believers, accepting and obeying regulations and procedures even as I try to do my little bit, preaching and teaching and writing, to change them by appealing to minds and hearts.

I know enough church history to realize that down the centuries, fallible church leaders have made mistakes and pursued misguided policies, many of which have in time been corrected with the help of the Holy Spirit. I am often annoyed, sometimes disappointed and occasionally angry, but I try not to lose patience and I keep the faith. And there are millions more like me.

If these divisions among Catholics were found only in the pews, it would be bad enough. But they go all the way up through the clergy and the episcopacy. Everyone knows that there are litmus tests to be passed before priests can become bishops or bishops become cardinals. And there is a disturbing development going on in the seminaries and among the priests themselves. Many of the younger clergy find their identity in professing unquestioning assent to authority, and they explicitly differentiate themselves from those older priests who have failed to purge themselves of the disease of critical thinking.

There have always been careerists and climbers among the clergy who were willing to stifle individuality for the sake of advancement, but now there is a rising generation of priests who are moved not just by ambition but by a disturbing collectivism that narrows options for service and styles of leadership. These men are interested not in asking questions but in giving answers. Questions make trouble; answers provide assurance. Inquiring minds are not only annoying; they are superfluous. All the answers we need are ready at hand, supplied by documents and pronouncements that are self-justifying and need no validation.

This movement comes at a time when many Catholics are suffering from a loss of nerve. Empty convents and rectories, half-empty churches, closing schools, contracting parishes and sexual abuse scandals eat away at our confidence. There is an understandable hunger for stability, for certainty. Unity is sought through uniformity. Catechetical materials are vigorously scanned and blue-penciled. Stimulating topics and speakers are no longer welcome in parish halls. Adventuresome theologians are not just criticized; they must be silenced. All this amounts to a kind of intellectual circling of the wagons — a skill at which the clergy have often excelled.

. . . [I]n the church today, everything is not all right. There are pressing needs to be addressed, policies to be reviewed, problems to be faced, dogmatisms to be challenged, issues to be taken off back burners and closed questions to be reopened. At such a time, being serene is just another way of being in denial.

At this moment in the life of the church, those who refuse to close their eyes, turn off their minds, and settle for slack-jawed certainty are in for some bad times. They look more and more like blue staters in a red-state church, as the true believers move into positions of power and influence and set out to silence the voices of reason.

We have been down this road before. A hundred years ago, Catholic biblical scholars were being harassed, threatened and discredited for questioning outdated, untenable interpretations of Sacred Scripture. Sixty years later, during the Second Vatican Council, they were vindicated, and their best work was endorsed as official Catholic teaching in the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the French Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker, never got to see his impressive body of work in print. He had to die first, so that friends and admirers might see to its publication.

John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-67), the U.S. theologian, fared somewhat better. He lived to see his teaching on religious liberty vindicated by the council, but only after enduring years of enforced silence imposed by mediocre minds.

In all these cases the operative force was fear – fear of confusing or disturbing the faithful. Such concern is not improper. What is mistaken is the attempt to maintain clarity by silencing voices and closing minds. In so doing, those who use these tactics create a desert and call it peace.

Today the Catholic Church stands at a crossroads. This is a time fraught with peril and possibility. There is a place for caution and prudence, but also a need for creativity and courage. A jumble of conflicting voices frightens the guardians of order, but we have more to fear from a false impression of unanimity achieved at the price of stifling the most active minds among us. It is a characteristic of many dysfunctional families that their members are unable to bring their differences to the surface and deal with them. Many noisy, quarrelsome households, on the other hand, are actually healthier.


What a great article! It contains such warmth and wisdom, don’t you think? There is nothing shrill, rhetorical, or mean-spirited about DiGiacomo’s style of communicating. Rather, he invites reflection and, certainly for me, inspires commitment to the living God proclaimed and embodied by our brother Jesus.

According to America Magazine, James J. DiGiacomo is the author of a number of books. A quick online search reveals several interesting titles, including Teaching Right From Wrong: The Moral Education of Today’s Youth, So You Do Ministry? (with John J. Walsh), Morality and Youth: Fostering Christian Identity, and Sundays with Jesus: Reflections for the Year of Luke.

Of course, the question of what it means to be Catholic is one I’ve addressed a number of times on the pages of The Wild Reed.

Basically, I’ve come to recognize (believe, I guess you could say) that our rich, diverse, and evolving Catholic tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is not about fearful and unquestioning obedience to a monolithic and rigid hierarchy of institutional power – one mired in the “diseased system” of clericalism and the excesses of papalism. Rather, our tradition tells us that the Catholic endeavor is all about trustful openness to God’s transforming presence within and throughout the vast arena of human life and relationships.

Our responses of integrity and love to this presence trumps unquestioning obedience to the institutional Church – the function of which seems to be more about continuing itself in its current crystallized form than about being open to the spirit of God which blows where it wills.

And as Jesus reminds us: the form profits nothing. It’s the spirit that gives life – or, in other words, heart, wisdom, and courage.

Hang on a minute! Heart, wisdom, and courage. Hey, I guess that as Catholics we can say the church is “sort of like The Wizard of Oz” after all! The potential is certainly there. I guess it’s up to us and our willingness to embody the spirit!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Who Gets to be Called “Catholic” – and Why?
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Two-sided Catholic Crisis
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Chris McGillion Respnds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
A Catholic’s Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome