Saturday, May 31, 2008

Could Christ Have Been a Woman?

That’s just one of a number of intriguing questions that Simeon Alev of What Is Enlightenment? magazine posed to Basil Pennington, OCSO (1931-2005) in an interview that took place in 1999. In retrospect, I find some of Pennington’s responses overly optimistic in terms of the institutional Church’s development of a more enlightened understanding of women and their role in the Church.

Yet in light of the conversation sparked by my previous post, Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks, I thought I’d share highlights from Alev’s interview of Fr. Pennington - an interview that came about after Alev reflected on the significance of the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “in Christ there is neither male nor female.”

“So,” wondered Alev, “was it simply a coincidence, then, that ‘God the Father’ was male, that Christ and his twelve apostles were male, and that in most traditional Christian denominations the priests, bishops, deacons, etc., were still exclusively male? What did this historical preponderance of maleness mean? . . . More importantly, what was the significance of gender on the Christian path? What were the implications of Christ’s divinity, or enlightenment, for his own relationship to the very human facts of maleness and femaleness? As [these questions] swirled in my mind, it became increasingly clear that we [at What is Enlightenment?] had to speak with someone who could bring real depth and open-mindedness to these challenging questions. I immediately thought of Father Basil Pennington.”

Pennington (pictured at left) was a Trappist monk and priest, and a leading Roman Catholic spiritual writer, speaker, teacher, and director. He became known internationally as one of the major proponents of the Centering Prayer movement begun at St. Joseph’s Abbey during the 1970’s.

Writing at the time of his interview with Pennington, Alev notes that Pennington “has the distinction of having traveled widely to visit the great Spiritual Fathers and Mothers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He describes his pilgrimages in his anthology, In Search of True Wisdom, co-authored with Sergius Bolshakoff. An important contribution to the Catholic ecumenical movement, the book is a moving account of contemporary efforts to rediscover the riches of the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition.”

Following are excepts from Simeon Alev’s conversation with Father Basil Pennington. Enjoy!


Simeon Alev: Early Christian interpretations of Genesis seem to support the notion of a disparity between the capacities of men and women for spiritual attainment. For example, in I Corinthians the Apostle Paul states, “For man was not made from woman but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man.” And religious historian Elaine Pagels writes that according to Paul, like Eve before them, “women, being naturally gullible, are unfit for any role but raising children and keeping house.” And some of the writings of the early Church Fathers state that man alone, and not woman, was created in the image of God. What is your understanding of the significance of the Genesis story?

Basil Pennington: . . . In the writings of Saint Paul, which have had an enormous impact on Christian thinking, he affirms very simply that in Christ there’s neither male nor female, and that the primary goal is becoming this divinized person that is Christ. But then, secondarily, much of what he says is directed to the prevailing social climate of his time – “How do you handle this situation?” and so on – in the context of that social climate. That’s why he’d tell slaves how to behave, and masters how to behave, and lay all sorts of strictures on the way men and women were supposed to function in the Roman household or the Hebrew household that are very difficult for us to hear in such a vastly different cultural context. But if we accept all this from the point of view that God meets people where they are, and that the divine dimension in us is always growing, then suddenly the challenge becomes: Are we really hearing the divine consciousness as it’s coming forth in our time? I mean, that’s not easy either – we’ve all had acculturation, too. I think the greatest challenge for the human race now is to fully accept the equality of men and women and the fullness of humanity and divinization that we share. I think that is what the divine consciousness is calling us to at this point in our evolution.

Simeon Alev: I’m sure many people would agree that is what has to happen, but some would no doubt also assert that a critically important part of that process involves addressing the repercussions of these kinds of sexist ideas having been propagated for so many centuries. For example, feminists such as Mary Daly cite the traditional notion of “God the Father” as quintessential proof that Christianity is really the source of an oppressive global patriarchy. They publicly revile the Church – and particularly the Catholic Church because it has so much power – as a universal oppressor of women. Now, some people say, “Well, that’s too extreme, and it’s not really productive to focus on all that in such a negative way.” Yet, when I asked your friend Father Panteleimon, a charismatic elder in the Greek Orthodox Church, whether the Virgin Mary could just as easily have given birth to a female Savior as a male one, he dismissed that notion as impossible, unnatural and absurd, citing the doctrine of one of the early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, that since Eve’s fall from grace, woman’s reproductive role has rendered her constitutionally unfit for spiritual leadership.

Basil Pennington: Well, I certainly would not agree with that. Father Panteleimon and Christian Orthodoxy as a whole – though again I probably shouldn’t generalize – say that everything stopped with the Seventh Council. What he’s saying there is much more in line with the early Patristic outlook. But at the same time, as I said, we still have an awful lot of cultural conditioning that’s holding us back enormously, and just to fill that out a little, the truth of the matter is that most of us men still wouldn’t exactly want a woman to be our boss. So I often say that the first thing women have to do is to help men to grow up so that men are able to be equals. The reason we men try to keep women down is that in reality we’re scared to death of them – because when they are truly empowered, and we’re not, well, what’s going to happen?

Of course I certainly don’t think that the physiological differences, as you just quoted there from Father Panteleimon, pose any kind of problem. And what may come out of those differences isn’t, in the integral person, a problem either. As I said before, I think they’re a complementarity and an enrichment. And I certainly don’t think that they dictate any kind of hierarchy, either. But one of the great challenges that the Catholic Church has, precisely because it’s Catholic, or “universal” – unlike, say, the Episcopal Church, in which the national church in the United States could do one thing and the one in Indonesia could do another – is that there is a universal teaching authority and a kind of moving together. Now if you’ve traveled around the world as I have, you’re especially aware that this whole evolution of consciousness with regard to the equality of men and women is at very different places in different countries. In some countries, they’re just not ready for it at all. And so the Catholic Church [should be] like a good teacher who meets the students where they are and only takes them to the next step they can master because the teacher knows that if they’re too far out in front of their students, they’ll lose them.

. . . You know, the Catholic Church took quite a leap at the Second Vatican Council and changed a lot of things for the first time in four hundred years, and that really has stretched and strained a lot of people. So moving ahead with the women’s thing has been a matter of doing it gently. Women have moved into the sanctuary and are taking new roles as lectors, ministers of the eucharist, parish counsels, officers of the diocese and so on, so gradually people are getting used to that. But we’re in a country where this evolution is perhaps the most advanced and yet, even here, we still see all the drag that’s around! And when you go to a country that’s been cut off, like China, say, it’s quite clear that they have a long, long way to go.

Simeon Alev: Is it conceivable to you that Christ could have been a woman?

Basil Pennington: In his time and place? No. I mean, look, he had a hard enough time as a man! Could he today? Well, yes, if God had chosen this as the time and place for the Incarnation, I think it could have been possible – though I still suspect he probably would have chosen to be male because the contemporary world is still far from being a place where a female Incarnation would be universally accepted. You know, we’ve seen women in different countries rise to the highest position, but that’s often because they’ve stepped into a male expectation, or what would be called a “male” way of looking at things. And I think the great thing will be when women, as women, can really lead and help society to move ahead. But we’re still a good way from that as far as I can see, in this country and probably every other country in the world.

Simeon Alev: Sociological considerations aside, though, is there anything to Panteleimon’s insistence that there is some inherent limitation on a woman manifesting an attainment equal to Christ's?

Basil Pennington: No. And our Lord used the feminine image when he could – like a mother hen gathering her chicks to her breast and so on. He was very comfortable with men and women. He wasn’t afraid to have John resting at his bosom, and at the same time, he wasn’t afraid of letting Mary Magdalene anoint his feet and kiss them – which was an enormously sensuous and exciting experience! But he had to work in the time and place he chose to come to, which was a very pivotal place inhabited by a Semitic culture, which, because of a certain simplicity and earthiness that it had, made it possible for his message to be absorbed into every other world culture and philosophy. That’s where and when he chose to come, and in that situation I don’t think there would have been much hope, as a woman, of his fulfilling the mission that he’d set for himself.

Simeon Alev: In my talk with Father Panteleimon, he went on to assert that this seemingly discriminatory aspect of the Christian tradition – the Twelve Apostles and the priests all being male – is in fact inspired and sanctioned by God “Himself,” and that allowing the tradition to be toyed with by misguided reformers who want to ordain women can only have disastrous consequences. But some liberal voices within the Catholic Church, such as yours, insist that traditional Christianity’s attitude toward women is not sanctioned by God but has its roots in the patriarchal ambience of the Church’s early history and now can be modified to suit our more socially enlightened times.

Basil Pennington: You know, our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is a very sharp person, and I wonder if he wasn’t sending that very message to the Church and his people when he spoke on this a couple of years ago. According to Catholic belief, you know, he has the power to speak infallibly, but very rarely has it ever been invoked. And when people have tried to push him to speak infallibly about this particular subject, as well as about other things, he’s always refused – so that’s already a message. But it was even more significant to me that two weeks after his very sweet apology for the way his predecessors had treated Galileo, in which he said publicly that they had failed because they’d taken the scriptures too literally, he spoke out against this question of ordaining women, himself explicitly arguing, just as Father Panteleimon does – from a very literal interpretation of scripture – that this male-only priesthood is simply the way it’s always been and always will be. Now, again, he’s a sharp man and I don’t think he was missing that. I think he was sending a message that said, in effect, “Just as they were too sure about Galileo back then, we’re a little too sure about this thing now. Just wait around, boys, and you’ll see.” In other words, I think that by using the very same arguments he himself had said were wrong in the Galileo case, he was saying to us, “Hey, this could change, too!” And not only that it could change but that it will!

To read Simeon Alev’s interview with Fr. Basil Pennington in its entirety, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
A Christian Way to Transformation - Basil Pennington, OCSO (Spirituality Today, Fall 1983).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, & the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks
Roman Catholic Womenpriests Ordained in Minneapolis
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code
The Sexuality of Jesus

Image: Basil Pennington, OCSO. Photographer unknown.

Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks

It seems that Vatican officials continue to be in denial about the reality of female priests within the Roman Catholic tradition.

I say “reality” because 1) there are validly* ordained female priests currently ministering in the Church, and 2) Jesus invited women as well as men to become leaders – an invitation both celebrated and continued in the earliest days of the Christian Church.

Despite such realities, the Vatican, reports the Associated Press, is once again insisting that it is “properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood [and that] women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated.”

Monsignor Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in all seriousness that: “The church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ,” an apparent reference to Christ having chosen only men as his apostles.

My initial response to such, er, “reasoning,” was: Give me a break! Is this the best they can come up with?

Intellectual Dishonesty

Do I come across as disrespectful? Well, to be honest, I have a hard time respecting intellectual dishonesty within my Church – be it displayed by the pope or the guy next to me in the pew. And the Church’s stance on female ordination reeks of intellectual dishonesty as there are no valid theological or moral reasons for excluding women from ordination. And the Vatican knows it. It can’t defend its position and so resorts to forbidding people from even talking about the issue. As a thinking person and as a Catholic, I find such a ploy both pathetic and embarrassing.

Fear not, however. Here at The Wild Reed thinking and talking are not only allowed but encouraged. So let’s take a closer look at Amato’s statement, shall we? As has been noted, the gist of what he (and the Vatican) is saying is that the Church cannot ordain women because Jesus only chose men as his apostles. Furthermore, those apostles were the equivalent of today’s priests. All of this, we are told by folks like Monsignor Amato, is Jesus’ will, which presumably means: don’t even think of questioning or arguing with what we say, because if you do then you are questioning and arguing with Christ himself! Boy, they sure know how to clear a room of conversation.

Yet people will not be quiet. Nor is the threat of excommunication intimidating those women called to the priesthood. For instance, here’s part of a media release from the Women’s Ordination Conference:

We reject the notion of excommunication. In our efforts to ordain women into an inclusive and accountable Roman Catholic Church, we see it as contrary to the gospel itself to excommunicate people who are doing good works and responding to injustice and the needs of their communities. While the hierarchy prattles on about excommunication, Catholic women are working for justice and making a positive difference in the world.

This inappropriate use of excommunication and the Vatican’s stance on ordination are based on arguments that have been refuted time and again. In 1976, the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there is no scriptural reason to prohibit women’s ordination. Jesus included women as full and equal partners in his ministry, and so should the hierarchy.

Discerning the Will of Jesus

The conversation continues here, as well, starting with a question concerning the “will of Jesus Christ”: As followers of Jesus, aren’t we called to look first and foremost to the example of his life? After all, if there’s anything that can be called his “will,” than surely it can be found there. And with regards to the place and role of women in the community, it’s clear that the example Jesus gave was one of radical inclusion and equality.

Another question: Did Jesus found the Roman Catholic Church? In other words, is the Church we have today what Jesus talked about and envisioned? Was Jesus the first Catholic?

I appreciate the perspective of Catholic theologian
Hans Küng on such weighty questions. In his indispensable little book, The Catholic Church: A Short History, Küng writes:

[Jesus] did not seek to found a separate community, distinct from Israel, with its own creed and cult, or to call to life an organization with its own constitution and offices, let alone a great religious edifice. No, according to all evidence, Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime. But we must now immediately add that a church in the sense of a religious community distinct from Israel came into being immediately after Jesus’ death. This happened under the impact of the experience of the resurrection and the Spirit. . . [So] although the church was not founded by Jesus, for its origins it made an appeal to him, the one who was crucified yet lived, in whom for believers the kingdom of God had already dawned. The church remains the Jesus movement with an eschatological orientation; its basis was initially not its own cult, its own constitution, its own organization with specific offices. Its foundation was simply the confession in faith of this Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, as it was sealed with baptism in his name and through a ceremonial meal in his memory. That was how the church initially took shape.

But what about this idea of the apostles being the first priests? (Seriously, that’s what it comes down to for some folks. More on this later.) Well, first, we need to remember that although there were words for “priest” available during the time of Jesus and the early church, none of them were ascribed to the apostles by the writers of the New Testament. Indeed, these writers say nothing about clergy or ordained. Discipleship, not priesthood, is the dominant theological foundation of the early church. The few times that the Greek word for priest is mentioned it is in relation, firstly, to Christ and, secondly, to the whole people of God. The later rise of the ministerial priesthood is thus clearly a change, a development in the Church. Whether this development has been for good or ill (or both) is beside the point. The point is that there’s been change – a change, one could argue, from “the will” of Jesus. And this change was facilitated by the Church.

And while we’re exploring this idea of “the will” of Jesus, have you ever wondered how the example of Jesus’ life of simplicity and egalitarianism can be reconciled with the palaces of popes and bishops and the imperial trappings and triumphalistic attitudes of many within the Roman hierarchy?

Here is Hans Küng’s response to such a question, a response that begins with certain observations concerning the Jesus we find in the Gospel:

One who relativized the fathers and their traditions and even called women to his circle of disciples cannot be claimed in support of a patriarchalism which is hostile to women. . . . One who served his disciples at table and required that “the highest shall be the servant [at table] of all” can hardly have desired aristocratic or even monarchical structures for his community of disciples.

Rather, Jesus radiated a democratic spirit in the best sense of the word. This was matched by a people (Greek demos) of those who are free (no dominating institution, even a Grand Inquisition) and in principle equal (not a church characterized by class, caste, race, or office), of brothers and sisters (not a regiment of men and a cult of persons). This was the original Christian liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Mmm . . . it would seem that in the foundational matters of Christian liberty, equality, and fraternity, elements within the Church have had no qualms whatsoever, indeed, felt “authorized” to “change the will” of the man they claim to be the Church’s founder.

“The Twelve”

But let’s return to “the twelve.” Most biblical scholars agree that the twelve apostles are meant to correlate with the Jewish scriptures’ twelve tribes of Israel. It was a way for the writers of the Christian scriptures to support their claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. Some would even argue that the concept of “the twelve” is a literary devise for the benefit of Jewish Christians audiences.

More importantly, if we are to insist that Catholic priests must be male because Jesus supposedly chose twelve male apostles, then these same priests should also be Jewish, speak Aramaic, and be able to marry. After all, if we insist on taking scripture literally, we need to be consistent.

And another thing: the early Church clearly recognized and celebrated Mary of Magdala as an apostle - indeed, as “the apostle to the apostles.” Writes scholar Ute Eisen, “This . . . reveals that [the New Testament writers] maintained a broader concept of apostolicity.” Yet somehow modern Roman Catholicism downplays all of this. And the question must be asked: is this yet another departure on the part of the Church from “the will” of Jesus?

The Appropriation of Pentecost

Of course, related to all of this is the Roman hierarchy’s appropriation and narrow interpretation of Pentecost to strengthen its own power. For instance, recently I heard a priest give a homily in which he declared that the authority of today’s bishops and priests stems from that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out onto the twelve apostles in that upper room in Jerusalem. In short, the members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy – and they alone – are the spiritual heirs of the twelve apostles.

Yet the Book of Acts clearly says that it wasn’t just “the twelve” in that upper room. Jesus’ mother was present, along with the disciples – and women (and probably youth and children) were among the disciples.

Thus contrary to what this young male priest insisted, the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, not just to the twelve male apostles. His ignorance of such a basic element of the Christian story made me wonder what on earth they’re teaching in the seminaries these days!

In her informative (and entertaining) book, Putting Away Childish Things, German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann shares an interesting story related to this appropriation of Pentecost:

At a theological symposium in the diocese of Essen shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the first speaker was the Jesuit Karl Rahner, followed by the then-bishop of Essen and later Cardinal Franz Hengsbach. On the subject of the council, Bishop Hengsbach said: ‘Well, the theologians [looking in Rahner’s direction] will have quite a bit more work to process what the Holy Spirit inspired us bishops with at the Council.’ We have Acts’ account of Pentecost (or what the Church has made of it) to thank for this sort of remark. There sat Karl Rahner, a great theologian, silent and modest and – in the bishop’s eyes – spiritually subordinate to the bishops, because he had been given no inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And there stood Franz Hengsbach, a theological midget compared with Rahner, trumpeting his owership of the Spirit.

Ranke-Heinemann also notes that the apostle Peter uses a line from the Jewish prophet Joel as a prophecy of the Christian feast of Pentecost. Writes Joel: “I will pour my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall propesy, . . . on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17-18). Observes Ranke-Heinemann: “This isn’t the only passage in the [the Bible] where [the] Jewish tradition is friendlier to women than the Christian [one].”

It’s also a line that “has not in fact been fulfilled,” and its nonfulfillment “convicts an arrogant male hierarchy of narrow-mindedness.” (Ranke-Heinemann sure doesn’t mince her words!)

She continues:

If the Church’s leaders claim in the Roman Missal that the Holy Spirit has come down on them ever since Pentecost, then this ‘and your daughters’ is the norm of the Spirit against which they must be measured. Hence, no Holy Spirit ever came down on that all-male company then, because there is no Holy Spirit exclusively for men. Which is why, as things now stand, the Men’s Church should for the time being keep silent about their Holy Spirit, keep silent at least until the Holy Spirit promised by the prophet Joel has really come down upon them.

The Role of Women: An Historical Perspective

So what has been the role of women, historically, in all of this? Bishop Patricia Fresen (and, yes, that’s Roman Catholic Bishop Patricia Fresen) addressed this question last summer in Minneapolis, when she presided over the ordination of two female priests and three female deacons.

Said Bishop Fressen:

In the early Church, we know that women and men presided at Eucharist. We know from some very scholarly research by people such as Dr. Dorothy Irvin that there were women who were deacons, bishops, and priests for many, many centuries. It was only after the twelfth century, when the first canon law code was compiled, that women were officially excluded from ministry as priests . . . Corruption and dysfunction in our beloved Church [has resulted from this exclusion]. Yet [the Church] is our family, the family that we love. And we want to work for a renewed ministry within a renewed Church.”

In closing, I bring to your attention the Vatican’s designation of today, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as “World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests.” I’ll be setting aside time this evening to honor this designation, and I’ll be praying for that “renewed ministry within a renewed Church” of which Bishop Fresen speaks.

And when you think about it, this is another way of saying that I’ll be praying for the coming of that Holy Spirit of which the prophet Joel speaks. Perhaps you’ll join me.


* Roman Catholic Womenpriests, for instance, receive their authority from Roman Catholic bishops who stand in full Apostolic Succession. These bishops bestowed sacramentally valid ordinations on the women listed on the RCWP’s website. According to this website: “All the documents pertaining to these ordinations have been attested and notarized. All minutes of the ordinations, including data about persons, Apostolic Succession, and rituals, together with films and photos are deposited with a Notary Public.”

Image 1: Graham English.
Image 2: “Rabbi Jesus Says To Love One Another” by
Clara Maria Goldstein.
Image 3: “The Twelve Apostles Were Jewish” by Clara Maria Goldstein.
Image 4: “Mary Magdalene” by Richard Stodert.
Image 5: A contemporary depiction of Pentecost. Artist unknown.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Roman Catholic Womenpriests Ordained in Minneapolis
Crisis? What Crisis?
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

Recommended Off-site Links:
Roman Catholic Womenpriests
Women’s Ordination Conference

Friday, May 30, 2008

Modern Day Pharisees

Michael in Norfolk has some strong words regarding the New York State [Roman] Catholic Conference:

As is reporting, the New York Catholic Conference is having vapors and conniption fits over Governor David Paterson’s directive requiring state agencies to recognize gay marriages performed legally elsewhere.

The official position of the Conference is to oppose all efforts to legalize the union of same-sex couples, whether called marriage or civil unions, thereby demonstrating that its alleged mission to uphold “the innate dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God” and to “seek justice, fairness and charity for all” is a crock of bullshit if one happens to be gay or the victim of sexual abuse by a priest. Like all of the Roman Catholic Church bureaucracy, the Conference has been utterly silent when it comes to demanding the disciplining of bishops and cardinals who enabled/covered up sexual abuse of minors, e.g., New York’s Cardinal Eagan.

In short, the Conference behaves much like the Biblical Pharisees: fawning conduct towards clerics and concern over form and rules rather than the substantive message of the Gospels.

Well said, Michael!

Recommended Off-site Links:
How Governor Set His Stance on Gay Rights
– By Jeremy W. Peters and Danny Hakim (New York Times, May 30, 2008).
Fighting Same-Sex Policy Seems to Be Uphill Battle
– Adam Liptak (New York Times, May 30, 2008).
Statement on Gov. Paterson’s Same-sex Marriage Action
– New York State Catholic Conference (May 29, 2008).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
The Real Gay Agenda
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
Love is Love
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Separate is Not Equal
Mainstream Voice of “Dear Abby” Supports Gay Marriage
New Studies: Gay Couples as Committed as Straight Couples
Grandma Knows Best
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Just Love
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Good News from Minnesota
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Jubilation is My Name": Spring in Minnesota

I share this evening some photos I’ve taken over the past month or so - usually when I’ve been out riding my bike.

These images are accompanied by a beautiful poem by Gertrud Von Le Fort. Enjoy!

Jubilation is my name
and rejoicing is my countenance.

I am like a young meadow wreathed in dawn,
like a shepherd’s pipe among the hills.
Hear me, you swelling valleys.
Hear me, you waving meadows.
Hear me, you happy songful forests.

For I am no longer lonely among your splendors,
I have become your brother and one of your kin.
Greet me, fair likeness of myself,
Glad earth that Love has fulfilled.

Nearness is still far,
Grace is yet but a forward step.

You are in me as eternally mine.

You have come over me
as buds come upon a spray.

You have sprung forth in me
like roses in the hedgerows.

I bloom in the red-thorn of this love.
I bloom on all my branches
in the purple of these gifts.

I bloom with fiery tongues,
I bloom with flaming fulfillment,
I bloom out of the Holy Spirit of God.

“Hymns to the Church”
Gertrud Von Le Fort

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Spring in Minnesota (2007)
A Springtime Visitor
In the Footsteps of Spring

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality

Friends, I share with you this evening an excerpt from A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy by Evelyn and James Whitehead.

Winner of the 1989 Human Development Book-of-the-Year Award for its “outstanding contribution to the literature on human sexuality,” A Sense of Sexuality has been described by the St. Anthony Messenger as “a wholesome, holistic, and holy attempt to show how God meets us in the flesh.”

In the excerpt below, the distinguished Evelyn and James Whitehead explore compassion and Christian community in relation to homosexuality.

(NOTE: The accompanying images of loving gay male couples are my own addition to the text.)


We might think that compassion and sexuality would be friends, since both are passionate responses that link us with other people. But, in fact, a fear of sexuality often limits our compassion.

Every community – religious and ethnic – develops rules about sexual conduct. The groups we belong to instruct us on the importance of marrying our own kind. We are taught the styles of sexual sharing that are acceptable among us. We learn that those who are sexually “different” must be avoided, even feared.

Fear and avoidance have been especially evident in many cultural and religious responses to homosexuality. Thankfully, however, that is beginning to change. In the Christian community today we hear the first recognitions of the kinship between homosexual and heterosexual believers. Traditionally, religious discussions of homosexuality often degenerated into conversations about “them,” alien folk whose lives were consumed (it was said) in perverse and promiscuous behavior. These shadowy “others” were most emphatically excluded from our kind. Defensiveness distracted us from a simple truth, profound in its implications: we are the body of Christ and part of our body is lesbian and gay.

Who are the homosexual members of the body of Christ? They are not “them”; they are us. They are our siblings and our children, our friends and our fellow parishioners. They are persons like us, striving to live generous lives of maturing faith. They are the ministers among us – priests, religious, lay – who, knowing themselves to be gay and lesbian, struggle to serve with integrity in a Church that interprets the movement of their hearts as disordered and shameful.

When we listen well to the lives of these members of the community, we learn what should not be such surprising news: the gay or lesbian person is stirred with the same kind of arousals and attractions that move the heterosexual person. These stirrings, quickened by a smile or a gesture, are more than “near occasions of sin.” Like the arousals that stimulate our own loving, they are often occasions of grace.

Arousal is the wellspring of sexuality for all of us – heterosexual and homosexual alike. And for all of us these inclinations are filled with both promise and peril. For both gay and straight persons, these arousals are subject to every conceivable perversion, as the human history of selfishness and sexual violence attests. For all of us – heterosexual, lesbian, gay – questions remain of how we will express our affection and respond to erotic arousal. We each face the challenge of finding a lifestyle and forging fidelities that are both adult and Christian.

The underlying experience of arousal is familiar to all of us – heterosexual and homosexual alike. We share a common passion. But gay and lesbian Catholics have been instructed again and again in official Church documents that – for them – erotic arousal is wrong. Quite apart from decisions about fruitful expression and responsible abstinence (decisions that confront every adult), the inclinations of their heart are judged to be perverse. Their feelings, we are told, do not and cannot resonate with the delight of God’s creation. Their emotions are not a part of that human surge of affection that rescues us from our solitary journeys. Some arousals, we are instructed, should have no place in the life of a Christian. The only responsible choice is sexual abstinence, as part of a deeper self-denial.

But a change of heart is taking place in the community of faith, even if this transformation is not yet evident in many official statements. We see its fruit in a new compassion among heterosexual and homosexual Christians.

Through compassion, we come to know that for a lesbian to feel erotic delight in the presence of another woman is not unnatural. For her this delight is the most naturally feeling imaginable. She may deny these feelings and this denial may grow into a habit of self-hatred. Then she embarks on a life that is truly disordered and unfaithful.

Compassion also helps us recognize that a gay man does not choose to set aside his “natural, normal attraction” for women so that he can experience another more perverse kind of sexual excitement. The attraction he feels is natural and normal for him.

Spontaneous impulses of arousal and affection are the energetic roots of human love. They can move us toward fidelity and support our efforts to be fruitful. This is so whether we are heterosexual, lesbian, or gay. If these stirrings of the heart are sordid, we are all in deep trouble.

. . . Where do we learn compassion? How does this virtue begin to grow in our life? The answer to both questions is, of course, in Christian community. In prayer groups and ministry networks, in base communities and other small group settings believing people experience community in practical and profound ways. As our lives intersect in these gatherings of faith, we come to know each other more deeply. And we begin to learn about each other’s enduring hopes and lingering wounds. Sharing these experiences of grace and failure, we participate in one another’s passion. We touch lives so different from our own but, in their fragility and faith, so similar.

For many heterosexual Christians compassion takes root when we share the faith journey of a gay friend or lesbian colleague. In this sharing we learn that their attractions and delights are very much like our own: we know the same excitement at the possibility of love and the same terror that devotion might not endure. . . . All of us know that holiness does not lie in a denial of our sexuality, but in a discipline that is closer to befriending.

Compassion protects us from equating fruitfulness with biological fertility. A homosexual couple’s inability to bear children is sometimes taken as a sure sign that their love is selfish. Our daily experiences in the community of faith tell us something quite different. Here we meet single adults and childless couples whose lives are profoundly fruitful. And, sadly, we sometimes meet married persons with many children but little generosity, whose lives seem sterile and self-centered. In the Christian community, too, we can meet gay and lesbian couples who are deeply generous, whose shared love bears fruit for them and for the world.

. . . In the practical interplay of Christian community, we learn the shape of one another’s hopes and passions. As we speak the truth to one another we recognize that, in our sexuality as in so much else, we are more alike than we are different. Then a conviction grows among us that homosexual arousal is not unnatural or unholy; it is part of the gift of creation, a sign of God’s delight in our bodies. This emerging sense of the faithful does not ignore the responsibility we all share to fashion faithful and fruitful ways to express our love. But it does acknowledge that, in any credible discussion of the shape of Christian sexuality, we must honor the seasoned experience of mature homosexuals.

Through compassion we learn that we are more alike than different. . . . To our Christian identity what matters most is not sexual orientation or ethnic origin or gender. What marks us as followers of Jesus is our behavior. From the first century onward Christians provoked the response: “See how they love one another!” The fruitfulness of this love is recognized in its respect, generosity, and fidelity. Today the Churches struggle to have their stance toward Christian homosexuals shaped by such compassion.

For a review by theologian Joan Timmerman of Evelyn and James Whitehead’s 2003 book Wisdom of the Body, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Many Forms of Courage
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity, & the Love that is the Center of Catholic Christianity
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality
Love is Love
And Love is Lord of All
A Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Walking Against Weapons

Last Sunday (May 25) I participated in the inaugural Walk Against Weapons, a collaborative endeavor by two local justice and peace groups, Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) and AlliantACTION.

For many years, WAMM was a participant in the annual Headwaters Walk for Justice, a fundraiser for Minnesota nonprofits. When the Headwaters Foundation announced earlier this year that they would no longer be organizing the yearly Walk for Justice, WAMM and AlliantACTION organized a fundraising walk for WAMM from the old corporate headquarters of Alliant TechSystems in Edina to its new headquarters in Eden Prairie, a distance of approximately 5.5 miles.

Alliant TechSystems (ATK) is the largest Minnesota-based weapons manufacturer and the primary supplier of landmines, cluster bombs, nuclear missile rocket motors, and depleted uranium munitions to the U.S. Department of Defense. The corporation has sales representatives in over 60 countries.

Above and below: Former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley was one of the speakers at the rally prior to the walk.

To read Coleen's article, "Why Many Catholics Are Confused About Torture," click here.

Above: Longtime justice and peace advocate, Marie Braun.

Above: Before the walk commenced, a cleansing ritual was conducted at the front door of ATK's former headquarters in Edina (pictured above).

Above: Sending a message even when taking a rest. Now that's dedication!

Above: Approaching ATK's new corporate headquarters in Eden Prairie.

Above: We did it! (Click on the above image for a larger view.)

Above: It wasn't just people who walked.

Above: The youngest walkers - and, perhaps not surprisingly, also the first to complete the walk. Although I wonder: does using a skate board count? I guess this young boy was "skating against weapons"!

Above and below: Roger and Jo provided some wonderful music along the entire course of the walk. What troupers. Literally!

Images: Opening image and group shot in front of Alliant TechSystems courtesy of All other images by Michael Bayly.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Women Against Military Madness (WAMM)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Award-winning "Hellraisers" At It Again
Alliant Action
It Sure Was Cold!
General Strike for Peace
Fasting, Praying, and Walking for Immigration Reform
May Day 2007
May Day and a "New Bridge"

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality

Reflections on Corpus Christi Sunday

Because Eucharist is first and foremost the celebration of the divine hospitality made present to us in the person of Jesus, it is an action which addresses every form of inhospitality in our world, confronting it with the image of what might be and ought to be.

. . . At its simplest level of sharing of food, the Eucharist signals that in God’s world there is room for all. We are therefore challenged to solve the problems of the world by sharing, not by eliminating . . . We are called upon to ask ourselves what it is we are celebrating in the Eucharist if we are willing to exclude others from God’s hospitality to the extent of considering [them] expendable.

[Jesus] chose quite explicitly and deliberately to right the wrongs of society not by killing others but by a non-violent challenge which made him vulnerable to the point of his own death. It is this that we celebrate, and it is this that we are invited to share: the conviction that there is a better way than war and force, and that is a way of truth, community, dedication, compassion, and self-gift.

Monika Hellwig


Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, and one of the reading at the liturgy I attended this morning with the St. Stephen’s Park House Community was the above excerpt from theologian Monika Hellwig’s book, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World.

I was quite moved by Hellwig’s articulation of the meaning of Eucharist and the profound implications of this meaning. Eucharist, says Hellwig, is “first and foremost the celebration of the divine hospitality.” Accordingly, “in God’s world there is room for all.”

A different message

Two weeks ago, however, I and over fifty other people received a very different message at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

Why? Because we were wearing a rainbow sash, a symbol that proclaims we recognize and celebrate our lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) sexuality as a gift from God. Wearing such a symbol ensured that we were scoldingly informed (twice!) by the presiding priest that there was no room for us. We were denied participation in the Eucharist. We were excluded; effectively eliminated as people of conscience and as believers capable of helping the Church develop and grow toward the fullness of divine truth.

And don’t think for a moment, my friends, that such development and growth isn’t possible, or that we as LGBT Catholics cannot and do not have a role to play in such development and growth. For as the Vatican II document Dei Verbum reminds us: “Growth in the understanding of the realities” [of our developing tradition] . . . happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, . . . through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience.” And like our heterosexual brothers and sisters, we LGBT people can and do experience our sexuality and its expression in profoundly spiritual ways.

The preaching of the clergy has its role in the development of our Catholic tradition as well, of course. Yet notice how Dei Verbum, this foundational document of Vatican II, places the understanding of believers before the preaching of the hierarchy. This ordering has been interpreted by many as signifying a momentous development in the Church’s self-understanding and in its understanding of divine revelation. (It’s a development that, to my mind, recognizes and accommodates in a much more intentional manner that “better way” of Jesus identified by Hellwig and marked by “truth, community, dedication, compassion, and self-gift.”)

Yet sadly, there are many, especially within the hierarchy, who have chosen to resist or even deny this change, this development. As a result, we are experiencing great tensions and problems within the Church.


Monika Hellwig reminds us that Jesus challenges us to solve the problems of the world not by eliminating, excluding, and killing others, but by sharing. If, for instance, we could but share more equitably the resources of the world, just think of how problems such as hunger, war, and terrorism would be lessened, perhaps even resolved.

In a similar way, I strongly believe that Jesus challenges us to solve the problems of our Church, not by eliminating and excluding others (thankfully, killing others is no longer an option!), but by sharing with one another. For example, I believe that if we could all be allowed to openly share our experiences of God in our lives and relationships then the teachings on sexuality that exclude and hurt so many would change and expand so as to embody the life-giving wisdom and compassion of the entire Body of Christ.

Our teachings would become ones informed by and reflective of inclusion rather than exclusion; they would reflect, in their formulation and articulation, the “divine hospitality” we celebrate today, Corpus Christi Sunday.


For this to happen, of course, the members of the hierarchy would need to be open to listening to the stories and experiences of God’s presence in the lives of all – including the lives and experiences of LGBT people.

At the national and international levels of the Church, such listening on the part of the hierarchy is yet to take place. For instance, in preparing and writing its 2006 document, “Pastoral Care Guidelines for Those Ministering to Persons with a Homosexual Orientation,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops failed to consult a single LGBT person. (See the previous Wild Reed posts, When Guidelines Lack Guidance and Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay).

Here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, my experience at the cathedral two weeks ago leaves me feeling that listening to LGBT persons is beyond the capability of many within the hierarchy of the local Church. Also disheartening is the message being sent in recent months by the chancery that dialogue about LGBT issues will not be tolerated either on Catholic property or in the pages of the archdiocese newspaper.

Yet I remain ever hopeful, valiantly hopeful, in fact. After all, Jesus promised us the Spirit, and I believe and trust that this Spirit of transformation is working throughout the entire Church. I believe that it is ceaselessly working to transform the members and the structures of our Church so that they become living embodiments of divine grace, guidance, and hospitality; living manifestations of God’s world where, as Monika Hellwig reminds us, there is “room for all.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Better Late Than Never
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Listen Up, Papa!
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ” – Reflections on the Eucharist
“Take, All of You, and Eat” – Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part I)
“Take, All of You, and Eat” – Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part II)
“Take, All of You, and Eat” – Communion and the Rainbow Sash (Part III)
Donning the Rainbow Sash
My Rainbow Sash Experience
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Corpus Christi
Truth About “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)

Recommended Off-site Links:
In Memorium: Monika Hellwig -
Woodstock Report (November 2005, No. 83).
Goergetown University Theologiam Catholic Activist Monika Hellwig Dies - Patricia Sullivan (
Washington Post, October 6, 2005).