Mark D. Jordan on the Roman Catholic Church’s
“Paradox of the ‘Beloved Disciple’”
“Paradox of the ‘Beloved Disciple’”
When will the Roman Catholic Church come out of the theological closet?
That’s the question author Mark D. Jordan (pictured at right) addresses in an insightful and thought-provoking essay drawn from the introduction to his 2002 book, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism.
My friend Brian alerted me to this essay, one that is published online, here.
Below are selected excerpts from Jordan’s essay, though please note that the headings throughout the text are my addition.
The Catholic tradition is my Christian tradition. It is not only the one in which I found Christianity or the one I know best by experience, but it is the tradition within which I have had to work out the central paradox for any gay Christian: many Christian churches are at once the most homophobic and the most homoerotic of institutions. They seem cunningly designed to condemn same-sex desire and to elicit it, to persecute it and to instruct it. I sometimes call this the paradox of the “Beloved Disciple”: “Come recline beside me and put your head on my chest, but don’t dare conceive of what we do as erotic.” Perhaps it is more clearly seen as the paradox of the Catholic Jesus, the paradox created by an officially homophobic religion in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man. How could such a religion be officially homophobic – and also intensely homoerotic?
[. . .] To change Catholic teaching about homosexual acts would require changes under many other headings of Catholic theology. “Conservatives” are right to suspect this, though they are wrong to think that this is a reason for not correcting the teachings. The moral teachings on this topic are just the most visible sign of a larger failure. If the church could be so violently wrong about this for so many centuries, there must be some deep deformity in church governance. Any correction of teachings about homosexuality will have to begin by considering topics as different as the structures of church power and the styles of moral theology, the hypocrisies of the confessional practice and the screening of seminary candidates.
. . . What is required for a thorough correction of the teachings? No one knows. Homosexuality has been silenced so successfully in the Catholic Church that we do not have the kinds of evidence required for a convincing answer. A subject that Catholic theologians cannot discuss during centuries except with thunder, derision, or disgust is not a subject on which Catholic theology can speak.
Some theologians have indeed begun to speak about it more freely in the last thirty years, and they have made some helpful and even bold beginnings. We now have notable first essays in lesbian and gay theology, not least because we have lesbian and gay appropriations of liberation theology, feminist theory, the writing of church history, and so on. But three decades cannot undo two millennia. Catholic theologians will have to be able to speak freely about homosexuality for many years before they can write serious moral assessments of it.
In order for them to “speak freely,” many changes will be required. It is not enough for the CDF [the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith] to promise that it will no longer prosecute moral theologians who dissent from its diagnosis of homosexual orientation (though just that now seems utopian fantasy). The church, in some broader sense, will have to encourage homosexual Catholics to live openly and proudly. Serious moral theology cannot be principally the framing and manipulation of quasi-legal propositions. It must begin and end in the discovery of particular lives under grace. Lesbian and gay lives will have to become audible to the church, readable within it, before their graces can be discerned and described.
We need to consider the multiple forms or places of male homosexuality within modern Catholicism. It is worth doing so for a number of reasons, whatever one’s views about the truth of Catholic dogma.
Throughout much of the world, first, the Catholic Church remains the most powerful of Christian organizations. Even in the United States, which has never been a “Catholic country,” Catholic bishops enter aggressively into public debates over homosexuality and other matters of sexual morality. They are also able to do so because religious condemnation remains the most potent homophobic rhetoric. So the features of Catholic homosexuality are particularly consequential outside the church.
Second, Catholic homoeroticism has a distinguished and varied history. Catholic clerical arrangements, for example, are very old by Christian standards. They produce rich articulations of male-male desire, both because of centuries of compulsory priestly celibacy and because of the enormous development of all-male religious orders.
Third, and most importantly, the Catholic management of same-sex desire has been decisive in European and American histories of what we now call “homosexuality.” This is not just a matter of moral teachings, national legislation, or international bureaucracies for enforcement and punishment. Catholicism has been one of the most homoerotic of widely available modern cultures, offering encouragement, instruction, and relatively safe haven to many homosexuals. You will not understand modern homosexuality unless you understand Catholic homosexuality, and you cannot understand Catholic homosexuality unless you begin with the clergy.
Who am I to say such things? Any Catholic has been taught to practice self-examination and even self-abasement before daring to voice criticism, especially against the church. Self-examination can be an important antidote to pride or anger or vanity. It can also be an effective means for enforcing silence about Catholic homosexuality. It can function as one of a series of constraints, of double binds, that contrive to make it impossible for anyone to speak – except for the “competent authorities” in the Vatican.
If I were a former priest or member of a religious order, my criticisms would be dismissed at the bitter fruit of a failure to live up to my vows. I am neither a former priest nor a former religious, so they can be dismissed as uninformed.
If I were an accredited moral theologian teaching at a pontifical faculty, my criticisms would be dismissed as defection. I am not such a moral theologian, so they can be dismissed at the rant of an amateur.
If I were not “out,” my criticisms would be dismissed as evidence of closeted gayness. I am “out,” so they can be dismissed as my own agenda.
These double binds are constructive to prevent anyone from talking about Catholic homosexuality except in the approved ways. The only people who are permitted to speak about it are those who are guaranteed never to speak about it honestly. The only people who are authorized to speak about it are the silencing authorities themselves.
Strict Orthodoxy = Homophobic Rage
Better scraps of speech than silence. If we let the ambiguity of our position or the diversity of the evidence frighten us away from speaking, we surrender speech to its abusers. There are, of course, any number of prominent Catholics who are content to speak endlessly about homosexuality. They are the broadcasters of the official teachings, and they are curiously unconstrained by historical evidence or by the diversity of present experience. To be bound up in silence by the fear of overgeneralizing would be to allow the most aggressive programs of generalization to go forward without dissent.
Other contradictions bind you, my reader. Many of you who have the greatest familiarity with my topics will also have the greatest stake in denying what I say. I am not thinking in the first instance of church-employed experts in history and theology. I refer instead to closeted clergymen whose hatred of their own desire has become strict “orthodoxy” – I mean, homophobic rage.
To read Mark Jordan’s essay, “The Pope Converts,” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Homophobia? It's So Gay
• The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
• The Catholic Thing
• Gay People and the Spiritual Life
• The Gifts of Homosexuality
• The Challenge to Become Ourselves
• The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
• Homosexuality and the Priesthood
• What Is It That Ails You?
• Weakland, the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal, and Homophobia
• The Blood-Soaked Thread
Image: “Judas Kiss” by Becki Jayne Harrelson. Writes Harrelson: “Why does ‘Judas Kiss’ depict Jesus in a homosexual embrace if I do not literally mean Jesus was gay? In Western Civilization, Jesus is THE ideal of holiness, of perfection in the flesh. My purpose is to de-shame our human sexual natures, especially gay sexuality, and present it as a sacred act, a spiritually correct behavior. Thus, Jesus is the perfect symbol to help us heal our shame and reclaim the holiness of our sexual natures. I chose Judas as a symbolic reminder that we betray ourselves and others when we reject or disown what is intrinsically our nature.”