Thursday, January 14, 2010

Oh, Give It a Rest, Papa!

The Pope’s disparaging stance on homosexuality and
gay relationships isn’t just embarrassingly unenlightened,
it also plays into a certain mindset’s deadly efforts
to fuel ignorance, bigotry, and violence against gays

Pope Benedict XVI has once again linked his opposition to civil laws recognizing same-gender unions to his concern about the environment. In a recent speech at the Vatican to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the pontiff suggested that gay marriage laws undermine “the differences between the sexes” and are therefore threats to creation.

. . . We must remember that the problem of the environment is complex; one might compare it to a multifaceted prism. Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes. I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe or North and South America.

You know, I can’t help but wonder how the pope’s limited understanding of sexual orientation informs his views on actual gay people. Does he see us as afflicted, damaged, cursed?

And what about the many gay (er, sorry, “same-sex attracted”) men within the priesthood? Are they also “intrinsically disordered,” as the Vatican likes to say? Or does this term only apply to those of us who are accepting of our homosexuality; those of us who actually allow ourselves to express our sexuality with another in a physically intimate way?

Actually, the official Vatican line is that such sexual expression is a disordered behavior, a deviation; one that is believed to retard human maturity and spiritual development. Accordingly, a gay person who accepts his/her sexuality and is open to expressing it in an integrated way, one that most likely involves a loving and physical relationship with another, is presumably immature and incapable of much of a spiritual life. Are such people automatically ostracized from God? Are we the ultimate “other”? A threat to creation itself? How should such threats be dealt with?

Deeply troubling

Hmm, this line of thinking is deeply troubling - especially in light of Nigerian writer and human rights activist
Wole Soyinka’s insights into that particular fanatical, intolerant, and fundamentalist mindset that “feeds on a compulsion to destroy other beings who do not share (one’s) beliefs;” those other beings who are perceived as threats to things like family, society, and even creation. Do you see where this is going? As it relates to gay people, this fanatical, intolerant, and fundamentalist mindset is being manifested to varying degrees throughout many parts of the world - most recently (and virulently) in Uganda

It’s also worth noting what internationally-renowned advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, Sr. Helen Prejean, said to Catholics at the Sixth National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality in Minneapolis in 2007. She noted that 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.’” Such terminology, Prejean insists, fails to recognize the full dignity of all human beings and thus contributes to the “greatest form of disrespect.”

Of course, 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.”

This profoundly unenlightened stance of the Vatican’s reflects, I believe, little more than fear-based ignorance and hubris. Furthermore, implied in this stance on sexual orientation is the belief that homosexuality is not part of nature; not part of God’s creative plan. Clearly, however, findings in the natural sciences refute this first contention, while the lived experiences of many gay people of faith challenge the second.

Why stay?

One could ask why, as a gay man, I choose to stay in the Roman Catholic Church, especially given its unenlightened views on sexuality. I’ve addressed this important question more than once at The Wild Reed. Here’s how I responded to it last November:

[I stay because] I am [called]to bear humble yet firm witness to God’s loving and transforming presence in my life and my relationships as a human being – a human being who happens to be gay. I also feel called to bear witness to what I experience of God in the lives and relationships of other people – gay people included.

I believe that this means that [for all of us] our seeking of and attuning to God’s presence in real human lives must come before unquestioning adherence to traditions and doctrines uninformed by and unresponsive to this same sacred presence mediated in and through human experience. As I’ve noted previously, love trumps tradition; and conscience, informed by God’s presence in the depths of our being, trumps doctrine developed by others unmindful of our reality and of God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t do any of this simply for myself but for the ongoing development of both the church and humanity. I believe the honest sharing of who we are and of God’s presence in our lives and relationships is not only needed for the continued shaping of our theology – our collective way of talking about God – but for our healing from centuries of fear and ignorance, and the terrible things – the violent and debilitating things – that such fear and ignorance has inflicted upon all of us. Homophobia and sexism do not only harm gay people and women, but, in many ways, heterosexuals and men as well. We all need healing.

I hear very little that is healing in Benedict’s unenlightened view that loving and committed gay relationships are a threat to creation. Rather, they’re a wonderful expression of creation – in all its God-given diversity and beauty. It saddens me that so many with the clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic Church choose not to see and celebrate this diversity and beauty. For in their refusal they are cutting themselves off from God’s presence and from rich and valuable sources of theological reflection.

A dangerous message

The clerical leadership’s refusal to seek and acknowledge God’s presence in the lives and relationships of gay people also angers me. Why? Because, like it or not, such leadership has influence on many people. The message sent by its teaching on homosexuality and gay relationships fans the flames of ignorance, bigotry, and, yes, violence. I’ve written about this previously (see
here and here). And as I noted in a December 2004 op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The [Roman Catholic] hierarchy needs to recognize the direct connection between its own anti-gay language and how the internalization of this language leads to anti-gay behavior.”

Catholic author James Carroll explores similar themes when in a recent commentary he argues that “homosexuals are the global scapegoat du jour, the ready vessel into which unsettled reactionaries of all kinds can channel their anguish, fear, and violent impulses.”

Carroll’s commentary is reprinted in its entirety below.


The Christian Anti-Gay Campaign

By James Carroll

The Daily Beast
January 11, 2010

Christian evangelicals helped spur Uganda to seek the death penalty for gay behavior—just the latest indication that homosexuals have replaced Jews as the new target for reactionary religious zeal.

Last March, Scott Lively [right] and two other Christian evangelicals preached anti-gay diatribes at a conference in Uganda, warning of sexual assault against children and the destruction of the institution of marriage–a homosexual world conspiracy to destroy virtue. Lively wrote on his blog that he prayed his campaign would be “a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.” But then, as The New York Times reported the other day, Lively was shocked, shocked, when a bill attaching the death penalty to homosexuality was soon introduced into the Uganda legislature even though it was drafted in part by the organizers of the conference he had attended and Lively himself had met with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. Backing off, Lively said, “Let me be absolutely clear. I do not support the proposed anti-homosexuality law as written. It does not emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, and the punishment it calls for is unacceptably harsh.”

Lively is only the latest of a long line of preachers of hate who try to distance themselves from the actual consequences of their demonizing sermons. The connection between speech and the behavior it can provoke is a perennial human question, but when the speech is religious, invoking a divine authority and associating objects of denigration with Satan, the problem becomes explosive. It is a small step from labeling someone as damnable to turning their life into hell on earth, and it is time for preachers to be called to account for the way their words encourage listeners to take that step. Lively and his kind cannot denounce “evil” on one hand, and claim surprise when actions taken against it are “harsh” on the other.

Homosexuals are the global scapegoat du jour, the ready vessel into which unsettled reactionaries of all kinds can channel their anguish, fear, and violent impulses. This is true in the United States, where gay marriage is a crackling flash-point in the culture war and gays in the military are still discriminated against. It is true throughout the Muslim world (of the seven nations that punish homosexuality with the death penalty, six are Islamic, and the population of the seventh–Nigeria–is half Muslim). In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, fundamentalist Christians, as well as members of mainstream denominations like some conservative Anglicans, are increasingly defining their opposition to secularism by singling out gays for God-sanctioned hatred. The global crisis of HIV/AIDS has only fueled such denigration. (Twenty years ago, Uganda was leading African nations in promoting rational public-health initiatives to stem the epidemic, but by now homosexuals are as irrationally stigmatized there as anywhere.)

Across the centuries in the Christian West, the master-victims of scapegoating were Jews, and there the tension between preached dogma and the violence it spawned was not reckoned with until too late. Christian mobs often attacked whatever Jews they could find, especially during Holy Week, when the suffering and death of Jesus were commemorated. Just like Lively now, Christian leaders—Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—often condemned the violence without asking what inspired it. After thousands of Jews were murdered in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, the Pope issued the landmark papal bull Sicut Judaeis: “We decree that no Christian shall use violence” against Jews. That bull was reissued by more than 20 popes over 400 years, but it never seemed to dawn on the popes to ask why such exhortation was so endlessly necessary, as mobs continued century in and century out to launch their pogroms–especially during Holy Week, when what they heard from pulpits was that the Jews had killed Christ.

Anti-Semitism is rooted in theology. Homophobia is rooted elsewhere, but comes with a theological sanction. A few anti-gay Bible verses don’t explain this hatred. Its hidden complexities range from contempt for the material world to suspicion of pleasure to fear of sex itself. These origins are obscure because humans are afraid to look at them. It is enough to bring in a damning God. Among Christians, Evangelicals are at the extreme end of homosexual demonization. The [Roman] Catholic Church, as it did with Jews, firmly renounces “all forms of violence against homosexuals,” in words a Vatican delegate addressed to the United Nations little over a year ago. The Vatican opposes “all criminal penalties,” as well. But, as it did with Jews, the Vatican still promulgates contemptuous teachings about homosexuality—“objectively disordered,” says the Catholic Catechism. Early in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI broke with a tradition that had long quietly accommodated homosexuals in the clergy, now forbidding entry into the priesthood of anyone having “a gay orientation” or “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

Now Rome complains that the Anglican Communion is affirming gays through blessed unions and full admission to the priesthood. The complaint is no surprise. In 2008, Benedict labeled homosexuality as a “destruction of God’s work” on a par with the ruination of the tropical rain forests. Gays, he said, threaten “the order of creation.” This is less blatant than, say, the “God hates fags” sign carried by Protestant fundamentalists at Matthew Shepard’s funeral in 1998, but the drift is toward the same hateful conclusion.

Religious dogma cannot be preached in a sphere removed from its real-world consequences. Speakers are responsible for what follows from their hateful speech, especially when it is offered as God’s word. It took the Holocaust for Christians to learn that about the teaching of contempt for Jews. What will it take in the case of gays?

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Papa
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
To Be Gay in Iraq . . .
Bishop Spong: “Homosexuality is Not Unnatural”
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
What Is It That Ails You?

Recommended Off-site Link:
Catholic Church Can Overcome Fear of GLBT People – Michael J. Bayly (Star Tribune, December 18, 2004).


colkoch said...

This is a good question Michael. Why can't Papa Ratzi give it a rest? Maybe he could if he had Sr Joan Chittister for his personal secretary instead of Gorgeous Georg.

There is precedent for this kind of arrangement. See Pius XII.

Joe said...

You are right, Michael. The trouble is that our church is structurally unable to put into practice the vision of Vatican II. In the deep paralysis besetting the Church, the out-of-touch mumblings of the authorities are a sad ersatz for real pastoral and theological leadership, which would have to be rooted in dialogue.

kevin57 said...

My personal reaction to His Holiness's words is a big yawn. Sadly, "personal" is not good enough. As you correctly note, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of gay Catholics who do not have the theological background to understand how to weigh these papal inanities. Because of that we must be good news and hope to a community of sisters and brothers in pain and even despair.

To your second point--why remain a Catholic--I have a different reason. Moral questions are the least important dimension of a faith. Even in the Catechism, Belief and Prayer precede Morality. There is no Catholic morality without first correct belief and then correct spirituality. For me, the richness of Church symbolism and the wonderful and deep sacramental theology of the world is what keeps me in. Those would be gifts lost to me, and truly missed by me, if I were to abandon the faith.

Until then, we, like many previous generations, have to endure fearful Curias, feckless bishops and even narrow-minded pontiffs.

Phillip Clark said...

Thank you for this encouraging and motivating post Michael! Your bravery, in confronting the plight of LGBT individuals within and outside the confines of the Church continues to be one of the mains sources of inspiration in my own mission, I believe, to bring light and a voice to the situation of the treatment of homosexuals within the Church.

I also thank you for providing the eminent James Carroll's enlightened and truthful commentary. It is indeed sad that we gays seem to be the scapegoats of the modern world, but, Pope John Paul did seem to realize that the Church had some resonsibility to play when it came to characterizing the Jewish people in such a dispariging and demonized manner. Thus, during the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 he formally issued an apology.

Let us hope that in the future, a Pontiff whose name is yet unknown will apologize for all the hatred, bigotry, and ingorance issued towards LGBT individuals in the name of "truth."

What irks me is how simplistic this natural law argument is that the prelates continue to cling to. Just this week a study has gained signifigant prominence that proves that a unique species of ant has learned to procreate without the need of a male specimen. So, essentially, its become adapted to become a lesbian entity! Procreation, without the need of opposite sexes... Perhaps someday we'll figure out how to do that... =/

But really, this simplistic argument that's bolstered mainly by the theological posterity of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine is the main problem in combatting homophobia within the Church.

Once we understand that even God Almighty is essentially a communion of unique and different realities, which is really what the concept of the Trinity is - not three guys, then we will be able to confront the questions and implications that homosexuality offer the Church and the world at large.