Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Out and About – November 2010

The season's anguish, crashing whirlwind, ice,
Have passed, and cleansed the trodden paths
That silent gardeners have strewn with ash.

The iron circles of the sky
Are worn away by tempest;
Yet in this garden there is no more strife . . .

– Excerpted from "Winter Garden"
by David Gascoyne (1994)

On the evening of Tuesday, November 2 I had some friends over to watch the midterm congressional election results come in. Pictured above (from left) are John, Jairo and Bob.

Disappointed and troubled by the results, I posted the next morning a compilation of perspectives entitled Some Progressive Thoughts for the Day After. For quite some time it remained one of The Wild Reed's top ten most popular posts.

Left: A portrait of my friend Jairo that I took in August 2010. In mid-November Jairo returned to his homeland of Columbia. He will definitely be missed by many but will hopefully return to the U.S. some time next year.

Above: A performance of the Yuval Ron Ensemble – St. Paul, November 11, 2010.

For more images and commentary, click here.

Above: On November 11 I met Doug's parents (pictured with him above) for the first time. At one point I asked them what three words would they use to describe Doug as a child. They responded with: "determined," "thoughtful" and "caring." I smiled, realizing that these qualities live on in the man I'm dating.

Right: Not only is my "Mr. Brilliant" a determined, thoughtful and caring man, he's also a gifted artist and a former Gay Olympian! Oh, and he also knows a thing or two about power tools! How lucky am I?

Above: In the always warm and welcoming kitchen of my friends Noelle and John.

From left: Phil, John (with Quinn), Jacki, Noelle and Doug.

Above: Saturday, November 20 may have been a cold and icy November morning outside, but inside we enjoyed a wonderfully delicious brunch prepared by Noelle!

From left: Noelle, John, Brittany and Phil.

Above: Brittany, Phil, John and me – Saturday, November 20, 2010.

Above: Little Quinny Quinn Quinn! – Saturday, November 20, 2010.

Above: The view from my attic bedroom of the Twin Cities' first snowfall of the winter – Saturday, November 6, 2010.

Above: Celebrating Thanksgiving with (from left) Brittany, Phil, Noelle, Doug, Benjamin and John.

Left: I'm thankful for many things this year, but by far I'm most thankful for having met Doug in August and for the wonderful experience of being in relationship with him.

Above: On Thanksgiving evening I attended a delightful "Wine and Dessert" party hosted by my friend Brian.

Pictured from left: Meg, Chris, Doug, Vince and Brian.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Out and About – November 2009
Out and About – November 2008
Out and About – November 2007

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Mystics Full of God

This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent. To mark the beginning of this special season I share this evening an excerpt from the introduction to Winter's Wisdom: Advent 2010, a wonderful little booklet of prayers and reflections produced by the Congregation of St. Joseph. This introduction is written by Helen Prejean, CSJ.


Light is good. We wait for the light. We're made for the light.

But darkness is not bad. We're made, not just for light, but for darkness, too. Incredible miracles happen in darkness. In our deep-down being we know darkness well. We began in darkness when we were knit together in our mother's womb. We welcome darkness at the end of day so we can fall into the darkness of sleep. Darkness is the inward place.

Beginnings are always dark. The most creative works we ever do are conceived in darkness. Mystery defies delineation. We can't codify mystery just like we can never name God. Certainly, Love – the deepest of all mysteries, with its amazing capacity to unite hearts and minds, defies ever being quantified. Mystics speak of holy encounters as dark light, the "cloud of unknowing."

Trees know what to do in winter darkness. They shed their leaves, those wondrous energy factories in which they catch and eat photons from the Sun and turn them into pulsating energy to push down their roots, sprout leaves and stretch their branches ever higher to catch their share of Sun.

In winter darkness trees know to pull inward, to move their life-juice down into their roots where they hover, they abide, they contemplate. Outwardly they look bare, bereft. If we didn't know spring was coming we'd swear they're dead. But trees know Winter's season is the time to nurture their "within-ness" (the word so treasured by Teilhard, Duns Scotus and Gerard Manley Hopkins). In winter, trees become mystics full of God.

Thank you, Brother, Sister Trees for teaching us about Advent.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts of Waiting . . . and a Resolution (2009)
Letting God Loose
Advent: Renewing Our Connection to the Sacred (2008)
The Centered Life as an Advent Life
Thomas Merton on "the Advent Mystery"
My Advent Prayer for the Church (2007)
Advent Thoughts (2007)
Dark Matters

Recommended Off-site Link:
An Advent Meditation
- Richard McBrien (The National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2010).

Photography: Michael J. Bayly.
Cover art of Winter's Wisdom: Advent 2010: "Holy Waiting" by Mary Southard, CSJ.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

Benedict's [recent] concession [on the use of condoms] applies only to disease prevention. But it shakes the foundations of the church's injunction against contraception. Humanae Vitae didn't object to birth control per se. On the contrary, it invited couples to "take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile." As Ross Douthat notes, it's hard for many Catholics to understand why the church forbids condom use but "permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception." So the pope falls back on Humanae Vitae's broader distinction: "Natural" birth control is a practice, whereas "artificial" birth control is just a technical expedient. The rhythm method, he reasons, is "not just a method but a way of life." In this respect, it's "fundamentally different from when I take the pill without binding myself interiorly to another person, so that I can jump into bed with a random acquaintance."

The pope really needs to get out more. Millions of people take the pill, wear IUDs, or use condoms as a way of life. They do so to bind themselves to another person, not to jump into bed with random acquaintances. They hope to spare their partners not only disease, but the creation of a new life they aren't prepared to bring into the world. This is the opposite of exploitation. It's an act of care, responsibility, and reverence.

Humanae Vitae was right about love. It was wrong about contraception, but that error can be corrected. It might take decades or centuries, but Benedict's reflections are a good start. They're a first step in the direction of a moralization, a more human way of living sexuality.

– William Saletan
"Moral Sex: The Pope, Condoms, and the Ethics of Contraception"

November 29, 2010

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Pope Embraces an Acceptable Form of Relativism
Quote of the Day - November 24, 2010
The Pope's Latest Condom Remarks
Robert McClory on Humanae Vitae
The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
"A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics"
Donald Hanway's "Fresh Look at a Sensitive Topic"
Joan Timmerman on the "Wisdom of the Body"
Making Love, Giving Life

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Catholic Church, Condoms and "Lesser Evils" – David Gibson (The New York Times, November 27, 2010).
It's Not Just About Male Prostitutes – Phyllis Zagano (National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2010).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)

The Wild Reed series “The Dancer and the Dance” continues with the first of three excerpts from Ramsey Burt’s book The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities (2007). All three excerpts are from chapter one, “The Trouble with the Male Dancer . . .,” which explores how the spectacle of men dancing can challenge, undermine and/or redefine notions of masculinity.

Burt’s fascinating book explores three important and interrelated topics: “the reintroduction of the male dancer to Western theatres by the Ballets Russes; the virile image of the male dancer that developed in American modern dance during the first half of the twentieth century; and the ways in which avart-garde and post-modern choreographers have been able to adapt, react against, or reject the legacy of existing ways in which masculinity is conventionally represented in theatre dance.” By “theatre dance” Burt means “dance that is performed on stage rather than dance activity occurring in social situations.”

Throughout The Male Dancer, Burt maintains that “masculinity as a socially constructed identity is not a stable entity, but one made up of conflictual and contradictory aspects.” He notes in the introduction to his book that: “Representations of masculinity in theatre dance over the last 150 years (more so in some ways than other cultural forms) have threatened to disrupt and destabilise masculine identities.” Burt is also concerned with “identifying key issues and strategies that offer the radical dance artist potential sites at which to trouble and subvert the conflictual and contradictory aspects of dominant notions of masculine identity in order to create possibilities for representing new, alternative, non-discriminatory perceptions of the differences between men and women in theatre dance.”

See what I mean by fascinating? Anyway, here, with added links and images, is the first of three excerpts from chapter 1 of The Male Dancer. Enjoy!


For much of the twentieth century, the dance world tended to appear to be predominately a feminine realm in terms of audiences, dancers, and teachers. The fact that, for example, in Britain and the US ballet and modern dance teachers have been predominately women has been cited as one reason for male dancer’s ‘effeminacy.’ But for many people, a key source of contemporary prejudice is the association between male dancers and homosexuality. It is certainly true that there are a lot of gay men involved in the dance world. Although by no means all male dancers are gay, this is what prejudice suggests. One consequence of this, I suggest, is a particular form of hyper-masculine display which sometimes naturalises aggression and violence as dancers try to show that they are not effeminate, where ‘effeminate’ is a code word for homosexual.

Until comparatively recently there has been a profound silence in the dance world on the subject of male dance and homosexuality. Commenting on the fact that the early American modern dancer Ted Shawn [right] was gay, Judith Lynn Hanna in her book Dance, Sex and Gender points to the irony in the time and effort he and his company of male dancers “spent trying to prove that they were not what Shawn and many of the company were.” What she fails to recognize is that for gay men in the US at that time, “coming out” was not an option. With the trial of Oscar Wilde as a terrible example, and with fear of blackmail, it is not surprising that so many in the dance world have, in order to protect individuals, taken the line of denying any knowledge of homosexuality among dancers.

By no means all dancers are gay, and the belief that they are is not itself an entirely satisfactory explanation of the prejudice. If one takes a historical perspective, I have not seen any firm evidence that the general public were aware of and concerned about gay involvement in ballet before the time of Diaghilev and Nijinsky at the beginning of the twentieth century. The prejudice against the male dancer, however, developed during the flowering of the Romantic ballet, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Examination of attitudes towards the male dancer during this earlier period suggests that what is at stake is the development of modern, middle class attitudes towards the male body and expressive aspects of male social behaviour. I am not arguing that, prior to Nijinsky, all male dancers were heterosexual, merely that their sexuality was not an explicit issue. Gender representations in cultural forms, including theatre dance, do not merely reflect changing social definitions of femininity and masculinity, but are actively involved in the processes through which gender is constructed and norms reinforced. What concerns us here is the way that the socially produced parameters of, and limits on, male behaviour are expressed in representations of masculinity in theatre dance. At stake is the appearance of the dancing male body as spectacle.

What Rosalind Coward has commented on, in relation to contemporary film, in many ways sums up a modern attitude to the gendered body:

Under the sheer weight of attention to women’s bodies we seem to have become blind to something. Nobody seems to have noticed that men’s bodies have quietly absented themselves. Somewhere along the line, men have managed to keep out of the glare, escaping from the relentless activity of sexual definitions. (Coward 1984: 227)

Over the last two centuries, however, it is not that male dancers have quietly absented themselves, but that, in many instances, they have been nervously dismissed. When the male dancer gradually disappeared from the stages of western European theatres during the period of the Romantic ballet, his place, in some cases, was taken by the female dancer dressed “en travestie.” There is a similar disappearance of the male nude as a subject for painting and sculpture, and male forms of dress underwent what J.C. Flugel (1930) has brilliantly characterized as “the great male renunciation” – the abandonment of the more flamboyant styles that the aristocracy had popularized in favour of the plain, black, bourgeois suit. What became conflictual and, consequently, repressed was anything that might draw attention to the spectacle of the male body. What one should, therefore, be looking for to explain the mid-nineteenth century prejudice against the male dancer, is the development, during this period, of modern attitudes to the body and gender, at a time when bodies in general were a source of anxiety. It is these attitudes that brought about a situation in which it seemed “natural” not to look at the male body, and, therefore, problematic and conflictual for men to enjoy looking at men dancing.

Masculinity, as a socially constructed identity, was rarely stable. Rather than enjoying a secure autonomy, men have continually needed to adjust and redefine the meanings attributed to sexual difference in order to maintain dominance in the face of changing social circumstances. Because the body is the primary means of expression in dance, and because gender is an attribute of the body, dance is a key area through which gendered identities are revealed. The kinds of gender representation that choreographers and dancers create and perform are partly determined by their individual histories and experiences. History and experience also effect the kinds of interpretation that audience members make of the dance work they see performed. How they see it is also, however, conditioned by the way in which the work is framed and presented to them – the way the work negotiates the traditions and conventions of theatre dance. Dominant gender ideologies are not, therefore, imposed without resistance through dance. The moment of live performance is a privileged one in which these ideologies are represented and contested. Indeed dancing bodies can become sites of resistance against them. The spectacle of men dancing on stage can, therefore, sometimes expose some of the tensions and contradictions within masculine subjectivities. The unease that sometimes accompanies the idea of the male dancer is, I suggest, produced by structures which defend and police dominant male norms.

NEXT: Part 2: Homophobia and the Male Dancer

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
Dark Matters
An Ideal Vision
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
Oh! What’s This, Then?
Whimsical and Edgy
Istanbul (Part 4)
Scaling the Heights
An Evening with the Yuval Ron Ensemble
Love, Equality and the Rumba
Oh, Yeah!
The Potential of Art & the Limits of Rigid Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred

Recommended Off-site Link:
Dancer Versus Spectator
– Ian Enriquez (BarbaryCoast.org, March 25, 2007).

Image 1: Eddie Oroyan by Photogen Inc.
Image 2: Mikhail Mordkin, Ballet Russe dancer, by Nickolas Muray (1922).
Image 3: Chris Nash.
Images 4-6: Ted Shawn and dancers by Nickolas Muray.
Image 7: Iyun Harrison by Khalil Goodman (2008).
Image 8: Subjects and photographer unknown.
Image 9: Eddie Oroyan by Carlos Gonzalez.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Istanbul (Part 5)

The Wild Reed’s series on Istanbul continues with excerpts from an insightful article by Christopher Hall on Mimar Sinan, the “Ottoman Michelangelo.” I came across this article in the September/October 2010 issue of the travel magazine Afar.

The Turkish architect Mimar Sinan, a contemporary of Michelangelo and Palladio, was responsible for the construction of more than 300 buildings – including mosques, palaces, public baths (hamams), mausoleums, bridges and aqueducts – in the 16th century, a time that is considered the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.


Mimar Koca Sinan Aga (ca 1497-1588) – usually shortened to Mimar Sinan (“Architect Sinan”) or simply Sinan – stands alone in the history of architecture. No other single designer has ever shaped a city as Sinan did Istanbul during his 50 years as chief royal architect for three Ottoman sultans. He created mosques, hamams, and schools for the 16th century’s most important world capital, building a legacy felt today by anyone who walks the city’s streets or sets foot inside one of his masterpieces. His domes are architectural tours de forces sheltering immense interiors of suffused light and deep shadow, According to Nobel-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, his mosques link the secular and the sacred, blending “monumental exteriors proclaiming the power of the Ottoman empire” with “pure inner spaces that draw the faithful into direct communion with God.”

I had come to see Sinan’s Istanbul. More than a hundred of his buildings still exist in the city. Some are in ruins, others put to uses Sinan would never have imagined, a few gloriously restored. The buildings would give me a glimpse of Istanbul’s golden age as the capital of a vast, multicultural empire. But they also tell the tale of a modern megalopolis of 13 million Istanbullus, many newly arrived from poor regions of a secular republic that of late has seen a rise in Islamism. My journey would take me from the grandeur of imperial mosques to a once lovely hamam turned into a mini-mall, from the murky depths of Turkey’s still Byzantine bureaucracy to the thrilling heights of a slender minaret. I would meet the devout who pray in Sinan’s buildings; the shoppers who buy shoes in them; and the academics and restorers dedicated to making sure they endure.

. . . Süleymaniye Mosque [above] . . . crowns the most prominent of old Istanbul’s seven hills. I smelled coffee and chiles as I passed the Spice Bazaar, a blur of almonds, figs, honeycomb, pastel pyramids of Turkish delight, and mountains of brick-red seasonings. I stopped for lunch of lamb-stuffed eggplant and pomegranate juice at a lokanta [a simple restaurant].

Afterward, I located Sinan’s tomb [right], an unadorned sarcophagus sheltered by a graceful stone vault, visible through an opening in the surrounding wall. An old man in a white crocheted skullcap and brown robe stood in front of the opening, eyes closed and palms held in prayer.

. . . The tomb felt forgotten in the bustle of the neighborhood, though I knew this was not always the case. In the 1930s, as Atatürk’s young republic forged its Turkish identity in the wake of purging itself of Armenians and Greeks, it became imperative to transform Sinan into a Turkish cultural hero. Somewhat inconveniently, Sinan was born to Christian parents who were likely Armenian, and he later became Muslim after being drafted into imperial service. Nevertheless, in 1935, to promote its racial theories, the Turkish Historical Society exhumed Sinan’s body and examined his skull, which was dutifully reported to be of the “brachycephalic Turkish race.” Even in today’s debates over Turkish identity, Sinan is claimed by all sides. Some see him as purely Turkish, others see him as purely Muslim, still others see him as being above politics and religion. His complicated biography, born of complex time, resists modern simplification.

. . . I met Muzaffer Özgüles, a doctoral candidate in architectural history who pedals around the city on a mountain bike and is writing a book about the 10 mosques whose silhouettes dominate the skyline of old Istanbul. Together we visited Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque [left] in Azapkapi, a small gem with eight semidomes radiating from the central dome. “I don’t think so much about religion when I am in one of Sinan’s mosques,” said Muzaffer. “To me, they are more like beautiful sculpture. Beautiful, rational sculpture designed by a man who may have worked for a Muslim sultan, but who was most importantly an Ottoman. Sometimes I wish I could have seen Istanbul when it was still a mix of Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and others. Sometimes I feel hüzün [a melancholy] not just for the ruined buildings of Istanbul but for all the different people who used to live here.”

I made several trips to Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, joining crowds that filed across gangplanks and onto ferries that belched black smoke. On a warm Sunday, I traveled by foot and jam-packed jitney to three mosques, a tomb, and Mimar Sinan Bazaar, a former hamam where natural light that once fell on bathers now illuminates women picking through mounds of cheap shoes and bras. Late in the day, tired, hot, and jangled by the masses, I found myself in the tea garden of Sinan’s Atik Valide Mosque. Men sat at shaded tables sipping, smoking, and quietly talking. A breeze moved through the trees and, closing my eyes, I felt it on my face. “Şerbet gibi,” I thought, remembering a Turkish phrase that describes a situation that is pleasant and sweet. “Like sherbet.”

– Christopher Hall
"The Spirit of Istanbul"
September/October 2010

Recommended Off-site Links:
Traces of a Genius in Istanbul
The Ottoman Architect Who Linked East and West

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Istanbul (Part 1)
Istanbul (Part 2)
Istanbul (Part 3)
Istanbul (Part 4)
“This Light Breeze That Loves Me”
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

I cannot shake my own sense . . . that this tiny step [of the pope’s towards moral responsibility], measured against the consensus that people of good will and many Catholics had long ago reached on this issue of condom use, is far too little and far too late. As Rome dithered, people have been dying, after all. I cannot shake my own sense that there is really precious little to celebrate today in the way the Catholic church responds, at an official level, to situations in which there is an imperative need to give better and more humane moral leadership to the faithful (and moral witness to the world at large).

I cannot escape my sense that there’s tremendous irony in hearing centrist Catholics who little more than a year ago bent over backwards to parse and defend Benedict’s statements about how condom use is making the AIDS crisis in Africa worse, now praise the pope fulsomely for his humanity in conceding that using condoms to prevent lethal infections may save lives, and that that goal may be morally preferable to its opposite. What kind of ecclesiological universe must these fellow Catholics live in, when every word that falls from the papal lips is to be venerated, celebrated – and defended, even when the defense tortures reason and calls into question our credibility as reasonable, and more to the point, humane and caring persons?

I place the grateful outpouring of praise for Benedict’s small concession about condoms against the backdrop of the church we were on our way to becoming after Vatican II – the church he and his predecessor John Paul II stopped dead in its tracks – and I wonder if those now celebrating this tiny step in the right direction, particularly well-educated centrist Catholics in dialogue with contemporary culture, have any concept of how strange we have come to seem, as a church. A church that only a few decades ago encouraged lay people to read, learn, study, enter fruitful dialogues with contemporary culture, now finds its moral voice in the world so caged that we sit around waiting for the man at the top to make a tiny statement suggesting a more humane approach to a serious medical-moral issue, and we go wild with joy.

What kind of people are we now? What kind of people behave this way? What kind of community of faith that expects to have moral credibility engages in such uncritical, entirely defensive adulation of its chief spokesperson, while systematically bridling and then removing from its midst almost any and all voices of moral insight and conscience that do not run in approved channels?

Not an admirable community, I would propose. And not a very humane one.

– William D. Lindsey
Benedict and Condoms: Shift Occurs,
I Remain Underwhelmed

November 24, 2010

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Pope Embraces an Acceptable Form of Relativism
The Pope’s Latest Condom Remarks
Thoughts on Relativism
Vatican Considers the “Lesser of Two Evils”

Recommended Off-site Link:
Vatican Tries to Clear Confusion Over Condom Use – John Hooper (The Guardian, November 23, 2010).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pope Embraces an Acceptable Form of Relativism

Earlier today I spoke on the phone with a reporter from The Star Tribune. She wanted to know my thoughts on the breaking story this morning of the pope's declaration that people – regardless of gender or sexual orientation – can use condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV. Apparently, it's a "lesser sin" to do this than infect one's partner with HIV or, in the case of a heterosexual couple, avert a possible pregnancy.

Said another way, the "official" church is now saying that relative to certain situations, non-procreative sex is recommended, is a responsible thing to do.

The Associated Press is
calling it a "seismic shift," an acknowledgment that "the church's long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn't justify putting lives at risk." The Guardian of London notes that this acknowledgment creates "a doctrinal dilemma for hardliners."

And why is this, you may ask. Well, you won't hear it from the "hardliners" but the pope's recent comments on the "lesser evil" of condoms clearly indicate that he is embracing a form of relativism. He's basically saying that the degree of morality of non-procreative sex acts (in this case, sex involving condoms) is relative to these acts particular situation or context.

Now, for most people, the weighing of pros and cons relative to the context of a given moral decision is a no-brainer. And when it comes to moral decisions relating to social issues such as nuclear arms and labor standards, it's also a no-brainer for the pope and the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church. Not so, however, for issues relating to sexuality.

Today's news, therefore, is a major breakthrough in terms of the clerical caste's thinking and articulation of sexual morality. The absolute norms of the past are no longer quite so absolute. After all, we've gone from
Non-procreative sex is always wrong to It's not as wrong when you're protecting your partner (male or female) from disease. I don't know about you, but I think it's clear that when it comes to the complex reality of human sexual relations, this movement away from rigid absolutism is a good and healthy thing.

Baby steps

As I'm sure most of my readers would know, the official church teaches that for a sex act to be morally good it must take place within a heterosexual marriage and at all times be open to procreation. Thus no condoms or other forms of contraception, no oral sex, no anal sex, no masturbation. It's a very acts-focused and thus reductionist way of viewing human sexuality. But that's where the "official" church is situated at this time – even as the church as people of God has recognized and is living a more integrated vision of the role and purposes of sex in human life.

But with today's news it seems the clerical caste of the church, headed by the pope, may be taking some baby steps in catching up!

I mean, think about it: the pope is finally beginning to acknowledge the complexity of sexuality and sexual relationships. He also seems to be open to applying "situational ethics" to this complex reality. In the past he would have dismissed this as "relativism," something that he labeled as evil. So, in this sense, we're definitely witnessing a certain development in spiritual maturity on the part of the pope and hopefully, by extension, the entire clerical caste of the church.

I've always appreciated theologian Daniel Helminiak's take on relativism. When I interviewed him in 2006 he noted that:

If [relativism] means that there is no objective truth, that one opinion is as valid as any other, then . . . relativism needs to be discredited. . . . [But] if relativism simply means that we all have different perspectives and no one person has the whole picture, then, yes, such relativism is acceptable; it is needed. But call it perspectivism (à la Bernard Lonergan), not relativism and avoid ambiguous terminology in this matter. Of course, what I say here depends on the supposition that we are able to know correctly and able to approach the truth and often to capture it.

Still uncomfortable with the word "relativism"? Well, what about the Catholic moral theological term "gradualism"? Here's how Martin Pedergast explains this term in the context of the pope's latest statements on condom use.

What is not in doubt in any of his comments, including those on the need to ponder sexual ethics issues more deeply, is that the pope seems to be endorsing the principle of Catholic moral theology known as "gradualism".

Heavily criticised by John Paul II (in his 1993 encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor) this approach recognises that moral decision making is a step-by-step process. Progressive Catholic theologians, including bishops and cardinals, have applied this principle to a range of sexual ethics questions, including HIV issues, civil law and abortion, and sexual orientation law reform. Who knows, perhaps this might open the door even to a direct papal dialogue with the victims of abuse, people living with HIV, and God's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered daughters and sons?

Wider implications

Which brings me to another important point: don't think for a moment that today's news about the church's lower-grade disapproval status for certain cases of non-procreative sex doesn't have implications for other moral issues and decisions in the realm of sexuality. To say otherwise would be the height of intellectual dishonesty.

What's an example of a wider implication? Well, if we're going to be honest, then the "lesser evil" argument (as I've noted previously) could just as easily be applied to the issue of homosexuality. For instance, given the statistics on LGBT persons, homo-negative attitudes, substance abuse, and suicide, a gay man could legitimately argue that it’s a “lesser evil” for him to seek and build a loving, sexual relationship with another man than be in a lonely, potentially depressed state wherein he would be prone to self harm through alcohol abuse, promiscuity and/or suicide.

Again, this would be a development, albeit minor in the view of most LGBT people, in the way that the official church thinks and talks about gay people's lives and relationships. I suppose we should politely applaud the pope's baby steps in developing a more mature and realistic way of thinking about such things, but in reality, most Catholics are already light years ahead of him. For example: 62% of Catholics believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 69% favor the legalization of those basic rights accorded to married heterosexual couples for gays and lesbians in long-term committed relationships.

Finally, there are some people who view the whole “lesser evil” argument as deeply flawed. After all, the Vatican’s deliberations and pontifications on many of the sexual matters to which the argument could (and should) be applied stem from the dubious belief that the essential purpose of sex is procreation.

Such a contention, Helminiak observes, emphasizes “the generically animal (biological), rather than the distinctively human (interpersonal)” dimension of human sexuality. In addition, the “sex = procreation” argument ignores contemporary research and personal experience with regards human sexual relationships.

With all this in mind, I look forward to seeing how Catholics across the spectrum respond to the pope's embracing of an undoubtedly relativistic way of thinking and speaking about condom use.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Pope's Latest Condom Remarks
Thoughts on Relativism
The Vatican Considers the "Lesser of Two Evils"
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men: A Discussion Guide
Time for a Church for Grown-Ups

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Pope's Shift on Condoms is No Surprise – Martin Pedergast (The Guardian, November 23, 2010).
The Faithful Cardinal Burke Not on Benedict's Wave Length? Oh, My – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, November 23, 2010).
Condoms, Catholicism and Casuistry – Ross Douthat (The New York Times, November 23, 2010).
Pope Gives Thumbs Up to Condoms. Can That Be Right? – Mindy Townsend (GayRights.org, November 24, 2010).

CPCSM and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (Part 4)

Recalling the time when the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis
supported and defended initiatives to make Catholic high schools places
where "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are safe
from harassment and prejudice."

Right: A 1998 photo of members of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries Study Group on Sexuality, including Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) co-founders Bill Kummer (front row, left) and David McCaffrey (front row, second from right).

With all the hoo-haa over the recent censoring of student Sean Simonson’s school newspaper op-ed (“Life as a Gay Teenager”) by Benilde-St. Margaret’s Catholic High School, it’s easy to forget that there was actually a time when the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and the majority of its high schools – Benilde-St. Margaret included – actively supported initiatives aimed at making schools safe for LGBT and questioning students.

And playing a crucial role to these initiatives (which collectively were termed the Safe Schools Initiative) was Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Persons in Catholic Education, a special ministry project of the independent Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). This ministry project worked in union with the archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries office (CEFM) to provide “safe staff” training to faculty and administrators of eight of the eleven archdiocesan high school that participated in the Safe Schools Initiative.

Last November I began documenting the relationship between the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and CPCSM. The sharing of historical documents highlighting this past relationship is important as there are some within the local church who today try to downplay or even deny that such a relationship ever existed.

In this fourth installment, I share the November 12, 1998 Catholic Spirit article, “Archdiocese Defends Efforts to Address Gay Issues.” It’s an article that documents the archdiocese’s defense of CPCSM co-founder (and 1989 Archbishop John Ireland Award recipient) Bill Kummer (left) from “unfair” and “irresponsible” charges leveled at him by the reactionary newspaper The Wanderer in its “reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with their understanding of Catholic doctrine.” Yes, folks, that's a direct quote from The Catholic Spirit which, it should be noted, is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. And those “efforts to address gay issues” that The Catholic Spirit declares the archdiocese to be in defense of is a reference to the Safe Schools Initiative facilitated by CEFM and CPCSM.

It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? Just twelve years ago the archdiocese could talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and vigorously defend an initiative aimed at making high schools places where such students would be “safe from harassment and prejudice.” It could also equate these efforts with “issues of racial and gender bias, other strands of prejudice running through society in general that are unacceptable in Catholic Church teaching.”

Fast forward to 2010, to when a gay student of an archdiocesan high school can’t even share his experiences in his school’s newspaper without it being censored by school officials, and to when Dennis McGrath, spokesperson for the archdiocese, goes on record as saying that “we are supportive of [this] decision by school authorities.”

Officials at Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school maintain that they are “committed to ensuring that all students are safe, respected, and protected,” and that it is the responsibility of a Catholic school to “respect and uphold the dignity of the vulnerable, including students who are attracted to the same sex.” Note there’s now no longer any reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender students but rather those “attracted to the same sex” – a phrase that echoes the way that the clerical leadership and the Courage apostolate (along with its odious pseudo-scientific bedfellow NARTH) likes to talk about LGBT people: as those afflicted by “same-sex attractions.”

I appreciate Maia Spotts critique of Benilde-St. Margaret’s recent statements. In her November 19 Change.org article, “Catholic High School Silences Gay Editorial,” Spotts writes:

What the school seems to misunderstand is that by pulling the comments and the piece, they aren’t respecting Sean, or creating a safer atmosphere in which he can thrive and live openly. Cutting the dialogue off at the pass only validates those who believe it was wrong in the first place. Removal of Sean’s column denigrates the needs of LGBTQ students, ignoring Sean’s plea for support and compassion. It leaves Sean with one less safe haven in which to speak his mind. And removal of the comments dismisses those who improperly disagree without consequence. Which means the bullies win.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a glimpse of when things where much more enlightened in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in relation to LGBT students and their needs. And given the current regime Catholics in the archdiocese are living under, this glimpse back to how things once were seems like receiving a dispatch from another planet! Yes, things in the church can and do change, though not always for the better.


Catholic High Schools: Wanderer article termed unfair, irresponsible

Archdiocese Defends Efforts
to Address Gay Issues

By Bob Zyskowski

The Catholic Spirit
November 12, 1998

Efforts to make Catholic high schools places where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) students are safe from harassment and prejudice have been defended by the archdiocese.

The initiatives taking place at Catholic high schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area are consistent with Catholic teachings and doctrine, a statement from the archdiocese said.

A Christian life of chastity is the basis of all teaching regarding sexuality in the Catholic schools, said Dominican Sister Mary Ellen Gevelinger of the archdiocesan Catholic Education and Formation Ministries office.

The Nov. 10 statement came in response to a recent article in The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper based in St. Paul. The Wanderer story said gay activist Bill Kummer had “worked” and “used” Archbishop Harry J. Flynn and other archdiocesan officials to promote a gay agenda in Catholic high schools.

The article by Paul Likoudis said Kummer boasted at a national workshop how he had transformed nine of the 11 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese into “gay friendly” schools.

Kummer, who served as a resource for CEFM, is co-founder of Family and Friends of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Person in Catholic Education. He spoke at the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries [now known as the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry] in Rochester, NY.

The Wanderer story used as its source a tape recording of Kummer’s presentation; archdiocesan officials said they listened to the same recording and came up with a different interpretation of what Kummer said.

The statement by the archdiocese called The Wanderer’s version “attack journalism” tat unfairly questioned the credibility of Kummer and Archbishop Flynn.

“After a careful review of the tape by archdiocesan leaders,” the statement said, “it is clear that Mr. Kummer said nothing that would give a reasonable person the idea that he had intended to deceive anyone regarding this matter.

“What is clear, however,” the archdiocesan statement continued, “is The Wanderer, including its publisher, reporters and editorial staff, continue their reign of terror against anyone who disagrees with their understanding of Catholic doctrine.”

The statement by the archdiocese said Archbishop Flynn, as the chief teacher in the archdiocese, is responsible for ensuring that what is taught within the archdiocese is consistent with Catholic teaching and doctrine.

“The irresponsible way in which this and many other articles are written, including regular attacks on numerous Catholic bishops, clearly demonstrates that The Wanderer has set itself up over the church and its appointed leaders and will use any means necessary to make their point.

“They are neither ethical journalists nor persons concerned with the total truth of Catholic teaching,” the archdiocesan statement said of The Wanderer.

Behind the controversy is an attempt by the archdioceses to help Catholic high schools provide pastoral care for students, said members of the CEFM team working with schools to address GLBT issues.

Bias in the forms of violence, personal abuse, harassment and the agonies young people g through during adolescence were brought to the attention of CEFM staff by administrators of local Catholic high schools.

For the school presidents, their main concern was the safety of the students, said Jane Hilger of the CEFM staff.

Sister Mary Ellen, CEFM director of personnel and planning, added, “This is an opportunity for schools to affect the culture and climate in a way that makes schools safer for all students.”

Thomas McCarver, CEFM director, equated the initiatives with issues of racial and gender bias, other strands of prejudice running through society in general that are unacceptable in Catholic Church teaching.

“We’re trying to address the strands of bias head on – nothing has been subversive,” McCarver said. “Bias against GLBT students has been ignored, and that’s the reason for our schools taking these initiatives.”

Training offered to Catholic high school faculty and administrators teaches that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people deserve to be respected and treated with the dignity all God’s creatures have a right to expect, CEFM officials said, and to oppose efforts such as the GLBT initiatives is to oppose church teaching.

“Church teaching calls for respect for everyone,” Hilger said. “We are putting forward what Jesus taught – you respect everyone.”

Teachers asked what they were to do when students came to them with questions or concerns surrounding GLBT issues, Sister Mary Ellen said. “We asked what does the church teach, and we studied that.”

Resource material used in the discussions include the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1991 letter from the U.S. bishops “Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning,” two position papers by Archbishop John R. Roach on the subject; and “Always Our Children,” the 1997 document by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Marriage and the Family which was revised and approved by the Vatican this summer.

The CEFM team said it is charged with teaching the fullness of Catholic teaching, and that includes issues of social justice, human dignity and the rights of the individual.

McCarver added, “The archbishop’s position is that we teach within church teaching, and we have.”

The intent of discussions with faculty was to find out what was happening to students in Catholic schools that might be detrimental and to make it better, Sister Mary Ellen said.

McCarver said the schools themselves see only positives from the efforts.

“What’s happened, faculty members tell us, “McCarver said, “is that these initiatives are changing the climate in schools.

“If it was okay to bash someone in the past, it isn’t now. It’s about how we behave toward one another. We’re trying to teach kids what’s right.”

– Bob Zyskowski
The Catholic Spirit
November 12, 1998

Sadly, archdiocesan support for CEFM and CPCSM’s Safe Schools Initiative did not last. Perhaps because of the above rebuttal by then-Archbishop Harry Flynn of The Wanderer (the first time a bishop publicly rebuked the ultra-conservative newspaper), reactionary elements within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis intensified their efforts to put an end to the Safe Schools Initiative. They ultimately succeeded, and in 1999 the Archdiocese notified the schools that CPCSM representatives were no longer welcome to be part of CEFM’s work. As a result, the formal “safe staff” training of faculty and administrators effectively ceased.

Years later, however, I compiled and edited the various resources, strategies, testimonials, and anecdotal components of the initiative into what would become the 2007 book, Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective. (For reviews of this book, see here, here, and here.)

I would argue that the cessation of the Safe Schools Initiative has undoubtedly contributed to the unfortunate situation we’ve witnessed recently at Benilde-St. Margaret. It’s a situation that, as Maia Spotts reminds us, “denigrates the needs of LGBTQ students, [and] ignore[es] Sean [Simonson]’s plea for support and compassion.”

To his credit, Simonson (pictured at right) remains undeterred. A recent Star Tribune story notes that he is attempting to establish a gay straight alliance at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

“The goals are not to indoctrinate or push any agenda other than acceptance,” he says. “I just think that, especially in high school, it’s a very difficult time to go through, and being gay doesn’t make it any easier. They need people to support them.”

Hmm . . . I suddenly have the song “History Repeating” in my head! I mean, twelve years ago it was an archdiocesan official reminding us of the need to “teach kids what’s right.” Here’s hoping the officials of today heed Sean Simonson's echoing of that call and work with him and others in creating safe and accepting school environments throughout the archdiocese for – and let’s all say the words together, now – GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL and TRANSGENDER students.

Hey, it’s not as if it hasn’t been done before. And there’s even now a book out there to help . . . just in case the old-timers have forgotten some of the details.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Two Editorials that Benilde-St. Margaret Catholic High School Doesn’t Want You to Read
Quotes of the Day – November 16, 2010
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 1)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 2)
CPCSM and Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (Part 3)
History Matters
How Times Have Changed
For the Record