Category Archives: Modern

Edith Stein, “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross”

Today, Aug 9th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross” – better known to most people as Edith Stein, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and nun who died in the Nazi gas chambers on August 9th 1942, and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

There is nothing that directly links her to gay or lesbian Catholics, but indirectly I was struck, when reading her story this morning, of how many parallels and points of similarity there are between her situation and ours, that offer abundant material for reflection. This is a new idea for me, which I still need to think through and investigate – but as her day is still fresh, I offer them raw, as they are, while still topical. Perhaps some readers would like to help me to think this through further.

The earliest part of her life that is directly relevant is that she was born a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Judaism is an intensely inward-looking, family oriented culture and religion. For a Jewish person converting to Catholicism, this is much more than simply changing a set of religious beliefs, as in moving from one Christian denomination to another: it involves moving outside an entire culture, possibly including rejection or hostility from family members, and former friends and fellow worshippers. Conversely, adopting Catholicism includes becoming familiar with Catholic culture, quite as much as with Catholic belief and spiritual practices. As lesbians and gay men – and even more for those who adopt a gender identity that departs from biological sex – we grow up in a heterosexual culture and specific gender expectations that we become familiar with, even as we realize that we do not fit. In coming out, and rejecting the “automatic” sexual identity that had been imposed on us for one more in keeping with our authentic selves, we too may find ourselves rejected by family, friends, or colleagues – and certainly by some in the heterosexual world. Instead, just like Edith Stein who had to learn to absorb Catholic culture, we have to learn to find our way around a whole new culture in the LGBT community. Young heterosexuals have complex processes of socialization that guide and help them learn the patterns of sexual interaction and being, in their families, in schools, and from popular culture. Newly out homosexuals have to learn these things for themselves.

Edith was not just a Jewish convert – she was a Jew in Germany, leading up to WWII. She sought refuge in exile, in the Netherlands. As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too may find that we need to seek refuge in exile – exile from the Church itself, and its hostility to sexual nonconformists. She spoke out against the horrors of the Nazi persecution, and distanced herself from her former teacher. So too, we must speak out against the persecution of minority groups by the institutional Catholic Church, and distance ourselves from those who have taught us distorted interpretations of the faith.

As a Carmelite nun, she had a particular devotion to St John of the Cross (from whom she took her name) and St Theresa of Avila. I do not yet know anything specific about this devotion, quite what aspect of these saints she particularly appreciated, but I do know this. One component of the spirituality of these great mystics is that it was expressed at times in intensely physical, erotic language. This alone makes it particularly attractive and appropriate for use as a spiritual path for gay men in particular.

But it is obviously not simply a spirituality of erotic rapture – St John is after all, known as St John of the Cross! Orthodox Vatican doctrine recognizes that its expectation of compulsory celibacy imposes on us a burden which the heterosexuals are not expected to bear, and explains this as a “cross” that we must carry. I too see a cross in our condition – but I see the cross not in the gift of an orientation given to me by God, but in the unjustified persecution we endure by the church, and promoted by its false teachings, in the wider world.

Stein’s death in the gas chambers, and her later canonization, have been seen in two dramatically different ways. John Paul II canonized her as a martyr, arguing that her arrest and deportation was in direct retaliation for a letter by the Dutch bishops denouncing the Nazis, which in turn may have been prompted by the stance of Edith herself. Jewish groups say she was just one Jewish victim among millions, who should not have been singled out for special treatment.

The same divided perspective applies to those gay and lesbian theologians who have found themselves persecuted by the Vatican for their prophetic witness against its condemnation and scapegoating of “homosexuals” in the Church. One side sees them as near heretics, the other as prophets, and (metaphorically) as martyrs who have seen their careers destroyed for their honesty.

Which view is sound? I know where I stand, but ultimately, we await the judgement of history.

St Theresa Benedicta / Edith Stein – Pray for us.

Uganda Martyrs: Charles Lwangwa and companions

For queer Christians, the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs” carries a tragic double meaning. In Catholic hagiography, it refers to the execution / martyrdom in 1886 of a band of young men, pages in the Royal court of the Bugandan King Mwanga II, who had converted to Christianity and thereafter resisted his sexual advances. June 6th, is the anniversary of their joint beatification by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Their feast day, known as the Feast of Charles Lwanga and companions, is celebrated annually on June 3rd.

Uganda_Martyrs

From a modern LGBT point of view, there is  a quite different significance, almost it’s polar opposite. This perspective recalls that in the cultural context of the time, King Mwanga’s expectation of sexual service from his pages did not make him a perverted monster, as seen by the missionaries. Before the arrival of European colonials, different forms of homosexual practice and non-conformist gender expression were commonplace across Africa.  Seen in this light, the execution of the pages was a legal penalty for resisting customary law – and the introduction by foreign missionaries of what has since become deeply entrenched cultural homophobia.

In recent years, the flames of  homophobia have been further  fanned by missionaries, this time especially by American evangelicals, who have promoted draconian legislation to criminalize homosexuality, carrying harsh penalties for those convicted of transgressions.  Along with the legal penalties, the popular mood in Uganda has become so hostile, that life for ordinary gay and lesbian people in the country has become exceedingly difficult. Even to be suspected of being gay, frequently frequently leads not only to simple social ostracism, but also to outright exclusion from homes and families, to discrimination in employment and social services,  to police harassment, to violence, and even to murder, such as that of David Kato. For many LGBT people,  the only viable response is to leave the country entirely as refugees seeking asylum abroad.

So, the double meaning of the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs”: from the traditional Catholic perspective, the martyrs are those who were executed in 1886 for sticking by their Christian faith, in the face of Royal commands to renounce it. For modern gays and lesbians, the words refer to all those who are persecuted or even murdered, often in the name of the Christian religion, for their sexuality.

For a more extended analysis and reflection on the martyrs, and what this commemoration means for queer people of faith, see Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, who introduced her post on the feast day, by observing (accurately) that

Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is today (June 3).

Recommended Books:

 

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Queer Saints and Martyrs: Calendar for May

Queer saints, martyrs and other notable dates for October feature lesbian lovers, a renowned female mystic, a notable secular saint, and two dates of importance for combating homophobia.


Continue reading Queer Saints and Martyrs: Calendar for May

Guido Gezelle (1830-1899): Flemish priest, teacher, and poet

b. 1st May 1830
d. 27th November 1899

Belgian priest and poet, born in Brugge as Guido Pieter Theodorus Josephus Gezelle. He is considered by the Belgians as one of their greatest poets.

 

 

About Gazelle’s sexuality, not much is certain. Typically for a priest, there is no clear evidence that he ever gave physical expression to his sexual yearnings, whatever they may have been, About the nature of those feelings, and what we today would call his “orientation”, there are some strong clues:

Forget Maurice Maeterlinck, Herman de Coninck, Hugo Claus. The Belgian poet you want to read is Guido Gezelle (1830-1899). Writing in the popular idiom of the West Flemish region, this poet-priest caused a revolution in the rhythm, sound, and soul of Belgian poetry, and can be counted among the world’s greatest poets.

In Gezelle’s work, God and Nature are the key words. Admiring the beauty of God’s creation, the poet is reminded of the grandeur of the Creator Himself. To express these feelings into writing, Gezelle refuses to imprison them into the straight-jacket of age-old conventional forms, but allows them to play freely in a refreshing, new use of rhyme patterns, original images, free verse, and prose poetry.

(He) also voiced strong feelings for some of his pupils. Gezelle expressed the “spiritual twofoldness” between master and student in some of his best poems.

Gezelle’s homoerotic feelings may have been platonic. Certainly, some of his admirers resist any suggestion that his feelings for his pupils were sexual.Nevertheless, his relationship with Eugène van Oye, whom he admired for his “angelic innocence” and whom he tried to comfort in his loneliness in the seminary, was deep indeed. It struck him as a tragedy when van Oye left the seminary in Roeselare in 1859. In his lamentation “To an Absent Friend,” published in 1862, he called his loss greater than that of a mother missing her child.

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The Priest With the Pink Triangle

For the first post in my “queer modern heroes” series, I begin with someone most people have never heard of. (I’m not sure anyone even knows his name.) I begin with him because he represents a double martyrdom, martyred for his orientation, and also martyred for his faith. I choose him also precisely because he is anonymous, reminding us that in our own way, we are all called to our own heroism in the face of persecution, all called to be “martyrs” in the true, original sense – as witnesses to truth. I read this story in John McNeill’s “Taking a chance on God”: McNeill got the story from Heinz Heger. These are McNeill’s words:

“I would like to end this reflection on the mature life of faith with the eyewitness account of a gay priest who was beaten to death in a German concentration camp during World War II because he refused to stop praying or to express contempt for himself. The story is recounted by Heinz Heger in his book “The Men With the Pink Triangle”, in which he he recalls what took place in the special concentration camp for gay men in Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen was a “level 3” camp where prisoners were deliberately worked to death):


“Homosexual” prisoners in Sachsenhausen

 

Toward the end of February, 1940, a priest arrived in our block, a man some 60 years of age, tall and with distinguished features. We alter discovered that he came from Sudetenland, from an aristocratic German family.

 

He found the torment of the arrival procedure especially trying, particularly the long wait naked and barefoot outside the block. When his tonsure was discovered after the shower, the SS corporal in charge took up a razor and said “I’ll go to work on this one myself, and extend his tonsure a bit.” And he saved the priest’s head with the razor, taking little trouble to avoid cutting the scalp. quite the contrary.

 

The priest returned to the day-room of our lock with his head cut open and blood streaming down. His face was ashen and his eyes stared uncomprehendingly into the distance. He sat down on a bench, folded his hands in his lap and said softly, more to himself than to anyone else: “And yet man is good, he is a creature of God!”

I was sitting beside him, and said softly but firmly: “Not all men; there are also beasts in human form, whom the devil must have made.”

The priest paid no attention to my words, he just prayed silently, merely moving his lips. I was deeply moved, even though I was by then already numbed by all the suffering I had see, and indeed experienced myself. But I had always had a great respect for priests, so that his silent prayer, this mute appeal to God, whom he called upon for help and strength in his bodily pain and mental torment, went straight to my heart.

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“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman, Soho “Gay” Masses

Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used for our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.

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Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman

The Pope’s visit to the UK later this year is turning the spotlight on Cardinal John Henry Newman – Newman’s scheduled beatification is the ostensible primary reason for the visit. There are many aspects of Newman’s life and work that will be worth considering: his story as a leading Anglican convert to Rome will focus attention on the relations between the two churches, on the privileged position of the Anglicans as the “established” church here, and on the legal disadvantages of the Catholic church. There will also be interest in his work as a theologian, which has led some to see him as a “progressive” for his insistence on the primacy of conscience, while paradoxically others hail him as an arch traditionalist. I hope to discuss both of these later. For now though, I want to consider another aspect of his life, his well-known intensely passionate love for a younger priest, Ambrose St John.
This love has led me, like others, to include Newman in my collection of “queer” saints and martyrs. At the Guardian, Jack Valero clearly disagrees. In his discussion of Newman, he complains, “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” My response to this, is that it is even more symptomatic of the modern Church that we conclude that anybody identifying as “homosexual”, or as gay, is not celibate. This is an important issue for the place of gay men and lesbians in the Catholic church, and of the treatment we receive.

First, let us consider the bare facts of Newman and his love, which are generally agreed. His love for St John is beyond dispute. “He loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable,” Newman wrote after St John’s death. This love was reciprocated, to the extent that it was his explicit wish that he wanted to be buried alongside his lover in a shared grave. This wish was understood and respected by his colleagues of the Birmingham Oratory, and so it was done. However, there is no serious suggestion that the intense love between the two was given sexual expression. They were, after all, both priests. Yet from the same set of agreed facts, one side acclaims him as a “gay” saint, another as obviously not “homosexual”. To make sense of this contradiction, I now want to explore some of the nuances behind the bare facts.
A priest’s desire today to be buried in the same grave as another priest would certainly be extraordinary, possibly even scandalous but in earlier times it was uncommon, but less remarkable. Alan Bray in “The Friend” describes many English churches which have tombs holding male couples, some of them priests. What is significant here, is that this practice of burying couples in shared tombs was far more commonly practiced for married couples – and many of the male couples buried together that Bray described are known to have been “sworn brothers”, made so in a liturgical rite exactly comparable to the rite of “adelphopoesis” that John Boswell describes in “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe”. Boswell and Bray disagree on the significance: Boswell presents evidence that these rites included many elements exactly comparable to the rites for opposite-sex marriage of the day. Bray argues that they should not be seen as a form of marriage, but merely as a sign of deep friendship – some of the men undergoing sworn brotherhood were also married to wives. Most of these predated Newman and St John by many centuries – by the nineteenth century the practice had all but died out, and there is no evidence that the men had ever formalized the relationship in any form of written contract or liturgical rite, Still, the symbolism of the shared grave remains powerful, given its historical context.
Now, consider Newman’s celibacy. Recall that he started life as an Anglican, for whom clerical celibacy was not a requirement. He quite specifically approved of marriage as a general rule, and believed that “country parsons” too should marry. Yet, even at the tender age of 16, he knew that he personally would not, believing that a single life was the “will of God” for him. If this deliberate celibacy in a priest should mean that he cannot be considered “homosexual”, does this mean that he is necessarily to be thought of as “heterosexual”? Surely not. Celibacy in itself is no indicator of sexual orientation. The common words simply are not of any help. Personally, I no longer think in terms of any category of “gay” saints: the modern word does not work outside of the modern period, and so I use the term “queer” instead, to denote anybody whose behaviour or choices stand clearly outside the standard, gendered role models for “heterosexual” men and women. On this basis, I have no hesitation in describing as “queer” a man who early on praised marriage in principle, but eschewed it for himself without any religious obligation to do so, and whose major emotional investment was a passionate (if sexless) relationship with a man, with whom he desired to share eternity.
Now, I return to the implications behind the opening statement in the Guardian: “It is symptomatic of modern values that we conclude Cardinal Newman’s intense love for a man meant he was a homosexual.” The argument here, that celibacy denies “homosexuality”, can be turned on its head: there is an assumption behind it that “homosexual” implies sexual activity. This is a dangerous assumption, which leads to some of the more shameful aspects of pastoral practice in the institutional church. Vatican theory is quite different: the significant modern documents draw a clear distinction between the homosexual person, the “inclination” (or orientation), and actions. It is made clear that the “inclination” is not sinful, and that homosexual persons are to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. Only homosexual “actions” are considered to be sinful. Yet Vatican teaching argues against protecting the persons from discrimination in housing or employment, even though such discrimination is clearly targeted at people for who they are, not for what they may have done. In defending this position, they claim that the “person” can remain free of discrimination by the simple expedient of keeping his “inclination” secret. “DADT”, in other words, in the Church.
This week, the English courts ruled on the validity of this argument as it applies to gay asylum seekers, looking for refuge here from serious homophobic persecution, even the risk of death, in their home countries. The British Border Agency, fearing that a sympathetic ruling would open the flood-gates to unwanted hordes of opportunistic refugees, had argued that gay Iranians, Sudanese and the like could escape persecution by the simple expedient of remaining closeted. The court sensible disagreed, stating that this was an entirely unreasonable and unjust expectation. It is even more unreasonable and unjust on the part of a Church which reminds us (in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, para 18) of the Scripture injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “the truth shall set you free”.
The problem is that the Vatican promise of “dignity, compassion and respect” does not apply to persons who are “homosexual”, but only to those who hide their sexuality. Why? Because if their “condition” is known, they are assumed to be not celibate – even when they give assurances to the contrary, as was the case of the Canadian altar server. This is not just a problem for the Vatican – it applies equally to the Anglican Church, and was the unstated problem that derailed the proposed selection of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark. John declares that he is celibate. However, he is known to be in a Civil Partnership. British law on these partnerships is clear that they are in many respects virtually identical to conventional marriage, but there are a handful of key differences. One of these is that unlike traditional marriage, there is no requirement of sexual consummation for the partnership to be legally valid. In terms of law, it is entirely possible for two men to be in a legal Civil Partnership, and celibate, just as John says he is. His opponents, however, simply refuse to believe this. To them, the simple fact that two homosexually identified men are living together is taken as “proof” that they are not celibate. In the commentary around John’s nomination, it was asked whether there was any “proof” (such as video footage) that their relationship was “chaste”. Why?

Now, let us return once more to Cardinal Newman. He never disclosed physical sexual activity, or its absence with St John, but in the absence of evidence, it is assumed that his close emotional relationship was suitable celibate. In the case of both the (Catholic) Canadian altar server, and the (Anglican) Jeffrey John, we have clear statements of both that their relationships with their partners are celibate, and so (presumably) exactly comparable to that of Newman and St John. Yet the popular assumption around these men is precisely the reverse of that applied to Newman. Whereas he is assumed to be celibate, they are assumed not to be. If modern standards had been applied to Newman, he should have been barred from the priesthood altogether, let alone raised to high office and a path to sainthood.

Books:

Boswell, John : Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Alan Bray, The Friend

Gay Bishops: How Many?

 Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop  in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia.

Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)
Bishop Mary Glasspool (image Wkipedia)

So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders. Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first lesbian bishop globally: That would be Bishop  Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year (2009).

Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm
Eva Brunne, Bishop of Stockholm 

Popular reports name Bishop Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, but that’s oversimplifying. He was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).

In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome).  Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers,  but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.

We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans,  in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the  Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.

Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”.  He  should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.

Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius IIIPaul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).

In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.

Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.

I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists,  who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.

See also:

Outing the Church: Gay Popes, Gay Bishops

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