The Catholic Church and Sexuality: If Only the Hierarchs Would Listen and learn

COMMENTARY — John Falcone

Few Roman Catholic seminaries can boast an active and vibrant GLBT student organization. Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry is one. Since April 2011, the “GIFTS” group (“G/L/B/T Inclusive Fellowship of Theology Students”) has planned and hosted prayer services for the school community. We’ve celebrated the long tradition of believers who have lived their Catholicism through same-sex love, non-traditional gender roles and the quest for social justice. We have also asked some difficult questions: How can GLBT lay people with a proven calling to ministry best serve the Catholic Church? What is our responsibility to a clergy and leadership which is often homophobic and paternalistic, and profoundly conflicted about sex?

Recently, four GIFTS members and I drove to Fairfield University in Connecticut for “The Care of Souls: Sexual Diversity, Celibacy and Ministry” — the last of this autumn’s “More than a Monologue” series on sexuality and the Catholic Church. We went to hear Rev. Donald Cozzens, a respected researcher on the Catholic priesthood and a former seminary president; Mark Jordan, a queer theologian and ethicist at Harvard Divinity School and Jeannine Gramick, a Catholic nun who was silenced by the Vatican for her work with lesbians and gays. We found four themes particularly compelling: the struggles of a closeted clergy, the dynamics of Catholic patriarchy, the troubling theology of priestly vocation and the powerful Christian witness offered by lesbian nuns.

For Cozzens, the Vatican’s prohibition of gay men entering the priesthood has worked much like the (now defunct) policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Gay men have not left the priesthood (Cozzens estimates they make up 30-50 percent of US priests), and they also continue to enter — either by lying about their orientation, or by keeping it under wraps at the direction of seminary directors. Yet gay priests must steer firmly clear of their sexual identity in their preaching and public personas. As GIFTS member Oliver Goodrich asked, “How can so many priests, who preach a gospel of liberation and authenticity, lead such inauthentic lives?”

Jordan was more provocative. In a church that defines “the few and the proud” as its straight male celibate clergy, power gets tangled with maleness. But the clergy’s desire for power animates an unseemly dance of dominance, submission and career advancement. Within all-male hierarchical settings, this can smack of sado-masochist pleasures. Accepting gay men into seminary, or acknowledging same-sex love, shines an unwelcome light on these homoerotic dynamics. To keep this psychology intact and in shadow, the hierarchy must keep gay men (and straight women) out.

The notion that ritual and organizational leadership requires abstinence from sexual love is another problem for Catholic ministry. For almost 2000 years, Catholic monks and nuns have accepted celibacy as a form of spiritual practice. For 1100 years, Catholic priests could marry and raise children. Today, Church officials insist that everyone called to the priesthood automatically receives the “grace” (or spiritual power) to live a celibate life. Why must these two be connected? As Jocelyn Collen, another GIFTS member, remarked, “Grace is not given to someone on command. No one — not even the Vatican — can direct the grace of God.”

Gramick’s reflections were perhaps the most hopeful. Drawing from decades of work with lesbian nuns, she described a non-patriarchal model of ministry in which warm and affirming female friendships support lives of celibacy, service and prayer. For these nuns, the experience of sexual orientation is about the longing for intimacy, the romantic desires that shape personality and interpersonal life. This makes profound psychological sense. Lesbian and gay celibates need intimate same-sex friendships; in the same way, straight men called to celibacy need warm and affirming relationships with women. Without such intimate friendships, frustrations multiply, boundaries decay and ministers tragically act out.

At the end of the day, we drove back to Boston through the worst October snowstorm in years, and a certain chill still remains. I’ve co-written this article with another GIFTS student, whose goal is to teach in a Catholic school. The insights of this minister-in-training are all over this article. But to protect his/her future employment, I cannot disclose a name. Like the prayers that GIFTS has written, and the GLBT saints that we’ve recalled, the insights of marginalized Catholics speak of Spirit, courage and truth. Our hierarchs should listen and learn.

Complete Article HERE!

“Occupy the Church”: Austria’s Catholic Rebellion Gathers Strength

COMMENTARY

Two recent reports from Austria show clearly that the Catholic rebellion is gathering strength: survey research shows that two thirds of the country’s priests support calls for urgent reform, and that lay Catholics have announced plans to ignore Church rules that restrict the celebration of Mass to ordained priests. Instead, they will conduct worship and communion themselves where priests are not available. Meanwhile, in Australia, a separate story from Melbourne illustrates how on a much smaller scale, Catholics elsewhere are also willing to defy episcopal control.

Survey: Two Thirds of Austrian Priests Back Priests’ Reform Initiative.
When the Austrian Priests’ dramatic “Call to disobedience” hit the news back in June, there was some uncertainty over just how much support they had. We now have a reliable estimate by a reputable, professional research organization. GfK was commissioned by national broadcaster ORF to check how many priests support the group’s ideas. The answer is remarkable:

  • 68% of Austrian priests see “an urgent need for reform”;
  • in spite of the strong, provocative language of the call, 32% back it “unreservedly”;
  • only 28% oppose it.

Detailed figures show that many of those in support were in favour of debating the various points in detail. Around one in three of Austria’s priests are “radical reformers”, according to researchers while four in 10 could be considered as “moderate reformers”.
-Austrian Independent

It’s worth recalling, here, just how far-reaching the proposals are. They want to see women admitted to the priesthood, an end to compulsory celibacy for priests, and for priests to distribute communion to people who have been divorced and remarried. In themselves, these calls are not too extraordinary: many progressive Catholics around the world would agree with the aims. This initiative though, goes well beyond simply pleading for a change in the rules. It is explicitly framed as a “call to disobedience”, and instead urges that where there is a shortage of priests resulting from the continued refusal to ordain women and married men, priests should in effect embark on a work to rule, leaving lay people to fill the gap if necessary, by saying Mass for themselves. They also urge that in the absence of a change in the rules on communion, priests should simply disregard them.

Austrian Lay Catholics Prepare for DIY Mass
In a parallel move, lay Catholics who met over the weekend announced plans to do precisely as the priests’ initiative has urged: for lay people fill the gap in parishes where no priest is available. In support of the plan, they claim that they are placing God’s word in the Bible ahead of mere Church rules.

A manifesto adopted by dozens of activists at the weekend said lay people will preach, consecrate and distribute communion in priestless parishes, said Hans Peter Hurka, head of the group We Are Church.
“Church law bans this. The question is, can Church law overrule the Bible? We are of the opinion, based on findings from the Second Vatican Council, that this (ban) is not possible,” he said Monday.
-Reuters

Austria’s bishops are themselves meeting in a four day session this week. Responding to this will present them with a major challenge. Already, the church is losing members at an alarming rate – last year, over 87 000 Austrian Catholics formally left the Church, an increase of 63% over 2009. The proportion of Austrians who are Catholic is down to just 65%, compared with 89% in 1951. Research earlier this year showed that many of the remaining Catholics admit that they attend Mass only infrequently, and have little or no trust in the Church hiearachy.

  • 41 per cent of Austrians attending mass only on holidays like Easter and Christmas.
  • A further 35% never attend Mass.
  • 45% told researchers that their trust in the Church had been “shattered” by the sexual abuse revelations.
  • A further 27% had no trust in the Church to begin with.

Together with the decline in numbers, will go a decline in revenue. Churches in Austria are funded by the state, in proportion to their signed up members. In 2009, the Church got 395 million euros from the state. To compound further the loss of revenue, an increasing proportion of those funds are being used to pay compensation to the victims of abuse.

The overwhelming majority of Austrians support the priests’ initiative. Attempts by the bishops to stifle it will simply alienate still further an already disaffected Catholic population. Accommodating them, however, is beyond their power, as the rules in question are set by the Vatican, not by national bishops.

DIY Catholicism, elsewhere.
Austria is not unique in facing these conflicts: Dominicans in the Netherlands proposed priestless Mass back in 2007, but were warned by their order not to slide into schism. In country after country, the majority of Catholics do not agree with Vatican rules on sexuality, or on the rules for priestly ordination, or many other matters of church discipline. What sets the Austrians apart, is not the simple desire for reform, but the willingness by laypeople and priests to move ahead on implementing reforms without waiting for institutional approval. On a smaller scale, we have seen this kind of DIY Catholicism elsewhere as well – as in the example of the womenpriests’ movement, and in a handful of parishes which are already hosting their own Masses, independently of episcopal control.

The latest example could be that of a parish in South Melbourne, Australia.
Having been told he must retire, Father Bob McGuire calls for public support in helping him stay on as Parish Priest in South Melbourne, saying ‘we’re like Occupy the Church’.
Despite wanting to stay on and continue his work, Father Bob McGuire has been told by Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart that his tenure as Parish Priest at Saint Peter and Paul’s Parish will end early next year.
The priest, named in July as Victorian of the Year, says he’s concerned that he won’t be able to continue his work with the local community.
“If it was me I wouldn’t give a rats, but it’s not me – it’s us, it’s the village and it’s the church in the village,” says Father Bob.
– ABC, Melbourne

I don’t know too much about the detail of Fr Bob and South Melbourne, but my impression is that there are strong similarities with the case of St Mary’s, Brisbane, and several parishes in the US, where bishops mistakenly thought they could simply silence troublesome priests in the accustomed way, by episcopal decree – and found instead that the congregations themselves chose to relocate to independent premises, with their preferred priest or with none, rather than submit meekly to the unwanted exercise of naked church power.

The Austrian rebellion is not going away any time soon – and may well expand further afield.

Complete Article HERE!

People power – a stranger at the Catholic church’s door

COMMENTARY

Hear this, bishops and priests: Catholics’ version of the Arab spring has started, and this week has seen important milestones

People power is all around: think the Arab spring, the protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the national outpouring of outrage over phone hacking and, before that, MPs’ expenses. This week, popular democracy came crashing in on yet another institution in desperate need of reform – the Catholic church, which has been a bastion of power for one of the most tightly-knit, elderly male oligarchies of all time.

What has happened over the past few days might not have looked particularly dramatic, but it has shaken the powers that be in the Catholic church in this country to their core. And although ordinary people didn’t seem to be in the vanguard in the same way they were in the Arab spring, they have played a key role.

What’s happened is this: First, Lord Carlile’s report into a Catholic school in west London, St Benedict’s, has concluded that the monks who run it have been guilty of a “lengthy and cumulative failure” to protect the children in their care from abuse, and that the school’s organisational structure lacks “independence, transparency, accountability and diversity, and is drawn from too narrow a group of people”. It recommends that the Benedictine monks who set the school up should forfeit control of it, and two trusts are now being set up to remove “all power from the abbey”. The new body, says Carlile, should have policies and procedures that are clearly understandable to outsiders, and should have monitoring safeguards in place.

Second, a high court judge has ruled that the church is responsible as an organisation for crimes committed by its priests. This follows a case in which a former resident of a Catholic children’s home in Hampshire alleged that she was raped and assaulted by a priest. Lawyers for the diocese involved, who are arguing that the relationship between a priest and a bishop is different from a normal employee/employer situation, have said they will appeal.

That case is likely to drag on for some years (and will do the church no end of PR disaster along the way); but both it and the Carlile report have something important in common, which they share with other popular movements of recent times. It is this: ordinary people, long repressed and silent, but with great power when they do choose to act, have spoken out. If former pupils from St Benedict’s School in Ealing had not come forward; if the woman from the children’s home (and she is not alone; others are alleging similar abuse) had not spoken out, the changes we have seen this week would never have happened.

And they are enormously significant, because power sharing is an entirely novel concept for those at the top of the Catholic church. Transparent, Lord Carlile? Independent? Accountable? Diverse? Oh, dear me: the bishops may need some explanation as to the very meaning of these concepts. And as to the idea that policies and procedures should be put in place at St Benedict’s that are understandable to outsiders: well, I imagine there are a few splutterings over breakfast cereal at bishops’ residences around the Catholic dioceses of the country this week.

I have been a member of the Catholic church all my life (albeit, sometimes, hanging on by my fingernails); and for me, as for many other Catholics, the problem is that the men who control the church do not see democracy as containing any inherent value. As far as they are concerned, power isn’t devolved from the people, it is imposed from above – from God himself. They believe in a God who makes his wishes known to a small and select group of individuals, individuals who happen to be exclusively male, and rather elderly.

I don’t believe in that God any more, and I suspect and hope that many of my fellow Catholics feel the same. I don’t believe in a God who would not merely allow, but actively want power to be concentrated in the hands of a tiny (male) minority, while the majority had to do as they were told until they discover that what they are being told has been shot through for decades and even centuries with lies, cover-ups, smokescreens and an inability to grasp nettles. I believe in a God whose truths and goodness are located, not in the minds and hearts of a small number of men, but in the minds and hearts of a large number of women and men who care about one another and the wider community and the church itself, and whose views have for too long been ignored.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and its untenable power structures won’t be dismantled in one either. The Catholic church’s Arab spring will take many years, probably decades, to achieve. But hear this, bishops and priests: our spring has started, and this week’s developments were important milestones. And know this too: the church that will emerge from the ashes of the old guard will be better, and bigger, and kinder, and more honest; it will be transparent, and accountable, and independent, and diverse. But best of all, it will be more Christ-like, too.

Complete Article HERE!

LGBTQ: Gifts from God

COMMENTARY

If you are on this Web site you are probably aware of the flap coming out of Boston where a bishops’ advisor was forced to resign after suggesting some satanic invovlement in the births of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. This kind of nutty nonsense is not church teaching, but is a product of an outdated theology. It can also be traced back to a lamentable episcopal utterance of then, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and now Pope Benedict, who wrote that the homosexual inclination itself “must be seen as an objective disorder.”

Let me suggest another way to look at our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, without trying to add even further burden on their weary shoulders. It is to say that they are special human beings and that they bring special gifts to the human family, gifts we need for material and spiritual fulfillment and, perhaps, even for the preservation of the human family itself. While recognizing the obvious shortfall of lumping large groups of people into a single category, I feel I need to point out the obvious, and that is our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have so much to teach us, so much to give us in so many ways. I’d start with characteristic sensitivity, insight, compassion and joy. The list could go on.

Until we recognize that all of us — no exceptions — are gifts and that our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are among some of the most special of these gifts, offering us so much that enlarges our spiritual visions, so much that speaks of God’s love for us, then we are missing the proverbial boat.

For many of us, the linkage of gay and lesbian to “objective disorder” has been an offensive insult from the outset, the product of another time and an outdated theology. For many that time has passed; for others it is passing; for a few, it still needs to pass. Let’s pray the day comes quickly when stragglers, including some of our church’s shepherds, catch up with the flock.
That day couldn’t soon enough for the sake of the precious mission of our church.

Complete Article HERE!