‘Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary’

Writer Phillip McMahon and director Rachel O’Riordan on making a play inspired by a hidden community of gay priests

Phillip McMahon and Rachel O’Riordan’s new play, ‘Come on Home’, runs in the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage from July 13th to August 4th.

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Almost 20 years ago, the writer and director Phillip McMahon took a year out to travel, to discover and to party. For a young gay man of 20, it was a liberating, heedless and, by the sounds of it, curiously blessed time.

“I really wasn’t sure if I would tell this story,” he says, sitting under the shade of a tree with director Rachel O’Riordan, in the grounds of a Methodist church where his new play is being rehearsed. “But it’s a fascinating and important story.”

Such is the sensitivity of the story, he would prefer not to name the city where it took place, and where a friend of a friend owned a beautiful, unoccupied apartment on the waterfront. Would McMahon like to live in it, he was asked, rent free, for six months? He decided that he would. There was one stipulation, though. Every Monday, two middle-aged friends of the apartment’s owner would stay overnight, keeping to themselves in the spare bedroom. It seemed like a small price to pay.

In the end, though, the visitors treated McMahon like their guest. “I was 20,” he remembers. “I had just left Ireland. I was discovering all sorts of things. But mainly I was living my best life and wasting away from the epic party I was on.” To sustain him, each Monday the men shared a good meal and red wine with him at the table. Eventually McMahon asked what they did. “Oh, we’re Catholic priests,” they told him. They were also a committed couple. Monday nights were their nights together. McMahon was stunned.

“For a yet-to-start-recovering Catholic, that was very confronting,” he says. At the time, he was still a believer and they talked about the seemingly irreconcilable forces of faith and sexuality.

“They really felt that they could change the Catholic Church from the inside,” he says. “That their belief was so strong. They also said the education was not to be underestimated and the job itself was fabulous. And they were part of a much wider circle, a community of gay priests.”

Far-flung community

Over the years, McMahon discovered just how wide and far-flung that community is: the drag act Fanny and Pearl, whom he once directed, got their names while training to become priests. “Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary,” they told him.

When stories about gay priests emerge in the media, they tend to erupt with voltage of either religious hypocrisy, farcical comedy or quiet tragedy. Take the Vatican male prostitution scandal of 2010, or the Grindr scandal at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 2016. (“I hadn’t heard that,” says McMahon of a more recent story, “and I’ve got ‘Gay Seminarians’ on my Google alerts.”)

They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it

In interviews, McMahon learned that the truth was usually less salacious. “They came to my small town, where I thought there was no way out,” he was told of religious recruitments. “There was a Marian parade through town, and it was the only glamour I’ve ever seen here. They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it.”

At seminaries, no less than any given college, people quietly discovered their sexuality in private, often with each other. “Then, when it became too much – and what was too much could be decided on a whim – they were often asked to leave.”
Trove of stories

Here, McMahon considered, was a trove of stories about faith, repression, identity and sexuality – in short, about Ireland. “So, I was like, do I write the drama first, or the musical first?”

If you know McMahon’s work, as a playwright, director and one half of the uproarious Thisispopbaby, this is not an unimportant question.

His most recent works, such as Tara Flynn’s affecting Not a Funny Word, Thisispopbaby’s world-conquering cabaret Riot, the delicate lament of Town is Dead, and the stage production of Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool all addressed matter with music.

“When we did Alice in Funderland,” he says, of the 2012 Abbey Theatre musical, its first in more than 20 years, “the reason music was so important was to allow Irish people to sing out, it felt, for the first time in a long time”.

When he came to write Come On Home, though, inspired by the secret world behind holy orders, the form couldn’t have been more traditional. It is a two-act play, set in the family home of three grieving brothers in rural Ireland, reunited for the funeral of their mother. Here, bitter arguments, long-held shames and painful secrets flare over Aristotelian unities of time and space, against the sturdy details of stage realism. “It came out as a living room drama,” McMahon nods. “I was as surprised as anybody.”

The idea that something was being outed interested me

When Rachel O’Riordan first read the play, in Wales where she now leads the acclaimed Sherman Theatre, she did so in a single sitting and agreed to direct it the next morning. “I like making work that has bite,” she tells me. “Which looks at the tough corners of our social interactions, things spoken and unspoken. The idea that something was being outed interested me.”

Both collaborators can relate personally to other concerns of the play: exile, homecoming and the death of a parent. McMahon’s protagonist is Michael, a one-time seminarian who lived most of his adulthood in London, leaving behind a punishing father, a resentful brother, a besotted woman who married his feckless younger brother, and, poignantly, his former lover, Aidan, who remained in the priesthood.

Complexity

The complexity of home has long occupied McMahon, who was born in London to Irish parents and moved back when he was 10. O’Riordan’s upbringing was even more peripatetic: born in Cork and educated in England, she established herself professionally in Belfast, with the celebrated new writing company Ransom, before leaving to run the Perth Theatre in Scotland and now the Sherman in Wales. Remarkably, Come on Home counts as her Abbey theatre debut.

“We talked about how Irish we feel or not,” O’Riordan says, “and how difficult that can be sometimes.” She admits to “a strange sense of loss even when I’m here. Because the Republic isn’t where I’ve made my career. I think there’s an instinct in Irish people to go away.”

Coming back carries its own tensions. McMahon recalls of his childhood, “There was this sense that we were too Irish for England and not Irish enough for Ireland. There’s a sense of never being at home. Then, of course, when you discover in your early teens that you’re a queer, you’re suddenly not at home again. You watch how easily other boys walk through life, and wonder, how are you doing that?”

Inherited commission

Come On Home was commissioned some years ago, under director Fiach MacConghail, and comes to the stage under his successors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. That makes it a rare inherited commission, but also a play emerging into an Ireland that no one could have imagined 20, 10 even five years ago; one in which the church has vastly diminished influence, and progressive sexual and gender rights have been enshrined by landslide public vote.

The characters in Come On Home seem to straddle the fault line of such a tectonic shift, caught between staying and going, in a new nation where many struggle to catch up. “I look around and I see the kids,” says the young priest, Aidan. “The boys – holding hands. And it tortures me. The freedom.”

Madness of grief

If this is a time of celebration, it is still riven with grief, in which long-buried traumas await their reckoning. “We talked a lot about how grief makes you feel,” says O’Riordan. “Bereavement and the madness that descends, and the damage to the whole family. That heartbreak,” says O’Riordan.

“But there’s also licence to say so much in that space,” adds McMahon. “Emotions are high. Drink is taken. In reality, a lot of shit goes down.” That recalls similar situations in the plays of Tom Murphy, riven with grief, exile, mourning and alcohol, and O’Riordan isn’t slow to claim a dramatic kinship. “But it’s also ‘queered’,” says McMahon, “and I hope that there’s something of today, or of my Ireland in there.”

That’s especially true of a family, however fractious, automatically performing funeral rituals together, where authority figures are tellingly absent. At one point, for instance, someone downloads the rosary.

Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” McMahon tells me. “Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other. That leaves you a little bit at sea about how we can plug into a communal spirituality. I feel the absence of that: a connection.”

Some people find that connection in other ways, whether blissed out on a dancefloor or moved in a theatre, or in the overwhelming results of historic referendums. McMahon may worry still about making drama from private stories. “You can’t treat gay priests as a joke. When you shine a light in these corners, you have to do so sensitively.” But the play is neither an exposé, nor a confession. In bringing people together, whatever the circumstances, it comes closer to a communion.

Complete Article HERE!

For what’s believed to be the first time, the Vatican uses the term ‘LGBT’ in official document

by Michelle Boorstein

The Vatican this month is showing unprecedented, if symbolic, outreach on issues of human sexuality, using for what’s believed to be the first time the term “LGBT” in a planning document for a huge upcoming bishops meeting. Vatican officials also invited to speak at a second global meeting a prominent advocate for LGBT people, something some gay Catholic groups say has never been done.

The two moves, announced in the past 10 days, are being seen by church-watchers as largely an effort to speak in a more respectful way with a younger generation of Catholics who are confronting the church on topics from female priests and abortion to sexuality — but who are clearly not ready to totally walk away from the faith.

The efforts related to the Synod of Bishops on Young People (in October) and the World Meeting of Families (in August) are part of an explicit push by Pope Francis’s church to say “we have to pay attention to this whole LGBT reality, especially for those who have chosen to remain in the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who has often served as an English assistant to the Vatican press office.

On Tuesday, the Vatican released the details of the bishops’ synod, or meeting, the third in major global gatherings about the family. The others were in 2014 and 2015. While the document was released only in Italian, the National Catholic Reporter noted it was the first time the acronym was used. The Catholic Church “has in the past formally referred to gay people as ‘persons with homosexual tendencies,’ ” the Reporter said.

Rosica agreed it was a first, but said “they’re just using the lingo young people use. There’s nothing earth-shattering.” Vatican spokeswoman Paloma Garcia Ovejero declined to comment on the reason for the adoption of the acronym beyond saying, “I guess there’s no specific answer … it’s just the result of so many proposals and will be used as a ‘tool’ for discussion.”

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of bishops will attend the meeting in Rome to discuss how they can serve young people better. Their meeting will touch on topics from lack of job opportunities for young people in some places and migration to digital addiction and the struggle for reliable news.

In a section of the synod outline called “the body, affectivity and sexuality,” reports the Catholic Reporter, “It states: ‘Sociological studies demonstrate that many young Catholics do not follow the indications of the Church’s sexual moral teachings. … No bishops’ conference offers solutions or recipes, but many are of the point of view that questions of sexuality must be discussed more openly and without prejudice.’ ”

“There are young Catholics that find in the teachings of the Church a source of joy and desire ‘not only that they continue to be taught despite their unpopularity, but that they be proclaimed with greater depth,’ ” the Catholic Reporter quotes the document as saying. “Those that instead do not share the teachings express the desire to remain part of the Church and ask for a greater clarity about them.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways ministry, which aims to connect gay Catholics and their church, said the use of the term LGBT is very significant — especially compared with past language, such as people with “homosexual inclinations.”

“That said, there is nothing in this new document that indicates a change in church teaching. It simply indicates a new openness to discuss these issues more respectfully. How they actually conduct the synod, and, more importantly, what the final synod document will say, is much more important than these developments,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

The second development involves the World Meeting of Families, a massive, Vatican-run event the Catholic Church holds once every three years. The last time it was held, in 2015, Francis was in Philadelphia. The church faced criticism from LGBT advocates when the only sign of gay families amid a days-long display of family issues was a gay man and his mother talking about celibacy.

Eight days ago, the Vatican announced details of the next World Meeting, Aug. 21 to 26 in Dublin. Among many other speakers will be the Rev. Jim Martin, a New York City Jesuit popularly known as Stephen Colbert’s pastor — but within the church as a fierce advocate for positive images and engagement with gay Catholics. Martin will be the first speaker at a World Meeting “on positive pastoral outreach to LGBT people,” the Associated Press reported“Building a Bridge,” about Catholic outreach to the LGBT community, has had several talks canceled in the United States in recent months because of pressure from conservative groups who oppose his call for the church to better accompany gay Catholics, the AP reported.

Complete Article HERE!

Ten things to know about women’s ordination in the United States

By Dr. Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin

Pope Francis recently appointed three women for the first time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an important advisory body to the Pope on matters of Catholic orthodoxy. He has also recently established a commission for studying the role of women deacons in the early Christian church. While encouraging for supporters of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also made it clear that he is keeping the door firmly shut in terms of the possibility of women priests.

Elsewhere, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated feminist activist Kate Kelly in 2014 for advocating for women’s ordination. At the same time, LDS leaders have also expanded roles for women in the faith’s semiannual conferences and global governing committees.

In 2015, Katharine Jefferts Schori ended a historic term as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, nearly forty years after the denomination opened the priesthood to women. Even in American denominations that have ordained women for decades, however, questions about pay equality and sexism toward women pastors and priests continue.

This ambiguity toward the role of women in American religious organizations is emblematic of wider conversations about gender equality and women’s roles in American society. Thus, understanding the dynamics of women’s ordination in religious congregations can reveal important insights into wider trends and the intersection of gender and leadership in America today.

Dozens of one-on-one interviews, as well as a nationally representative public opinion survey, have provided us with a contemporary snapshot of women’s ordination in American congregations, investigating two primary questions: 1) who supports female clergy in their congregations and why?, and 2) what effects do female clergy have on those in their congregations, especially young women and girls?

Here are ten things you should know about women’s ordination in the US:

  1. A little over half (55%) of Americans who attend religious services at least occasionally say that their congregations allow women to serve as their principal leader, although only 9% currently attend a congregation where a woman is serving in that capacity. Thus, women’s ordination in America is more common in principle than in practice.
  2. Religious traditions and denominations in the United States that generally permit female clergy in their congregations include American Baptists, United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian (USA), the Episcopal Church, Buddhism, Reform/Conservative Judaism, and Unitarian Universalists. Those that generally prohibit female clergy include the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, and Muslims.
  3. Two of every five American worshipers say that they “strongly prefer” that their congregation allow women to serve as their principal religious leader. When added to the 32% who say they “somewhat prefer,” it makes for nearly two-thirds (72%) of American worshipers who say that they support women’s ordination. This includes 68% of Evangelicals, 85% of Mainline Protestants, and 70% of Catholics.
  4. 70% of female worshipers say that they support women’s ordination in their congregations. This is, however, nearly identical to the 69% of male worshipers who say the same. In other words, women are no more or less likely than men to support or oppose female clergy in their congregations. Contrary to what might be expected, gender does not structure attitudes toward women’s ordination in American society today.
  5. Instead, those most supportive of female clergy in their congregations are theological modernists who believe that their traditions should adapt to modern sensibilities, those who identify politically as liberals and Democrats, those that currently attend congregations that allow for female clergy, and those who attend religious services less frequently.
  6. When asked about their support or opposition to female clergy in their congregations, the most common reasons included scriptural authority, personal experiences, and gender stereotypes. These three issues were cited by both those in favor and those against female ordination, selectively applying arguments and experience to support their positions.
  7. While support for female clergy is high, only 9% of worshipers report that they would personally prefer that their own congregation’s leader were female. This might help partially explain the persistent gender gap in the leadership of American congregations, even among those that have gender-inclusive leadership policies in place.
  8. While many people are quick to say that it “doesn’t matter” whether their congregation’s principal leader is male or female, they are quick to point a variety of ways in which they have personally seen that it does matter in their own lives. Specifically, they tend to focus on ways that gender affects what type of counseling clergy are able to provide (in talking about issues such as rape or abortion, for instance), as well as the ways that female clergy can often successfully attract young people and families to their congregations.
  9. In our survey, women who had influential female clergy growing up have higher levels of self-esteem as adults, as well as higher levels of education and full-time employment, compared to those who had only male leaders. They are also more likely think about God in more graceful/loving terms instead of a more authoritarian/judgmental way. This is important because self-esteem, education, and one’s view of God have all been linked to psychological and emotional health and well-being. Thus, female clergy can indirectly improve future levels of health, well-being, and economic empowerment of young women and girls in their congregations.
  10. Politics structures attitudes toward and responses to women’s ordination more than gender. Political liberals, both men and women, are most supportive of female clergy and are also the most likely to disengage from their religious communities if their congregations maintain male-only leadership policies. This is yet another example of how politics is driving religious identity and affiliation much more often than the reverse in contemporary American society.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Francis tells gay man: ‘God made you like this’

Juan Carlos Cruz, who was sexually abused, says pontiff told him God did not mind that he was gay

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A survivor of clerical sexual abuse has said Pope Francis told him that God had made him gay and loved him, in arguably the most strikingly accepting comments about homosexuality to be uttered by the leader of the Roman Catholic church.

Juan Carlos Cruz, who spoke privately with the pope two weeks ago about the abuse he suffered at the hands of one of Chile’s most notorious paedophiles, said the issue of his sexuality had arisen because some of the Latin American country’s bishops had sought to depict him as a pervert as they accused him of lying about the abuse.

“He told me, ‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are,’” Cruz told Spanish newspaper El País.

Now 87, Fernando Karadima, the man who abused Cruz, was found guilty of abuse by the Vatican in 2011.

Greg Burke, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether Cruz’s statement accurately reflected his conversation with the pope.

It is not the first time it has been suggested Francis has an open and tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, despite the Catholic church’s teaching that gay sex – and all sex outside of heterosexual marriage – is a sin. In July 2013, in response to a reporter’s question about the existence of an alleged “gay lobby” within the Vatican, Francis said: “Who am I to judge?”

The new remarks appear to go much further in embracing homosexuality as a sexual orientation that is designed and bestowed by God. It suggests that Francis does not believe that individuals choose to be gay or lesbian, as some religious conservatives argue.

Austen Ivereigh, who has written a biography of the pope, said Francis had likely made similar comments in private in the past, when he served as a spiritual director to gay people in Buenos Aires, but that Cruz’s public discussion of his conversation with Francis represented the most “forceful” remarks on the subject since 2013.

It did not, however, represent a shift in church teaching, Ivereigh said, since the church had never formally made any pronouncements on why individuals were gay.

Christopher Lamb, the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet, said the comments were remarkable and a sign of a shift in attitudes taking place. “It goes beyond ‘who am I to judge?’ to ‘you are loved by God,’” said Lamb. “I don’t think he has changed church teaching but he’s demonstrating an affirmation of gay Catholics, something that has been missing over the years in Rome.”

The remarks come as several high profile members of the clergy have sought to publicly make inroads with gay Catholics, many of whom have felt shunned and unwelcome in the church and have been ostracised.

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York who has nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, has led the outreach effort and was chosen last month to serve as a consultor to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.

Martin has argued in his book Building a Bridge that the onus is on the church to make LGBT Catholics feel welcome in the church and to stop discriminating against people based on their “sexual morality”.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholics’ Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide

  • Fewer than four in 10 Catholics attend church in any given week

  • Catholic attendance is down six percentage points over the past decade

  • Protestant attendance steady, but fewer Americans now identify as Protestants

 

by Lydia Saad

Weekly church attendance has declined among U.S. Catholics in the past decade, while it has remained steady among Protestants.

From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.

By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.

As Gallup first reported in 2009, the steepest decline in church attendance among U.S. Catholics occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, when the percentage saying they had attended church in the past seven days fell by more than 20 percentage points. It then fell an average of four points per decade through the mid-1990s before stabilizing in the mid-2000s. Since then, the downward trend has resumed, with the percentage attending in the past week falling another six points in the past decade.

This analysis is based on multiple Gallup surveys conducted near the middle of each decade from the 1950s through the present. The data for each period provide sufficient sample sizes to examine church attendance among Protestants and Catholics, the two largest religious groups in the country, as well as the patterns by age within those groups. The sample sizes are not sufficient to allow for analysis of specific Protestant denominations or non-Christian religions.

Less Than Half of Older Catholics Are Now Weekly Churchgoers

In 1955, practicing Catholics of all age groups largely complied with their faith’s weekly mass obligation. At that time, roughly three in four Catholics, regardless of their age, said they had attended church in the past week. This began to change in the 1960s, however, as young Catholics became increasingly less likely to attend. The decline accelerated through the 1970s and has since continued at a slower pace. (See tables at the end of this article for all trend figures.)

Meanwhile, since 1955, there has also been a slow but steady decline in regular church attendance among older Catholics. This includes declines of 10 points or more in just the past decade among Catholics aged 50 and older, leading to the current situation where no more than 49% of Catholics in any age category report attending church in the past week.

To maintain consistency with earlier Gallup polling when the sample population was age 21 and older, this analysis defines the youngest age group as those aged 21 to 29 rather than the 18- to 29-year age range typically examined in modern polling.

Attendance Holding Up Among Protestants of All Ages

U.S. Protestants’ church attendance was not nearly as high as Catholics’ in the 1950s — but it has not decreased over time. Protestants’ church attendance dipped in the 1960s and 1970s among those aged 21 to 29, but it has since rebounded. Among those aged 60 and older, weekly attendance has grown by eight points since the 1950s. (See tables at the end of this article for all trend figures.)

Currently, the rate of weekly church attendance among Protestants and Catholics is similar at most age levels. One exception is among those aged 21 to 29, with Protestants (36%) more likely than Catholics (25%) to say they have attended in the past seven days.

Protestants’ Pie Is Shrinking Faster Than Catholics’

While attracting parishioners to weekly services is vital to the maintenance of the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations alike, so too is maintaining a large base of Americans identifying with each faith group.

Although the rate at which Protestants attend church has held firm over the past six decades, the percentage of Americans identifying as Protestant has declined sharply, from 71% in 1955 to 47% in the mid-2010s. Since 1999, Gallup’s definition of Protestants has included those using the generic term “Christian” as well as those calling themselves Protestant or naming a specific Protestant faith.

By contrast, while the Catholic Church has suffered declining attendance in the U.S., the overall percentage of Catholics has held fairly steady — largely because of the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. Twenty-two percent of U.S. adults today identify as Catholic, compared with 24% in 1955.

A troubling sign for both religions is that younger adults, particularly those aged 21 to 29, are less likely than older adults to identify as either Protestant or Catholic. This is partly because more young people identify as “other” or with other non-Christian religions, but mostly because of the large proportion — 33% — identifying with no religion.

Bottom Line

After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days — so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly. Further, given that young Catholics are even less devout, it appears the decline in church attendance will only continue. One advantage the Catholic Church has is that the overall proportion of Americans identifying as Catholic is holding fairly steady. However, that too may not last given the dwindling Catholic percentage among younger generations.

Protestant church seats may also be less full, but for a different reason. Although weekly attendance among Protestants has been stable, the proportion of adults identifying as Protestants has shrunk considerably over the past half-century. And that trend will continue as older Americans are replaced by a far less Protestant-identifying younger generation.

All of this comes amid a broader trend of more Americans opting out of formal religion or being raised without it altogether. In 2016, Gallup found one in five Americans professing no religious identity, up from as little as 2% just over 60 years ago.

Pope Francis won’t support women in the priesthood, but here’s what he could do

Pope Francis will not ordain women to priesthood.

BY

On March 13, Pope Francis will complete his first five years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Since his election, Pope Francis has engaged the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics and innumerable non-Catholics worldwide with his frank, inclusive talk on issues as diverse as poverty and homosexuality. In fact, many observers seem confused by the church’s apparent willingness to reconsider traditions regarding some contentious issues, such as divorce.

However, Francis has drawn the line at extending full priesthood to women. Devout Catholics have spoken out boldly on both sides of this issue. But, that door, Francis has repeatedly said, “is closed.”

As a scholar specializing in both the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I believe Francis’ refusal comes from his unwillingness to challenge a foundational Catholic doctrine known as “apostolic succession.”

The Catholic Church has historically been unwilling to violate this doctrine.

Development of the priesthood

Based on the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is apostolic succession that specifies how the Catholic Church acquired its authority and its ability to save souls. God gave the power of salvation – to “bind and loose” souls – to Christ who shared it with 12 male apostles. When the apostles chose their successors, the first bishops, they passed the power of salvation to those bishops through the sacrament of ordination. Through ordination, bishops have endowed priests with God’s authority up to the present day.

The origins of apostolic succession can be traced to the first centuries A.D. – a time when Christianity was illegal. Jesus had left his followers with no obvious blueprint for any type of formal church or priesthood. Christians were, thus, free to worship in their own ways, trying not to get caught.

This troubled Christian leaders such as Clement, a first-century bishop of Rome, and Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon. They believed it unlikely that such a diversity of practices could lead to heaven. Jesus, they wrote, must have left one true path to salvation. In the absence of clear direction, they traced this one path through the apostles and their recognized successors, the bishops.

This became a pivotal development in early attempts to organize a uniform Christian “church,” creating a formal clergy. Only ordained priests were authorized to celebrate the sacraments, a key source of God’s grace.

Anyone, for example, could pronounce ritualistic words over bread and wine, but unless that individual had been given the authority of the apostles through ordination, that bread and wine would remain mere bread and wine. There was no true sacrament, no saving grace. Such unauthorized persons, Irenaeus charged, were thieves, stealing the chance of salvation from the Christians they duped.

A matter of divine will

The Catholic Church excludes women from priesthood. Here, Pope Francis during his audience with bishops.

Approximately when and under what circumstances certain disciples were designated as the only “apostles,” numbered as 12, and selected as all male is a subject of much historical and theological debate. The church’s justifications for excluding women from apostolic succession have varied over centuries.

Before the 20th century, explanations for refusing women a place in the hierarchy of apostolic succession ranged from women’s inherent sinfulness to their divinely created inferiority to man.

Although the church no longer supports such reasoning, it does still exclude women from the priesthood by virtue of their sex. In its 1976 declaration, “Inter Insigniores,” the church proclaimed its loyalty to the model left by Christ to his followers – in other words, apostolic succession.

Since Christ was incarnated as male and all 12 original apostles were male, the church declared that God meant for males alone to exercise the priesthood. The church, in other words, does not consider the extension of ordination to women to be an issue of human rights but one of fulfilling the divine will, with which there can be no compromise nor accommodation.

What change-makers say

Representatives of the Women’s Ordination Conference.

Many devout Catholics, even priests, disagree. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide, two of the largest global organizations advocating for women’s ordination, count clerics, monks and nuns among supporters of their cause. As Benedictine nun Joan Chittister charged,

“The Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures … is … dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of Church-sanctioned slavery.”

These Catholics allege the refusal to ordain women is not God’s intent, and neither scripturally justified nor the original practice of the church.

These modern change-makers point to a body of credible scriptural, archaeological and historical evidence that women served as priests, deaconesses and even bishops alongside Jesus and during the first centuries of Christianity. Indeed, reputable evidence exists that it took centuries for male clerics to gradually exclude women from these positions.

This evidence suggests it could actually be a return to tradition to welcome women to the priesthood. The fact is that the church has changed its position on women and church roles in the past, such as when, in 1900, the church reversed its 600-year old mandate that nuns live and worship isolated behind convent walls. This freedom made new and diverse forms of religious life and service possible for women. The church could alter its position on women again, critics argue. As Roy Bourgeois, a priest defrocked for his support of women’s ordination, maintained, “There’s always the opportunity to change.”

What the pope can do

Yet the field on which such battles are fought is far from level, and those on the side of apostolic succession have the upper hand.

Although Francis is unlikely to allow women into the priesthood, it is within reason that he could lead in ordaining women to become deacons, as this would not necessarily violate apostolic succession. Deacons – along with bishops and priests – are one of the three ordained “orders” of ministers in the Catholic Church. Deacons are not priests, but they may preach, teach and lead in prayer and works of mercy.

The diaconate is often a stage on the road to ordination to the priesthood for men. During the Vatican’s Synod on the Family in 2015, Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec encouraged his colleagues to expand women’s opportunities for leadership, including ordination to the diaconate, “to clearly show the world the equal dignity of women and men in the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI suggested this almost a decade ago. Durocher, like Benedict, was careful to clarify that deacons are directed “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium,” meaning “not to priesthood, but to ministry.” While Francis has been firm in protecting doctrines such as apostolic succession, this is a move he could legitimately make.

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A Modern Controversy Over Ancient Homosexuality

In 1980, a gay historian’s book about Catholic Church-approved homosexuality enraged both gays and Catholics.

This image, of the 7th century saints Sergius and Bacchus, was considered by the historian John Boswell to be a depiction of an example of an early Christian same-sex union.

by Natasha Frost

It might have been the first academic textbook that greeted the masses via the medium of Garry Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury. In a series of strips in June 1994, recently outed gay character Mark Slackmeyer attempts to pick up a fundamentalist Christian married man, and tells him that the church had, for a millennium, performed gay-marriage ceremonies. “Where did you hear such garbage?” the man replies, irate.

“It’s in a new book by this Yale professor,” answers Slackmeyer. “His research turned up liturgies for same-sex ceremonies that included communion, holy invocations and kissing to signify union. They were just like heterosexual ceremonies, except that straight weddings, being about property, were usually held outdoors. Gay rites, being about love, were held INSIDE the church!”

That week, at least two Illinois newspapers refused to print the strips, while a few dozen readers rang the distributor to ask “why Garry Trudeau exists to make their lives unhappy.” If the strip provoked controversy, the book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, incited outrage both within and outside of the academic community. Its author, scholar John Eastburn Boswell, known as Jeb, died six months after the comic strips ran at the age of 47, of AIDS-related complications.

In barely 20 years at Yale, Boswell’s work as a historian managed to set the cat among the pigeons to stupendous effect, through years of meticulous scholarship that, if correct, undermined the very foundation of much modern homophobia. In the introduction to his 1980 American Book Award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, he observed that gay people were “still the objects of severe proscriptive legislation, widespread public hostility, and various civil restraints, all with ostensibly religious justification.” Boswell’s work suggested, however, that this “religious justification” might, in fact, be bogus—a latter-day alteration, introduced hundreds of years after Christianity was founded.

A young John Boswell, known to his friends as Jeb.

The book argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not always been as hostile to gay people, and indeed, until the 12th century, had thought homosexuality no more troubling than, say, hypocrisy—or even celebrated love between men. The response to the book was explosive, if polarized. “I would not hesitate to call his book revolutionary,” Paul Robinson, a Stanford University historian, wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1981. But other critics felt that, despite its attention to detail, its central thesis—that Christianity and homosexuality had not always been such uneasy bedfellows—was not only false, but a failed attempt by Boswell, gay and Catholic, to square two aspects of his identity they felt could not be reconciled.

Boswell was young and brilliant, blond and boyishly handsome, with an incredible facility for languages. His work might at any time draw on any of 17 dead and living examples—among them, Catalan, Latin, Old Iceland, Syriac and Persian. As a teenager growing up in Virginia, writes the researcher Bruce O’Brien, he had converted to Catholicism from Episcopalianism. This conversion was precipitated by a show of tolerance and strength: “because, in large part, the archdiocese of Baltimore had voluntarily desegregated its schools, without a court order, solely because it was the right thing to do.” Here, he saw a Catholic church that was intrinsically moral and would be a beacon of light against intolerance—one that might lead the charge on other struggles for equality in a country whose sensibilities were shifting at great pace.

Many saw the book, therefore, as a chance for a reckoning—Boswell giving the church the opportunity to welcome the gay community. As his sister Patricia, who spoke at his funeral, puts it: “Jeb’s love of God was the dri­ving force in his life and the dri­ving pas­sion behind his work. He did not set out to shake up the straight world but rather to include the gay world in the love of Christ… to acquaint all with the fear­some power of that love, the wild­ness, the ‘not tame­ness’ of it.”

A detail from the Medieval manuscript La Somme le roy, from around 1300, shows David and Jonathan embracing.

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is a 442-page journey through around 1,000 years of gay history. Assiduously researched, it jumps from country to country, instance to instance, drawing on examples of love between specific men, and generalized cases of societies in which sex between men was quite normalized.

Boswell spends some time delving into the relationship between the 4th-century Ausonius, a Roman poet living in Bordeaux, France, and his pupil Saint Paulinus, later the Bishop of Nola. Whether or not the relationship was a physical one is impossible to say—but the passionate affection the two had for one another seemed to transcend ordinary platonic friendship.

In whatever world I am found,
I shall hold you fast,
Grafted onto my being,
Not divided by distant shores or suns.
Everywhere you shall be with me,
I will see with my heart
And embrace you with my loving spirit.

“It would be inaccurate to suggest any exact parallel between such relationships and modern phenomena—as it is to compare medieval marriage with its modern counterpart,” Boswell wrote. But the idea that the concept of friendship has simply changed rang hollow to him—especially given that in many ancient societies, homosexuality was conventional and so might well have been part of a normal friendship. “Friends of the same sex borrowed from the standard vocabulary of homosexual love to express their feelings in erotic terms,” he wrote.

Saint Augustine, writing at the same time, described a friendship thus: “I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies, and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.” Elsewhere, however, he claims to have “contaminated the spring of friendship with the dirt of lust and darkened its brightness with the blackness of desire”—yet this is a denigration not specifically of homosexual lust and desire, but of sexuality more generally.

A 17th-century image of Saint Augustine, by the painter Antonio Rodríguez.

In the same period in Antioch, an ancient Greco-Roman city sometimes called “the cradle of Christianity,” Boswell described how Saint John Chrysostom visited the town, in what is today Turkey. Chrysostom was surprised to see the men of the city “consorting” not with prostitutes, but “fearlessly” with one another. Boswell quoted him: “The fathers of the young men take this in silence: they do not try to sequester their sons, nor do they seek any remedy for this evil. None is ashamed, no one blushes, but, rather, they take pride in their little game; the chaste seem to be the odd ones, and the disapproving the ones in error.” In this early Christian city, Chrysostom found homosexuality to be so very common and accepted that “there is some danger that womankind will become unnecessary with the future, with young men instead fulfilling all the needs women used to.”

Boswell shored up example after example of homosexual love and sex in the early Christian world over the course of almost 1,000 years. There were occasional laws against them, he pointed out, but they were not usually religious ones, but civil, where homosexual acts were fined as a way to increase tax coffers. Indeed, often the people being taxed in this way were not ordinary members of society, but bishops and clerics. “Purely ecclesiastical records usually stipulate either no penalty at all or a very mild one,” he wrote. Under Pope Saint Gregory II, for instance, lesbian activities carried a 160-day fasting penalty, likely under the same terms as Lent. A priest caught going hunting, on the other hand, would be in comparable trouble for three years.

In the 1980s, at a time when laws against sodomy remained in place in many American states, the book was a bombshell—especially for Catholics. The United States, at that time, was still a place of extreme homophobia and prejudice. In 1978, the openly gay politician Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco; a year earlier came Anita Bryant’s organized opposition to gay rights, with its rhetoric about saving children from gay “recruitment.” Queer studies remained a very niche part of academic study—Yale’s Lesbian and Gay Studies Center, which Boswell helped to found, emerged only in the late 1980s.

Criticism of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, therefore, came on a variety of fronts. In some parts of the academic community, it came from historians like the R. W. Southern of the University of Oxford, who believed that “gay history” was not an interesting or important part of historical research. (Southern, O’Brien notes, was largely influenced by having grown up in “a repressed age where homosexuals were criminals [a word he used when talking about homosexuality.]”) In others, it came from theological scholars who picked apart Boswell’s thesis and found it undermined by the scholar’s deep, deep desire to be right. In the Catholic magazine Commonweal, after the book’s release, Louis Crompton wrote: “It is a pity that [the book] is … vitiated by a determination to construe all its voluminous evidence in the light of an untenable leading idea.” Some of its harshest criticism came from members of the gay community, who accused Boswell of being an apologist for the church’s atrocities against gay people. In the Gay Books Bulletin, Wayne Dyne wrote, decisively: “Christianity is definitely guilty of the stigmatization and persecution of same-sex relations in our civilization. It has served as a redoubt for bigotry of all sorts, and until those who call themselves Christians are ready humbly to acknowledge this, they are coming to us with dirty hands.”

Boswell, for his part, seemed to take the response in his stride. To the many critics who argued that such categories as “gay” and “straight” were modern conceptions, Boswell responded: “If the categories ‘homosexual/heterosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are the inventions of particular societies rather than real aspects of the human psyche, there is no gay history.” The book had caused controversy, but it had also won multiple awards and cleared important ground in developing this largely uncharted territory of gay studies.

Today, Boswell is remembered for two things—by those who didn’t know him, for his contributions to his field; and by those who did, for his unwavering kindness and generosity. A 1986 video of Boswell giving a talk shows a man who was at once dazzlingly bright and brilliantly charismatic. He’s likeable, urbane, often very funny. On and off campus, he was adored—by undergraduates, who clamored to be in his classes, and undergraduates; gay and straight members of faculty alike; and by many members of the Catholic community. At Harvard, where he had completed his PhD, he counted among his devoted friends John Spencer, rector of the Jesuit community of Boston, and Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer professor of Christian morals, after he came out publicly in 1991. “At a time of great public trauma for me, he wrote me out of the blue a lovely letter of support,” Gomes told the Harvard Crimson, shortly after Boswell’s death. “He gave me courage.”

When he passed away in December 1994, Boswell had been in the Yale infirmary for some months. The music historian Geoffrey Block recalled visiting him in his hospital room, where, despite having only recently emerged from a coma, he was “brilliantly and miraculously holding court,” quoting lines from films and singing “Cause I’m a Blonde” from the musical Earth Girls Are Easy. Admirers and friends drifted in and out of the infirmary—friends he had helped through crises; a devoted graduate student; his father; the newly installed President of Yale, Richard Levin, who cried freely and readily. “A young bar­ber who came to the infir­mary room to give Jeb a hair­cut moved us to tears when he refused pay­ment.”

Boswell died on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, friends, and his partner of many years, Jerry Hart. In the months leading up to his death, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, which had been previewed in Doonesbury, incited similar levels of controversy to Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Comprised of the study of more than 60 manuscripts from the 8th to the 16th century, it was a full investigation into the history of same-sex unions. These he described as relationships that were “unmistakably a voluntary, emotional union of two persons,” and “closely related” to heterosexual marriage, “no matter how much some readers may be discomforted by this.” Again, critics argued that he was looking for something that he dearly wanted to be there. Block, in his 2013 memorial, wrote how delighted and thrilled Boswell would have been to have been able to legally marry Hart. “I came across a sign on a lawn that would have made Jeb, a devout Catholic—per­haps para­dox­i­cally con­sid­er­ing this insti­tu­tion’s take on his sex­ual iden­tity—extremely happy. It sim­ply said, ‘Approve R-74. My Church Sup­ports Mar­riage Equal­ity’.”

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Archbishop: Priests Should Feel Free To Bless Same-Sex Couples

The Church must take “the individual… their life story, their relationships,” into account,” said Archbishop Reinhard Marx.

By

A German Cardinal is giving his blessing to priests who want to officiate same-sex unions.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, told Bavarian State Broadcasting “there can be no rules” about whether clergy can bless such relationships. Rather, the decision should be made on a case by case basis.

“One must encourage priests and pastoral workers to give people in concrete situations encouragement,” said the 73-year-old. “It’s about pastoral care for individual cases, and that applies in other areas as well, which we can not regulate, where we have no sets of rules.”

Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, was responding to a question about why the Church is slow in moving forward on progressive causes like the ordination of women, blessings for homosexual couples, and the abolition of compulsory celibacy.

The important question, he said, was how “the Church can meet the challenges posed by the new circumstances of life today?”

Priests must take “the situation of the individual… their life story, their biography… their relationships,” into account, he added, rather than offer blanket regulations. The language and liturgical format of such blessings or other forms of “encouragement,” though, would require further consideration.

Marx previously called on the Church to apologize for centuries of anti-LGBT persecution.

“The history of homosexuals in our societies is very bad, because we’ve done a lot to marginalize [them],” he said in a 2016 talk at Dublin’s Trinity College. Calling the legacy of institutionalized homophobia “scandalous and terrible,” he added that, “As a Church and a society, we have to say ‘Sorry, sorry.’”

In 2014, Marx shocked attendees of the Synod of Bishops when he argued the Church couldn’t simply dismiss longtime same-sex relationships as worthless.

“We have to respect the decisions of people,” he said at the time. “You cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man and they are faithful [that] that is nothing, that has no worth.”

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When Popes Become Penitents: The History of Papal Apologies

Pope Francis being cheered for by nuns upon his arrival at the Cathedral, in Santiago, Chile

Papal apologies for the Catholic church’s behavior are a relatively recent phenomenon. Pope John Paul II, who held the title between 1979 and 2005, was the first to issue them. His successor, Benedict XVI, timidly followed that precedent; but it is Pope Francis who has turned the symbolic apology into something of a masterstroke, helping to shift the church’s atonement from a focus on historical wrongs to accepting moral responsibility for more current events.

In January 2017, Pope Francis met with Chilean survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests to apologize to them personally. It was a strikingly intimate gesture that demonstrates how the concept of papal apologies has evolved. Here’s a look at some of the most important apologies the church has made.

Galileo

Galileo before the Holy Office in the Vatican. The astronomer was condemned by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for having defended the theories of Copernicus.
John Paul’s first papal apology in 1992 was for the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the 17th century, the church had branded the astronomer a heretic for (correctly) asserting that the sun was the center of our solar system. Because this contradicted the church’s position that Earth was the center, the church forced Galileo to choose between recanting his position or burning at the stake. He decided to recant, and spent the last several years of his life on house arrest.

This first apology was one of over 100 that John Paul issued during his time as pope, most of which concerned the church’s historical misdeeds. Yet not everyone was happy about this new turn in the papacy.

“There were some misgivings because many thought that would weaken the public standing of the Catholic church,” says Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “Some bishops or some cardinals evidently grew tired of this pope who thought that it was good for the church to apologize.”

Slavery, Colonialism & the Holocaust

On March 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem asking for Christian forgiveness.
In 1993, John Paul continued to address the church’s behavior in past centuries by issuing an apology for the church’s role in the African slave trade. Similarly to Francis’ 2015 apology to indigenous people in the Americas regarding the Catholic church’s role in colonialism, this gesture addressed something that happened long ago but continues to negatively affect communities today.

But John Paul also apologized for some things the church had done more recently, which proved to be more controversial than his attempts to redress historical wrongs. One example is in 1998, when he apologized for the church’s inaction during the Holocaust.

“In doing that, John Paul had to be careful,” Faggioli says. This is because there was and still is a controversy about how much Pius XII, the pope during World War II, did to help Jewish people during the Holocaust. Pius has been criticized for remaining largely silent about the atrocities.

“John Paul didn’t want to get involved in a historical dispute,” he says. “And so he made a case on the need of Catholics to repent and to be aware [of] their responsibility during the Holocaust without addressing directly the issue of what the pope during World World II had done.”

Sexual Abuse

Pope John Paul II sending an e-mail at the Vatican, in his first message sent to the world directly over the Internet, apologizing to victims of sexual abuse by priests and other clergy, including nuns, in the developing world.
John Paul’s 2001 apology for sexual abuse by the Catholic church stands out in comparison to previous apologies. That’s because unlike the historical ones or even his apology about the Holocaust, John Paul was now addressing something harmful that church leaders had done within the past few decades.

This was the first expression of regret that the church had made about the large number of priests who had sexually abused children, which the church had actively covered up. Benedict XVI, who was much stingier about papal apologies overall, issued a second one regarding sexual abuse in 2010. Pope Francis issued the third in 2015 and another in 2018, specifically to survivors in Chile.

Although John Paul began the church’s attempt to reckon with both the sexual abuse of priests and the church’s complicity in that abuse, Faggioli says that Francis has pushed this recognition even further. “Under John Paul II, and to some extent to Benedict XVI, there is still the idea that the sex abuse crisis was a North American problem.”

But for Francis, this abuse is a larger, ongoing problem that the church must reckon with.

Francis’ Modern Issues

Pope Francis meeting with the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame at the Vatican on March 20, 2017.

Francis’ focus on sexual abuse also demonstrates another shift of his papacy. While he still issues apologies for historical wrongs, he’s also focused on the church’s more recent and even current behavior.

In 2016 and 2017, Francis issued apologies to refugees for some Catholics’ unwillingness to welcome them to their countries; to the LGBT community for the church’s discrimination against them; and to Rwanda for the church’s role in the country’s 1994 genocide.

Unlike the early ‘90s when John Paul first expressed formal regret over the church’s behavior, “an apology for Catholic sins in the 17th, 18th, 19th century, would not be breaking news today,” Faggioli says.

Since he became the pontiff in 2013, Francis has completely changed the type of behavior that people expect a pope to ask forgiveness for.

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