Matthew Vines speaks on the theological debate regarding the Bible and the role of gay Christians in the church. Delivered at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas on March 8, 2012.
Matthew Vines speaks on the theological debate regarding the Bible and the role of gay Christians in the church. Delivered at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas on March 8, 2012.
Imagine what our Church would look like if all us LGBT clergy, religious and parishoners decided to come out.
Just in time for National Coming Out Day, which just so happens to be today, October 11th, we have this from Craig:
I’m 19, and I’ve decided that I’m gay. But I don’t know how to tell anyone. I’m afraid that I’ll lose my friends and family. I come from a very religious family, and they’ll never understand. I don’t want to hurt them, but I want to be honest about who I am. Just wondering if you could help me.
Coming out is never easy—or almost never—but having to do so to bigoted people makes things worse. There are many different aspects to the coming out process. It means both owning and valuing who you are, and sharing that information with others. You’ve apparently laid the groundwork by self-identifying as gay. Unfortunately, coming out also means learning to deal with the hostility many people have toward us sexual minorities.
Owning your sexual identity and integrating it into your overall sense of self is the first step in what I believe is a lifelong process. Your sexual preferences are just a small part of who you are. It is indeed an important part, but it’s not necessarily the defining element that some would make it out to be. In this instance, LGBT folks are not all that different from everyone else who is awakening to his/her sexuality. We can take some comfort from the fact that we are not alone. So many other segments of the population are marginalized and discounted because of their race, gender, age, religion, ethnic origin, you name it. Let’s face it, pup, our culture doesn’t do real well with diversity.
And ya know what else? There are a whole lot of us who are marginalized and who are discriminated against, who then turn right around and discriminate against and marginalize others. This just breaks my heart! Hopefully you’ll avoid the temptation to do this yourself.
Being different in our society is a double-edged sword. Obviously, it’s a challenge to the status quo, but it also frees us up to tread a less traveled path. To compensate for the difficulties of being a minority, we get to define ourselves in ways that are unavailable to the dominant culture.
I don’t suppose any of us is ever entirely really free of our own internalized homophobia, any more than other marginalized minorities can rid themselves of their internalized self-doubt. No one can completely escape the prejudices and biases that surround them, but most of us make our way, regardless. That’s why coming out is so important. It empowers us. It increases our self-esteem. Honesty increases personal integrity. And when we stop hiding or denying this important aspect of ourselves, we have greater freedom of self-expression, and we become more available for happy, healthy and honest relationships.
So, how much do you know about LGBT history? Knowing that you belong to a big and vibrant community with a long and illustrious history will enhance your queer identity. You’ll find positive role models in every era of human history, and in every human endeavor—and affirmative role models will help you achieve a positive sense of self. (However, you’re gonna have to do some digging. The dominant culture suppresses queer history, which often leaves those who are just coming out feeling isolated, alone and unsure. Fear of rejection from the dominant culture is greatest for those who don’t know they belong to something bigger and stronger than themselves.)
Knowing your gay history will also give you ammunition to refute those around you who will try to label you as sick or sinful. Loads of LGBT folk have enriched civilization through science, religion, music, politics, art, theater, sports and literature, to name just a few. Long before you and I showed up on the scene they were paving the way for the freedoms and tolerance we currently enjoy in this country.
If you’re not already involved in your local gay community, it’s high time you got hooked up. Practice your coming out skills with other LGBT people. Coming out to those who are most likely to be supportive will make this phase easier. And in doing so, you’ll be creating a natural support system of friends who will be your gay “family.” You will also find helpful resources, including support groups, crisis lines, gay-friendly churches and synagogues, social outlets and political and cultural activities and organizations.
Once you’ve honed your coming out skills with the queer community, you’ll be ready to move on to straight folks. This will probably be a mixed bag. Some won’t give a hoot. Others may have a lot of hoot to give. The best advice I can give you is the same advice I received from my gay elders when I was coming out at about your age: Make your coming out a celebration.
Listen, if you carry your hat in your hand, shuffle your feet and look all dejected when you make your announcement, your audience will have little choice but to receive the information as bad or troubling news. However, if you stand up, look the person in the eye, and tell her or him that you have some wonderful news to share with them, you will be giving them a running start on receiving the information as good news. Besides, a positive presentation will help short-circuit some of the initial shock or confusion they may experience.
Expect that most straight folks—particularly those of a religious bent—will need some time to get used to the idea of you being queer. And as you suggest, it is quite possible that some family members or friends may reject you initially. But it’s not the end of the world, and lots of people, even some religious folks, come around in their own sweet time.
Coming out to others will be a more positive experience if you’re comfortable in your own skin. Hopefully you’re not overly dependent on others for your sense of self—a tall order for someone of your tender age and background. But remember, thousands of people, young and old from every corner of the world, are making their first tentative steps out of the closet right this minute. You are not alone.
How well you do fare may ultimately hinge on controlling, as much as possible, the time and place you come out. If you “out” yourself as opposed to being “outted” by someone else, you’re more likely to succeed. Being able to judge the receptiveness of your audience is also important. The best time for you might not necessarily be the best time for the person you’re about to tell. (F’rinstance, grandpa’s funeral may not be the ideal time to announce to your family that you’re a big fat flamer.)
While some friends and family may have figured you’re queer long before you have, give everyone the time and space he or she needs to work through the news. Be prepared for some negative reactions. (Having some supportive friends available to talk things through afterward, or retreat to, will help.) If you do your best to bring the news in a life affirming way and your audience still rejects you, that’s not your fault; nor does that make them right. You have the right to be who you are. You have the right to be out, proud and open about all the aspects of your life, including your sexuality. Never let people unable to accept that, even if they are family, diminish your self-worth.
Coming out may be difficult, but it’s also very rewarding. Coming out affirms your dignity, as well as underscores the dignity of other queer folk. Finally, never take for granted the freedom and tolerance the dominant culture begrudgingly gives us. It’s only through vigilance and political action that we secure our rightful place in society.
Part 5 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
This column concludes my series on Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. But before I move on to other topics I’d like to leave you with some tips on how you might make up your own mind when grappling with difficult moral issues.
In Part 1 of this series, A Key To Understanding Catholic Moral Theology, I talked about the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching — the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. That is, you must follow the sure judgment of your conscience even when, through no fault of your own, it might be mistaken.
Tip 1 — When faced with a moral dilemma, start with some soul-searching. Your conscience is, in fact, your primary connection with your God. No law, dictum or dogma can take precedence over your conscience. I contend that we don’t need theologians to tell us what is right and wrong or what is just and unjust. We simply need to tap into that simple formula called the golden rule. Deal with others, as you would like others to deal with you. That pretty much covers everything.
As we’ve seen in this series, much of Catholic moral theology is shame based. Shaming is a very effective means of regulating an individual’s behavior so that it conforms to the mores of the group. But capitulating to shame is never the same thing as acting morally. In fact, in many situations the moral thing to do is to stand against the prevailing opinions of the group.
Tip 2 — Try to unravel the system that instills the shame. If you go back to the source of the shaming you will, most likely, discover the reason why the shaming continues. I gave you a good example of this in Part 1 of this series. “To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.“ Once you uncover the root of the shame you can demythologize it. This will free you up to form your moral decisions less encumbered with dubious communal mores.
Guilt-based theology is dependent on demonizing people or behaviors. When people blindly accept what they are told, they perpetuate the communal mores even if they are unjust or intolerant. Sometimes this becomes so extreme that whole groups of people are vilified often using only stereotypes as evidence of their wrongdoing.
As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, Sins Of The Flesh, it all begins with language. That’s “wrong”, “dirty”, “bad”, “disordered”, “unnatural” or “intrinsically evil”. In short order this incendiary language becomes a rallying cry that inevitably sets in motion active persecution. Moral maturity, on the other hand, demands that each of us take responsibility for our judgments and prejudices. If nothing more, this process of owning our biases slows down our rush to judgment.
Tip 3 — When faced with a shaming statement, like “that’s wrong”, it’s incumbent upon us ask why it’s wrong and who is making that judgment call. Because if something is “wrong” that means there must be a “right” way. But who gets to determine that, and what are the criteria for making that judgment?
“That’s dirty, disordered, unnatural or intrinsically evil!” Are some body parts or some sexual behaviors more wholesome, more in keeping with the natural order, than others? Again, whose prejudices are at work here?
I suggest that theologians aren’t competent to offer the definitive interpretation of the natural world, but even if they were, we still should ask. How much of your “natural/unnatural” worldview is culturally induced and dependent? Remember, it was once anathema to suggest that the world is round and not the center of the universe.
Finally, Catholicism is not a club. Despite what the hardliners say, lock-step adherence to every facet of church dogma is not what determines ecclesial fellowship. Baptism is! Catholic Christianity is a faith community. That means it’s a living, breathing, malleable thing. Just as I pointed out in Part 4 of this series, Seismic Shift, even the Pope must, from time to time, bow to the currents of culture, history and science.
Tip 4 — Questioning systemic injustice or intolerance in the Church is the right, nay the responsibility, of every believer. And if you find yourself at odds with Church authorities on moral issues, know you are not alone. Catholic women and men of conscience have always been a voice of dissent within the church. Their loyal opposition is precisely what helps keep the hierarchy honest.
Of course the flip side of taking a conscientious stand against the institution can often result in ostracism, shunning and persecution as I pointed out in Part 3 of this series, Sacred Cows. But then again, no one ever said embracing gospel values was gonna be easy.
Part 4 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
Something earthshaking happened the weekend before Thanksgiving last year. It was so dramatic it was felt right round the globe, don’t cha know.
Pope Benedict made a most extraordinary comment in an interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald, in July 2010. He said that condom use could be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS. This startling statement came to light as part of a promotional push for Seewald’s latest book on Cardinal Ratzinger, (now Benedict XVI): Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
In order to see just how astonishing this is one need only look back to the spring of the previous year. In March, 2009, during his trip to Cameroon, the pope not only reaffirmed Church teaching on the unacceptability of condom use under any circumstance, including the effort to diminish the spread of AIDS. He went on to say that he thought condom use might actually make HIV infection worse. This reiteration of the Vatican’s hard line, especially on African soil, coupled with his casual dismissal of established scientific evidence, drew immediate criticism from around the world. It was yet another public relations nightmare this pontiff didn’t need, or apparently want.
But now Benedict says condoms are not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also says that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
To the avid Vatican watcher this is nothing short of revolutionary. I tell you the Catholic world has shifted on its axis, Benedict’s tortured logic aside.
The week that followed the initial revelation of the pope’s condom statement was a maelstrom. The Vatican curia, bishops from around the world as well as Catholic activists all tried to spin his words. Church conservatives insisted the pontiff had been misquoted or misunderstood. — “The pope’s statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control” said Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, one of Benedict’s former student and editor in chief of the very conservative Ignatius Press. The liberal wing of the Church was hopeful. — “It’s a marvelous victory for common sense,” said Jon O’Brien, the head of the Catholic group — Catholics for Choice.
Then, only a couple of days after the original news broke, more startling information came to light. At a news conference in Rome, papal spokesman, the Fr. Frederico Lombardi, said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also “if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual.”
The pope seemed to be clarifying and expanding his comments, instead of walking them back. At this point, my head began to reel. Had he undergone some kind of metanoya? Did he develop a sense of compassion for male (female and transsexual) prostitutes and their johns? Was he finally having second thoughts about all us sexual reprobates and the damnation that awaits us for our unnatural acts? It was utterly astonishing! And who knew the word transsexual was even in the pope’s vocabulary?
Astonishing, because in October 2010 Belgian Archbishop, André-Joseph Léonard, asserted aloud what most hardliners say in private. He said the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a matter of “immanent justice”, i.e. God’s retribution for sodommite depravity.
By week’s end all hell had broken loose. Many prominent conservative Catholics were publicly rejecting the Vatican’s own explanation of what the pope said. They declared that they would only accept a more formal papal pronouncement, like an encyclical. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, were taking the pontiff at his word. For them the pope had spoken; exceptions to the Vatican’s previously uncompromising ban on the use of artificial contraception CAN be made in the worldwide effort to combat AIDS.
But what is the average pew Catholic supposed to make of all of this?
The pope is appealing to the principle of double effect, a standard of Catholic moral theology since Thomas Aquinas. This doctrine claims that sometimes it is permissible to bring about, a harmful side effect (contraception) in an effort to promote some greater good (the fight against the spread of AIDS). In other words, accepting the lesser of two evils.
No matter how you look at it, this seemingly innocuous papal statement has created a fissure in the bedrock of Catholic moral theology. It is a total game-changer and nothing will ever be quite the same.
Part 2 of a 5-Part Series — Understanding Catholic Moral Theology
I was absolutely mesmerized by the recent papal visit to Spain for World Youth Day. I confess it was a morbid curiosity in the spectacle, but who among us doesn’t have a guilty pleasure or two? My clergy days are way behind me, but the pomp and ceremony are still very familiar and even a little beguiling.
Benedict XVI, the kindly grandfather figure, kisses babies, waves to the crowd from what looks like a clown car. Yet there was a palpable tension in the air that was not missed by the devout and the skeptic alike. The pope came to Spain to mark his territory and that is always an anxious time for those whose territory he invades.
The innocuous visit soon turned ominous when the elderly pontiff began to scold against the dual evils of relativism and secularism. You’d think having so much to apologize for in terms of the worldwide priest sex abuse scandal he’d take a more humble approach to our common human foibles. But there was no hint of that.
His litany of our cultural sins is as familiar as his papal vestments. Abortion; homosexuality, particularly those who advocate same-sex marriage; sexual permissiveness among the young; and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of a modern society bent on instant gratification. The common thread being an abhorrence of sexual pleasure.
Catholic doctrine specifically states that the sacred act of procreation is the only legitimate reason for sexual expression and that, or course, can only occur within the confines of a marriage between one man and one woman. If a married couple is interested in having intercourse, then they’d better be willing to accept the real potential for creating another life each and every time.
On New Year’s Eve 1930, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned all “artificial” means of birth control. Condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps are artificial, in as much as they block the natural journey of sperm during intercourse. Douches, suppositories and spermicides kill or impeded sperm, so they too are banned. Tampering with the “male seed” is tantamount to murder. A common admonition at the time was “so many conceptions prevented, so many homicides.” To interfere with God’s will is a mortal sin and even grounds for excommunication.
Catholics are left with abstinence or the rhythm method (the practice of abstaining from sex during a woman’s period of ovulation) as the only means of family planning. But, the rhythm method is wildly unreliable. The roulette of it all places its heaviest strain on the women, but the marital relationship is also stressed.
In 1966 the Church revisited the doctrine. A papal commission set up to review the dogma voted 30-5 to relax the concerns on birth control. But in 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Humanae Vitae which overrode the bishops and reiterated the anti-birth-control stance. He said this was necessary for several reasons. Chief among them was — if sex were not about creating children in a loving family unit, then sex would solely be about pleasure with no responsibility. Men would simply use women as pleasure objects and would lose respect for them.
Some argued that Pope Paul’s decision to issue the letter was more about exerting papal authority then it was about birth control. They claimed he wanted to reserve to himself the authority to decide the issue rather then let the bishops of Vatican II decide. But I see it differently; the pope had virtually no choice. If he buckled on the bedrock issue of the procreative nature of sex he would have undercut the totality of Catholic sexual morality. There’d no longer be a cogent argument for outlawing masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex and divorce as disordered and intrinsically evil.
Obviously, the practical application of this encyclical goes way beyond the marital bed. It prohibits condoms in the fight against AIDS; young people are set adrift in a void of sex education; teenage pregnancies soar; gay and lesbian people are vilified; and married people as well as theologians are left questioning the relevancy of a doctrine that causes so much harm.
But, in this matter at least, that faithful have spoken. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population. A 2005 nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. Use of modern contraceptive methods is also high in many predominantly Catholic countries: 67% of married women of child-bearing age in Spain, 69% in France, 60% in Mexico, and 70% in Brazil.
These statistics underscore what we’ve all known for a long time. There is massive “disobedience” on the part of Catholic faithful. But they’re not being obstinate just to be contrary. These are women and men of conscience, who have weighed the Vatican arguments and found them wanting. Most Catholics know their religious affiliation is more than a slavish adherence to dogma; they know that it actually means finding the divine in the crucible of their own life.
Part 1 of this series HERE!
Part 1 of a 5-Part Series
In this my inaugural column, I’d like to give you one simple cipher that will help you decode, and hopefully put in perspective, the whole of Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. I put the word sexual in parenthesis because, even though the Church insists that moral theology encompasses social justice, medical ethics and various other doctrine on individual moral virtue; it is sex that is THE Catholic sin. It’s also the only reason this column is being written.
In mid-July of last year the Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules in response to the international clerical sex abuse scandal. Nothing new surfaced in these dictums. For example, we won’t be seeing the transparency victim advocacy groups are looking for, nor will there be a “one-strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests. And bishops still aren’t expected to report molester priests to civil authorities. (I’ll address some of these issues in a later column.) But for now I have another reason for calling your attention to this particular Vatican ruling; and it is not clergy sex abuse.
These new Vatican rules cover the canonical (Church law) penalties and procedures used for the most grave crimes in the church. As one would suspect, the Vatican considers clerical sex abuse a “grave crime”. What no one was expecting, certainly not in a document that deals with pedophile clergy, was the startling inclusion of the attempted ordination of women as a “grave crime” subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse.
This drew immediate criticism from many Catholic women and men, who said making women priests the moral equivalent of child rapists was deeply offensive.
Despite the repugnant nature of this Vatican rule, it does clearly elucidate the cipher I promised I’d give you. To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.
Less than a hundred years ago, women had little standing in the church. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (or ‘churched’ as it was called) before re-entering a church building.
Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen. They were certainly never to distribute Holy Communion. And while in church, a woman needed to have her head veiled at all times.
Women were also barred from:
But the most important restriction of all — women were barred from receiving Holy Orders; being ordained as deacons, priests or bishops.
When I was in seminary in the mid 1970’s the movement to ordain women was just finding its footing. The official rationale for refusing women to the priesthood back then, as it is now, is that a priest must physically resemble Jesus. The priest acts ‘in the person of Christ’. Since Jesus was a man, only a male priest can signify Christ at the Eucharist.
I used to get such a kick out of that reasoning, because when I was ordained the bishop laid his hands on my head to ordain me. And since women also have heads, I just figured that the bishop was laying his hand on the wrong part of my anatomy if he wanted the part that made me physically resemble Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that every aspect of Catholic moral theology from birth control to homosexuality; from the ordination of women to pre-marital sex, from abortion to celibacy is rooted in a medieval theology that still holds sway today. Every woman is ‘a defective male’, ‘born through an accident’, ‘a monster of nature’; as Thomas Aquinas put it. Procreation was attributed to the father alone: the whole future child is carried in his sperm. The mother was seen to be only the ‘soil’ in which the seed developed.
Institutionalized misogyny of this magnitude leaves some Catholic faithful in a quandary. How do I remain faithful to my baptism, but resist what, I know in my heart, is not right? The answer is the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. According to this belief, one must follow the sure judgment of his/her conscience even when, through no fault of one’s own, it might be mistaken. This is the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching. No law, no dictum, no dogma can take precedence over an individual’s conscience. Our conscience is our connection with our God.
This principal has allowed tens of thousands of Catholics over the years, both religious and lay; to stand against the unconscionable second-class status afforded women in the Church. And despite institutional resistance, great strides have been made over the last fifty years in toppling this gender-based injustice. Women are now included in many aspects of church life that were once closed to them.
From Gay Priest to Certified Sexologist with Dr. Dick. Look for the link on the NEWS & INTERVIEWS page.