People reveal their shocking experiences of conversion therapy in the UK

By Jessica Lindsay

There’s a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange where the film’s protagonist Alex is ‘deprogrammed’ from violence through aversion therapy.

He’s shown distressing images of violent acts while his eyes are held open and electric shocks run through his body.

The scene is a disturbing one, as despite knowing how much Alex’s own savage behaviour has hurt others, you can’t help but feel sickened by the cruel therapy.

It may seem like something confined to dystopian films – or even to other countries – but conversion therapy is completely legal and happens here in the UK, as well as many parts of the world.

The 2018 National LGBT survey compiled by the government found that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion or reparative therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of being LGBT, and a further 5% had been offered it.

Meanwhile, Stonewall, as part of a YouGov survey, found that 10% of health and social care workers – who they surveyed to analyse how beliefs may impact patient care – said a colleague had vocalised belief in a ‘gay cure’. Essentially, this is not just a fringe issue.

Although making conversion therapy illegal has been tabled – and promised – by government years ago, the legislation has not yet passed, despite a petition calling for this currently carrying more than 230,000 signatures.

What is conversion therapy?

The United Nations defines so-called conversion therapy as practices that seek ‘to change non-heteronormative sexual orientations and non-cisnormative gender identities.’

They continue that it is ‘an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.

‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.

‘Depending on the context, the term is used for a multitude of practices and methods, some of which are clandestine and therefore poorly documented.’

Some of the ‘techniques’ they have seen in their extensive research on the topic include ‘corrective’ rape, threats, exorcisms, forced repentance, and isolation from family and friends.

The Government response to the petition promises to ‘to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy’, noting that ‘conversion therapy is a very complex issue’.

Carolyn Mercer – who was assigned male at birth – had aversion therapy at the age of 17, with the aim to ‘cure’ her from feelings of gender dysphoria.

Now 73, Carolyn says that this form of punitive treatment has affected her ability to feel positive emotions – despite the decades that have passed.

Her experience with aversion therapy began after she visited the doctor to talk about feeling like she was born in the wrong body. These feelings had started around age three, but the doctor brushed them off, telling the confused teenager to ‘stop worrying your mum’.

She said: ‘I needed someone to listen to me and recognise my identity not to try to change me by denial and punishment.’

From there, a meeting with the local vicar (who’d come to visit Carolyn’s parents while they were at work and only Carolyn was home) led to a chat where she spoke about her dysphoria, and then led to her being referred to a mental hospital.

‘I felt that I ought to be punished for feeling the way that I did,’ Carolyn told Metro.co.uk.

‘I didn’t know how to process it. Of course, in those days, there was no internet. There was no literature. There was no one I could talk to.’

When Carolyn did open up, she was sent to Whittingham Hospital near Preston, the town where she grew up.

She said: ‘I wanted to be cured. I didn’t want to be odd. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be nasty, dirty – which is how I saw it.

‘And so he referred me to the psychiatrist, who then recommended NHS treatment.’

This ‘therapy’ (Carolyn doesn’t like the word, but stresses that she did enter into it voluntarily) saw her strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room, with electrodes fastened to her arms.

She said: ‘I can still smell it. They soaked the electrodes in salt water, in brine, and attached them to my arm.

‘And then from time to time while showing pictures [of women’s clothes or typically feminine things] on the wall, they’d pull the switch and send a pain through my body.

‘The idea was to make me associate the pain with what I wanted to do, and therefore that would stop me wanting to do it.

‘Effectively what it did was not make me hate that aspect of me. It made me hate me because it reinforced that I was wrong; I was evil, and so I deserved to be punished. And that was inflicted as part of NHS treatment.’

Carolyn went on to marry a woman and had children, moving up the ranks in teaching to become the youngest headteacher in Lancashire.

Her life was filled with enviable and admirable moments, but the spectre of the therapy and knowing she was trans was always there.

It was barbaric… and it clearly didn’t work

Carolyn likens what she went through to previous corrective and punitive measures used on left-handed people throughout history, which are not only proven not to work, but are designed to change a natural facet of someone, pathologising their sexuality or gender expression.

A UN study published in June 2020 found that 98% of the 940 persons who reported having undergone some form of conversion therapy testified to having suffered damage as a result.

However, due to the underreporting of conversion therapy and the myriad of effects from physical to psychological (potentially making it harder for a specific harm to be pinpointed by governments), these practices are still not banned.

Although such practices are frowned upon in the therapy industry (and have been disavowed by the NHS), a petition by the public to enshrine this into law recently highlighted the fact that the overarching practise is still allowed in the UK.

Josh Bradlow, Policy Manager, Stonewall told Metro.co.uk: ‘Conversion therapy can come in many different forms from a variety of sources and is often hidden.

‘It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with difficult feelings. These so-called therapies are also sometimes based in psychotherapy or medical practices that try to “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’

Many of the physically violent acts that fall under the conversion therapy banner are already illegal – rape, for example – so in theory, a ban would encompass the psychological methods being used.

We have to continue to shine a light on the horrifying after-effects of these methods, too, so that they don’t fall by the wayside in legislation.

Despite Carolyn doing the ‘blokey’ things she felt she were supposed to do, the dysphoria didn’t go away until she transitioned in 2002 ( or, as Carolyn puts it, ‘align my gender expression with my gender identity, which most people call transition’).

We can’t change the past, but we can look at the main effect for Carolyn – over 40 years of self-hatred and low self-esteem – as a stark warning of what we need to do next.

She said: ‘I can smile about it now, because I force myself to.’

‘But it was barbaric, you wouldn’t subject somebody to that in a concentration camp.

‘It clearly didn’t work, but worked at making me hate myself for a lifetime.’

Carolyn believes her experience has made her devote her life to teaching in an effort to help others, in part because of her low opinion of herself caused by the therapy.

Mark Loewen tells a similar story, although the form of conversion therapy he experienced was different to Carolyn’s.

Mark grew up in Paraguay in a religious family. As a child – and without the internet until about the age of 13 – he didn’t know what the word gay even meant, but tells us: ‘Growing up, I knew that something was different.’

Small things such as playing with girls’ toys and the sense of shame that came with that led to Mark questioning his sexuality, and it was when he went through puberty that he realised he was sexually attracted to men.

Mark’s fear and shame were largely rooted in religion

The way that homosexuality was treated by the pastors at his church was to read the passages of the Bible about sex between men, and to tell Mark ‘just don’t do it, and you’ll be fine’.

Mark worked in a pet shop where one of the customers was known to be gay. His colleagues warned Mark to be careful around the customer.

He said: ‘That’s the message; kind of like we’re dangerous, and that I could be dangerous.’

That man went on to kill himself, leaving Mark believing that this is what ‘destiny’ would have in store too if he came out.

When Mark reached his early twenties he found chatrooms where he was able to identify other gay men through coded language and have secret meet-ups for sex. But because of the negative messages he internalised, these were filled with shame for him and he began to use the internet in order to look for a ‘solution’.

‘I’m not looking for “how can I be happy as a gay man?”,’ said Mark.

‘My searches are “how do we get rid of this?” And so I get involved with a group I find called Exodus International.’

His church told Mark that homosexuality was caused by a distant father and an overbearing mother, and that he was being ‘respectful’ by not feeling a desire to sleep with the girls he was dating. When the time was right, they said, he would meet that right woman.

While working at a Christian book store at around the age of 22, Mark would regularly have business trips to the US, so he was able to go to his first ‘ex-gay’ conference in California without telling his family or friends.

The three-day conference including worship and music, which Mark says made the crowd feel like they were in a ‘trance’.

‘Their speakers would talk a lot about this seeking wholeness where we were missing something emotionally and to seek it. And so a lot of it was about finding approval for yourself in as a person as a man.’

The seminars were framed in a way where gay wasn’t who you were, instead portraying it as a series of attractions and behaviours that could be managed.

At first, these sessions were cathartic for Mark, seeming to him the one place he could truly talk about his innermost secrets and still be ‘loved’.

Mark said: ‘It goes well for some time, and then you notice that you’re still attracted to guys, and all of that happens again and again until you kind of fall again and have sex with someone or whatever it is that you do. And then you feel like you’ve failed.’

Throughout later group therapy sessions it was drummed into Mark that his desire for emotional connection with another man was not love, but instead a form of codependence and selfishness – a way to gain a stronger sense of masculinity that he believed he lacked.

Group members and those he knew would pray for him and he would be given what we’d know as a form of exorcism to change him.

It was only when he went to a college in the US and began studying psychotherapy himself that he realised these techniques were ineffective and morally wrong.

He left the sessions and has gone on to have a daughter and get married to a man he loves dearly. But he says that unpicking the idea that he was codependent and that who he is is shameful has taken a lot of work.

Now 40 years old, Mark writes inclusive children’s books, counsels adults and children alike, and runs a website for parents to raise empowered young girls.

Like Carolyn, he has channeled his energy into helping others.

If we look at the idea of the carrot or the stick, Carolyn’s aversion therapy was the stick and Mark’s conversion therapy was the carrot.

Where Carolyn experienced the more extreme-seeming Clockwork Orange type treatment, Mark’s therapy veered into the territory of the 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, where ‘reparative therapy’ is used, with the idea being that same-sex attraction is a symptom of a psychological problem that can be fixed by talking through childhood issues.

The damage has been done

But both of these types of conversion therapy still go on throughout the world, and both have the end result of making people believe they are inherently wrong.

Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow said: ‘A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed.

‘By trying to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, these ‘therapies’ can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Major UK health organisations like the NHS, and the leading psychotherapy and counselling bodies have publicly condemned these practices.’

The ‘happy ending’ here is the fact that Carolyn transitioned and is a grandparent with a loving wife and children, and that Mark has found his calling and started a beautiful family.

But healing scars that run so deep are much harder than ensuring we don’t inflict them in the first place.

Carolyn likens the experience to stretching an elastic band to the point where it no longer has any give left.

‘I don’t feel positive emotions,’ she said.

‘And that’s what has been driven out of me by an understanding that I was wrong. I was evil.

‘[Without aversion therapy] I would have been freed from that. I would have been able to enjoy things more. It’s better now than it was, but the damage is done.’

As the stats above show, although these decades have passed in Carolyn and Mark’s stories, these therapies are still happening, and the damage is still being done to others.

Both the survivors of conversion therapy that Metro.co.uk spoke to say that the solution is more understanding and empathy alongside a ban on these practices.

It’s all very well to ban conversion therapy, but without the proper understanding about the shame and hiding that comes with gender dysphoria or questions about our sexuality, we’re no closer to equality.

Mr Bradlow said: ‘Banning sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy would send a powerful message to young LGBT people to let them know that they are not ill.

‘But we also need to work on raising awareness of these dangerous practices, and ensure practitioners are trained to recognise it too.

‘And fundamentally, we need to tackle messages young LGBT people may get from other places, whether that be school, the media or at home, that there’s something wrong with who they are.

‘Until that happens, our work continues to ensure every lesbian, gay, bi and trans person can grow up happy, healthy and supported to be themselves.’

Complete Article HERE!

Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision 2020

Paintings by Douglas Blanchard

A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.












High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at: http://douglas-blanchard.fineartamerica.com/ Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too. Some originals are also available.

Visit Douglas Blanchard’s site HERE!

Author of explosive book about gay priests discusses homophobia and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church

Declan Henry shares the journey to creating ‘Forbidden Fruit: Life and Catholicism in Contemporary Ireland’.

by Peter Dunne

Declan Henry’s new book, Forbidden Fruit, speaks to gay priests about the hypocrisy and homophobia of the Catholic Church. It also looks at the issues, which he writes, have led to the crumbling of a once-mighty institution. Declan speaks about the creation of the book, the high percentage of gay priests in the Church and how he, as a gay man and a Catholic, has managed to reconcile his faith.

What was the impetus for writing your book?

“I wanted to explore the changing face of Catholicism in Ireland over the past 30 years post the cleric abuse scandals. I want to find out why the Church has never adequately addressed the reasons why paedophilia occurred among priests – and question if this malaise is still present – and why. I wanted to explore the hypocrisy of the church towards gay people – given that such a high percentage of Catholic priests are gay. I also wanted to explore compulsory celibacy and question if it is emotionally healthy to expect any man – gay or straight – to live a life devoid of intimate personal relationships and sex.”

Did your research surprise you?

“I met two very different – yet both happy priests during my research. One was an openly gay (celibate) priest in Dublin who is much loved and respected by his parishioners for being so honest. The other was a married priest in London (converted from the Anglican Church many years ago). It was so refreshing to be shown around his church and to be introduced to his wife and children. This clearly showed two things – a) that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay and a priest… b) being a married Catholic priest is not the slightest deterrent in fulfilling the role of a priest.”

Declan continued, “Research last year from the French author (Frederick Martel) found that 80% of the Vatican’s top clergy are gay. And yet, despite these high statistics, the Catholic Church is very homophobic. Why?”

How do you balance your affinity for the Catholic Church alongside your findings?

“I believe that most people in the LGBT+ community must transcend their belief system beyond the Catholic Church and find their own faith, their own God, their own Jesus. In the end, this is not too hard to do. Remember that you can read all the Gospels and you will find that Jesus never once condemned homosexuality.”

“In one sense, I smile when I think back about my earlier years growing up gay in Ireland – how vulnerable I was, how naïve I was. In the book, I recall how once I was feeling down and went to see a priest – but he refused to see me because he had just started to prepare his dinner. His dinner was far more important to him than seeing me. And so, I left and never returned. But I’m lucky. I left all that behind. I’ve had a good life, so any bitterness is forgotten. But there was pain and rejection. On one hand you had this unrivalled sense of belonging but on the other hand rejection, fear, shame and guilt for being gay.”

Do you believe the Catholic Church has alienated LGBT+ people to the point of pushing them from their faith?

“Yes, absolutely. Pope after Pope has helped to reinforce this message. Take the current Pope for example – he is not a stupid man, he is well informed and very knowledgeable about what is going on around him, yet he can say the most foolish of things. In December 2018 he stated, ‘There is no place for gay priests in the clergy’. Who is he trying to fool when the horse has well and truly bolted on that one?!”

“The truth is the church is full of homosexuals at every level. But unfortunately, most of these gay priests have a very unhealthy attitude towards their own sexuality – which is not alone very damaging to themselves but damaging to the wider LGBT+ community.”

Complete Article HERE!

German bishops declare that homosexuality is completely and utterly ‘normal’

In a groundbreaking move, German bishops have revised teachings on sexual morality and said homosexuality is “normal”.

Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015.

By Josh Milton

As the Catholic Church prepares for its contended review, the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference came to the consensus that being gay is a “normal form of sexual predisposition.”

Moreover, church organisers committed to “newly assessing” topics such as sacraments of ordination and marriage, with another revision being that adultery will not longer “always be qualified as grave sin”, the Catholic News Agency reported.

For centuries, Church leaders have been rattled by the thought of people being sexualities other than heterosexual. But as public attitudes and governments overwhelmingly sway in favour of letting the LGBT+ community exist, the church has steadily caught up to speed.

German bishops call for homophobia to be ‘rejected’ in the church.

The German Catholic Church’s statement comes ahead of a two-year ‘Synodal Process’ by the Germans which will see a national reform consultation. Although, Vatican leaders have warned against this.

In a press release detailing the conclusions of the conference, it detailed how a panel of bishops, sexologists, moral theologians and canon lawyers deliberated how to discuss “the sexuality of man […] scientifically-theologically, and how to assess it ecclesiastically.”

The experts, consisting of bishops from four diocese, agreed in the Berlin conference that “human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust, of procreation, and of relationships”, the release stated.

“There was also agreement that the sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero- or homosexual orientation. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot or should be be changed with the help of a specific socialisation.”

The panel also said that “any form of discrimination of those persons with a homosexual orientation has to be rejected.”

However, the panel did not reach a consensus across all battle lines. There was no consensus on “whether the magisterial ban on practiced homosexuality is still up to date.”

Furthermore, the experts also disagreed on whether or not both married and unmarried people should be allowed to use artificial contraceptives.

Complete Article HERE!

A Teen Says Her Catholic High School Forced Her Into Counseling For Being Gay.

Her Parents Had No Idea.

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“They took it upon themselves to parent our daughter, to counsel her, to lecture her,” her mother said.

UPLAND, California — Magali Rodriguez said she didn’t kiss her girlfriend at school.

At Bishop Amat Memorial High School, the biggest Catholic school in the Los Angeles area, it wasn’t against the rules to be gay — Rodriguez at one point checked the student handbook. But she knew not everyone on campus would approve of their relationship, so she said they didn’t go in for the typical high school public displays of affection.

What she said she didn’t expect was for school staff to single her out for her sexuality: She said she was forced into disciplinary meetings and counseling, barred from sitting next to her girlfriend at lunch, and kept under close eye by staff members. If she didn’t follow these rules — which didn’t apply to straight students in relationships — school officials threatened to out her to her parents, she said.

Rodriguez, a high school senior, tried to stay positive and get through it, but after more than three years, she was at breaking point. She was crying every day before school, her grades suffered, and spending time on campus brought intense waves of anxiety. So she decided to speak up — first to her parents and now publicly.

“I really don’t want it to happen to anybody else,” she told BuzzFeed News.

When Rodriguez’s parents heard their daughter’s story, they pulled her out of the suburban LA school known locally for its academics and sports programs. But in spite of its impressive reputation, the way school staff treated the teen was wrong, her mother said.

“They took it upon themselves to parent our daughter, to counsel her, to lecture her,” Martha Tapia-Rodriguez said.

School officials and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles didn’t respond to specific questions, citing student privacy. But a spokesperson disputed the Rodriguezes account, saying it was not “entirely accurate.”

All students are held to the same standards outlined in the Parent/Student Handbook, a school statement said, and Bishop Amat does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, disability, medical condition, sex, or national and/or ethnic origin.

“Any student who is involved in a relationship may socialize appropriately on campus,” the statement said. “However, as stated in the Parent/Student handbook, engaging in excessive displays of affection on campus is not permitted.”

Rodriguez began coming out to friends in middle school, and by the time she started ninth grade, she was dating a sophomore girl. They were the only out couple in the 1,300-coed student body, and while Rodriguez said she knew the Catholic teachings about homosexuality, she initially trusted people would judge her based on who she was, not just her sexuality.

“I was surrounding myself with people that were really involved in their religion, but still accepting,” she said. “So I never thought there was anything bad about it.”

In the second semester of her first year, she said she and her girlfriend were called into separate meetings with their deans of discipline. At first, Rodriguez said she was confused; she’d never been in trouble at school before.

Her dean said there had been complaints about the relationship, it couldn’t happen at school, and it was wrong, Rodriguez said. The teen said she also received a set of rules: No sitting next to her girlfriend at lunch and no meeting up during breaks. The meetings with the dean of discipline would continue, as would sessions with the school psychologist, and staff would be keeping an eye on them. If she followed the rules, Rodriguez said she was told, the school wouldn’t tell her parents.

At that point, she was still figuring out how she wanted to come out to her family. She was scared, so she and her girlfriend agreed.

“We both walked out of that meeting just sobbing,” Rodriguez said.

A few months later, during summer school, the girls were waiting for a ride home when a staff member came up to them. She began berating them, Rodriguez said, telling them they were going to hell, and that she was working to get them expelled. The staff member only left them alone to avoid Rodriguez’s father, Rodriguez said.

The next two years, Rodriguez said she tried to treat her experiences at school as if they were normal. She and her girlfriend attempted to joke to each other about their situation, even as they cried every day before class and when they were summoned to disciplinary meetings. Other students who hadn’t come out noticed, opting to transfer schools or stay in the closet after hearing about what Rodriguez and her girlfriend dealt with, she said.

“We were really afraid on campus,” she said. “We didn’t hold hands, we hardly hugged or anything.”

And they were constantly being watched, Rodriguez said. She recalled a teacher staring them down during a class picnic, even as a straight couple made out nearby. Once, Rodriguez said she dared to move from across the table to sit next to her girlfriend at lunch. A teacher immediately came over to them, taking a position an inch or two away, she said.

“They just had the teachers staked out,” she said.

A friend of Rodriguez’s, Crystal Aguilar, told BuzzFeed News the effect these interactions had on Rodriguez was immense. The girls became friends in middle school, then attended different high schools.

“I [saw] her attitude towards school change drastically. It went from her being motivated to learn and be at school, to her dreading every day she’d go,” Aguilar said. “Her sadness because of it overtook her at times.”

Always proud of her ability to smile through difficult situations, Rodriguez said the daily stress had fully caught up to her when her senior year began in August. She and her girlfriend had broken up, and the older girl — who couldn’t be reached for comment — and other friends had graduated.

Rodriguez’s grades had dropped, and though a bookworm in the past, she was no longer excited to learn and said she felt uncomfortable interacting with teachers who were also keeping watch over her. She’d spend the school day sad and full of anxiety, then come home feeling drained.

“I thought to myself, I don’t know how much longer I can go,” Rodriguez said.

She knew her parents had also seen the change in her, so she penned a letter, revealing to them for the first time what she had been experiencing.

“I’m not OK,” Rodriguez said she wrote. “And I’m not OK being in this type of environment that’s supposed to be lifting me and encouraging me.”

The letter was shocking to her parents, who weren’t surprised she was gay but by how she said she was treated by the school.

“It sounded like a suicide letter,” her father, Nicolas Rodriguez, said. “It was a huge cry for help.”

The way gay and lesbian students are treated at Catholic schools varies across the US, said Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry. The LGBTQ Catholic group offers resources for teachers and administrators, as well as parents on the church’s positive teachings. Simply put, the church says being gay or lesbian isn’t considered a sin, though sexual activity between people of the same sex is, he said.

“Mostly, it says we have to accept people,” he said.

But high schools’ written policies often avoid the issue, and while surveys have shown most Catholics support marriage equality, critical voices can end up being the loudest in a church community, he said. Still, LGBTQ Catholics deserve the support of schools and parishes, he said.

“As a baptized Catholic, they belong to the church community,” DeBernardo said. “They have gifts they can offer to the church community, but unfortunately, not all church community members are going to recognize that.”

It’s reasonable for a Catholic institution to take a stand against sexual activity outside of marriage, he said. But that shouldn’t mean a different set of standards for LGBTQ students, such as who they can take the school dances.

“They should handle it the way they handle any student in a relationship,” DeBernardo said.

Rodriguez is now set to finish the year at another local high school. For the first time in years, she said she feels like she can breathe.

“I wouldn’t be proud if I got a diploma from Bishop,” she said. “What they showed me about what they stand for and their true values isn’t what they really live up to.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Francis, the Revolutionary, Takes On the Traditionalists

A three-week conference that prioritized the environment highlights a culture war in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis leads a Mass to close a three-week synod of Amazonian bishops at the Vatican, October 27, 2019.

By

Pope Francis has helped open the door to allowing married men to become priests, albeit in just one region of the Amazon for now. He has made environmentalism a major focus of his papacy. Yesterday he gave a shout-out to Greta Thunberg and thanked journalists for doing their jobs, rather than calling them enemies of the people. He’s decried income inequality and nationalism and spoken out on behalf of gay people, Muslims, immigrants, and the poor.

This pastoral approach has made him one of the clearest and most humane voices crying out in the wilderness today. Has it also made him a revolutionary?

Yesterday, Francis wrapped up a month-long synod, or meeting of bishops, at the Vatican dedicated to the Amazon, a region the bishops called “a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence.” Their list of recommendations to the pope is nothing less than an environmentalist manifesto, in which they recommended that destroying the environment should be considered a sin. (Their requests are nonbinding but set a tone; Francis said he will try to respond to them before the end of the year.)

The bishops also asked Francis to lift the 1,000-year-old ban on priestly celibacy to allow married men who are already ordained as deacons to become priests in some areas of the Amazon. There, a priest shortage means the faithful can go for long stretches without receiving Communion and other sacraments that only priests can deliver. This could very well revolutionize the Church worldwide. If a door opens in one country, it might open in another. (Or it could be limited to the Amazon.)

Francis’s method, and the method of the synod, is one of listening and reflection, then some consensus, and charting a path forward through discernment. The path Francis has been taking, though, leads directly into a larger culture war, one that pits progressives against traditionalists.

And so the synod offered ample opportunity for Francis’s many vocal critics—including conservative Catholics in the United States, who are intertwined with the political right—to accuse the pope of breaking orthodoxy and watering down Church doctrine, such as the bishops’ recommendations to allow more room for indigenous traditions in Catholic ritual. These critics also see Francis’s papacy as flirting dangerously with paganism, pantheism, and even Marxism, because they view the pope’s emphasis on attending to the poor as often at odds with the exigencies of global capitalism.

The environment was the central focus of the meeting. In their final document, the bishops warned of the risks of deforestation, which they said now put almost 17 percent of the Amazon forest in danger, and also of the displacement of indigenous groups because of the deforestation. “Attacks on nature have consequences for the lives of peoples,” they wrote.

They defined what they called “ecological sins of commission or omission against God, against one’s neighbor, the community and the environment.” They called these “sins against future generations … manifest in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment, transgressions against the principles of interdependence and the ripping of network of solidarity among creatures and against the virtue of justice.”

In practical terms that means better coordination in the region for advocacy against environmental catastrophes, such as toxic spills related to mining, Bishop David M. De Aguirre Guinea, one of two special secretaries overseeing the synod, said at a news conference yesterday. “This has become part of the social doctrine of the Church, taking care of our common home,” he said.

Francis set the Amazon as the theme for the meeting three years ago, long before the devastating fires that swept through the region in August, the result of targeted deforestation to clear farmland. “The fires brought the thing home to us in a way that graphs or other visuals didn’t,” Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit and the other special secretary behind the synod, said. “If we insist on tearing up the trees and digging up the land because we can’t live without the metals and the gold and the wood for our fancy furniture, you can fill out the rest.”

Czerny is one of 13 new cardinals whom Francis appointed this month and who will one day elect his successor, the clearest way any pope shapes the future of the Church. Czerny, for instance, runs a Vatican office dedicated to migrants and refugees at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and his promotion is a clear sign of the importance Francis places on migration.

The pope also appointed other cardinals from the global South, making the College of Cardinals less white and less Italian. (One of the constant tensions of the Catholic Church is that it’s a global community of a billion souls governed at the top by an Italian village.)

Francis isn’t the first pope to open the door to some married priests. A decade ago, his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, created a special structure to allow married Anglican priests to join the Catholic Church. It was aimed at attracting Anglicans distressed by that Church’s ordination of women and gay priests, and it infuriated the then–Archbishop of Canterbury.

For the synod, Francis and the bishops framed the issue of married priests as stemming from a ground-up desire from some communities in the Amazon, not a top-down rule imposed by Rome, Alberto Melloni, the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, told me. “It’s not a revolution,” he said. “It’s a late remedy to an evident call.”

The bishops didn’t vote to allow women to be ordained as deacons, but Francis, in his concluding remarks yesterday, said the Vatican would study the role of women in the early Church. “Women put out a sign that says, ‘Please listen to us, may we be heard,’ and I pick up that gauntlet,” the pope said to applause.

Francis also gave a special mention to Greta Thunberg, who has already become a kind of Joan of Arc for her time, and drawn no shortage of hatred—this month, police removed an effigy of Thunberg that had been hung from a bridge in Rome. In his concluding remarks yesterday, the pope spoke about the recent climate strikes by students around the world. “We’ve seen the demonstrations of young people, Greta and others, and they walk around saying ‘The future is ours, you can’t gamble with our future.’”

In one of the stranger sideshows of the synod, a handheld video circulated on a traditionalist Catholic website showing unidentified men removing several wooden figurines representing an Amazonian fertility figure from a Roman church and tossing the statuettes into the Tiber from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, lined with statues of angels and saints, against a perfect Roman sunrise. Some of Francis’s critics, such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, seized on the video, and called the statuettes tantamount to idolatry. “The great mistake was to bring the idols into the church, not to put them out,” Müller said in an interview with an American conservative-Catholic TV channel, EWTN.

Francis, as bishop of Rome, apologized to his fellow bishops for the vandalism, and one of the statuettes was on view in the synod hall during the pope’s concluding remarks. A Mass today ending the synod included indigenous peoples from the Amazon. Francis’s approach to indigenous rites is “a very profound characteristic of the Jesuit missionary attitude,” Melloni told me, in which the Jesuits would try to convert native populations to Catholicism while also respecting the native traditions. “These rites express a culture and not a religion,” Melloni said.

But for Francis’s many critics, the statuettes, and the pope’s posing for photos in a feathered headdress, were further signs that the pope was watering down Church doctrine. These critics tend to be defenders of Benedict, a brainy disciplinarian who advocated a smaller, more doctrinally pure Church, rather than a more flexible and inclusive one.

“This synod is truly the most politically correct meeting of all time. It’s a relief that Greta Thunberg has not yet been chosen to be a cardinal,” Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of the Netherlands wrote in a blog post translated by LifeSite News, a conservative Catholic website that has been fiercely critical of Francis. “Is there anyone left who is actually worried about saving souls? But isn’t that why Christ died on the cross?”

“The bishops and cardinals are discussing the environment, the rise of the sea level; they are saying that above all, we should listen. They speak like politicians, using the same slogans, the same cheap rhetoric,” Mutsaerts wrote. Why? he asked. “It is not the specialty of the Church, it is not our core business and it is not our perspective.”

In the culture war between traditionalists and progressives over the future of the Church, the pope may be on the progressive, inclusive side, but his traditionalist critics have access to social media, which has an outsize influence in shaping perceptions. “We have a small, noisy minority and a large silent majority,” Melloni told me. “The noisy minority is struggling, with a certain success, to represent themselves as half of the Church, and they are not. They’re not even half the College of Cardinals, not even half the episcopate.”

In short, the Catholic Church on Twitter may not be the same as the Catholic Church writ large. Francis seems confident that he has the latter on his side, but will his efforts—on married priests, on environmentalism—spread beyond the Amazon?

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Pope Francis Is Fearless

His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.

“It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” Pope Francis said in September.

By John Gehring

The Rev. James Martin, one of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, is a best-selling author, film consultant to Hollywood producers and a prolific tweeter with a digital pulpit that reaches more than 250,000 followers. Father Martin is also a hero to many L.G.B.T. Catholics for challenging church leaders to recognize the full humanity of gay people. His advocacy has made him a target of vicious online campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia last month warned that Father Martin “does not speak with authority on behalf of the church.”

But this week, Father Martin’s ministry received an endorsement from the most authoritative of church offices. Pope Francis met with the priest, a Jesuit like the pope, during a private, half-hour conversation in the pope’s library, a place often reserved for discussions with heads of state and diplomats. In a tweet, Father Martin said he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of L.G.B.T. Catholics and L.G.B.T. people worldwide.”

There is little doubt Pope Francis wanted the meeting advertised. Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, a London-based conservative magazine, tweeted that the pope’s meeting was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”

Despite that hyperventilating, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is not afraid of the small but increasingly vocal chorus of American critics who consider his pastoral efforts to reach out to L.G.B.T. people and divorced Catholics as near heretical breaks from church tradition. In September, a reporter asked Pope Francis about his right-wing critics in the United States. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” the pope told Nicholas Senèze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope,” which chronicles efforts by conservatives in the United States to undermine the pope.

The pope’s meeting with Father Martin did more than serve as a signal of support for the priest’s advocacy on behalf of L.G.B.T. people. It was also emblematic of the Francis papacy, which has been a consistent rebuke to a style of culture-war Christianity that since the ascendance of the religious right in the United States during the 1980s has often been the default setting for American Christianity in politics.

Father Martin told a conference on families that gay Catholics are sometimes “treated like dirt.”

Since his election six years ago, Pope Francis has modeled a different brand of moral leadership: engaging and persuading, reframing contentious issues away from narrow ideologies and expanding moral imaginations. Last week, a gay theologian and priest who was dismissed from his religious order for expressing disagreement with the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships wrote that Pope Francis called him two years ago, gave him “the power of the keys,” a reference to being restored to ministry, and encouraged him to “walk with deep interior freedom, following the spirit of Jesus.”

The pope’s interior freedom and humility stand in stark contrast to other religious and political leaders on the world stage. When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” In keeping with that megalomania, Mr. Trump surrounds himself with compliant evangelical courtiers like Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, who view the president in messianic terms, a political savior. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Jeffress this week, citing the pastor’s claim on Fox News that if the president is impeached, it will cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

Pope Francis rejects this resurgence of Christian nationalism and warns against idolizing politicians.

As right-wing populists from the United States to Europe depict migrants as menacing threats and build walls, the pope continues to challenge what he calls a “globalization of indifference.” On Sunday, during a special Mass for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis unveiled an artistic monument to migration in St. Peter’s Square. The work depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling by boat, a powerful visual counterpoint to the nativist winds blowing across both sides of the Atlantic.

And unlike the loudest anti-abortion voices on the Christian right who are so wed to the Republican Party that they ignore assaults on life inflicted by policies that exacerbate economic inequality, poverty and climate change, the pope insists that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb.

Culture warriors in the United States have done enough damage to our collective political and moral imagination. More intoxicated with power than faithful to the gospel, these religious leaders demonize L.G.B.T. people, turn their back on migrants fleeing danger and ignore the cries of the poor while claiming to defend Christian values. A humble but persistent pastor in Rome reminds us there is a different path for those of us who still believe in a faith that seeks justice.

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Pope Francis May Not Change the World. But He Is Reshaping the Church.

Pope Francis at the Vatican in September. In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, he will create 13 new cardinals who reflect his pastoral style and priorities.

By

Pope Francis and his push for openness — toward migrants, Muslims and gay people — may no longer have influence on a global stage where nationalists, populists and the far right dominate the political conversation.

But inside the church is another story.

In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, Francis will create 13 new cardinals who reflect his pastoral style and priorities on a range of issues, including migration, climate change, the inclusion of gay Catholics, interreligious dialogue and shifting church power away from Rome to bishops in Africa, Asia and South America.

The appointments are a landmark for Francis, who now reaches a tipping point of influence to shape the future church in his image. After Saturday, Francis will have named more than half of the voters within the College of Cardinals, where a two-thirds majority of those under the age of 80 are required to elect his successor.

The longer Francis lives, the more his pontificate matters.

“The longer it lasts, the more there will be cardinals in the spirit of Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who will be one of those made a cardinal this weekend.

Francis has by now made his agenda abundantly clear. Unlike his predecessors, who cracked down on dissent and promoted bishops and cardinals who emphasized fealty to church doctrine, Francis wants an inclusive church that welcomes back into the fold Catholics who felt geographically, pastorally and ideologically alienated. That mission has earned him the enmity of church conservatives, especially in the United States, who feel he is diluting the church’s teaching for the sake of a cheap embrace.

Francis will be 83 in December, and given his age, he has from the start of his papacy six years ago approached the role with a certain urgency, often acknowledging his own mortality.

Though his voice does not seem to carry as far in the world as it once did in an era of populist and right-wing politics, his effect within the church may be lasting.

“The longer it lasts, the more there will be cardinals in the spirit of Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who will be made a cardinal on Saturday.

By appointing cardinals and more than a thousand bishops on the front lines of the faith, Francis is reconstituting a church in his image. It is one that decentralizes power from Rome to the bishops around the world, that is willing to work through the challenges of the modern world together with other faiths, and with atheists.

While liberal critics argue he has not moved fast enough to reform the church — especially when it comes to the role of women — his supporters note that he is at the least willing to talk about and reconsider church policy on married priests, and its stance toward homosexuality and celibacy.

More concretely, he has reshaped the College of Cardinals, making it less white, less Italian and less representative of the Roman curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church.

Instead, he has looked to the church’s newer franchises. He has made it more Latin American, Asian and African. The new appointees among the cardinals will include prelates from Morocco, Indonesia, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And tellingly for a pontiff with a tense relationship with conservative opponents in the United States, he has again passed over America’s traditional feeder schools for the College of Cardinals, especially those occupied by conservatives.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a vocal critic of Francis, reached the retirement age of 75 in September without receiving a cardinal’s red hat. He is not expected to be asked to stay on for much longer.

Conservatives in the powerful American church have argued that Francis’ emphasis on pastoral openness is eroding the doctrine of the faith.

His backers say that at least he lets them speak out, and that under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his conservative predecessors, theological critics were censored.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, right, a vocal critic of Francis, reached the retirement age of 75 this week without receiving a cardinal’s red hat.

Francis has instead moved them out of power, ignored their complaints and mostly shrugged off their threats to break away.

“I pray that there are no schisms,” he said last month. “But I am not scared.”

Archbishop Hollerich, 61 and a Jesuit, like Francis, is president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union and is one of the church’s most vocal opponents of nationalism.

When it comes to Francis’ vision, he and his fellow new cardinals, “follow the same line,” he said.

He said that Francis was clearly against the traditionalist efforts to restore a Catholic society separate from the world. The attempts by his opponents to slow Francis down, he said, would backfire.

“The more he gets attacked,” Archbishop Hollerich said of Francis, “the more free he becomes.”

The day after Francis elevates the new cardinals, he will inaugurate a major meeting of bishops on the subject of the Amazon.

One of the major questions is whether to allow older married men with grown children and a strong standing in the Church — known as “viri probati” or proven men — to join the priesthood and administer sacraments to Catholics in remote areas that hardly ever see a priest.

Some conservatives worry it is a step on a slippery slope toward undoing priestly celibacy.

One of those running the conference on the Amazon is the Rev. Michael Czerny, 73, a Czech-born Canadian Jesuit that Francis will make a cardinal on Saturday.

Father Czerny, a close collaborator of Francis, declined to talk about the substance of the Amazon synod, except to say that “everything is on the table.”

But broadly speaking, he said the result of a College of Cardinals shaped by Francis was a willingness to take up difficult issues “in a way, in a style, in a spirit” consistent with the Second Vatican Council.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s spurred a spirit of openness in the church.

That landmark meeting of the world’s bishops in the 1960s spurred a spirit of openness in the church. It re-examined issues like its liturgy, the language in which people pray and priestly celibacy, which is not a question of doctrine but of church tradition dating back nearly 1,000 years.

But that opening triggered a backlash from conservatives that has lasted nearly a half-century.

Now, speaking about the possibility of ordaining married men, Archbishop Hollerich said if bishops in one part of the world say they need it, “I think the universal church should consider that request.”

While he personally considered celibacy a “great gift” for the priesthood, he added, that “does not mean it should be perhaps the only way.” He said he was far from alone in such views.

And Francis elevated other bishops considered open to change.

Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, 64, is the only new Italian cardinal in a college Italy once dominated. His grand uncle was a cardinal once considered a candidate for pope, but the archbishop takes after Francis, dedicating much of his time to the poor.

In 2015 the pope chose him to replace Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in Bologna, a stalwart of Catholic conservatism who publicly doubted Francis’ teaching.

Archbishop Zuppi has come under criticism from the conservative wing of the church for writing an introduction to a book about reaching out to gay Catholics. On Monday, Francis infuriated those conservatives by granting a private audience to the book’s author, the Rev. James Martin, who later said the meeting showed Francis’ “deep pastoral care for L.G.B.T. Catholics.”

In an interview, Archbishop Zuppi said the pope’s new cardinals showed that Francis wanted a “missionary” church that “doesn’t close in on itself.”

The new cardinals, he said, will help the church live “in our present.”

What he and the other cardinals do now will be critical for success in the future, which the church believes lies in Africa, Asia and South America, where the competition with evangelical Christians is fierce. Francis, history’s first South American pope, has consistently sought to elevate cardinals in the global south.

Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, 64, is the only new Italian cardinal in a College of Cardinals once dominated by Italians.

“The pope wants to give his priority to the peripheries,” Bishop Fabien Raharilamboniaina of Madagascar said in Antananarivo, the capital, where Francis appointed a cardinal last year. “Because this is the future of the church.”

Francis’ visit to Africa, like much of his recent travel, has generated less interest than his earlier trips. Archbishop Zuppi acknowledged that Francis was perhaps having less effect on the global stage.

“The pope is often, unfortunately, not listened to” in the secular world, he said. “This is a problem.”

But he argued that Francis’ influence may be more long term than immediate.

Father Czerny did, too. He said that while the pope stayed committed to his core issues, as the unveiling of a new sculpture of migrants in St. Peter’s Square attested, on a global scale it was hard to see Francis’ impact.

The problems the world faced required a grass-roots mobilization that the pope led among his flock of 1.3 billion, he added.

On the issue of climate change, for example, he said churches around the world had heard the pope’s message and were changing their behavior, whether it be recycling or planting trees or saving water.

“There is more good news than appears,” he said.

But the spiritual realm remains the one where Francis has the most influence. Some analysts suggested he would change as much as he could in the church while he held office, given that, no matter how many cardinals he appointed, there was no guarantee that the next pope would follow in his footsteps.

Some of the new cardinals hail from a much more conservative African and Asian culture.

“It’s not automatic that a conservative College of Cardinals elects a conservative pope or vice versa,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican expert. “Francis was elected by cardinals who were appointed by two conservatives like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

Even Father Czerny, who gets his own vote next week, agreed.

“The person who is elected by the last conclave chooses the people who are probably going to be the majority of electors in the next one,” he said. “This has happened for 2,000 years and the popes don’t all turn out the same. As we’ve noticed.”

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