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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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’.”
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.”
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.
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.”
As we inch toward Christmas, it’s no surprise to hear that Americans are miserable. Any amount of time spent in line at a Target as the holiday approaches will swiftly reveal that we’re a mess. Not only has our happiness been steadily declining since the 1970s, we feel more physical pain than citizens of other nations. Seventy-two percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction our country is going in, and between anxiety disorders, depression, social phobias, OCD and PTSD, millions of Americans navigate every day in a sea of mental illness.
On top of this, women in America are alternating between relief at the outing of sexual harassers in the #MeToo movement, rage at the patriarchal thinking that enabled the problem in the first place, and worry about the inevitable backlash. And American religious institutions have their own miserable reckonings to contend with. When Boston’s Cardinal Law died this week, victims of clergy abuse expressed both relief that one of its greatest enablers was no longer a danger, and frustration that his funeral, like that of every other Cardinal, would still be held in St. Peter’s Basilica, and that during the funeral, Pope Francis would deliver a blessing.
In this epoch of unhappiness, Pope Francis has delivered unto us a new book. Happiness in this Life, a series of snippets from his public addresses, is not the in-depth sort of theological tome he’s written along the lines of his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, or his encyclical on the environment, Laudauto Si. Instead, it’s the kind of book readers can pick up at random and pull bits and pieces from. Divided into subsections with titles like “Your Search For a Meaningful Life” and “They Who Pray Live Serenely,” this is Francis in pastoral mode rather than theological mode.
For American readers, however, the question of whether we even know how to be happy remains. And books like this also beg the question of whether or not religion can make us happy in the first place. Gen Xers like myself have increasingly turned away from institutional religions like Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and evangelical churches, and the Millennial and post-Millennial cohorts have done the same thing at even higher rates.
The often-quoted Pew survey on Nones from 2012 revealed that people who leave religion behind do so because American religion is “too concerned with rules” and “too tied up in politics.” Politics, and the rules of politics, have especially made us miserable lately, and our obsessive scrolling through news feeds and social media to keep up with the latest political disasters isn’t making us feel any better. Twitter use is correlated with greater rates of anxiety, and Facebook contributes to depressive mind states.
So what does the Pope tell us to do in order to be happier? Mostly, it involves praying more. To be fair, Francis’ emphasis on the marginalized comes through even in his ideas about happiness. Of the Beatitudes, which tell us the most blessed are those who suffer most, Francis says that these sayings of Jesus “are a new and revolutionary model of happiness that contradicts what is usually communicated by the media and prevailing wisdom.” For Americans trapped in a capitalist cycle of thoughtless consumerism, Francis offers some advice. “According to this worldly logic, those whom Jesus proclaimed blessed are regarded as useless, as ‘losers.’ On the other hand, success at any cost is glorified, as are creature comforts, the arrogance of power, and self-absorption.”
Francis, never shy about his critiques of capitalism, also writes that our suffering might be bound up in our notions of what liberation really means. “In our existential journey,” he writes, “there is a tendency to resist liberation; we are afraid of freedom and, paradoxically, we unconsciously prefer slavery.” In his Christian world view, this is bound up in notions about this life versus the “world without end” referenced in the Catholic Doxology. “Slavery, on the other hand, reduces time to a single moment: It severs each moment from both the past and the future, and that makes us feel safer. In other words,” he adds, “slavery prevents us from truly and fully living in the present, because it makes our past empty and cuts off our future, separates us from eternity.”
But a great deal of this book is about relationships. Joy, the pope tells us, doesn’t come from material possessions but from “encounter,” a word he often uses to talk about what the church should be doing. His Jesuit background means that Francis has both spent much of his life living in community, and that he comes from a religious order with a strong missionary background, one that goes “to the margins,” as he often repeats. But this book is not cut and pasted from his addresses to his fellow Jesuits; rather, most of these talks were given at events like World Youth Day or meetings on family life.
Francis, single and celibate, has a lot of advice for families. Marriage, for example, “is a way to experience faith in God, mutual trust, profound freedom, and even holiness.” The family of Jesus is there to “help us rediscover the mission and purpose of family.” None of this is earth-shattering advice, and in a country like America with such high divorce rates on the one hand and increasing numbers of people in interfaith and same-gender marriages on the other, very few of the families around us look a Christmas crèche.
Strawberries on a theological cake
Francis devotes an entire chapter to “The Blessings and Challenges of Womanhood.” His statement that “the role of women in the Church is more than maternal, more than being the mother of a family,” gets us off to a good start, but the repeated emphasis on John Paul II’s notion of a “feminine genius” is where the trouble begins. How can a woman be happy when her worth is reduced to her “feminine” qualities?
Women have a “special attention” that we “bestow on others” often “expressed in maternity.” “A woman who cares for every aspect of her family life,” Francis says, “is making an incomparable contribution to the future of our society,” but women are also “weary and nearly crushed by the volume of their many duties and tasks.” History, he says “is rife with an excess of patriarchal cultures,” yet in the same sentence he condemns the use of surrogate mothers. And there is a danger, according to the pope, that women who are emancipated “ignore the precious feminine traits that characterize womanhood.”
Complementarianism is often given props in Francis’ talks on the role of women in both the church and family. Men and women are “made very differently,” and therefore, we should beware of “machismo in a skirt.” And women should “try not to be angry” because it’s been proven that we are the “champions,” not men. What would solve the problem of women’s oppression would be a “profound theology of women,” but just a year ago, Francis reiterated that the door to women’s ordination remains closed. So is this profound theology of women therefore supposed to come from men?
A friend jokingly referred to this chapter of the book as “Popesplaining,” but in any patriarchal institution, the silencing and disempowering of women goes beyond rape and physical sexual harassment and into women being interrupted, treated contemptibly, or iced out of decision-making processes. Women in Argentina, Francis’ home country, have condemned its culture of machismo, which they say is connected to a rise in everything from street harassment to domestic violence to women being set on fire, chopped up, and shoved into garbage bags. Argentinian feminists even have a word for this continuum of male violence against women. They refer to it as femicido, or femicide.
Complementarianism has also infected the American Catholic church, and it can be witnessed in the American bishops’ recent letter “Created Male and Female,” which tells parents of transgender kids that they should not “sow confusion and doubt” by allowing their trans kids to take hormones in order to “uphold the truth of a person’s identity as male or female.” And complementarianism in American Catholicism may have its patron saint in Paul Ryan, who says that the solution to a robust American economy is simply for women to have more babies, and even went so far as to mansplain Catholic social teaching to a nun.
Many American Catholics can’t forget either that American Catholic orders of religious investigated for “radical feminist themes” just a few years ago were all women’s orders, nor can we forget that the most prominent American theologians censured by the Vatican have also beenwomen. Yes, those investigations took place under the previous pope, but the root causes behind them—a fear and suspicion of women—remain seemingly intractably in place.
Many American Catholic women are very often unhappy. This past summer, I attended a conference on Catholic writing at the University of Notre Dame. The speaker list was full of women and the panels were full of women, many of them remarkably gifted writers with armloads of literary prizes. At the opening Mass for the conference, a visiting male bishop led the service, assisted by four male Holy Cross priests, two male altar servers, a male cantor and several male lectors. The optics, as we like to say, were not great.
But that is the church we belong to, and until we make the same decision many of our fellow Catholics have, shake the dust off, and depart, we will remain sitting unhappily in those pews in our unhappy parishes listening to unhappy homilies from unhappy priests. And like each of us standing in line at Target burdened by the amount of shit we buy in order to find happiness, we make a choice to stand in that line, and we make a choice to show up at church.
We choose our unhappiness. But in its decision to exclude women from serving as priests and in its insistence that, at best, women can be “strawberries” on a theological cake, the Catholic church also chooses unhappiness for us. And that is something no pope, no matter how happy he might be, seems to be willing to change.
My parents created a single view on the world for me through a Catholic lens. It was a narrow peephole that included Mass every Sunday, confession before Easter and Christmas, and don’t get me started on the fact that every time I asked my parents for help the answer was “go pray.”
As a child, this lens was clear, full of nightly prayers and Vacation Bible School. When I grew out of my training bra, I began to question Catholic teachings because the narrow lens didn’t seem fair to women. My perspective widened and feminism had all the answers.
The first frustration began when I discovered womanhood in the church boils down to being a wife or nun. To complete the seven sacraments and live fully Catholic, you must get married or work for the church. What if you don’t want to do either but still want to be a devout Catholic?
This causes single, gay and working women to feel like outsiders to their church. Women feel singled out by the church for being themselves and embracing a modern lifestyle. It seems unfair for women to be stuck in time and sacrifice who they want to be for the sake of outdated traditions. Or if you become a nun, you cannot rise to levels of power as men do in the church.
Women cannot be priests, bishops or cardinals. No, women can only aspire to be Mother Teresa and work tirelessly in the slums as a mother figure to the poor and needy. Meanwhile, men wear expensive white garments and heavily influence the Catholic population. As a result of men being in power in the church, updating women’s roles is irrelevant without women in power to represent the issue.
Essentially, the church is a boy’s club, but unlike politics there is no slow progress including women. Men are in charge, and without a woman’s perspective, they are incapable of realizing the misogyny within the church. The options for women in the church are few and serve as clear evidence of misogyny.
Catholic women are pressured to see motherhood as a rite of passage. The Virgin Mary best exemplifies this manifestation by being a virgin who birthed the son of God. She is evidence of the weight the church puts on motherhood. Again, there is an unescapable pressure for women to become mothers, which excludes gay Catholics, infertile women and career women.
Children mean a lot of different things, but for a woman they are always restrictive (blessings can still be restrictive). Historically, motherhood has been a women’s single role but now there are career women with fast paced lives. Women should be encouraged to embrace their talents and passions before having a child and shouldn’t be shamed for doing so. The church puts a high place on mothers (can’t blame ‘em, it’s tough being a mom!), but they need to consider that not all women want to be mothers, wives or nuns.
In addition, married couples are encouraged to have large families. In Jesus’ times, several children were relevant for subsistence living, but it has now become a financial burden to Catholics following outdated teachings to “embrace life.” Nowadays, to embrace life and having a few expensive pets will cost you approximately a quarter of a million dollars per kid. Yes, a child is more than a dollar sign, but realistically the church doesn’t account for the financial consequences of embracing life.
Indeed, fertility is a blessing, but selective fertility is being responsible and allowing room to map out a child’s success. Being pro-life is not about being prolific, but being able to provide the most concentrated energy into each life, such as providing the best academic and health opportunities.
Speaking of best health opportunities, abstinence is another outdated example of church teachings ruining modern generations. Corpus Christie, Texas exemplifies this best because the population of pregnant teenagers contributes to being a part of the highest in the nation. Of course, there are several factors to consider, but one is the majority of these young girls are Hispanic and Catholic. Hispanic Catholic households value traditions such as abstinence and often fall to ignorance on how to have a healthy sexual relationship.
The show “Jane The Virgin” best captures this Catholic culture within Hispanic families. Her strict Catholic Abuela teaches Jane Villanueva, the lead character, that her virginity is like a flower. Abuela makes Jane crush the flower, then Abuela tells her to make it perfect again, and when Jane can’t reshape it, Abuela tells her that after you lose your virginity you can’t be perfect again.
Jane’s mother had Jane at sixteen because Abuela’s flower scare tactic failed. The crushed flower image stays with Jane throughout her life and later struggles to be affectionate with her own fiancé. She waits until marriage and struggles to be confident in bed with her new husband. (SPOILER) When Jane is single again, she is handicapped to have a healthy sexual relationship and later admits her Abuela’s teachings greatly skewed the realities of sex.
It isn’t just Hispanic culture, but Catholic culture chooses to shame sex rather than be liberated with education and options. A culture that shames sex leads to ignorance and mistakes are a result. As I mentioned before, the Catholic lens is narrow and the consequence of maintaining this singular lens can lead to larger issues such as an unplanned pregnancy.
To be fair, the current Catholic Pope, Pope Francis, is turning heads by taking steps to modernize the church. Pope Francis has chosen to take a new approach on divorce, abortion, contraception and gay marriage thus making the church more inclusive despite traditionalist backlash. The appropriate alternative, for me, is full on feminism.
The lens of feminism allows you to clearly see that sex can be empowering when you’re given the knowledge to take control of your body and assert it how you see fit. “Your body, your choice” is much more than a chant at pro-choice rallies; it disregards all the decisions made for women’s bodies throughout history. Catholic history is what has trapped women. Historically, the Catholic lens puts modern women in these stagnant traditional roles under pressure of the church. On the converse, feminism is a broad and all around inclusive lens allowing women to write their own history.
Gregory Baum was one of Roman Catholicism’s outstanding theologians of the 20th century, who let the Holy Spirit – rather than the institutional church – direct his restless, curious mind and could never understand why it landed him so consistently in controversy, criticism and vilification.
He called himself “the first Catholic theologian who publicly defended the ethical status of homosexual love.” He was reputed to be the author – certainly he was involved with the production – of the Winnipeg Statement of 1968 that distanced Canada’s Catholic bishops from Pope Paul VI’s July 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, which prohibited artificial contraception.
Dr. Baum’s writing’s were accepting of liberation theology in the face of condemnation from the Vatican. He wrote on the works of tendentious Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan. He was one of the church’s most eloquent and uncompromising advocates for social justice and society’s marginalized groups. He authored articles and books sympathetically explaining Quebec separatism to anglophone Canadians.
Though he was born into a Protestant Jewish family, he was drawn to Catholicism and the seminary in his 20s. He later left active priesthood and, in 1978, married a former nun. His autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, published last year, revealed he was gay and had, in his 40s, a sexual relationship with a man.
“I did not profess my own homosexuality in public,” he wrote, “because such an act of honesty would have reduced my influence as a critical theologian.”
Indeed, throughout his adult life, he was one of the church’s great theologians on ecumenism, a fact that was noted in the citation when he was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. As one of the Second Vatican Council’s periti (expert theologians) in the 1960s, he wrote an early draft of Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) – “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” – that moved the church into the sunlight of accepting the unified spiritual goals of all humankind and especially the bonds between Christians and Jews, ending the church’s centuries-old branding of Jews as the killers of Jesus Christ.
He believed it was essential for the Catholic Church to change, to let power devolve from Rome. Well before the clerical sex-abuse scandal erupted, he diagnosed the church as “a company that becomes so big that it can’t be run any more.” Any management consultant, he wrote, would take one look at the church and would say, “This is simply impossible. You have to decentralize, you have to delegate. You need a different system.”
After studying for two years at New York’s New School for Social Research in the 1970s, he pioneered the introduction of sociology to religion, embracing the teachings and writings of political theorist Hannah Arendt and classical sociologists Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber among others.
At the core of his theological convictions – and explaining so much of what he did – lay the writings of the early-20th-century French philosopher Maurice Blondel. They led to what may have been his most important book, Man Becoming: God in Secular Language, assessing positively Blondel’s acknowledgment of God’s redemptive presence in human history.
God, in other words, existed in the nitty-gritty of life – an “insider God,” as Toronto’s Regis College academic Mary Jo Leddy explained Dr. Baum’s view. You fall in love? That’s God at work.
God was on the ground with grace – the benevolence shown by God toward the human race, the spontaneous gift from God to people, “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.”
As leading Canadian Catholic Church scholar Michael Higgins wrote of Dr. Baum six years ago, the embrace of Blondel’s thought “proved to be Baum’s Copernican revolution. Henceforth his writing, research, teaching, and activism would be shaped by Blondel’s views: his theological anthropology; his rejection of the church’s negative valuation of the secular; his belief in the ubiquity of grace.
“It was not a big step,” Dr. Higgins said, “from Baum’s adoption of Blondel’s inclusivity to his realization that God is mediated by all kinds of things besides the institutional church.” Not a big step for Dr. Baum, but a step many others could never take.
Dr. Baum died Oct. 18 in Montreal of kidney failure. He was 94. When he had entered hospital several days earlier, he told friends he was “disappearing inside.” Those, such as Dr. Leddy, who came from across Central and Eastern Canada to visit him in his last days found him sunny, genial and serene as death approached.
Blondel’s impact was the goalpost in the evolution of Dr. Baum’s thought – the finish line to the formal shaping of his mind. The whole journey of his life was an opening of his thought to God’s presence in history exhibiting an inclusiveness that outreached the writ of the institutional church.
Gerhard Albert Baum was born in Berlin on June 20, 1923, to Bettie (née Meyer) and Franz Siegfried Baum. His well-to-do Protestant father died early and his Jewish mother had a passion for medieval art and Gothic and Romanesque architecture, to which she introduced her son.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, she made the choice to send her 17-year-old son to England to escape persecution under the Nazi race laws. She never saw him again.
As a nurse, she became infected with pneumonia in the hospital where she worked and died during the war.
When he arrived, the teenager was interned by the British along with other German older teens and adults – many of them scholars who became volunteer teachers in the internship camps, which enthused him.
He was transferred in 1940 to an internship camp in Quebec. He came to the attention of a woman active in volunteer work who sponsored him to attend McMaster University in Hamilton, where he studied mathematics and physics.
He also began reading Catholic thinkers Thomas Aquinas and Étienne Gilson.who established the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at University of Toronto.
One Christmas he was given a gift of The Confessions of St. Augustine, the autobiography of the great Church Father detailing, among other things, his conversion to Christianity – and the young student was hooked. In the year he graduated from McMaster, 1946, he decided to enter the Augustinian religious order to become a priest. At this point he adopted the name Gregory.
After ordination, he was sent by his order to Switzerland’s University of Fribourg for graduate studies. Along the way he read a book on the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews and was appalled.
His dissertation, touching on the subject, was completed in 1956 and published two years later under the title That They May Be One: A Study of Papal Doctrine (Leo XIII–Pius XII).
The dissertation came to the attention of German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea and Dutch priest Johannes Willebrands, president and secretary respectively of the Vatican’s newly established Secretariat for Christian Unity. They admired the book, and Dr. Baum found himself appointed to the Secretariat, assigned to help prepare for the Second Vatican Council announced by Pope John XXIII in 1959.
Dr. Baum later told the story of Cardinal Bea, during the Council years, assigning his staff to guard their manuscripts until they got to the translators and were published, to save them from being snatched and their texts altered by church conservatives.
Nostra Aetate was easily one of the most important and – particularly with its section on the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews – one of the most controversial documents to emerge from the Second Vatican Council. It made Gregory Baum’s name as a theologian and confirmed him as a leading interpreter of the Council’s accomplishments.
It also established him as a clear spokesman and writer on the church in the modern world – a role which he carried out for five years, on Cardinal Bea’s instructions, travelling around North America giving talks on the Council’s work before taking up a professorship at University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
The church was unable to contain his application of Blondellian thought and roaming intellectual curiosity.
Michael Higgins wrote of him, “Baum defines himself not as a theological shaper or foundational thinker, but as a journalist following his curiosity wherever it leads him.
“To Baum, one should note, ‘journalist’ does not betoken a scribbler with a deadline, but rather someone inexhaustibly fascinated with ideas, intellectual trends, and currents.” In an interview, Dr. Higgins called him an experimenter and explorer.
University of Toronto’s Prof. Stephen Scharper, a scholar in anthropology, environment and religion who did his doctorate under Dr. Baum’s supervision, described his work as “being attentive to where the Spirit was calling him.”
It called him repeatedly into controversy and censure, from which Dr. Baum never flinched.
He was thunderously criticized by the church hierarchy and had restrictions placed on his teaching after publicly dissenting from the Vatican’s 1976 Declaration on Sexual Ethics, with its strictures against homosexuality.
He was censured for declaring that the church was not immune from the social and institutional toxins that infect other organizations.
He himself openly criticized the church governance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI – the latter who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s thought police (and whom Dr. Baum knew well as a fellow peritus at Vatican 2).
His frequent public speeches, to say the least, got up the nose of his superiors (his 1987 Massey Lecture explored liberation theology and its justifying biblical exegesis, much of which the Vatican considered Marxist).
Dr. Baum’s openness toward the ordination of women and gay marriage also made him a target for conservatives.
The mildest of his critics labelled him a dilettante driven by mere trendy nonconformism.
In the late 1970s, he was summoned by his Augustinian order under direction from Rome to return to the order’s monastery which he refused to do.
He eventually withdrew from active priestly ministry and accepted a teaching position at McGill University after reaching the then-mandatory age of 65 retirement at University of Toronto. In 1978, he married former nun Shirley Flynn. Her death in 2007 left him grieving her loss for the remainder of his life.
His departure from the priesthood was a mystery to many who knew him, until the publication of his 2016 autobiography revealed that he left the church because of his personal commitment to being gay.
Even before this revelation he had long been demonized by conservative Catholics for his writings and teachings. A 2012 interview on Catholic Salt + Light TV that he did with its chief executive, Rev. Thomas Rosica, generated hundreds of furious, outraged e-mails. “Yet Gregory was a very significant theologian of the Second Vatican Council,” Rev. Rosica said. “We owe much to him for his role in the decree of ecumenism and interfaith relations.”
Nouwen never directly discussed his gay sexual orientation in his published writings, but he confided his conflict over it in private journals and conversations. These are documented in his outstanding and honest 2002 biography Wounded Prophet by Michael Ford. Despite his loneliness and same-sex attractions, there is no evidence that Nouwen ever broke his vow of celibacy. He probably would have had mixed feelings about being included in this series on LGBTQ Saints.
His personal struggle with his sexual orientation may have added depth to his writing. “The greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection,” he said.
Although Nouwen is not an officially recognized saint, his “spirituality of the heart” has touched millions of readers. Nouwen’s books have sold more than 2 million copies in over 22 languages. He emphasized relationships and social justice with core values of solitude, community and compassion.
Nouwen was born in the Netherlands on Jan. 24, 1932. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1957 and went on to study psychology. He taught at several theological institutes in his homeland and in the United States, including the divinity schools at Harvard and Yale.
In 1985 he began service in Toronto, Canada, as the priest at the L’Arche Daybreak Community, where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. It became Nouwen’s home until his sudden death in 1996 at age 64. He died from a heart attack while traveling to Russia to do a documentary.
Henri Nouwen and Christ the Bridegroom
The icon of Nouwen at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBTQ-positive icons. During his lifetime Nouwen commissioned Lentz to make an icon for him that symbolized the act of offering his own sexuality and affection to Christ.
Research and reflection led Lentz to paint “Christ the Bridegroom” for Nouwen in 1983. It shows Christ being embraced by his beloved disciple, based on an icon from medieval Crete. “Henri used it to come to grips with his own homosexuality,” Lentz explained in “Art That Dares” by Kittredge Cherry. The chapter on Lentz includes this icon and the story behind it. “I was told he carried it with him everywhere and it was one of the most precious things in his life,” Lentz said.
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.
Henri’ Nouwen’s spiritual vision
Nouwen gave the gift of his spiritual vision to generations of readers. He encouraged each individual to find their own mission in life with words such as these:
“When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian.” — from “The Wounded Healer”
“My hope is that the description of God’s love in my life will give you the freedom and the courage to discover . . . God’s love in yours.” — from “Here and Now: Living in the Spirit”