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”
John Henry Newman, a renowned scholar-priest and Britain’s most famous 19th-century convert to Catholicism, was beatified in 2010 amid rampant speculation that he was gay. Newman’s feast day is Aug. 11 in the Anglican church and Oct. 9 in the Catholic church.
Newman and another priest, Ambrose St. John, lived together for 32 years and share the same grave. Some say they shared a “romantic friendship” or “communitarian life.” It seems likely that both men had a homosexual orientation while abstaining from sex. Newman described St. John as “my earthly light.” The men were inseparable.
Newman (Feb. 21, 1801 – Aug. 11, 1890) is considered by many to be the greatest Catholic thinker from the English-speaking world. He was born in London and ordained as an Anglican priest. He became a leader in the Oxford Movement, which aimed to return the Church of England to many Catholic traditions. On Oct. 9, 1845 he converted to Catholicism. He had to give up his post as an Oxford professor due to his conversion, but eventually he rose to the rank of cardinal.
Ambrose Saint John (1815 -1875) apparently met Newman in 1841. They lived together for 32 years, starting in 1843. St. John was about 14 years younger than Newman. He compared their meeting to a Biblical same-sex couple, Ruth and Naomi. In Newman’s own words, St. John “came to me as Ruth came to Naomi” during the difficult years right before he left the Anglican church.
After converting together to Catholicism, they studied together in Rome, where they were ordained priests at the same time. When St. John was confirmed in the Catholic faith, he asked if he could take a vow of obedience to Newman, but the request was refused. Newman recalled their early years in this way:
“From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable. At Rome 28 years ago he was always so working for and relieving me of all trouble, that being young and Saxon-looking, the Romans called him my Angel Guardian.”
A portrait of Newman and St. John together in Rome was painted by Maria Giberne, an amateur artist and a lifelong friend of the Newman family who followed him into the Catholic church. She painted the couple sitting together with their books in one of their rooms at the Propaganda College in Rome on June 9, 1847. Standing between them is Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, who appears to be blessing and watching over the priests who loved each other.
St. John, a scholar and linguist in his own right, helped Newman with his scholarship and shared other aspects of daily life as if they were a couple in a same-sex marriage. John Cornwell, author of Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, told National Public Radio that St. John’s support for Newman included “even doing things like packing his bags before he went away, making sure he was taking his medicine, making sure he kept dental appointments, that sort of thing. So it was almost like a wife, but without the marital bed.”
They lived together until St. John died on May 24, 1875. He was only about 60 years old. According to a memorial letter written by Newman himself, St. John died of a stroke that “arose from his overwork in translating Fessler, which he did for me to back up my letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” Newman needed a translation of the German theologian Joseph Fessler’s important book in the wake of the First Vatican Council.
In the memorial letter Newman goes on to describe their dramatic last moments together, including how St. John clung to him closely on the bed and clasped his hand tightly. Newman, unaware that his beloved companion was dying, asked others to unlock his fingers before saying the goodbye that turned out to be their last.
Newman was heartbroken by the loss of his beloved partner. “I have always thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that anyone’s sorrow can be greater than mine,” Newman wrote.
He insisted three different times that he be buried in the same grave with St. John: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave — and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote, later adding: “This I confirm and insist on.”
Newman died of pneumonia on Aug. 11, 1890 at age 89. According to his express wishes, he was buried with St. John. The shroud over his coffin bore his personal coat of arms with the Latin motto, “Cor ad cor loquitur” (Heart speaks to heart), which he adopted when he became cardinal. Their joint memorial stone is inscribed with a Latin motto chosen by Newman: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.”(Out of the shadows and reflections into the truth.”) They share a small grave site in the central English town of Rednal.
During the beatification process, the Vatican tried to violate Newman’s desire to be buried with his beloved companion. Vatican officials hoped to excavate and move his remains to a specially built sarcophagus in Birmingham in preparation for his beatification. Controversy arose as some LGBT activists saw the decision to disturb the shared grave as an attempt to separate them and cover up the queer side of Newman’s life. However when the grave was opened in 2008, the remains had completely decomposed, leaving nothing that could be separated.
Newman’s legacy is wide-ranging. Because Newman was an excellent scholar, Catholic centers on U.S. college campuses are named after him. Newman tells his own story in his acclaimed spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua . He is known for writing the poem “The Dream of Gerontius” and the popular hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”
His theology of friendship and his emphasis on conscience are both significant for LGBT people and allies. Although the Catholic church tends to frown on special friendships among priests, nuns or monks, Newman taught, “The love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men.” He preached, “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate our intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”
Terence Weldon at Queering the Church explains how Newman’s teaching on conscience laid the groundwork for LGBT Christians today. “As a theologian, Cardinal Newman played an important role in developing the modern formulation of the primacy of conscience, which is of fundamental importance to LGBT Catholics who reject in good conscience the standard teaching on sexuality – or the high proportion of heterosexual couples who reject ‘Humanae Vitae,’” Weldon writes.
This post is illustrated with icons of Newman by Robert Lentz and William McNichols. Both artists faced controversy for their alternative and LGBT-affirming images.
Newman is honored by Catholics on Oct. 9, the anniversary of his 1845 conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Naturally Anglicans chose a different date for Newman’s feast day — the anniversary of his death on Aug. 11.
With beatification, Blessed Newman is now only one step away from official sainthood. He is already a saint in the hearts of many, including the LGBT people who are inspired by his life and love.
His name is invoked in an official Catholic prayer:
O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman
the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church;
graciously grant that, through his intercession and example,
we may be led out of shadows and images
into the fulness of your truth.
Author’s note: I decided to write this comprehensive piece about the love between Newman and St. John when I discovered that it had not been done yet on the Internet from a LGBT-positive viewpoint. I was one of many bloggers on both sides who wrote about whether Newman was gay at the time of his beatification, citing a few facts. I thought I would just do a quick update to focus on his achievements and his relationship with St. John.
But as I got into the research, I was surprised both by how compelling their love story is, and how hard it was to find an overview of their relationship on the Internet. Details of their deep love for each other are available on the Web, but mostly on websites that aim to prove they were not homosexual. It’s odd how they end up supporting the very point that they are trying to discredit. So I put it all together from a queer point of view.
In the most recent episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation podcast The Current, hostess Anna Maria Tremonti spoke with former seminarian and Vatican expert Robert Mickens who said, “There are a large number … of people in the priesthood and in religious life who have homosexual orientation,” adding “What you end up having are a lot of self-loathing, homophobic homosexuals in the priesthood.”
The Vatican and entire Catholic priesthood are apparently very, very gay
Mickens himself chose to leave the seminary when he fell in love with a fellow male seminarian. He lived in Rome at the time, and spoke to Tremonti about what he saw when he started going to Rome’s gay nightclubs and hotspots:
“Starting to go to gay places, you know, clubs and the beach … and I was running into all kinds of priests and even seminarians, people who worked at the Vatican. Gay bathhouses, I’d meet priests there. I met people who are bishops today. I pity these people because I know they must live double-lives. I don’t know how they do it. I think people end up self-destructing.
“I know a number of priests who have partners or who have ‘special friends’ from various stages of platonic to full-blown almost husband-and-husband relationships. The church and certainly the Vatican is certainly a homoerotic place. Take a look or walk through the Vatican museums. It’s all genitalia all over the place….
“And look at the rituals, the young men who sing at these things — it’s all men up there. The bring out the pretty ones, you know. Look at the bishops, look at who their secretaries are — it’s always the pretty one. And they’re blind to it. There’s nothing going on, but it’s eye candy; they love surrounding themselves. They wear dresses for God’s sake.
“In the Vatican, it’s basically as long as you’re discreet, you don’t get caught. But once you do, you’re all on your own. We’re not going to help you.”
According to Tremonti, a 2002 poll by The L.A. Times revealed that 15% of American priests identify as gay or “somewhere in between leaning on the homosexual side” — 23% of younger priests identify the same way. However, she also said that many gay priests that she has talked to say that the percentage is much higher, as high as 70%.
Mickens thinks the church wants to keep homosexuality a taboo so that “those pious young men” will continue to think of priesthood as a noble profession rather than simply as way to live a gay life. He also says that if the church began openly accepting its gay clergy and laymen, it would lose a great deal of support from its larger worldwide ministry. Put another way, the power of homophobia fuels the church, even though large numbers of homosexuals help run it.
Here’s the podcast where Mickens talks about the Vatican’s gay priests:
The story of a closeted Vatican insider who stood up to its homophobia
In the same podcast, Krzysztof Charamsa, a gay defrocked Polish priest (pictured in the featured image at top) said, “The Catholic Church is the principal political agency of homophobic position in the world. Very powerful.”
From 2003 until 2015, Charamsa worked as a senior add at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that writes and enforces Catholic rules. For most of his time there, his boss was Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinal who would later become Pope Benedict XVI (or as we liked to call him, Papa Ratzi), a pope who issued numerous statements against LGBTQ people including one calling them “intrinsically disordered” and calling homosexuality an “inherent moral evil.“
When asked of his opinion about the church’s stance on homosexuality, Charamsa (who was painfully closeted and still working at the Vatican) affirmed its goodness and then privately cried in his office afterwards.
He eventually fell in love with a man from Barcelona named Eduard. “When I discovered that I love this man,” Charamsa told the podcast in broken English, “I think ‘You must say who you are.’ For us there was no possibility to double-life. For me, for my partner, it was impossible.”
Charamsa’s friends recommended against his coming out in fear that it would jeopardize his career, financial stability, pension and influential standing in the church, but he came out in October 2015 anyway, introducing his partner to international journalists. During the announcement, he slammed the Vatican for its “paranoid homophobia” and apologized for his own complicity in the church’s demonization of gay people.
Though he issued his resignation, the Vatican formally fired and defrocked him soon after. He lost his pension, his status and is now forbidden from teaching in any Catholic university. He has since become an advocate for LGBTQ rights and Catholic reform. He also says that living with Eduard in Barcelona has helped him understand the love of family, feeling that people now love him completely because he is whole.
However, in his home country of Poland, Charamsa says, Catholic homophobia looms large, making LGBTQ people and even his family (who sometimes get ridiculed for his famous coming out) miserable. He recently appeared in Article 18, a documentary about Poland’s refusal of same-sex marriage.
Though he appreciates that the current Pope has encouraged Catholics to embrace LGBTQ people rather than demonize them, Charamsa says, “If the Church can’t make a serious, scientific reflection on homosexuality and include it in its teachings, even the Holy Father’s openings and warm words on gays are empty.”
Gay sex is a sin. The New Testament makes that abundantly clear.
Or does it?
According to one of the UK’s most prominent evangelicals, if Christian scholarship engages with archaeological evidence from the rediscovered ancient city of Pompeii, much of St Paul’s teaching on sexuality must be radically reinterpreted.
In a new online video for the Open Church Network, Revd. Canon Steve Chalke argues that by studying the remains of Pompeii, and understanding the ancient Roman world’s highly sexualised culture, we can find new meaning in chapters such as Romans 1, which have traditionally been misinterpreted to condemn same-sex relations.
Revd. Canon Steve Chalke says, “For too long the remains of Pompeii have been little known to members of the general public, but when the chance to examine them is taken, it becomes abundantly clear that in ancient Rome, sex was everything. 80% of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum is sexually explicit and also reveals a fascination with the image of the stiff, erect penis – a symbol of power and pleasure. This is the context into which the New Testament was written.
“If you were a man in Roman culture, so long as someone was your social inferior – a slave, a gladiator, a woman etc. – it was considered socially acceptable and respectable to penetrate them. A married man would have a mistress for pleasure and a non-Roman boy for ecstasy. They called these people ‘infames’; those utterly lacking in social standing and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law. There is also much evidence that Roman women also engaged exploitative sex – typically with female slaves, gladiators or male castrated slaves – whose testicles had been removed or rendered inoperative, so that they could not produce sperm and lost their desire for sex but still had the ability to perform it. Juvenal, the poet, tells us that bored Roman women took these eunuchs as lovers.
“So engrained was this way of thinking and behaving that it became incorporated into religion. Drug and alcohol fuelled orgies featuring men sleeping with women, men sleeping with men and women sleeping with women and men were even classed as acts of worship.”
Chalke argues that against this backdrop, verses such as the often quoted Romans 1 v 27 (“In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error”) should be understood to condemn the power-driven sexual hierarchy and abuse so common to Roman life, with the rest of the chapter condemning their sex-driven approach to worship and idolatry.
“Every Christian believes God to be a God of love. It is no wonder that these abusive practises are condemned by inspired scripture. But, it is a disingenuous misreading of the text to conclude that what Paul describes in Romans 1 can be used to prevent people forming loving, faithful and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex.”
The video, containing graphic images that were discovered in Pompeii, which also deals with the three other passages in the New Testament that have traditionally been used to condemn any kind of homosexual activity or even orientation has been released and is available at openchurch.network.
Chalke continues, “The content of the video is so graphic that we’ve had to place a parental warning label on it – however I have not released this out of any desire to provoke or shock for the sake of it. Because of widespread ignorance of the ancient world and Greco-Roman culture in churches across the West, we throw Bible verses around without understanding their context. We misunderstand Paul’s criticism of rituals that exploit power and abuse people and then, out of ignorance, use them to try to prevent people of same-sex orientation from finding loving, committed and fulfilling partnerships and of entering into, what I believe is, the holy institution of same-sex marriage. For the Church, the Bible is the corner stone of faith and practise. It is time we took it more seriously. The Church has a duty to use every tool of modern scholarship available in this task.”
The ancient city Pompeii was buried – although not, as we now know, destroyed – when the nearby, supposedly extinct, volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, covering it and the nearby town of Herculaneum and their inhabitants in many tons of pumice and volcanic ash. Although the disaster remained in people’s minds for many years it was eventually forgotten, until the exploration of the ancient site started in 1748.
However, work to excavate the city still continues today and it is only in relatively recent years that there has been sufficient public access to allow the findings to influence theological and cultural scholarship.
Biblical arguments for LGBTQ rights and a queer Jesus may seem like new ideas, but they were pioneered about 200 years ago by an influential British philosopher — in writings that were published only recently.
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) presented Biblical evidence for Jesus’ homosexuality as part of his theological defense for same-sex love in “Not Paul, but Jesus Vol. III.” It was published for the first time in 2013 and is freely available to download or view online. He died on June 6, 1832.
Bentham didn’t dare publish it during his lifetime because he feared being labeled a “sodomite” himself. At the time “buggery” was punished with death by hanging in England.
This champion of sexual freedom was far, far ahead of his time. “Not Paul, but Jesus” lays out many of the same arguments that are still used today by LGBTQ
Christians and our allies: debunking the scriptures typically used to condemn LGBTQ people and pointing out that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Bentham goes on to present an idea that many still consider blasphemous. He suggests that Jesus had male-male sexual relationships.
Bentham wrote the book so long ago that the word “homosexuality” had not been invented yet. Instead he has a chapter titled “The eccentric pleasures of the bed, whether partaken of by Jesus?” His language may sound quaint, but his ideas are right on target for today. Bentham himself struggled with words for what we call homosexuality, deliberately creating new vocabulary so he could avoid the negative connotations associated with the terminology of his day (sodomy, buggery, perversion, etc.).
Bentham is best known as the founder of Utilitarianism, a philosophy that advocates “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” A respected thinker during his lifetime, Bentham was also far advanced on a wide range of other legal, economic and political issues. He coined the word “international.” He was one of the first proponents of animal rights. He supported women’s equality and opposed slavery and capital punishment. He corresponded with various world leaders, including US presidents Jefferson and Madison. Several South and Central American nations sought his advice in creating their constitutions and legal codes. Born and raised in a devout Anglican family in London, he became an agnostic who believed that religion was an instrument of oppression. His solution was separation of church and state.
In the third volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus Vol. III,” Bentham corrects false interpretations of what would later come to be called the “clobber passages.” He identifies the sin of Sodom as gang-rape. He puts the sexual prohibitions of the Hebrew scriptures into historical context, pointing out that many of the other taboos are no longer enforced.
Bentham dismisses Paul’s condemnations of homosexuality as an asceticism not shared by Jesus himself. He sees romantic love between Old Testament heroes Jonathan and David — and possibly between Jesus and his beloved disciple John, noting that the Bible reports their loving touch without condemnation.
Bentham goes on to analyze the account in Mark’s gospel of “the stripling in the loose attire” (now usually known as “the naked young man”) at the arrest of Jesus — a passage that continues to fuel 21st-century speculations in the LGBTQ community. He urges readers to consider the most “probable interpretation” for the nakedness. (In a different manuscript he made it clear that the youth was probably a male prostitute loyal to Jesus.) Bentham even hints that Jesus was killed for homosexuality, asking readers to consider what interaction with a naked man could be “so awful” that it leads to cruel execution.
Pro-LGBTQ Christians today often note that Jesus never said anything against homosexuality. Bentham makes the same point in his own elaborate way, with sentences such as: “In the acts or discourses of Jesus, had any such marks of reprobation towards the mode of sexuality in question been to be found as may be seen in such abundance in the epistles of Paul—in a word, had any one decided mark of reprobation been so to be found as pronounced upon it by Jesus, in the eyes [of] no believer in Jesus could any such body of evidence as hath here been seen [to] present itself be considered as worth regarding.”
Indeed Bentham’s main purpose in all three volumes of “Not Paul, but Jesus” is to show the error in following the ascetic Paul instead of the true Christianity of the more tolerant Jesus, who accepted the human pursuit of pleasure. This concept is introduced in the first volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus” was published in 1823. Fearing hostile reactions, Bentham used the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith. The second volume, which deals with the early church, and the third volume, which focuses on sexual morality, remained unpublished.
Bentham wrote more than 500 pages explaining his liberal views on homosexuality during the last 50 years of his life. Some of these documents may have circulated among his followers, but none of it was published during his lifetime.
The first Bentham writings on homosexuality to be published were primarily secular. His 1785 essay “Offences Against One’s Self: Paederasty” is considered the first document arguing for decriminalization of homosexuality in England. He reasoned that consensual sex between same-sex partners should not be punished because it does not harm anyone. The essay was not published until 1931, when a fragment first appeared in print. The full essay was finally published in 1978.
Only now are Bentham’s writings on Jesus and homosexuality coming to light. The third volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus” was not published in any form until 2013. It was released last year by the Bentham Project at University College London, which counts him as its spiritual father.
A section on “Jesus’s Sexuality” is also included in the 2012 article “Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism” by Philip Schofield, director of the Bentham Project. He draws on the “Not Paul” book and another set of manuscripts to draw powerful conclusions such as this:
Bentham claimed that, unlike Paul, Jesus did not, according to any account that appeared in the four Gospels, condemn either the pleasures of the table or the pleasures of the bed. On the contrary, Jesus’s opposition to asceticism was shown in his condemnation of the Mosaic law in Matthew 9: 9–17…. Bentham pointed out that Paul’s most forceful condemnation was directed towards homosexuality. Bentham responded that not only had Jesus never condemned homosexuality, but that he had probably engaged in it. There were, moreover, many females in Jesus’s immediate circle, and again Bentham saw no reason why Jesus might not have engaged in heterosexual activity as well.
Although Bentham doggedly defended consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples for half a century, his own love life remains a mystery. The son of a wealthy lawyer, he was a child prodigy who grew up to be a brilliant and eccentric recluse, living alone in London in what he called “a state of perpetual and unruffled gaiety.” He referred to his home as his “hermitage.” He lived there with a “sacred teapot” called Dicky, a favorite walking stick named Dapple, and a beloved tom cat addressed as the Reverend Doctor John Langborn. He declared, “I love everything that has four legs,” and allowed a colony of mice to share his office. One study concludes he had Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Check this link for an 1827 description of Bentham’s eccentricities.
The philosopher’s influence continued to grow after his death as his supporters spread his ideas. Most of what is now known as liberalism is rooted in Bentham’s philosophy. His diverse followers included economist John Stuart Mill and feminist firebrand Frances “Fanny” Wright, who once exclaimed in a poem, “Oh had I but the Lesbyan’s lyre, / Blue-eyed Sappho’s fervid strain, / Then might I hope thy blood to fire…”.
Contemporary queer theologians such as Robert Shore-Goss have recognized him too. Shore-Goss writes a section about Bentham in the chapter on “Christian Homodevotion to Jesus” in his book “Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up.”
During his 84 years Bentham wrote manuscripts totaling more than 5 million words, and many remain unstudied and unpublished. The Bentham Project is busy recruiting volunteers worldwide to transcribe them. More words of wisdom are likely to emerge from this prophet of LGBTQ rights who once summed up his approach to life by saying: “Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.”
The word “pilgrimage” usually evokes visions of far-off, exotic places, but for some 100 gay and lesbian Catholics and their families, a pilgrimage to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart here on a recent Sunday was more like a homecoming.
The doors to the cathedral were opened to them, and they were welcomed personally by the leader of the Archdiocese of Newark, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin. They were seated on folding chairs at the cathedral’s center, in front of the altar in the towering sanctuary, under the blue-tinted glow of stained glass.
“I am Joseph, your brother,” Cardinal Tobin told the group, which included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”
The welcoming of a group of openly gay people to Mass by a leader of Cardinal Tobin’s standing in the Roman Catholic Church in this country would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But Cardinal Tobin, whom Pope Francis appointed to Newark last year, is among a small but growing group of bishops changing how the American church relates to its gay members. They are seeking to be more inclusive and signaling to subordinate priests that they should do the same.
“The word I use is ‘welcome,’” Cardinal Tobin said in an interview just before the Mass last month. “These are people that have not felt welcome in other places. My prayer for them is that they do. Today in the Catholic Church, we read a passage that says you have to be able to give a reason for your hope. And I’m praying that this pilgrimage for them, and really for the whole church, is a reason for hope.”
Four years ago, Pope Francis amazed the Catholic world with his comment about gay priests seeking the Lord: “Who am I to judge?” But it was unclear how his words would affect Catholics seeking acceptance in the pews.
After all, the church teaches in its catechism that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Men who “present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture” are not to become priests, according to Vatican instructions renewed in 2016. Catholic bishops in America have strongly opposed same-sex marriage. More than 100 employees of Catholic institutions across the nation have lost their posts in the past three years for being gay or for marrying a same-sex spouse, according to Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization of Catholics that advocates equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
But gestures like Cardinal Tobin’s are evidence that Pope Francis’ words are having an impact. Bishops now have latitude to focus on the more inclusive parts of the church’s catechism on homosexuals, such as the call to accept them with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” They can follow the principle of accompaniment, meaning they can meet people where they are spiritually and build relationships that help them deepen their faith.
“It’s the beginning of a dialogue,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to and is an advocate for gay Catholics. “The church leadership, for the past 40 years, has just been so silent, and unwilling to dialogue, and unwilling to pray with L.G.B.T. Catholics that, even though this isn’t the ultimate step, it’s a first step,” he said of Cardinal Tobin’s welcome.
Some church conservatives were wary, however. The problem, they said, was not the idea of welcoming — after all, Jesus welcomed all — but that the public embrace of such a group could be interpreted as the church’s acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle, which church teaching bans.
“Everyone is welcome in the church, but no one is accepted as they are,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, a professor of ethics at Opus Dei’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “While I am delighted that they went to Mass in the cathedral, I hope that Cardinal Tobin challenged them, as all good shepherds should, to live according to the teachings of Jesus.”
But Cardinal Tobin said in an interview last week that to combine his welcome with a criticism would not have been a full welcome at all.
“That sounds a little backhanded to me,” he said. “It was appropriate to welcome people to come and pray and call them who they were. And later on, we can talk.”
Showing just how sensitive the simple act of welcome could be, he said that after the Mass he had received a fair amount of visceral hate mail from fellow Catholics. Someone was even organizing a letter-writing campaign to call on other bishops to correct him.
“And there’s a lot to correct in me, without a doubt,” Cardinal Tobin said. “But not for welcoming people. No.”
Individual parishes across the country have for decades had ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics. But more traditional forces prevailed among the church hierarchy, guided by a 1986 Vatican letter written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, that warned against any acceptance of homosexuality.
Gay Catholics became among the most marginalized groups in the church. After the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., last June, for example, only a handful of American bishops made public statements of support for the gay and lesbian community that had been targeted.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, said he found the bishops’ silence revelatory. He has written a book calling for small steps forward that was released on Tuesday, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the L.G.B.T. Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.”
In it, he calls on church leaders to show respect by using terms like “gay” and “L.G.B.T.,” instead of phrases like “afflicted with same-sex attraction.” He also argues that to expect a sinless lifestyle from gay Catholics, but not from any other group, is a form of “unjust discrimination” and that gay people should not be fired for marrying a same-sex spouse.
“Pretty much everyone’s lifestyle is sinful,” Father Martin said. “Unless the Blessed Mother shows up in the communion line, there is no one sinless in our church.”
Across the country, there have been recent glimmers of openness that would not have been possible under previous popes, Mr. DeBernardo said.
The diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., for example, said last month that it would permit transgender students in its Catholic schools. In October, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego held a diocesan synod on the family that called for improved ministry toward gay and lesbian Catholics. At a New Ways Ministry national conference in April, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., said he admired and respected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who remained steadfast to the church even though the church had not always been as welcoming.
Both Cardinal Tobin and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for laity, family and life, who was appointed by Pope Francis, wrote positive blurbs for Father Martin’s book. Cardinal Farrell, who was previously the bishop of Dallas, wrote that he thought it would “help L.G.B.T. Catholics feel more at home in what is, after all, their church.”
But Cardinal Tobin’s welcome to Mass on May 21 has been the most significant of such recent gestures, because of the symbolism of a cardinal welcoming a group of gay Catholics, some of whom were married to same-sex spouses, to participate in the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the center of a cathedral, no questions asked.
The “L.G.B.T. pilgrimage” was organized by gay ministries within the Church of the Sacred Heart in South Plainfield, N.J., and the Church of the Precious Blood in Monmouth Beach, N.J. It stemmed from a conversation between David Harvie, of the South Plainfield parish group, and the Rev. Francis Gargani, a Brooklyn priest who, like Cardinal Tobin, belongs to the Redemptorist order, and took the idea to him.
Though Cardinal Tobin left soon after greeting the Mass attendees, citing a previous engagement, eight priests concelebrated it with Father Gargani. The group was also welcomed by the rector of the cathedral, Bishop Manuel Cruz, who told the people that the cathedral doors were always open to them “because we are children of God and our identity is that we all belong to him.”
Many of those in attendance were moved to tears.
“It felt like a miracle,” Ed Poliandro, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Manhattan and a clinical social worker. “It was a miracle to have church leaders say, ‘You are welcome; you belong.’ And I felt, after a lifetime of struggle, that we are home.”
Cardinal Tobin’s predecessor in Newark, Archbishop John J. Myers, emphasized the immorality of homosexuality during his tenure, supporting, for example, the 2016 dismissal of a dean of a Catholic high school in Paramus, N.J., for marrying her lesbian partner. So Cardinal Tobin’s welcome to Mass was particularly powerful for those there from his own diocese.
“He brought Francis to us,” said Thomas M. Smith, 66, a deacon who serves the deaf community at the Newark cathedral. “I’ve been waiting 25 years for this. I’m a deacon in the church, and I’ve had to be careful. And afraid.”
He teared up, remembering how his parents had died thinking he would go to hell if he found someone to love. “This is amazing to me,” he said.
In light of the proposed Catholic Synod in 2020, there is an issue that, if not included, may prove to be a fatal flaw for the current church hierarchy.
By Stephen de Weger
As distasteful as it may be, having now been dragged through the public square of the royal commission, unless the Synod faces up to another plank in the Church’s own eye, that of clergy sexual activity and misconduct involving adults, its hopes may well be dashed before they are even discussed.
Such sexual activity may be perceived in many ways. While it may be seen as a deeply human and spiritual expression of love between a celibate and an understanding other, it has also been described and experienced as ‘mistakes’ or ‘experiments’ on the journey to celibacy; the repercussions of mandatory celibacy; professional sexual misconduct; sexual/indecent assault; or simply spiritual and power abuse.
Regardless of how it is perceived, sexual activity between clergy and adults happens, and must be addressed. Not only does it happen, but research has shown ‘clerics are more likely to engage in sexual misconduct with adults than minors’.
One reason Catholics found the reality of child sexual abuse a difficult pill to swallow was that for decades its reality was kept secret to avoid scandal. Canonical prohibitions, cover-ups, media boycott threats, and even inter-cleric blackmail ensured the public never heard of clergy sexual activity in any form.
Even if there were suspicions, few had the language with which to name and discuss, as Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea describes in her 2004 paper Psychosocial Anatomy of the Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal, ‘priests raping nuns, priests living with paramours, priests masturbating regularly, priests dying of AIDS, priests sodomising children, priests soothing their loneliness in the arms of beloved women or men’.
Furthermore, such discussion was taboo. But then came the sexual revolution and Vatican II, not to mention a less ‘frightened’ media.
In 1992, psychologist to clergy, Sheila Murphy, wrote a little known book titled A Delicate Dance: Sexuality, Celibacy and Relationships Among Catholic Clergy and Religious. The introduction was written by Donald Goergen of The Sexual Celibate fame.
“The sexual revolution and Vatican II was a release from ‘parental control’ resulting, for many, in the sudden emergence of full-blown psychological adolescence with all its risk taking, uninhibited experimentation and lack of a fully developed sense of responsibility.”
One of the conclusions Murphy reached from the stories of her 236 female and 97 male clergy/religious participants was that the sexual revolution of the 60s, along with the ‘window opening’ of Vatican II, played a part in an increase of clergy sexual activity with adults, resulting in spikes of such activity in the 70s and 80s.
The sexual revolution and Vatican II was a release from ‘parental control’ resulting, for many, in the sudden emergence of full-blown psychological adolescence with all its risk taking, uninhibited experimentation and lack of a fully developed sense of responsibility. As a result, of those who did not leave the clerical life, many without developed internalised scaffolding either slid into such adolescent liberalism or, collapsing under new adult demands of freedom, retreated into reactionary conservatism. Others grew up and adopted new ways of being ‘celibate’. Clergy sexual misconduct is found in all three groups. Furthermore, most victims of this misconduct are still living today, but remain unacknowledged; and most have never spoken up about their experiences.
Every graph portraying clergy sexual abuse of children shows a spike in the 70s and 80s. This spike is to be expected given time spans of research, the age of victims, and the new openness towards reporting. My own study of clergy adult abuse, however, showed the same spiking.
While much more research is needed, and while acknowledging the reality of severe under-reporting, I suspect that the spike in my study is related to the sexual revolution and Vatican II reforms, as Murphy suggests. To simply dismiss this possibility out of fear of being perceived as conservative or lacking in compassion militates against a possible fuller understanding of this whole issue.
One cannot simply ignore the reality that in this period, society, including the Church, underwent a sexual ‘diaspora’ from centuries of centralist control and policing. A severe pendulum-swing away from previous restrictions could only be expected and many clergy fully participated in that swing. But what did we swing into?
According to the gospel of sexual revolutionaries, writes Murphy, ‘freedom from sexual hang-ups was the answer to all society’s ills … good sex would lead to instant intimacy; good sex would alleviate loneliness; good sex would eliminate interpersonal tensions’. How could this new social psychology, supported by such secular saints of sexual liberty as Kinsey, Masters and Johnston, and Hite, not be attractive to many clergy who had lived under the repressions of Victorian and Vatican sexuality?
The issue is that even though the revolution was needed, many forever-adolescent clergy at the time fell also into the outstretched arms of the emotional promises of sexual promiscuity, laced strongly with sexualised spirituality, or spiritualised sexuality, propelled by a ‘love and then do as you please’ mantra, because, after all, ‘God is love’. Sadly, according to victims/survivors of clergy sexual misconduct, this new unintegrated liberal mantra too often also became the major ‘pickup’ line that many a misconducting cleric used for grooming, or as a way of justifying their experimenting.
What the Church and almost everyone has up to this point ignored is that for every sexually active cleric there was and is another person involved. These real women and men have been, too often, cast aside as collateral damage; as ‘mistakes’ or ‘experiments’ of clergy on their journey to, or indeed, rejection of celibacy; their versions of what occurred rarely, if ever, validated or included in the discussion.
Now that the bishops have been forced by royal commissions and media exposure to deal with the reality of clergy child abuse, they can not ignore that of adult abuse. Unless the Church — its hierarchy, clergy and religious, conservative and liberal, gay and straight, and what’s left of the laity — spends some effort now to remove the plank from its own collective eye, any attempt of the 2020 synod ‘to stop the drift, revive hope and set a vision‘ is going to be ignored.
Richard Sipe, the former priest who spent 25 years studying the sexual behavior of the Catholic clergy, appears in “The Keepers,” the Netflix documentary series about the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnick and the monstrous abuse of some of her students by the chaplain of a Baltimore high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sipe is the bearded fellow with the cool eyeglasses in Episode 4.
A Benedictine monk and priest for 18 years, Sipe came to Baltimore to study counseling at the old Seton Psychiatric Institute. He left the priesthood at 38 and married a former Maryknoll sister. He practiced psychotherapy in Maryland before moving to California with his wife in the late 1990s. He has written six books and contributed to numerous documentaries on the celibate priesthood and sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. He estimates that he has reviewed more than 1,500 cases and provided expert testimony in 230.
Sipe famously helped the Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of widespread abuse by priests in Massachusetts. In “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Globe’s investigation, the actor Richard Jenkins plays Sipe – or at least his voice, by phone – telling reporters that his lengthy study of priests found that six percent of them had had sex with children. Sipe provided the Globe Spotlight team with guidance throughout its lengthy investigation.
So he’s an old hand at this. He’s heard a lot of stories and told many.
Sipe found credible Wehner’s story, including her claim, made some 25 years after Cesnick’s murder, to have been taken by Maskell to see the slain nun’s body in a secluded, wooded area. Sipe believes Wehner and other victims can repress their memories of traumatic experiences for years.
And while repressed memory is still a debated concept in psychiatry, his embrace of it is not what made Sipe prominent and controversial. Rather, it was his research and his published findings about the abuse of minors by priests, accompanied by his criticism of celibacy, that brought Sipe to public attention and earned him the ire of Catholic hierarchy.
He argued then, and argues now, that child sexual abuse by the clergy should be addressed as part of an examination of celibacy, which, he says, stunts the psychological development of priests, leaving them emotionally unprepared for the celibate life.
“Don’t say we have celibacy,” he corrects me during an interview. “We have only a rule of celibacy. We have a large number of priests who claim celibacy but who do not practice it. And 6 to 9 percent of priests are involved with minors sexually.”
When Sipe first made that disturbing claim years ago, church officials criticized him and some, he says, told him to shut up about it. He says he was invited, then disinvited, to sit on a Maryland state council on the abuse of minors.
“I was blackballed,” he says. “Bishops wouldn’t have anything to do with me.” Among his critics was the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, one William E. Lori, now the archbishop of Baltimore. “Mr. Sipe’s approach is not helpful,” Lori told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. “It’s an approach that is anti-celibacy. He seems to relate the tradition of celibacy to sexual immaturity. Celibacy is not the problem.”
But it is, insists Sipe, now 84.
A five-year study in Australia, he says, supported his findings. And a comprehensive study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, published in 2004, confirmed his original estimate of the percentage of American priests involved with minors. The study found, he says, that more than six percent of priests ordained between 1960 and 1984 were alleged to have had sex with children. A longer look, from 1950 to 2002, found 10,667 children allegedly victimized by 4,392 priests. Half of their victims were found to have been between 11 and 14 years of age; about 80 percent of them were male.
Sipe had seen the scandal that rocked the church coming.
In his 1990 book, “A Secret World,” he described a system in which church officials held celibacy as an ideal, yet ignored violations. Priests who had an interest in women were advised to “take a housekeeper.” Priests who abused children were routinely recycled, moved from parish to parish by superiors, their problems never addressed. Those who went after children, Sipe argued, had been locked into an adolescent stage of development.
Over the last three decades, the Catholic Church has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by thousands of victims, male and female, around the world. Popes, cardinals and bishops have apologized numerous times for the church’s complicity in the offenses of priests. And yet, for Sipe, the condition that fostered the abuse of minors, celibacy, remains in place.
“I said it in 1992,” he says. “I knew enough by then. I said, ‘The problem we’re looking at is the tip, and if we follow it to its foundation, it will lead to the highest corridors of the Vatican.”
But still? Hasn’t an epic lesson been learned from all this?
“I’m convinced we’re not past it,” Sipe says. “People have sexual impulses that they have to deal with, and the church doesn’t deal with them. Church leaders hold up celibacy, as if it is some kind of ideal, as if it is even possible.”
And what if the Roman Catholic Church were to do away with the all-male, celibate priesthood?
“I think it would lead to a flourishing,” Sipe says. “I think we would see a renewal of men and women committed to the priesthood. We have nuns with advanced degrees ready to step in . . . The danger is, it will upset the power structure. The resistance would come from the established male hierarchy; they don’t want to give up power and entitlement.”
Still, Sipe believes, there will come a day for the married priesthood. “The Catholic religion will evolve,” he says. “The church will not prosper without woman and marriage in the priesthood.”
It seems like this election season “religious liberty” is a hot topic. Rumors of its demise are all around, as are politicians who want to make sure that you know they will never do anything to intrude upon it.
I’m a religious person with a lifelong passion for civil rights, so this is of great interest to me. So much so, that I believe we all need to determine whether our religious liberties are indeed at risk. So, as a public service, I’ve come up with this little quiz. I call it “How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions.” Just pick “A” or “B” for each question.
1. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing.
B) Others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing.
2. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage.
B) Some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.
3. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am being forced to use birth control.
B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.
4. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am not allowed to pray privately.
B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.
5. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse.
B) I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.
6. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or material.
B) Others are allowed to have access books, movies and websites that I do not like.
7. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause.
B) My religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.
8. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country.
B) My own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.
9. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community.
B) A religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.
10. My religious liberty is at risk because:
A) I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home.
B) Public school science classes are teaching science.
If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality — not your superiority.
If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.
In closing, no matter what soundbites you hear this election year, remember this: Religious liberty is never secured by a campaign of religious superiority. The only way to ensure your own religious liberty remains strong is by advocating for the religious liberty of all, including those with whom you may passionately disagree. Because they deserve the same rights as you. Nothing more. Nothing less.