Last month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a measure that could prohibit President Biden, a devout Catholic, from receiving communion. Conservative bishops do not wish Biden to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the USCCB, was a strong supporter of the measure, but he has resigned due to allegations of “serial sexual misconduct,” as reported in The PIllar, a Catholic publication. Burrill was allegedly using Grindr for sex hookups, which goes against Catholic priests’ vow of celibacy.
Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”
Calling it “obviously a scandal” that a cleric would use location-based hookup apps, Berg said there is “a real disconnect between the appearance of a man who presumably is earnestly striving to live the life of chastity, when it becomes glaringly evident that he is dramatically failing at that because he’s gone to hookup apps to look actively for sexual partners — that itself is an enormous scandal.”
As Upworthy points out, you’d think Monsignor Burrill would have more empathy toward President Biden:
Burrill appears to be an even bigger hypocrite because the USCCB has opposed LGBTQ equality, same-sex adoption, and the development of an LGBTQ suicide hotline. It has also promoted anti-trans legislation.
It always seems to be that the religious folks who judge the harshest always wind up having something to hide. It’s a shame that Catholics such as Burrill are forced by doctrine to live their lives in the shadows. But shouldn’t that make them more compassionate towards fellow sinners instead of the first to judge?
This year, like every year for the past 20, Szymon Niemiec will wear a rainbow-colored stole at the Equality Parade in the Polish capital of Warsaw on June 19. “I won’t have a banner because I will be leading the entire parade. I can’t keep my hands full,” says Niemiec. The 43-year-old has seemingly contradictory roles — one as a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and the other as a priest, in a country where church and government are united in condemnation of and hostility towards the LGBTQ community.
Niemiec organized Poland’s first Equality Parade in Warsaw in 2001, which drew a crowd of 300 people. Each year, the crowds have grown bigger (with the exception of the 2020 parade, which was hosted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic). By 2003, thousands joined and in 2019, 50,000 people marched in the largest Pride event in central and eastern Europe. Now, in at least 20 cities across Poland, the parades are taking place throughout June albeit with limited numbers owing to the pandemic.
But this year’s events are taking place at a time when homophobia is on the rise in Poland, fueled by hateful comments from the government and Roman Catholic Church (RCC) leaders. According to a 2020 survey by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based advocacy group, Poland ranks as the most homophobic country of the E.U.’s 27 member- states. In the past two years, 94 local authorities have adopted non-binding resolutions opposing what they call the “LGBT ideology”, labelled “humanity free” zones by E.U. president Ursula von der Leyen. “It has a chilling effect on people living there, who are now even more scared to come out. Those who bully LGBTQ people are emboldened by homophobic politicians,” says Bart Staszewski, a Polish director and LGBTQ rights activist.
The nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) has rallied its conservative support base first by targeting migrants and then the LGBTQ community since taking office in 2015. Last summer, Polish President Andrej Duda declared that “LGBT are not people; they are an ideology.”
PiS echoes the views of Poland’s Catholic church, which often takes a stronger stance than the Vatican on social issues. After Pope Francis said same-sex couples should be supported by civil union laws, a spokesperson from the Polish Bishops Conference declared that the Pope’s words were not part of the Church doctrine. “The board that presides over the Polish Bishops’ Conference is dominated by the most conservative bishops. The negative attitude towards the more liberal currents in the Church is tangible,” says Marta Kotwas, a doctoral researcher specializing in Polish politics and society at University College London. Many Polish catholics oppose Francis’s attempt to move away from the Vatican’s firm adherence to traditional doctrine and deeply conservative stance on sexual morality under Pope John Paul II, the Polish former archbishop of Krakow. The late pontiff is seen as a national hero in his homeland for supporting the pro-democracy movement that overthrew the communist government in 1989.
In deeply devout Poland, where 87% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, activists are trying to create a space for people to be openly LGBTQ and also Christian. They are part of a growing international movement of churches and religious organizations that advocate LGBTQ rights. In recent years, clergy have begun blessing same-sex marriages in New Zealand’s Anglican Church, Germany’s Catholic Churches and U.S.’s Presbyterian Churches. In Poland, it’s almost impossible for openly LGBTQ people to remain an active part of the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to activists, excommunicates people who are openly LGBTQ. Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, referred to LGBTQ people as “the rainbow plague” in 2019. “Just holding a rainbow umbrella or bag could get you kicked out from the church,” says Niemiec.
At the same time activists say the LGBTQ community can be very critical of openly religious members. “It is generally anti-clerical, and often anti-religious”, because of the “damage” that the RCC has done to them, says Uschi Pawlik, a co-leader of a local group at the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which aims to promote acceptance LGBTQ people in Poland’s Christian churches. Niemiec and the foundation’s 20 active members are practically the only people in Poland trying to promote full acceptance of the Christian LGBTQ community. “It’s an enormous job with very few human resources,” says Pawlik.
How an activist became a man of the cloth
In 1998, when Niemiec became an activist, the country’s LGBTQ rights movement was only just beginning to emerge. At that time, the 21-year-old was working as a journalist for a weekly newspaper covering news of Warsaw. His editor in chief sent him to report on what Niemiec calls one of the first gay demonstrations in the city. “Two men and a lot of journalists attended,” he says. For reasons he says he can’t explain, he decided to join the demonstrators. “It triggered something in me,” he says. Like the two men, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. The spontaneous decision was both his coming out as gay and first act of LGBTQ activism.
Niemiec says the next day he was fired from his job. “My boss told me that I crossed a line by joining the demonstration,” he says. In 1998, five years before the passing of anti-discrimination legislation in Poland’s labor code, he says it was possible for someone to lose their job for being openly LGBTQ or being seen to support this community’s rights.
Later, he began training as a psychologist while working as a cultural ambassador of Poland to the International Lesbian and Gay Culture Network, a post he held from 2000 to 2006. The Network aims to bring together groups and individuals around the world to end homophobia through culture. One of his main goals, in addition to launching Poland’s first Equality Parade, was to find churches that welcomed the LGBTQ community. He wrote to every church and religious association in the country, he says, but did not receive a single response. “We were rejected,” he says.
Recognizing that Poland’s LGBTQ Christian community lacked leaders and spokespeople is what prompted Niemiec to become an independent Catholic priest. In 2006, bishop Paul David C. Strong from the Christian United Church and an independent Catholic Church, ordained him deacon, a low ranking member of the Christian ministry. Independent Catholic denominations are made up of clergy and non-clergy that self-identify as Catholic but are not affiliated with historic Catholic churches, such as the RCC. Followers often choose independent Catholicism as an alternative way to express their beliefs because they reject some traditional Catholic teachings. As a deacon, Niemiec began holding public masses in rented rooms and a house chapel. “It was a church for everyone,” he says. In 2010, Strong ordained him priest and in 2012, bishop.
Inclusive churches are crucial for LGBTQ people who have been expelled from their church and want to remain active Christians. For people living outside big cities, being kicked out of a church means being ostracized from an entire community. “It is extremely painful. There is a huge difference between a big city like Warsaw and Krakow, where you can hide, but what about small villages or small cities where everyone knows each other? Some priests have outed the name of a gay person from the pulpit and described them as a danger to the community,” says Niemiec.
The Faith and Rainbow Foundation has been trying to hold parishes and priests to account over public homophobic statements. Members of the foundation, set up ten years ago and formalized in 2018, regularly write letters and individual emails to churches and the clergymen about the effects such rhetoric can have. “Their messages are broadcast in catholic media, it trickles down onto ordinary people and it results in individual tragedies,” says Pawlik. Roman Catholic officials have never replied to their letters, nor have they responded to their dozens of requests to meet with the foundation, she says.
‘I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high’
The most important aspect of the group’s work, says Pawlik, is local meetings for LGBTQ Christians, many of whom “are in difficult situations and deeply in the closet.” Twice a month, the foundation organizes local meetings in six cities across the country, where some 150 members discuss passages from the bible and LGBTQ issues. “I can see that for many people, this is the only context where they can really be themselves,” she says. Kazimierz Strzelec, a member of the foundation’s Advisory Committee and mechanic from a town near Lublin in the country’s east, says the foundation “changed his life.” It taught him “what the bible really writes about LGBT people and how to interpret it,” he says, “I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high.”
With just 20 active members, the foundation is restricted in how much it can do. But if there is a possibility to expand, Pawlik says she would like to team up with professional psychologists to run a mental health support program. The activist says there is also a need in Poland for clergy-run pastoral care specifically for LGBTQ Catholics as an alternative to the pastoral initiatives sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to her, places an emphasis on “curing” people from homosexuality. Last August, Poland’s Catholic episcopate came under fire from activists after releasing a “position on LGBT+”, which called for the creation of therapy centers for “people wishing to regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation.” Bishops later clarified that they would not force LGBTQ people to undergo therapy.
Niemiec was forced to stop holding public masses after a public prosecutor in October 2019 accused him and two of his colleagues of “offending religious feelings” in connection to his services. The offence is punishable by up to two years in jail. The police have not banned Niemiec’s services, but he says the negative media coverage surrounding the case has put him and people attending his services at greater risk of anti-LGBTQ aggression or violence.
The priest has long been aware of the dangers that come with being an prominent LGBTQ activist in Poland. Over the past two decades, he says he has been depicted as an “enemy” in the state media and been the target of physical attacks on three occasions, which he believes were motivated by anti-LGBTQ hate. There is no official data on hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as they are not recognized in Polish law. But activists say that violence against LGBTQ people in Poland has increased in the last year, and included cases of physical violence.
Although Niemiec no longer holds public masses, he still conducts private weddings, funerals and other services. “If anyone needs me to make sacraments, I will be there,” he says, “there are people like me all over the world”. A sense of international solidarity seems to be important for Niemiec, who speaks about his friends in the U.S. and Europe, and the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, whose social media account posts daily updates about positive developments in LGBTQ rights movements around the world.
After a year of restricted religious services and virtual meetings due to the pandemic, this year’s Equality Parade is an especially significant celebration for activists of faith. “We will be visible with our banners and our flags, showing the public that LGBT Christian people do exist,” says Pawlik. “We’re making a space for ourselves.”
On a sunny Sunday evening in May, 80 people gathered in a Berlin church for a calm Catholic revolution. At 6pm the 11 metre-high wooden doors of the modernist church of St Canisius were opened for an inclusive Mass of blessing. Spaced out in pairs around the airy church were mainly same-sex couples, all looking ahead at the lanky Jesuit priest.
With expectation in the air, Fr Jan Korditschke removed his face mask and, wearing a broad smile, spread his arms and invited all present to join him in celebrating love. His sermon drew on John’s Gospel, that love is from God, and that it is not in the purview of a priest or a pope to deny the God-given blessing of love.
“God is present in love and and loving couples are already blessed with the presence of God. I am just giving it a framework through this rite,” he said.
Afterwards, with two assistants Korditschke worked his way through the church, talked briefly to each couple before praying together. Behind medical masks many tears flowed.
“It was such a relief, like a stone was rolling away from my heart,” said one man, Georg, alongside his partner afterward.
The Berlin Mass was the last in a series of services across Germany under the banner #liebegewinnt – love wins. The services were triggered by a Vatican document from March restating Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are disordered and blessings for same-sex unions are impossible.
One attendee, Robert, said he came with his partner in protest at the document’s key sentence that “God does not and cannot bless sin”. “By posing a question no one asked, just to answer it in such cold language,” he said, “Rome tried to ram home its point but have triggered a reaction they didn’t expect.”
A few feet away 15 young men and one middle-aged woman held a large hand-written banner reading “God cannot bless sin” and recited the rosary during the Mass. One protester, who declined to give his name, said that obedience to papal teaching is what has held the Catholic Church together for two millennia.
“I worry that carry-on like this,” he said, with a nod to the emerging massgoers, “will bring us toward another schism.”
Exactly 500 years ago, the renegade Augustinian monk Martin Luther was ordered in public to submit to this absolute papal authority by recanting his claims of corrupt church practice and flawed teaching.
Luther turned the tables on Rome by demanding they prove that his scripture-based understanding of the Christian faith was false. The confrontation spiralled and his challenge became a channel for a host of political and modernising forces. Western Christianity split and the world was never the same again.
History doesn’t repeat itself; in a largely secular Europe, most people would struggle to spell schism, let alone see any relevance for their lives. Still, something is brewing in the land of the Reformation as individual protests within the church of Rome feed into each other to create a crackling, Catholic conflagration.
German bishops appear unsure like never before as to where their loyalties lie. Should they deploy the Roman fire blanket, suffocate the flames and denounce critics as arsonist apostates? Or does their survival hinge on embracing the protest and facing down Rome?
Like their Irish colleagues, the German bishops’ fumbled response to clerical sexual abuse allegations and their cover-up in the past decade has drained away credibility and public support.
Nowhere is the struggle more visible – or the stakes higher – than in the western city of Cologne. For centuries its hulking Gothic cathedral has been a touchstone of German Catholicism. For many German believers, though, Cologne is now the epicentre of institutional dysfunction and denial, in particular over the scale of clerical child abuse and the systematic nature of its cover-up.
Last year Cologne’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, came under fire for suppressing a report he himself commissioned into clerical sexual abuse. A replacement report followed this year and triggered two bishops’ departure, but critics say this document was careful to avoid any analysis of whether church structures were a contributory factor to abuse. Tensions continue to build.
In January a local priest, Klaus Koltermann, wrote to Cardinal Woelki, warning of “disquiet among the greatest believers” in his parish of Dormagen, 20 minutes north of Cologne. When a local newspaper reprinted his letter, Koltermann’s superiors warned of “possibly serious breaches of your service obligations . . . that could have consequences”.
The threat was withdrawn when the priest went public with their correspondence, a stand-off he describes as a learning experience. “A new solidarity has to grow amongst us,” he told The Irish Times. “We have to become more courageous. Sadly, we priests never learned to stand up for our faith – in the church.”
Such cases of conscience-led insubordination are gaining momentum. Two weeks ago Catholics at an ecumenical gathering with Germany’s Lutherans held joint eucharistic celebrations in defiance of their bishops.
This week a parish in Düsseldorf wrote to Cardinal Woelki disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month. Woelki once served as a deacon in the parish, as did two abusing priests. In their letter, some 140 parishioners said they feared the cardinal would “instrumentalise” their children’s confirmation to hit back at his critics.
“You are for us, sadly, no longer credible, we have lost our trust in you as a bishop,” they wrote.
Unlike in other countries, German Catholics have a clear way to express a vote of no-confidence with the Kirchenaustritt (church departure). All Christian church members in Germany automatically pay a so-called “church tax” in a system dating back to the 19th century, calculated at 8 per cent of their income tax. Effectively a membership fee, it earns Germany’s Catholic Church some ¤6 billion annually. Revoking the payment is seen as revocation of church membership.
The number of annual departures in 2019 was 218,000, twice the number of a decade ago. Numbers for 2020 have yet to be collated but, based on anecdotal evidence, the ongoing abuse debate has prompted an unprecedented rush for the exits.
Already facing a ticking demographic time bomb, Catholic bishops announced a “synodal process” in 2019 to discuss the road ahead. With 230 members (lay and religious) discussions are under way in four groups examining the role of priests, church power, sexuality and women in ministry. The pandemic shifted discussions online but organisers hope in-person gatherings can begin from September, with the first votes on proposals by Christmas.
For Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German episcopate, the “synodal path” is a balancing act between church liberals and traditionalists – with Rome looking on warily.
His relief was palpable this week when Pope Francis announced plans for a worldwide synodal consultation. This, said the German bishop, was proof that “we are neither schismatic nor do we as a German national church want to loosen ourselves from Rome”.
Expectations of the process are modest, however, given two emergency brakes built into the process: any decisions from the synodal path require unanimous backing of bishops, then approval from Rome.
Rather than wait for reform from within, Lisa Kötter began a church strike two years ago, out of which has grown a grassroots movement called Maria 2.0. Two years on, with regular protests and prayer services, Maria 2.0 has gone global with its demands for the inclusion of women in all church functions, an end to mandatory celibacy, and a consequential response to clerical sexual abuse.
“We see the entire patriarchal basis of the Catholic Church as wrong and not inclusive, out of step with the teaching of Jesus,” said Kötter.
It’s a measure of the movement’s effect that it already has a conservative countermovement, Maria 1.0. And, after initial icy silence, Kötter has been invited to private meetings with bishops. But the friendly conversation always reaches a dead end, she says, when conversation turns to the main bone of contention: church privileges and power that men claim for themselves.
With calls for women priests and blessing same-sex couples, Kötter and Fr Korditschke push back against the idea that they are part of a Luther 2.0 movement. Neither wants a break with Rome but, then again, neither did the man who became the face of the Reformation.
Korditschke says Germany’s Lutheran churches, with more liberal positions on women ministers and social questions, have raised expectations among local Catholics — and tensions when change comes slowly, or not at all.
“I look to Jesus, who was respectful of religious leaders and the sabbath but not afraid of conflict when it came to prioritising the good of people,” said Korditschke, who was baptised Lutheran, converted to Catholicism aged 16 and has no plans to return.
“I don’t see myself at odds with the Catholic Church and, unlike Martin Luther, I pray every day for the pope and serve my church. This is my home.”
After lighting a fuse in Germany two years ago, Kötter sees neither the structural means nor political appetite for reform among German Catholic bishops. She dismisses the synodal path as a “simulation”.
“They haven’t heard the sign of the times, the demands for change. Their ears are trained to hear nothing except their own hymns.”
There was no fairy-tale ending for Henry Frömmichen after his chance encounter with Prince Charming.
Last autumn the 21-year-old German seminarian was hurrying across Munich’s Odeonsplatz when he spotted Alexander Schäfer, the lead in a popular gay reality show.
“Everyone in the seminary watched it, just not me, but I knew him from Instagram,” said Frömmichen. “I introduced myself as a seminarian and it was a great conversation.”
The problems began when he posted a selfie with Prince Charming to his Instagram account – with a church in the background.
Unwittingly, he had exposed the gap between Catholic teaching, and discretionary practice, over admission of homosexual men to the priesthood. He paid a heavy price: expulsion from the seminary last November.
Frömmichen insists he was ready to lead a celibate life as required of all Catholic priests. During seminary admission interviews he remembers being asked in a general way about his sexuality and whether he had any relationships.
“I said I had given up a relationship for this step because it was a greater source of excitement for me to enter the priesthood,” he told German radio. “When I tell people this they think, ‘he’s not quite the full shilling’.”
Catholic teaching states that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.
‘Deep-seated homosexual tendencies’
The additional hurdle Frömmichen faced is a rule introduced by Pope Benedict XVI that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who support a “gay culture” may not become priests. The document from November 2005, the German pontiff’s first priority, says that only men who have “overcome” a homosexuality that was “transitory” and who have remained celibate for three years before joining the seminary are eligible for the priesthood.
Munich seminary director Wolfgang Lehners says he sees no reason why men with healthy relationships to men and women should not become priests.
“But when the rainbow is in the background of everything he does then it will be very difficult for someone to represent the Catholic church as a priest,” said Fr Lehners to Deutschlandfunk radio.
Six months after he was thrown out, Frömmichen went public about his shattered dream after the Holy See’s insistence in March that the church cannot bless gay couples. “There’s such a dishonesty and double standard,” he said. “As long as it’s not discussed, it’s fine . . . that’s what was insinuated to me.”
A representative of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Tim Hazlewood, has said he would bless the union of same-sex couples despite the Vatican ruling it out this week, saying the church ‘cannot bless sin’.
“If Christ was with us now, he would do the caring, the loving thing,” Fr Hazelwood said.
Earlier this week, the Vatican decreed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin”.
The Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions.
The answer, approved by Pope Francis, was “negative”.
Fr Hazlewood, who ministers in a parish in East Cork, said he had been approached by families who have somebody who is in a same-sex relationship.
“Our experience is that they are lovely couples and to hear something like that, that their relationship is sinful, I wonder how many of them know and meet and interact with those families and those people,” he told RTÉ Morning Ir
Fr Hazlewood said the Pope was in a difficult position, but to listen to that statement was “so disappointing, it was appalling.”
“He’s trying to hold all the parts together, in parts of the world, including Ireland, there is a small group who are very anti-Pope Francis and anti the changes, the new breath of life that he’s bringing.”
“For a lot of people and families, it’s very disappointing. Does he want to cause a schism in the church?”
When asked if he would bless a same sex couple’s union, Fr Hazlewood replied: “Just two days ago there were pieces of weed that grow in the ground and I blessed them. I blessed shamrock, now if two people stand in front of me and they love each other and they are committing to each other for the rest of their lives and I bless shamrock and wouldn’t bless them. I don’t think there’s a doubt or a question there.”
The church’s teaching on what marriage means has not changed, he said.
“In Ireland, we’re going to have a synod in the next five years and the bishops have said they want people on the margins to be part of that, would any gay person come near a church that says things like this?”
“There’s an awful difference between somebody in Rome making a promulgation and what’s the lived experience of the church and I think a lot of priests would say ‘if Christ was here with us now, what would Christ do?’
“He would do the caring, the loving thing. He was the one who challenged all of these rules himself. Pope Francis is asking us to talk about these things, this is the way forward”
“There’s going to be an awful lot more things like this in the church which is a good thing.”
Well that didn’t turn out like I hoped or imagined it would.
I wanted to be a priest ever since I was a little boy and I overcame the greatest of odds to achieve my life’s goal. On Saturday, November 22, 1975, I was ordained a Catholic Priest at the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, CA.
Sadly, it all came crashing to a halt only 6 years later with the publication of my doctoral dissertation.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, my religious community at the time, assigned me to post graduate studies in San Francisco in 1978. I completed that assignment in January 1981 with my dissertation, Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance. A media firestorm erupted shortly there after when I publicly identified myself as gay. (I had come out to my provincial superiors before I was ordained six years earlier.)
When word got to Rome, however, the Oblates began a process to dismiss me from the community. They erroneously accused me of “living a false lifestyle” because of my public declaration a month earlier. The community leadership claimed that anyone who would self identify as gay must also be sexually active. In their defense, it was 1981, and I had just studied a population of gay priests in the active ministry, years and years before the Church could even bring itself to admit that there were such a thing as gay priests in their midst. Nonetheless, my efforts to explain myself and the nature of self-identification fell on deaf ears. I was to be made an example of how others would be treated if they came out.
Priesthood was my whole life. To be cut off from the community and ministry in an instant, without due process nearly killed me. And thus, began a grueling 13-year battle with the Church to save my good name, my priesthood, and my ministry. I chronicled this odyssey in a book published in 2011, Secrecy, Sophistry And Gay Sex In The Catholic Church.
I lost the battle in 1994; I was dismissed from the Oblates. But I believe I won the war.
Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Looking back on the last 45 years, I can see clearly that Dr King was right. LGBT people have gone from pariah status to having their relationships granted the same legal and societal status as straight people. Acceptance of LGBT people is at an all-time high in this country and throughout most of the world. And young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accept LGBT people.
Unfortunately, Church leadership continues to drag it’s feet. While there are some enlightened bishops, and certainly the Pope is pointing the way, most of the other church leadershiop have their head in the sand. The rear-guard action of trying to defend the indefensible continues unabated. Gay priests are still persecuted for coming out and the clerical closet continues to make Catholic priests sick, sometimes even to death, One has to ask; how can anyone preach the Good News while living a lie?
Forty five years after ordination, I believe that I now finally know the real meaning of priesthood and ministry. And I can safely say that it has nothing to do with the ritual depicted in the photos above. My priesthood and ministry are rooted in knowing who I am and knowing that God called me as I am. My priesthood is to the people on the margins and the sexual fringe. And my priesthood means speaking truth to power and supporting others to do the same. I continue to stand against the fear, ignorance, and repression that destroys God’s people. And if I have to do my priesthood standing this distance from the altar, then I’m ok with that.
Today, it would be easy to assume that same-gender desire, particularly among men, is at odds with the history of Christianity. After all, many elements of modern conservative evangelical Christianity, from the infamous campaigns of the Westboro Baptist Church to faith-based pushes for anti-LGBTQ policy, give the impression that the religion is fundamentally opposed to the LGBTQ community.
The division, however, is not as rigid as one might imagine. Historical evidence speaks to a rich tradition of continuity in literature, philosophy and culture that runs from antiquity all the way to medieval Christianity, where same-gender intimacies were able to flourish.
In fact, we can find across the medieval world the potent glimmers of queer community and the role it played in formulating a language for Christian subjects as marginalized and persecuted peoples. Many stories of how queer figures maneuvered across various secular and religious spaces of the medieval world share a jaw-dropping candidness about same-gender intimacies and sexuality, and can provide important evidence about how medieval writers thought about the intersections of gender and sexual desire.
While same-gender relations were not accepted within medieval Christianity the way they are by many today, they also did not elicit the intense disdain that we find within the modern Christian right. Despite evidence of great diversity in sexual practices, same-gender intimacies hardly are the focus of concern for most early-Christian and medieval writers. In fact, prohibitions against same-gender intercourse happened selectively, often motivated by political factors more so than religious ones. For example, in the sixth-century, Emperor Justinian’s historian, Prokopios, tells us that Justinian passed legislation against same-sex relations only so that he could persecute certain political enemies whose sexual histories were known to him.
In addition, across the medieval Mediterranean, we find a series of saints’ lives that tell the stories of individuals who had been assigned female at birth, but became monks in all-male monastic communities. In the story of Saint Eugenia, who briefly lived her life as the male monk Eugenios, the saint is sexually harassed by a woman by the name of Melania. The text is quite clear that Melania is drawn to the monk’s male appearance. This story is important, because it demonstrates to us the need to treat these monks as men and not to misgender them as women. Rich and complex in their own right, these figures allowed medieval authors to tackle difficult questions about community, gender, sexuality and piety.
Since authors did not always know how to grasp and interpret their protagonist’s gender, the stories expose to us the ways in which sexual desire between men manifested itself in religious communities. In the story of the fifth-century saint Smaragdos, the young, beardless monk arrives at the monastery, where he is isolated by the Abbot and placed in a separate cell. The author tells us that he was placed here so that he could not be seen by his brothers, lest he cause them to stumble because of his emerald-like beauty.
We might surmise that the narrator is able to write with such frankness about same-gender desire precisely because the conceit is that this monk, assigned female at birth, is a woman (in some capacity) in his mind. But a familiarity with these texts and a sensitivity to the languages in which they were originally written shows a much more complex reality to this separation and prohibition.
The Abbot is never confused as to how or why a young monk might sexually arouse his fellow monks, nor is there any concern or question of his gender. A similar awareness of same-gender desire in monasteries is evident across a wide spread of early Christian and medieval authors. For example, in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of the fifth-century Palestinian monastic founder Euthymios, the monk asks his followers to “take care not to let your youngest brother come near my cell, for because of the warfare of the enemy it is not right for a feminine face to be found in the [monastery].” And such prohibition against “feminine faces” or “beardless men” are found across the rules written to regulate monastic life. Likewise, in his mid-seventh century Heavenly Ladder, John Klimachos praises monks who are particularly adept at stirring up animosity between two others who have “developed a lustful state for one another.”
Yet, despite discomfort about sexual intimacies stirred up within the cloisters, the perceived problem always comes down to the fact that these men are committed to celibacy, not that they are men. This same-gender sexual activity is treated with less concern than instances of monks who are accused of having sex with women outside the monastery. While relations between monks are courteously dissolved and handled internally, intercourse with women often leads to a monk’s expulsion from the community.
In a surprising and telling instance, the seventh-century theologian Maximos the Confessor reflects on what it is that binds communities together, stating that it is “sensual affection” and “desires” (erota) that causes creatures to flock as one. It is from this “erotic faculty” that animals flock together, being drawn “toward a partner of the same kind as one.” Here, his description of conviviality builds on a language of intimacies between similars, providing ample metaphors in Greek for the filiations between men in monastic communities and other social groups.
But, institutionalized spaces for same-gender intimacies were not unique to the monastic world in the Middle Ages. For example, the rite of spiritual brotherhood or adelphopoiēsis (literally, “brother-making”) bound two men in a spiritual brotherhood, echoing certain elements of the marriage rite. The process has been controversially heralded by the late Yale historian John Boswell as a medieval “same-sex union.” We are even told that these spiritual brothers would share the same bed and live closely bound lives.
While scholars over the years have added a great deal of nuance to Boswell’s initial argument, they have also strongly attempted to deny any form of same-gender desire behind the rite. An unpublished manuscript at the Vatican Library, however, tells a very different story. In this text, which can only be consulted in its original handwritten medieval Greek, the 13th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Athanasius I, writing centuries after the inception of the rite, condemns it because it allegedly “brings about coitus and depravity.” In this later period, we see a newfound homophobic resistance to the rite that, in the reaction’s vitriol, speaks to the role this rite could really play for men committing themselves to each other: The Patriarch’s words acknowledge the reality that no matter its intention, the rite enabled the space for sexual intimacies between men. That the “brother-making” rite possibly allowed room to maneuver for premodern queer men, long before that term ever existed, is critical to the history of Christianity.
Narratives like these push us to understand the ways in which intimacies between men existed in various aspects of religious life, even between monks. These relations may not have always been prized or embraced, but they also did not receive the hatred and intensity of vitriol they find in radicalized Christianity today. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that in the privacy of monastic communities and rites like adelphopoiēsis, queer figures had ample room to exist in loving relationships, far beyond what the archive has been able to preserve.
Our written sources point obliquely to the existence of these relations, but detailed stories of these intimacies are left only as an imprint, an outline in the sand of lives now lost that have been forgotten by history. As historians, our role is not simply to regurgitate what was written, but to read between the lines. That’s the only way we’ll unearth the realities of subjects whose lives were either shielded by secrecy or erased, often on purpose, by the history that followed.
Declan Henry’s new book,Forbidden Fruit, speaks to gay priests about the hypocrisy and homophobia of the Catholic Church. It also looks at the issues, which he writes, have led to the crumbling of a once-mighty institution. Declan speaks about the creation of the book, the high percentage of gay priests in the Church and how he, as a gay man and a Catholic, has managed to reconcile his faith.
What was the impetus for writing your book?
“I wanted to explore the changing face of Catholicism in Ireland over the past 30 years post the cleric abuse scandals. I want to find out why the Church has never adequately addressed the reasons why paedophilia occurred among priests – and question if this malaise is still present – and why. I wanted to explore the hypocrisy of the church towards gay people – given that such a high percentage of Catholic priests are gay. I also wanted to explore compulsory celibacy and question if it is emotionally healthy to expect any man – gay or straight – to live a life devoid of intimate personal relationships and sex.”
Did your research surprise you?
“I met two very different – yet both happy priests during my research. One was an openly gay (celibate) priest in Dublin who is much loved and respected by his parishioners for being so honest. The other was a married priest in London (converted from the Anglican Church many years ago). It was so refreshing to be shown around his church and to be introduced to his wife and children. This clearly showed two things – a) that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay and a priest… b) being a married Catholic priest is not the slightest deterrent in fulfilling the role of a priest.”
Declan continued, “Research last year from the French author (Frederick Martel) found that 80% of the Vatican’s top clergy are gay. And yet, despite these high statistics, the Catholic Church is very homophobic. Why?”
How do you balance your affinity for the Catholic Church alongside your findings?
“I believe that most people in the LGBT+ community must transcend their belief system beyond the Catholic Church and find their own faith, their own God, their own Jesus. In the end, this is not too hard to do. Remember that you can read all the Gospels and you will find that Jesus never once condemned homosexuality.”
“In one sense, I smile when I think back about my earlier years growing up gay in Ireland – how vulnerable I was, how naïve I was. In the book, I recall how once I was feeling down and went to see a priest – but he refused to see me because he had just started to prepare his dinner. His dinner was far more important to him than seeing me. And so, I left and never returned. But I’m lucky. I left all that behind. I’ve had a good life, so any bitterness is forgotten. But there was pain and rejection. On one hand you had this unrivalled sense of belonging but on the other hand rejection, fear, shame and guilt for being gay.”
Do you believe the Catholic Church has alienated LGBT+ people to the point of pushing them from their faith?
“Yes, absolutely. Pope after Pope has helped to reinforce this message. Take the current Pope for example – he is not a stupid man, he is well informed and very knowledgeable about what is going on around him, yet he can say the most foolish of things. In December 2018 he stated, ‘There is no place for gay priests in the clergy’. Who is he trying to fool when the horse has well and truly bolted on that one?!”
“The truth is the church is full of homosexuals at every level. But unfortunately, most of these gay priests have a very unhealthy attitude towards their own sexuality – which is not alone very damaging to themselves but damaging to the wider LGBT+ community.”
As the Catholic Church prepares for its contended review, the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference came to the consensus that being gay is a “normal form of sexual predisposition.”
Moreover, church organisers committed to “newly assessing” topics such as sacraments of ordination and marriage, with another revision being that adultery will not longer “always be qualified as grave sin”, the Catholic News Agencyreported.
For centuries, Church leaders have been rattled by the thought of people being sexualities other than heterosexual. But as public attitudes and governments overwhelmingly sway in favour of letting the LGBT+ community exist, the church has steadily caught up to speed.
German bishops call for homophobia to be ‘rejected’ in the church.
The German Catholic Church’s statement comes ahead of a two-year ‘Synodal Process’ by the Germans which will see a national reform consultation. Although, Vatican leaders have warned against this.
In a press release detailing the conclusions of the conference, it detailed how a panel of bishops, sexologists, moral theologians and canon lawyers deliberated how to discuss “the sexuality of man […] scientifically-theologically, and how to assess it ecclesiastically.”
The experts, consisting of bishops from four diocese, agreed in the Berlin conference that “human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust, of procreation, and of relationships”, the release stated.
“There was also agreement that the sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero- or homosexual orientation. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot or should be be changed with the help of a specific socialisation.”
The panel also said that “any form of discrimination of those persons with a homosexual orientation has to be rejected.”
However, the panel did not reach a consensus across all battle lines. There was no consensus on “whether the magisterial ban on practiced homosexuality is still up to date.”
Furthermore, the experts also disagreed on whether or not both married and unmarried people should be allowed to use artificial contraceptives.
His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.
By John Gehring
The Rev. James Martin, one of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, is a best-selling author, film consultant to Hollywood producers and a prolific tweeter with a digital pulpit that reaches more than 250,000 followers. Father Martin is also a hero to many L.G.B.T. Catholics for challenging church leaders to recognize the full humanity of gay people. His advocacy has made him a target of vicious online campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia last month warned that Father Martin “does not speak with authority on behalf of the church.”
But this week, Father Martin’s ministry received an endorsement from the most authoritative of church offices. Pope Francis met with the priest, a Jesuit like the pope, during a private, half-hour conversation in the pope’s library, a place often reserved for discussions with heads of state and diplomats. In a tweet, Father Martin said he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of L.G.B.T. Catholics and L.G.B.T. people worldwide.”
There is little doubt Pope Francis wanted the meeting advertised. Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, a London-based conservative magazine, tweeted that the pope’s meeting was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”
Despite that hyperventilating, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is not afraid of the small but increasingly vocal chorus of American critics who consider his pastoral efforts to reach out to L.G.B.T. people and divorced Catholics as near heretical breaks from church tradition. In September, a reporter asked Pope Francis about his right-wing critics in the United States. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” the pope told Nicholas Senèze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope,” which chronicles efforts by conservatives in the United States to undermine the pope.
The pope’s meeting with Father Martin did more than serve as a signal of support for the priest’s advocacy on behalf of L.G.B.T. people. It was also emblematic of the Francis papacy, which has been a consistent rebuke to a style of culture-war Christianity that since the ascendance of the religious right in the United States during the 1980s has often been the default setting for American Christianity in politics.
Since his election six years ago, Pope Francis has modeled a different brand of moral leadership: engaging and persuading, reframing contentious issues away from narrow ideologies and expanding moral imaginations. Last week, a gay theologian and priest who was dismissed from his religious order for expressing disagreement with the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships wrote that Pope Francis called him two years ago, gave him “the power of the keys,” a reference to being restored to ministry, and encouraged him to “walk with deep interior freedom, following the spirit of Jesus.”
The pope’s interior freedom and humility stand in stark contrast to other religious and political leaders on the world stage. When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” In keeping with that megalomania, Mr. Trump surrounds himself with compliant evangelical courtiers like Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, who view the president in messianic terms, a political savior. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Jeffress this week, citing the pastor’s claim on Fox News that if the president is impeached, it will cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Pope Francis rejects this resurgence of Christian nationalism and warns against idolizing politicians.
As right-wing populists from the United States to Europe depict migrants as menacing threats and build walls, the pope continues to challenge what he calls a “globalization of indifference.” On Sunday, during a special Mass for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis unveiled an artistic monument to migration in St. Peter’s Square. The work depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling by boat, a powerful visual counterpoint to the nativist winds blowing across both sides of the Atlantic.
And unlike the loudest anti-abortion voices on the Christian right who are so wed to the Republican Party that they ignore assaults on life inflicted by policies that exacerbate economic inequality, poverty and climate change, the pope insists that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb.
Culture warriors in the United States have done enough damage to our collective political and moral imagination. More intoxicated with power than faithful to the gospel, these religious leaders demonize L.G.B.T. people, turn their back on migrants fleeing danger and ignore the cries of the poor while claiming to defend Christian values. A humble but persistent pastor in Rome reminds us there is a different path for those of us who still believe in a faith that seeks justice.