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.”
I woke up Monday morning to harsh, depressing news
In a story from Axios, I learned Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have once again morally condemned me and most of the people I love, instructing priests to stop (or not to start) blessing same-sex unions — a practice that until yesterday was finding currency in more liberal Catholic quarters.
The story gets worse from there.
The details of the pronouncement are bad enough, but the bigger story is the journalistic environment in which they’re being reported. From the beginning of Francis’s papacy, major media have bent over backwards to find reasons to paint him as progressive on LGBTQ matters when regressive is a more fair description of his LGBTQ teachings and practices.
Journalists even in the most left-leaning publications often practice classic bothsidesism that paints a distorted picture of how Francis’s Church actually treats LGBTQ people, who mostly experience the Roman Catholic Church as an agent of oppression and stigmatization.
I belong to a large Irish-American Catholic clan, and I’ve heard my own progressive-ish nieces and nephews latch on to inaccurate news reporting that allows them to feel better about the Church they support and — this is critical — lulls them into a complacency that almost guarantees they will not pressure the Church to reform itself.
Here’s what the Vatican did on Monday
That Axios headline was clear and accurate: “Priests can’t bless gay unions because God “cannot bless sin.” Ireland’s RTE, a national public news service, broke the story down in more depth. Besides nixing blessings for gay couples, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has ruled that priests must restrict individual blessings to “persons with homosexual inclinations who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
In other words, the Church demands celibacy in exchange for inclusion.
The ruling explicitly calls gay people disordered and sinful, spelling out that gay people are fine with the Church only so long as we never form intimate sexual relationships, a basic human need. With this document, the Church continues a tradition of religiously bullying members of gender and sexual minorities by inaccurately reducing our identities and innate biology to pathology.
Despite that, the CDF authors maintain their position constitutes the “respect and sensitivity” the Catechism requires. In Orwellian doublespeak typical of Francis, they claim their ruling is not a form of the “unjust discrimination” the Catechism forbids.
In fact, with Francis’s explicit authorization, this ruling affirms all the Church’s traditions that stigmatize and morally condemn LGBTQ people. For Catholic progressives hoping for the reform of Church teachings, Monday’s ruling dashes hopes.
Does Francis intend to reform the Church?
The document he just approved demonstrates his implacable opposition to reform. It’s harsh, authoritarian, dehumanizing, and damaging to real human beings all over the world. It gives Catholic clergy and lay leaders all the tools they need to continue condemning and pathologizing LGBTQ people.
That’s the real story here, and almost nobody is reporting it like that
Check out this New York Times sub-header: “In a ruling made public on Monday, the Vatican said the Roman Catholic Church should be welcoming toward gay people, but not their unions.”
That sentence is fundamentally inaccurate, even outright misleading.
It’s a perfect example of looking for two sides to a story even when one of those sides is barely true. Sure the CDF document calls for “welcoming,” but it explicitly instructs priests not to be welcoming — to withhold ordinary blessings from gay people in partnerships, to teach those gay people that they are living “in sin.”
You can dig into that Times article and get some good information, though you’d have to dig hard, and you would not find the critical piece about banning individual blessings. The Times chose not to report that, even though it’s perhaps the most important part of the story.
The Washington Post did a slightly better job, but their lede is as inaccurate and misleading as the Times’ sub-header: “Pope Francis has invited LGBT advocates to the Vatican. He has spoken warmly about the place of gay people in the church. He has called for national laws for same-sex civil unions.”
Seriously? That’s the lede? That’s neutral journalism?
It gets worse. Look how they report on individual blessings: “The decree said individual gay people could continue to be blessed by the church, provided they show ‘the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.’”
If the reader blinked, they missed that the Church just ordered priests to stop blessing individual gay people who aren’t celibate. This story is much more detailed than the one in the Times; it contains some accurate information. It frankly confronts the issue of gay Catholics feeling betrayed. But it uses classic bothsidesism to paint a more positive picture than exists on the ground. Nobody reading the story would conclude that the Church under Francis has regressed on LGBTQ inclusion, even though it has regressed substantially.
Reading the Times, the Post, or most mainstream newspapers, the reader would have missed something profoundly important: Francis often makes kind-sounding personal observations about LGBTQ people but has done nothing to translate those observations into policy. His specific actions have more often been regressive, and his statements have often been misleading.
Regressive: In 2018, Francis instructed Catholic parents to send gay children to therapy, implying that before the age of 20, conversion therapy might be effective. Prior to that pronouncement, the Church had a reputation for opposing conversion therapy, known to be ineffective and dangerous. Since then, Catholic dioceses all over the U.S. have partnered with conversion therapy providers, and the practice is increasing.
Regressive: In 2018, Francis indicated in unscripted remarks at the Vatican that families headed by LGBTQ parents are not “real families.” Subsequently, he refused to meet with with a delegation of Catholic families headed by gay parents. He demonstrated unwelcoming behavior.
Misleading: Last September, Francis was widely quoted as telling a group of Italian parents of LGBTQ children that “The church does not exclude them because she loves them deeply.” He did not address their petition to him, which was for the Church to stop excluding their children. His kind words were widely reported, but almost no press source reported that his words were so misleading they were, practically speaking, a lie.
Misleading: Last October, following the release of a documentary, press reported that Francis supports civil unions for gay couples, quoting him saying gay people deserve families. Nobody reported that he opposes gay couples raising children together. The Vatican later clarified that by “deserving families,” Francis meant that straight parents should not kick gay children out of their homes. He did not mean that gay couples ought to form families. Almost no one noticed the correction.
Mainstream press perspective on Francis is itself misleading
The Catholic Church is in crisis, shrinking in the western world so fast some analysts call the trend an implosion. In former monolithic Catholic strongholds like Ireland and Quebec, the Church no longer plays any significant cultural role. Around the world, from the United States, to Argentina and even Italy, Church attendance is falling fast, precipitously fast among young people.
Most of those young people cite harsh teachings and practices about LGBTQ people as one reason for seeking spiritual succor outside the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis and the Vatican have powerful motives to mislead about their deeply unpopular values. That’s understandable, but the Press ought to hold them to account.
It’s funny how mainstream news sources hold Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson up to barely concealed scorn, usually reporting their anti-LGBTQ practices and teachings accurately. It’s funny, because Pope Francis’s theology is every bit as harsh, yet the Press is consistently kind to him, seeming visibly to cooperate to make his harsh, stigmatizing theology appear “kindler and gentler.”
Granted, they’re following his lead, but that doesn’t justify bad reporting.
Francis’s Church causes enormous pain and suffering
In the United States alone, where bishops are very conservative, LGBTQ people trying to be included in Catholic spiritual communities are regularly shamed and shunned.
The details include teenagers bullied at school by administrators, blackmailed into unwanted counseling, and forced into conversion therapy. LGBTQ and allied teachers and administrators are fired in witch hunts. Music leaders lose their jobs after decades of faithful service. LGBTQ support groups are forced out of Church-owned buildings. Every day, Catholic leaders teach and show people that queer folks are second class and deserving of punishment
Around the world, the situation is even worse. Catholic bishops have incited anti-LGBTQ violence in places like Poland and Ghana. The Church is inarguably perpetuating and strengthening anti-LGBTQ sentiment. But the Press reported none of that yesterday.
It’s time for the Press paradigm to change
That story about gay civil unions is a story of oppression. It’s a story about a religious institution working to deny real civil marriage to same-sex couples, about an institution working to stop same-sex couples from raising children together.
You’d never know that browsing the Times or the Post — or almost any other major newspaper — because just like yesterday, the Press framed “both sides” of an issue that is deeply and factually one-sided. That paradigm has to change. It’s not the Press’s job to make excuses for a deeply toxic, unapologetically homophobic institution.
When the Press does that, they strengthen homophobia by normalizing it.
Mainstream press should be as hard-hitting as the LGBTQ press
The only hard-hitting press coverage I’ve seen of yesterday’s story about gay people being sinful comes from the Washington Blade, a newspaper that focuses on LGBTQ issues.
The Blade reached out to Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay Chilean man and a survivor of clergy sex abuse who met with Francis at the Vatican in 2018. Cruz had harsh words of truth for the Pope and the rest of the Vatican hierarchy. He compared the CDF to Tomás de Torquemada, who spearheaded the Spanish Inquisition from which the CDF is descended. Cruz called for immediate change in Vatican leadership:
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and especially its prefects are completely in a world of their own, away from people and trying to defend the indefensible. We see it in this quest to annihilate LGBT people, in the slowness with which the crimes of abuse are dealt with, their inhumanity in their awareness of people’s suffering so contrary to Pope Francis who I don’t know why he allows such inhumane and self-interested people in charge.
Bothsidesism is suppressing accurate news coverage
Francis will likely never hear Cruz’s angry, anguished words. He’ll likely never hear a chorus of outraged, anguished LGBTQ voices condemning him for his toxic, inhumane teachings and practices.
Most people will never hear those voices, because mainstream press won’t amplify them.
Laila Lalami observed in The Nation a couple years ago that bothsidesism “poisons America” by giving people too busy to thoroughly read news coverage a false impression of current events. When journalists bend over backwards to create balance where little exists, they do great harm.
That’s happening right now with Pope Francis, and it’s time for it to stop. It’s time for my nieces and nephews to stop finding excuses for the inexcusable dished up on silver platters. It’s time for them to feel deeply uncomfortable about the Church they support — so they can help reform it.
Knowledge is power.
It’s time for journalists to report on Francis as accurately — and as harshly — as they report on Evangelical leaders with beliefs almost identical to his.
“Who here isn’t sure if they believe in God?” I tentatively raised my skinny seventh-grader hand with bitten-down nails and chipped pink and blue polish; the entire class held their breath. I was apparently alone in my apostasy.
I had just turned twelve years old and was the new girl at a posh Catholic school in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. I was immediately summoned into daily, extracurricular religion classes by the school’s deacon where secondary school authorities attempted to replace my radical notions about religion. You see, I was baptized Catholic, but my family was very progressive – I had been taught that there was something bigger than me but not to be too judgey about what, or who, that bigger-than-me entity was.
Later in life, I went on to DePaul University, a wonderful Jesuit school, where I took classes on Catholic social justice and met followers of all colors of the LGBTIQ+ rainbow. I was always amazed at their unquestioning faith; mine had faded long before. For me, Christianity and all its sexual abuse demons, dogma and misogyny gradually went from questionable to unappealing to utterly nauseating. As an increasingly radical progressive, I felt like Catholicism was no longer compatible with what I stood for or who I was.
So it came as no surprise when I woke up to the news today that the world’s beloved “progressive” Pope approved an announcement from the Vatican that Catholic priests could not, in fact, sanctify the unions of same-sex couples because they are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan”. God “cannot bless sin,” the Pope and his compatriots in the Vatican had decided, adding that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered”.
This pronouncement is of course disappointing, but not surprising. The Pope is restrained by an archaic institution that is patriarchal, regressive and indisputably abusive. He himself is not the forward-thinking, open-minded, enlightened leader people hoped him to be. He never was going to be able to push such reforms within the framework of the Catholic Church, no matter what his personal views might be (and which we will likely never know).
Sure, the Pope wants gay Catholics to continue to attend church, as more and more followers consider leaving after child sex abuse horror stories and Vatican coverups continue to be surface. According to the Catholic News Agency, in Germany, one in three Catholics is considering leaving. The same goes for US Catholics. And it’s true that Pope Francis encouraged same-sex civil union laws, which was as far as he could possibly go to keep progressives coming to Mass. But endorsing the church-blessed sacrament of marriage for their unions? That was never going to happen.
Don’t forget that back in 2011, Francis said women could read at the altar, but could never become priests. Catholics and non-Catholics alike lauded the Pope for this change when they shouldn’t have. Like when women were granted the right to vote under the 19th Amendment but weren’t able to have a credit card in their name until the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, it was more about optics than anything materially life-changing.
Even more outrageous: It wasn’t until 2020 that the Vatican finally overhauled its pontifical secrecy laws that allowed the institution to evade reporting cases of sexual abuse to authorities.
The papacy and the patriarchy are outdated institutions that have caused more harm than good. And today, the Pope has proved that no member of their congregation with progressive views can truly feel they belong.
Pope Francis has invited LGBT advocates to the Vatican. He has spoken warmly about the place of gays in the church. He has called for national laws for same-sex civil unions.
But Monday, Francis definitively signaled the limits to his reformist intentions, signing off on a Vatican decree that reaffirms old church teaching and bars priests from blessing same-sex unions.
The pronouncement, issued at a time when some clerics were interested in performing such blessings, leans on the kind of language that LGBT Catholics have long found alienating — and that they had hoped Francis might change. It says that same-sex unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” It says acknowledging those unions is “illicit.” It says that God “cannot bless sin.”
The decree shows how Francis, rather than revolutionizing the church’s stance toward gays, has taken a far more complicated approach, speaking in welcoming terms while maintaining the official teaching. That leaves gay Catholics wondering about their place within the faith, when the catechism calls homosexual acts “disordered” but the pontiff says, “Who am I to judge?Francis’s words expected him to dramatically alter the church’s stance on LGBT matters. Many times, he has stated his opposition to same-sex marriage. Officially, the church says that sex should be between a man and a woman, for the purpose of procreation. Changing any part of that would also prompt a reconsideration of other church positions, whether on gender or contraception.
Though the Vatican did not specify what prompted the decree, it was written in response to existing doctrinal questions. Some Vatican watchers speculated that the church might be responding directly to bishops in Germany, who are in the middle of a multiyear series of meetings — to the alarm of conservatives — aimed at reevaluating major aspects of the church, including sexuality and the role of women.
In a 2019 interview with The Washington Post, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the deputy chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said that although he could not bless same-sex unions — “that would not be approved by Rome,” he said — he didn’t object if priests wanted to be with couples in a civil ceremony outside the church.
“I like to give the priests freedom to decide themselves,” Bode said
Monday’s note referred vaguely to proposals to bless same-sex unions “being advanced” in some quarters.
But the church’s doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said blessings can only be invoked on a relationship when it is “positively ordered to receive and express grace.”
In some issues of controversy, Francis has left decision-making up to local churches, comfortable with policy that varies from country to country or even parish to parish. But in this case, Francis took the opposite approach — one that will put pressure on liberal clerics to fall in line.
Chad Pecknold, a conservative theologian at Catholic University, said Francis was following in the mold of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed open to doctrinal change on sexual morality but then issued a 1968 edict reiterating the church’s ban on artificial birth control.
“This is Francis doing much the same — shocking progressives by affirming the church’s teaching that sexual activity outside of the marriage of one man and one woman is contrary to the good of human dignity,” Pecknold said.
The church said Monday that its determination was not intended to be “a form of unjust discrimination” and called on priests to welcome those with “homosexual inclinations” with respect and sensitivity. The decree said individual gay people could continue to be blessed by the church, provided they show “the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”
The statement from the Vatican is fairly brief — 1½ pages — and begins with a succinct question, asking whether the church had the power to bless same-sex unions.
“RESPONSE: Negative,” the document answers, going on to elaborate.
The decree comes just five months after Francis roused hopes among LGBT Catholics with comments calling for same-sex couples to be “legally covered” by civil union laws. But there was a bit of mystery about whether the pope’s remarks had been meant to become public. The comments surfaced in a documentary premier, but they had originated from a portion of a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster that was never aired.
Steve White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said people who expected Pope Francis to change the church’s position on same-sex unions were not being realistic
White, who describes himself as conservative, believes the pope is simply reiterating existing church teaching, even as he has expressed love for people who are LGBT without condoning their partnerships.
“This isn’t a waffling back-and-forth from Pope Francis,” he said. “This is totally consistent with statements like ‘Who am I to judge?’ People who don’t see that are misunderstanding the pope.”
But many gay Catholics, speaking Monday, said they felt betrayed or wounded by the church. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, America’s largest spiritual community of gay Catholics, said it is “hard for a lot of people to understand just how far removed the church is from human rights advances that are being made in the rest of society.”
Aurelio Mancuso, former head of Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights group, said that in a 2016 ceremony with his partner, a priest had blessed their wedding bands — and that such acts would continue to go on, “regardless of the reprimands.”
“Catholic homosexuals like me know the opinions and traditions of the Catholic Church,” Mancuso said. “The gist of it is that we’re not part of the Creator’s design, and are thus a sin, something that has to be corrected. It’s intolerable that the hierarchy — not the church — stubbornly keeps justifying a discrimination.”
But, he said, no matter the determinations inside the Vatican, the gates for greater acceptance had “already swung open.”<
“This is a document that nobody needed,” Mancuso said. “It’s not about the truth of faith, but the opinion of the hierarchy
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For LGBTQ+ Catholics, this appeared to be a sign that their Pope truly supported them. For conservative Catholics, it was proof that the Pope is dangerously revolutionary, and that they risk losing followers to more right wing religious groups
The Church’s positions have directly led to LGBTQ+ people feeling fearful. The pope’s views, and the Church’s positions, matter not just to Catholics but to people of other faiths and non-believers too. When the pope speaks, the world listens. Even the suggestion that Francis is supportive of same-sex marriage is enough to get people’s attention. As for what the future holds, that remains to be seen. A more LGBTQ+ friendly Catholic Church might happen one day, but for all he has said it is unlikely to happen under Pope Francis.
Pope Francis referred to gay people as “children of God” in a recently released documentary, “Francesco.” He further noted that “a civil union law” needs to be created so gays are “legally covered.” The Vatican later confirmed the pope’s comments, but clarified that the church doctrine remained unchanged.
Public support for civil unions from Pope Francis is not entirely new. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and again in a 2014 interview, he spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples.
While the Vatican is right in saying that church doctrine remains the same, as a theologian who has been writing about Catholicism and family for over two decades, I see in the pope’s comments evidence that Catholic understanding of who counts as family is evolving.
From judgment to mercy
Traditional Catholic doctrine holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of the family. Sex outside of marriage is judged to be immoral and, while gay people are not seen as inherently sinful, their sexual actions are. Same-sex marriages and civil unions, the Vatican says, are harmful to society and “in no way similar” to heterosexual marriages.
Yet in his comments made public on Oct. 21, the pope framed his support for civil unions in the context of family. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it,” he said in a news-breaking interview used in the documentary.
In researching for a book on Pope Francis, I found that he has consistently offered compassion for Catholics without traditional families. Soon after becoming pope in 2013, in response to a journalist’s question about a gay person, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?”
Mercy over judgment has been the mark of his papacy. The pope’s priority on extending mercy, theologian Cardinal Walter Kasperexplains, especially pertains to families.
Surveys commissioned by the Vatican in 2015 found that Catholics desire more acceptance from the church for people who are single parents, divorced or have live-in relationships. Knowing that people often feel judged because their families aren’t perfect, Francis has tried to make them feel welcome. He has stressed that the doors of churches must be open to all.
When, in discussing same-sex civil unions, Francis said that gay people have “a right to a family,” he seems to have implied that civil unions create a family. Though he is not changing Catholic moral teaching, I argue that he is departing from traditional Catholic rhetoric on the family and offering an inclusive, merciful vision to guide church practice.
From family structure to family action
Changes in Catholic teaching in the 20th century paved the way for Francis’ recent moves.
In a 1930 Vatican document on marriage, Pope Pius XI defended the traditional family structure against perceived threats of cohabitation, divorce and “false teachers” who asserted the equality of men and women.
Three decades later, at Vatican II, a meeting of the world’s bishops from 1962 to 1965 that led to sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church, emphasis shifted to the role families could play in shaping society. Marriage was defined as an “intimate partnership of life and love,” and the family was praised as “a school of deeper humanity” where parents and children learn how to be better human beings.
Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, is often viewed as a foil to Pope Francis. In his writings, he defended heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles, as well as rules against divorce, contraception and same-sex relationships. Yet the former pope contributed to shifting the Catholic conversation to ethical actions families can take.
In this regard, John Paul II’s most important document on the family Familiaris Consortio, 1981, gave families four tasks: growing in love, raising children, contributing to society and praying in their home. He taught that being a family means engaging in actions related to these tasks.
Though same-sex couples remain excluded from official Catholic teaching, Catholic theologians such as Margaret A. Farley have suggested that these families, too, could prioritize love, social action and spirituality. Gay couples, she argued, “deserve the same protection under the law” as heterosexual couples. They also have the same moral obligations to each other and to the common good.
Pope Francis on inclusion
Pope Francis built on work done at Vatican II and the decades following it. One of his favorite ways of describing the church is as a “field hospital” that goes where people are hurting.
Though he has addressed many important social issues during his papacy, including economic inequality and climate change, he called the world’s bishops to special meetings in Rome only to discuss families. He urged them to find creative ways of ministering to people who feel excluded because they are not living in line with Catholic doctrine on marriage.
Themes of welcome and inclusion for single parents, divorced and remarried people and cohabiting unmarried couples were amplified in the document Francis wrote in 2016, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”
For instance, theologian Mary Catherine O’Reilly-Gindhart sees Francis saying that cohabiting unmarried couples “need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.” This allows priests to meet couples where they are rather than shaming them or forcing them to hide their living situations.
What’s the future of the church?
Francis’ critics worry that the pope is watering down Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. But what I argue is that Francis is not changing doctrine. He is encouraging a broader view of who counts as families inside and outside the church.
In the same documentary in which Francis made his remarks on same-sex civil unions, he also criticized countries with overly restrictive immigration policies, saying, “It’s cruelty, and separating parents from kids goes against natural rights.” He was referring to the right to family, which “exists prior to the State or any other community.”
The comments in the documentary show a persistent move toward welcoming families in contemporary Catholic thought. Francis proposes that a welcoming church should support all families, especially those who are hurting. Similarly, as he says, governments should do the same – including supporting gay and lesbian couples.
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.
Meanwhile, Stonewall, as part of a YouGov survey, found that 10% of health and social care workers – who they surveyed to analyse how beliefs may impact patient care – said a colleague had vocalised belief in a ‘gay cure’. Essentially, this is not just a fringe issue.
The United Nations defines so-called conversion therapy as practices that seek ‘to change non-heteronormative sexual orientations and non-cisnormative gender identities.’
They continue that it is ‘an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.
‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.
‘Depending on the context, the term is used for a multitude of practices and methods, some of which are clandestine and therefore poorly documented.’
Some of the ‘techniques’ they have seen in their extensive research on the topic include ‘corrective’ rape, threats, exorcisms, forced repentance, and isolation from family and friends.
The Government response to the petition promises to ‘to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy’, noting that ‘conversion therapy is a very complex issue’.
Carolyn Mercer – who was assigned male at birth – had aversion therapy at the age of 17, with the aim to ‘cure’ her from feelings of gender dysphoria.
Now 73, Carolyn says that this form of punitive treatment has affected her ability to feel positive emotions – despite the decades that have passed.
Her experience with aversion therapy began after she visited the doctor to talk about feeling like she was born in the wrong body. These feelings had started around age three, but the doctor brushed them off, telling the confused teenager to ‘stop worrying your mum’.
She said: ‘I needed someone to listen to me and recognise my identity not to try to change me by denial and punishment.’
From there, a meeting with the local vicar (who’d come to visit Carolyn’s parents while they were at work and only Carolyn was home) led to a chat where she spoke about her dysphoria, and then led to her being referred to a mental hospital.
‘I felt that I ought to be punished for feeling the way that I did,’ Carolyn told Metro.co.uk.
‘I didn’t know how to process it. Of course, in those days, there was no internet. There was no literature. There was no one I could talk to.’
When Carolyn did open up, she was sent to Whittingham Hospital near Preston, the town where she grew up.
She said: ‘I wanted to be cured. I didn’t want to be odd. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be nasty, dirty – which is how I saw it.
‘And so he referred me to the psychiatrist, who then recommended NHS treatment.’
This ‘therapy’ (Carolyn doesn’t like the word, but stresses that she did enter into it voluntarily) saw her strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room, with electrodes fastened to her arms.
She said: ‘I can still smell it. They soaked the electrodes in salt water, in brine, and attached them to my arm.
‘And then from time to time while showing pictures [of women’s clothes or typically feminine things] on the wall, they’d pull the switch and send a pain through my body.
‘The idea was to make me associate the pain with what I wanted to do, and therefore that would stop me wanting to do it.
‘Effectively what it did was not make me hate that aspect of me. It made me hate me because it reinforced that I was wrong; I was evil, and so I deserved to be punished. And that was inflicted as part of NHS treatment.’
Carolyn went on to marry a woman and had children, moving up the ranks in teaching to become the youngest headteacher in Lancashire.
Her life was filled with enviable and admirable moments, but the spectre of the therapy and knowing she was trans was always there.
It was barbaric… and it clearly didn’t work
Carolyn likens what she went through to previous corrective and punitive measures used on left-handed people throughout history, which are not only proven not to work, but are designed to change a natural facet of someone, pathologising their sexuality or gender expression.
A UN study published in June 2020 found that 98% of the 940 persons who reported having undergone some form of conversion therapy testified to having suffered damage as a result.
However, due to the underreporting of conversion therapy and the myriad of effects from physical to psychological (potentially making it harder for a specific harm to be pinpointed by governments), these practices are still not banned.
Although such practices are frowned upon in the therapy industry (and have been disavowed by the NHS), a petition by the public to enshrine this into law recently highlighted the fact that the overarching practise is still allowed in the UK.
Josh Bradlow, Policy Manager, Stonewall told Metro.co.uk: ‘Conversion therapy can come in many different forms from a variety of sources and is often hidden.
‘It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with difficult feelings. These so-called therapies are also sometimes based in psychotherapy or medical practices that try to “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’
Many of the physically violent acts that fall under the conversion therapy banner are already illegal – rape, for example – so in theory, a ban would encompass the psychological methods being used.
We have to continue to shine a light on the horrifying after-effects of these methods, too, so that they don’t fall by the wayside in legislation.
Despite Carolyn doing the ‘blokey’ things she felt she were supposed to do, the dysphoria didn’t go away until she transitioned in 2002 ( or, as Carolyn puts it, ‘align my gender expression with my gender identity, which most people call transition’).
We can’t change the past, but we can look at the main effect for Carolyn – over 40 years of self-hatred and low self-esteem – as a stark warning of what we need to do next.
She said: ‘I can smile about it now, because I force myself to.’
‘But it was barbaric, you wouldn’t subject somebody to that in a concentration camp.
‘It clearly didn’t work, but worked at making me hate myself for a lifetime.’
Carolyn believes her experience has made her devote her life to teaching in an effort to help others, in part because of her low opinion of herself caused by the therapy.
Mark Loewen tells a similar story, although the form of conversion therapy he experienced was different to Carolyn’s.
Mark grew up in Paraguay in a religious family. As a child – and without the internet until about the age of 13 – he didn’t know what the word gay even meant, but tells us: ‘Growing up, I knew that something was different.’
Small things such as playing with girls’ toys and the sense of shame that came with that led to Mark questioning his sexuality, and it was when he went through puberty that he realised he was sexually attracted to men.
The way that homosexuality was treated by the pastors at his church was to read the passages of the Bible about sex between men, and to tell Mark ‘just don’t do it, and you’ll be fine’.
Mark worked in a pet shop where one of the customers was known to be gay. His colleagues warned Mark to be careful around the customer.
He said: ‘That’s the message; kind of like we’re dangerous, and that I could be dangerous.’
That man went on to kill himself, leaving Mark believing that this is what ‘destiny’ would have in store too if he came out.
When Mark reached his early twenties he found chatrooms where he was able to identify other gay men through coded language and have secret meet-ups for sex. But because of the negative messages he internalised, these were filled with shame for him and he began to use the internet in order to look for a ‘solution’.
‘I’m not looking for “how can I be happy as a gay man?”,’ said Mark.
‘My searches are “how do we get rid of this?” And so I get involved with a group I find called Exodus International.’
His church told Mark that homosexuality was caused by a distant father and an overbearing mother, and that he was being ‘respectful’ by not feeling a desire to sleep with the girls he was dating. When the time was right, they said, he would meet that right woman.
While working at a Christian book store at around the age of 22, Mark would regularly have business trips to the US, so he was able to go to his first ‘ex-gay’ conference in California without telling his family or friends.
The three-day conference including worship and music, which Mark says made the crowd feel like they were in a ‘trance’.
‘Their speakers would talk a lot about this seeking wholeness where we were missing something emotionally and to seek it. And so a lot of it was about finding approval for yourself in as a person as a man.’
The seminars were framed in a way where gay wasn’t who you were, instead portraying it as a series of attractions and behaviours that could be managed.
At first, these sessions were cathartic for Mark, seeming to him the one place he could truly talk about his innermost secrets and still be ‘loved’.
Mark said: ‘It goes well for some time, and then you notice that you’re still attracted to guys, and all of that happens again and again until you kind of fall again and have sex with someone or whatever it is that you do. And then you feel like you’ve failed.’
Throughout later group therapy sessions it was drummed into Mark that his desire for emotional connection with another man was not love, but instead a form of codependence and selfishness – a way to gain a stronger sense of masculinity that he believed he lacked.
Group members and those he knew would pray for him and he would be given what we’d know as a form of exorcism to change him.
It was only when he went to a college in the US and began studying psychotherapy himself that he realised these techniques were ineffective and morally wrong.
He left the sessions and has gone on to have a daughter and get married to a man he loves dearly. But he says that unpicking the idea that he was codependent and that who he is is shameful has taken a lot of work.
Like Carolyn, he has channeled his energy into helping others.
If we look at the idea of the carrot or the stick, Carolyn’s aversion therapy was the stick and Mark’s conversion therapy was the carrot.
Where Carolyn experienced the more extreme-seeming Clockwork Orange type treatment, Mark’s therapy veered into the territory of the 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, where ‘reparative therapy’ is used, with the idea being that same-sex attraction is a symptom of a psychological problem that can be fixed by talking through childhood issues.
The damage has been done
But both of these types of conversion therapy still go on throughout the world, and both have the end result of making people believe they are inherently wrong.
Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow said: ‘A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed.
‘By trying to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, these ‘therapies’ can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Major UK health organisations like the NHS, and the leading psychotherapy and counselling bodies have publicly condemned these practices.’
The ‘happy ending’ here is the fact that Carolyn transitioned and is a grandparent with a loving wife and children, and that Mark has found his calling and started a beautiful family.
But healing scars that run so deep are much harder than ensuring we don’t inflict them in the first place.
Carolyn likens the experience to stretching an elastic band to the point where it no longer has any give left.
‘I don’t feel positive emotions,’ she said.
‘And that’s what has been driven out of me by an understanding that I was wrong. I was evil.
‘[Without aversion therapy] I would have been freed from that. I would have been able to enjoy things more. It’s better now than it was, but the damage is done.’
As the stats above show, although these decades have passed in Carolyn and Mark’s stories, these therapies are still happening, and the damage is still being done to others.
Both the survivors of conversion therapy that Metro.co.uk spoke to say that the solution is more understanding and empathy alongside a ban on these practices.
It’s all very well to ban conversion therapy, but without the proper understanding about the shame and hiding that comes with gender dysphoria or questions about our sexuality, we’re no closer to equality.
Mr Bradlow said: ‘Banning sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy would send a powerful message to young LGBT people to let them know that they are not ill.
‘But we also need to work on raising awareness of these dangerous practices, and ensure practitioners are trained to recognise it too.
‘And fundamentally, we need to tackle messages young LGBT people may get from other places, whether that be school, the media or at home, that there’s something wrong with who they are.
‘Until that happens, our work continues to ensure every lesbian, gay, bi and trans person can grow up happy, healthy and supported to be themselves.’
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