We made it!
By Nick Alford
Director Evgeny Afineevsky’s latest film, ‘Francesco’, is about Pope Francis. It premiered at the Rome film festival in October 2020 and included an interview with the bishop of Rome himself. At some point during this interview, the pope said something extraordinary. Finally, after all these years, the Catholic Church would be accepting same-sex marriage. This was completely unexpected. People all over social media were shocked. Surely, this would mark the start of a new epoch in Catholicism.
Well, no. He hadn’t said that. According to The Independent, the comments were made in 2019 during an untelevised interview segment with a Mexican broadcaster and did not refer to same-sex marriage. It looks as if the pope was saying he was fine with states providing civil unions, and defended the right to a family, but that was all. The Vatican have claimed Francis was specifically telling parents of LGBTQ+ children not to treat them harshly, so there wasn’t even a defence of same-sex couples adopting either.
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
So why were so many people convinced Pope Francis had changed his mind? It is possible people simply misunderstood what he was trying to say and thought same-sex marriages were synonymous with civil unions. Once the interview had been translated and copied enough times it was inevitable people would begin to make this mistake. Alternatively, even though the story wasn’t true, it provokes strong feelings. 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. It didn’t particularly matter that the pope hadn’t said anything new, because it still remains one of the most controversial political questions within Catholicism. But perhaps the most interesting idea is that since Francis took over in 2013, the idea of a pope supporting same-sex marriage is, whilst untrue, not quite as implausible as it once was.
Compared to his predecessors, Francis is progressive. The previous pontiff for example, Pope Benedict XVI, argued against even celibate gay men joining the priesthood. By contrast, Francis has claimed the Church should apologise to gay people for the discrimination they have faced, has argued against judging gay Catholics and has supported civil unions since his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. That seems remarkably liberal when compared to say, Bishop Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who has argued that same-sex unions are “objectively immoral”.
Considering how different Pope Francis is to not only those who came before him but to those around him presently, the idea that he one day might support same-sex marriage is understandable. A poll in the United States revealed that most Catholics view him favourably, and think that he has worked at least somewhat to change the Church’s position on homosexuality, and indeed the majority think he has changed the Church for the better. However, there is a growing share of US Catholics, particularly those who identify themselves as part of or leaning towards the Republican Party, who believe he is too liberal. But is this really the full story? One could paint Francis as a popular liberal figure who’s bringing in sweeping changes to the annoyance of more conservative Catholics, but the truth is far more complicated than that.
The official position of the Catholic Church remains that homosexuality is not sinful, but that homosexual acts are
The official position of the Catholic Church remains that homosexuality is not sinful, but that homosexual acts are. The Church argues these are “intrinsically disordered”. Francis has not changed this position. As Paul Elie put so succinctly in The New Yorker, “Francis, like his predecessors, made a distinction between gay people (good) and the way that they express passion and love (not good)”. Sexually active gay and bisexual people understandably might take offence at the idea that while they deserve respect and are owed an apology, part of their relationships are still being judged. Of course, sex and romance are not the same, but for many sex is an expression of romantic feeling. To be told this is wrong means the Catholic Church is maybe not as liberal as its LGBTQ+ members would like, nor as its more conservative members fear. Likewise, LGBTQ+ people might be doubly insulted as whilst their consensual relationships are constantly up for debate, the Church has a shameful history of covering up sexual abuse towards its members, including children.
Returning to marriage, in February 2015, Slovakia held a referendum that would, if passed, have banned same-sex marriage, though it was not recognised domestically anyway. It also would have prohibited adoption by same-sex couples. When visited by pilgrims from Slovakia, Francis commented “I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defence of the family, the vital cell of society”. In 2014 he explicitly stated in an interview that marriage is “between a man and a woman”. Whilst the pope might be open to civil unions by states, he is clearly no supporter of marriage. He might have told a gay man in 2018 that “God made you like this”, but he remains unwilling to allow the same man to marry someone he loves. In fact, just before his native Argentina granted marriage rights in 2010 the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio claimed supporters of the new law were inspired by Satan.
Despite some inclusive language, Francis is still running a church that is not truly accepting of transgender and gender non-conforming people
On transgender issues, the pope seems to be taking a similar stance to his one on homosexuality. Although he has argued against abandoning trans Catholics, and perhaps surprisingly used the pronoun ‘he’ when describing a trans man, he has also argued against “gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation” and compared it to “nuclear arms”. Like homosexuality, he argued that a person could have “tendencies” but argued spreading awareness in schools could be “ideological colonization” or “indoctrination”. The pope appears concerned that discussion of transgender issues could be used in a war on marriage. Despite some inclusive language, Francis is still running a church that is not truly accepting of transgender and gender non-conforming people. He might be more liberal than one might expect, but he is hardly a great ally either. This has frustrated many, such as Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr. of the National LGBTQ Task Force, who said such a position would “reject and dehumanize” rather than “welcome and affirm” trans people.
There is also the question of how much the Catholic Church is changing because of Francis, and how much it is changing to survive. Several Christian denominations already allow same-sex marriage, so the Catholic Church is hardly a trailblazer. Likewise, of the American Catholics mentioned earlier, 61% support same-sex marriage. It’s easy to say Francis is a liberal pope when compared to some of his bishops but compared to his followers in the USA he is more conservative. In Britain, a 2015 study by YouGov discovered that religious Catholics support gay marriage by 50% to 40%, unlike British religious Protestants who opposed it by 47% to 45%. A study in 2013 also discovered that more Catholics in Britain between the ages of 18 and 44 thought same-sex marriage was right than wrong. Additionally, in several countries across the world, fewer and fewer people are identifying as Catholic. In Argentina, despite remaining a majority of the population, the proportion of the population that identified as Catholic dropped by over 13% since 2008. Noticeable drops were also recorded in Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. Is Francis’ use of inclusive language an attempt to encourage younger, more tolerant Catholics to stay, whilst not changing Church positions in a way that would upset senior religious figures? That is not to say the pope is being insincere, as he has supported civil unions since before his time as pope. However, if figures around the world continue to drop, is it possible that Catholic Church positions could change its positions to seem more appealing to younger Christians? It seems only time may tell.
Pope Francis is an unusual figure. He has angered more conservative Catholics with some of his words, yet his positions on LGBTQ+ issues are not so dissimilar from that of his predecessors. He is more tolerant than many clerics, and yet less so than most British or American Catholics. He is also a man with tremendous power and influence. Take for instance the creation of anti-LGBT zones in Poland, a country that is overwhelming Roman Catholic and where lawmakers will openly say their values are shaped by the Church.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
At the funeral of Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square, banners rose from the sea of mourners reading “Santo Subito,” or “Saint at Once.” He was a giant of the church in the 20th century, spanning the globe, inspiring generations of believers with his youthful magnetism, then aged infirmity, and, as the Polish pope, he helped bring down Communism over his more than 26-year reign.
Days after his death in 2005, cardinals eager to uphold his conservative policies had already begun discussing putting him on a fast track to sainthood while devotees in Rome and beyond clamored for his immediate canonization, drowning out notes of caution from survivors of sexual abuse and historians that John Paul had persistently turned a blind eye to the crimes in his church.
Now, after more than a decade of doubts, his reputation has fallen under its darkest cloud yet, after the very Vatican that rushed to canonize him released an extraordinary report this week that laid at the saint’s feet the blame for the advancement of the disgraced former prelate Theodore E. McCarrick.
The investigation, commissioned by Pope Francis, who canonized John Paul in 2014, revealed how John Paul chose not to believe longstanding accusations of sexual abuse against Mr. McCarrick, including pedophilia, allowing him to climb the hierarchy’s ladder.
The findings detailed decades of bureaucratic obfuscation and lack of accountability by a host of top prelates and threatened to sully the white robes of three popes. But most of all, critics say, it provides searing proof that the church moved with reckless speed to canonize John Paul and now it is caught in its own wreckage.
“He was canonized too fast,” said Kathleen Cummings, author of “A Saint of Our Own” and the head of a center on U.S. Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. She said that given the “really damning evidence,” in the report, had the church waited at least five years, and not mere days, to begin the canonization process “it would probably not begin for John Paul II because of his complicity in the clergy sex abuse scandal.”
A reversal of the canonization, which historians struggle to recall ever happening, is implausible. Some historians say the McCarrick report is more likely to put back some brakes on a process that John Paul II himself sped up. But the report may complicate the canonization chances of others at the top of the church hierarchy during the late 20th century and early 21st century, when the scourge of sex abuse exploded in the church.
The Vatican report shows that Pope Benedict XVI told Mr. McCarrick to keep a low profile when more allegations of abuse emerged in 2005. Pope Francis, despite hearing rumors of the abuse from his top lieutenants, trusted that his predecessors had properly vetted the case and left it alone, the report found.
Francis has acknowledged his own failures in believing bishops over victims. He removed Mr. McCarrick from the priesthood and has in recent years instituted new church policies to increase accountability.
Many church experts consider those new rules corrections to the abuses and almost willful ignorance of church leaders that occurred under John Paul II.
John Paul II’s defenders say the report only demonstrated that Mr. McCarrick deceived the pope, as he did many others over his half-century rise to the highest ranks of the Catholic Church, and that it has no bearing on the heroic Christian virtue that made the pontiff a saint.
John Paul had been “cynically deceived” by Mr. McCarrick and other American bishops, Stanislaw Gadecki, the head of the Polish bishops conference said in a statement.
“Saints make errors of judgment, this was clearly an error of judgment,” said George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II and an official witness during his beatification process. “McCarrick was a pathological liar. And pathological liars fool people including saints.”
Mr. Weigel said that if perfection were a prerequisite for sainthood, St. Peter himself would not have made the cut. Indeed, infallibility, which is sometimes attributed to popes, is not a necessary saintly attribute, and history is full of saints who were not exactly saints during their lifetimes.
There has been a satanic priest, prostitutes, thieves and much else on the road to redemption and sainthood. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed 93 saints from the church’s universal liturgical calendar, but mostly because they might not have existed, such as St. Christopher, who carried on his shoulders an infant who with each step grew heavier with the weight of the world.
But much is known about John Paul II, and some critics are arguing that it is enough cause not to celebrate him.
Citing John Paul’s “calamitous, callous decision-making,” which it said put children around the world at risk, an editorial Friday in the National Catholic Reporter urged American bishops meeting next week for their annual conference to “discuss requesting that the Vatican formally suppress John Paul’s cult,” or cease celebrating him. “Abuse victims deserve no less.”
That is a tremendous irony for a pope who turned the church into an efficient canonization factory. John Paul knocked down the criteria for beatification from two miracles to one, and did the same for canonization. In 1983, he reduced the amount of time required between a person’s death and the start of their canonization process to five years from 50.
He produced more than 480 saints, and put enough into the pipeline that Benedict XVI was able to canonize scores more. Pope Francis has followed suit, but has chosen to canonize people closer to his more pastoral, and less doctrinaire, vision of the church, such as Pope Paul VI and the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero.
All three of the popes embraced the canonization process as a tool to fortify the faithful with the notion that saints are still among us, but also as mission statements for who merits emulation. Given the ideological divisions in the church, that approach puts a premium on speed.
“A process normally begins after five years of the death of the Servant of God and not later than 30 years after his death,” the Rev. Pascual Cebollada, the postulator, or person who presents a case for canonization, for the Jesuit order, explained. “For the last condition there are, of course, many exceptions that must be justified. For the first,” he added, “there have been less exceptions.”
John Paul was one of them. Benedict XVI waived the five-year requirement, allowing his canonization case to begin only days after his death. Even before the McCarrick report’s release on Tuesday, there was a growing sense that might have been a mistake.
In May, reporters asked Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the promoter of the cause for John Paul’s sainthood, whether it would have been wiser to hold off on the canonization. Already by that time, a cloud had grown over John Paul’s relationship with Mr. McCarrick and his close ties to the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the wealthy and powerful religious order Legionaries of Christ, who was later found to have fathered several children and been a serial abuser.
“All questions were faced, even the ones you are talking about” concerning abuse, Monsignor Oder said. He added that “John Paul II did not cover up any pedophile.”
But Monsignor Oder, who did not return a request for comment after the report’s publication, also said at the time that the Vatican did not grant direct access to the archives to those investigating the case for John Paul’s canonization, and that the Secretariat of State researched their questions and provided answers.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former official in the Secretariat of State who became the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, in part prompted the report by publishing a remarkable letter in 2018 that accused Pope Francis of having covered up Mr. McCarrick’s abuse.
To shield John Paul II, who was actually in power at the time of Mr. McCarrick’s promotions, Archbishop Viganò argued that the ailing pontiff was too sick with Parkinson’s in 2000 to be held accountable.
But the Vatican investigation, which Archbishop Viganò said did not interview him, says that John Paul was of sound mind when he personally made the decision to reject the accusations and appoint Mr. McCarrick.
“The record unequivocally shows that Pope John Paul II made the decision personally,” the report says, and quotes the testimony of the former prefect of the papal household, James Harvey, saying John Paul was “fully capable to make all of his own decisions in 2000.”
The more frequent defense of John Paul, expressed also in the report, is that his experience facing Communism in Poland led him to believe that false accusations against priests and bishops were a political weapon against the faith.
But the reports give a rare glimpse at other, less noble, factors that led the pope to believe Mr. McCarrick, namely that the Vatican operated like an old boys network where bishops always got the benefit of the doubt.
John Paul first met Mr. McCarrick in 1976. Mr. McCarrick, the report says, “was on a fishing trip in the Bahamas with teenagers from some of the Catholic families” when a telegram told him to come back immediately to help translate for Pope John Paul II, then known as Karol Jozef Wojtyla, a rising star in the church. Mr. McCarrick joked that Cardinal Wojtyła had ruined his vacation and they struck up a friendship.
A quarter of a century later, Mr. McCarrick urged John Paul in a letter not to believe the accusations against him.
Pope John Paul II became “convinced of the truth” of McCarrick’s denial, the report notes, adding that Stanislaw Dziwisz, now a Cardinal, recalled that Pope John Paul II also believed it would be “useful to nominate McCarrick to Washington because he has a good relationship with the White House.”
Those events, as well as others in the report, have led some historians to suggest that the church redirect its canonization energies away from the top of the hierarchy.
“You are pope,” Professor Cummings said. “That should be good enough.”
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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.
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?”
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.
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 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.
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.
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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.
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The portrayal of Jesus as a white, European man has come under renewed scrutiny during this period of introspection over the legacy of racism in society.
As protesters called for the removal of Confederate statues in the U.S., activist Shaun King went further, suggesting that murals and artwork depicting “white Jesus” should “come down.”
His concerns about the depiction of Christ and how it is used to uphold notions of white supremacy are not isolated. Prominent scholars and the archbishop of Canterbury have called to reconsider Jesus’ portrayal as a white man.
As a European Renaissance art historian, I study the evolving image of Jesus Christ from A.D. 1350 to 1600. Some of the best-known depictions of Christ, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, were produced during this period.
But the all-time most-reproduced image of Jesus comes from another period. It is Warner Sallman’s light-eyed, light-haired “Head of Christ” from 1940. Sallman, a former commercial artist who created art for advertising campaigns, successfully marketed this picture worldwide.
Through Sallman’s partnerships with two Christian publishing companies, one Protestant and one Catholic, the Head of Christ came to be included on everything from prayer cards to stained glass, faux oil paintings, calendars, hymnals and night lights.
Sallman’s painting culminates a long tradition of white Europeans creating and disseminating pictures of Christ made in their own image.
The historical Jesus likely had the brown eyes and skin of other first-century Jews from Galilee, a region in biblical Israel. But no one knows exactly what Jesus looked like. There are no known images of Jesus from his lifetime, and while the Old Testament Kings Saul and David are explicitly called tall and handsome in the Bible, there is little indication of Jesus’ appearance in the Old or New Testaments.
Even these texts are contradictory: The Old Testament prophet Isaiah reads that the coming savior “had no beauty or majesty,” while the Book of Psalms claims he was “fairer than the children of men,” the word “fair” referring to physical beauty.
The earliest images of Jesus Christ emerged in the first through third centuries A.D., amidst concerns about idolatry. They were less about capturing the actual appearance of Christ than about clarifying his role as a ruler or as a savior.
To clearly indicate these roles, early Christian artists often relied on syncretism, meaning they combined visual formats from other cultures.
Probably the most popular syncretic image is Christ as the Good Shepherd, a beardless, youthful figure based on pagan representations of Orpheus, Hermes and Apollo.
In other common depictions, Christ wears the toga or other attributes of the emperor. The theologian Richard Viladesau argues that the mature bearded Christ, with long hair in the “Syrian” style, combines characteristics of the Greek god Zeus and the Old Testament figure Samson, among others.
The first portraits of Christ, in the sense of authoritative likenesses, were believed to be self-portraits: the miraculous “image not made by human hands,” or acheiropoietos.
This belief originated in the seventh century A.D., based on a legend that Christ healed King Abgar of Edessa in modern-day Urfa, Turkey, through a miraculous image of his face, now known as the Mandylion.
A similar legend adopted by Western Christianity between the 11th and 14th centuries recounts how, before his death by crucifixion, Christ left an impression of his face on the veil of Saint Veronica, an image known as the volto santo, or “Holy Face.”
These two images, along with other similar relics, have formed the basis of iconic traditions about the “true image” of Christ.
From the perspective of art history, these artifacts reinforced an already standardized image of a bearded Christ with shoulder-length, dark hair.
In the Renaissance, European artists began to combine the icon and the portrait, making Christ in their own likeness. This happened for a variety of reasons, from identifying with the human suffering of Christ to commenting on one’s own creative power.
The 15th-century Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, for example, painted small pictures of the suffering Christ formatted exactly like his portraits of regular people, with the subject positioned between a fictive parapet and a plain black background and signed “Antonello da Messina painted me.”
The 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer blurred the line between the holy face and his own image in a famous self-portrait of 1500. In this, he posed frontally like an icon, with his beard and luxuriant shoulder-length hair recalling Christ’s. The “AD” monogram could stand equally for “Albrecht Dürer” or “Anno Domini” – “in the year of our Lord.”
In Europe, however, the image of a light-skinned European Christ began to influence other parts of the world through European trade and colonization.
The Italian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” from A.D. 1505 features three distinct magi, who, according to one contemporary tradition, came from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They present expensive objects of porcelain, agate and brass that would have been prized imports from China and the Persian and Ottoman empires.
But Jesus’ light skin and blues eyes suggest that he is not Middle Eastern but European-born. And the faux-Hebrew script embroidered on Mary’s cuffs and hemline belie a complicated relationship to the Judaism of the Holy Family.
In Mantegna’s Italy, anti-Semitic myths were already prevalent among the majority Christian population, with Jewish people often segregated to their own quarters of major cities.
Artists tried to distance Jesus and his parents from their Jewishness. Even seemingly small attributes like pierced ears – earrings were associated with Jewish women, their removal with a conversion to Christianity – could represent a transition toward the Christianity represented by Jesus.
Much later, anti-Semitic forces in Europe including the Nazis would attempt to divorce Jesus totally from his Judaism in favor of an Aryan stereotype.
As Europeans colonized increasingly farther-flung lands, they brought a European Jesus with them. Jesuit missionaries established painting schools that taught new converts Christian art in a European mode.
A small altarpiece made in the school of Giovanni Niccolò, the Italian Jesuit who founded the “Seminary of Painters” in Kumamoto, Japan, around 1590, combines a traditional Japanese gilt and mother-of-pearl shrine with a painting of a distinctly white, European Madonna and Child.
In colonial Latin America – called “New Spain” by European colonists – images of a white Jesus reinforced a caste system where white, Christian Europeans occupied the top tier, while those with darker skin from perceived intermixing with native populations ranked considerably lower.
Artist Nicolas Correa’s 1695 painting of Saint Rose of Lima, the first Catholic saint born in “New Spain,” shows her metaphorical marriage to a blond, light-skinned Christ.
Scholar Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey argue that in the centuries after European colonization of the Americas, the image of a white Christ associated him with the logic of empire and could be used to justify the oppression of Native and African Americans.
In a multiracial but unequal America, there was a disproportionate representation of a white Jesus in the media. It wasn’t only Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ that was depicted widely; a large proportion of actors who have played Jesus on television and film have been white with blue eyes.
Pictures of Jesus historically have served many purposes, from symbolically presenting his power to depicting his actual likeness. But representation matters, and viewers need to understand the complicated history of the images of Christ they consume.
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Lizzie Berne DeGear is a Union Alumni/ae who received her PhD in 2013. As Union-trained theologians find creative ways to do their work in this virtual world, we share with you today, the powerful story of Lizzie’s 6-minute animation film (m)adam: Adam’s Rib Reframed.
The Viva Film festival in Sarajevo, an international documentary film festival started by Al Gore and other international leaders a few years ago, just announced their 30 selections for 2020 and only one was selected from the US. It was Lizzie’s animated short film about Adam and Eve! The ten films chosen in the category of religion are “films whose theme promotes diversity of religion, with a goal of rapprochement, understanding and tolerance between religion.”
We interviewed Lizzie about her time at Union, her work and hopes for the future. To view, more of Lizzie’s work, check out her website!
Coming to Union as a hospital chaplain who had been working on the inpatient psych unit of a level one trauma center in Jamaica, Queens, I brought two passions with me: the relationship between psyche and spirit; and the Hebrew Bible. So, the opportunity to have Ann Ulanov as my mentor and advisor was a true highlight. Dr. Ulanov is the world-renowned expert at the intersection of depth psychology and theology; the conversations in her seminars with colleagues from around the world still resonate with me and continue to infuse my work.
A doctoral seminar with visiting professor Musa Dube on Postcolonial Feminist Translation of the Bible. This intimate seminar brought me together with Dr. Dube as well as colleagues from the New Testament dept Angela Parker and Celine Lillie — rock stars! Dr. Dube’s writings introduced me to the healing work of the ngaka of Botswana’s African Indigenous Churches. My own outside-the-box work as both healer and Bible-translator really found a home in this course.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout-out to my first instructor at Union, Dr. Wyn Wright. Her passion and enthusiasm for Hebrew is what convinced me I wasn’t crazy to want to take a deep dive into an ancient language. Wyn passed away during my time at Union, but I still see her warm smile when I picture walking the halls of the seminary.
How did your time at Seminary inform the work you are doing?
As an atheist Jewish New Yorker who had a spiritual conversion in my late twenties and became a Catholic Chaplain, I had been on an uncharted path. Union recognized my unique vocation and gave me the resources to take the deep dive I was craving. After the presidential election of 2016, I found myself formulating a course called, “Women’s Power in the Bible” and realized that almost every thread of my work at Union and beyond connects in some way to this theme. It’s the animating force — no pun intended — behind my recent short film.
I was so lucky to collaborate with the brilliant, feminist animator, Martha Mapes, who I found through the Women in Animation job board. Its array of talent and creativity makes me feel great about our future in general! Martha was the perfect fit for “(m)adam,” with her humor, experience and visual-storytelling. It was a pure delight working with her; in fact, I hope this film helps the world discover both the real Adam and Eve and the talents of Martha Mapes! I can’t wait to produce the next “Animated Bible Short with Lizzie Berne DeGear,” and begin another joyful collaboration. I hear women’s voices speaking powerfully from all corners of the Bible, and I am eager for the artistic collaborations that will clarify and amplify those voices! Because Genesis 2 makes a connection between clay and creation, claymation was the natural choice to tell this story. Each film will be different. For instance, through my scholarship, I am convinced that the poem in Proverbs 31 was a union song, used to educate the next generation of girls to become literate textile manufacturers and business owners. So, let the search begin for an artist who combines animation and textiles who can help me tell a story that has been suppressed for millennia.
I can say something that I think we all know: the time for equating “theologian” or “faith leader” with “institution” is fading away. Faith-based wisdom and leadership are needed everywhere right now. Look at the work Liz Theoharis is doing! I made this 6-minute claymation film of my own volition, letting my convictions spur me on, and then I put it up on YouTube. Anyone can find it, and — I hope — it shares complex scholarship and psychological insight in a way that anyone can understand. I never imagined when I started that everything — from church services to grad school courses to birthday parties — would be accessed from our home screens. I hope all my fellow Union peeps are letting their unique voices ring out during this time. The world really needs us, and we don’t need to wait for permission.
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