There was no fairy-tale ending for Henry Frömmichen after his chance encounter with Prince Charming.
Last autumn the 21-year-old German seminarian was hurrying across Munich’s Odeonsplatz when he spotted Alexander Schäfer, the lead in a popular gay reality show.
“Everyone in the seminary watched it, just not me, but I knew him from Instagram,” said Frömmichen. “I introduced myself as a seminarian and it was a great conversation.”
The problems began when he posted a selfie with Prince Charming to his Instagram account – with a church in the background.
Unwittingly, he had exposed the gap between Catholic teaching, and discretionary practice, over admission of homosexual men to the priesthood. He paid a heavy price: expulsion from the seminary last November.
Frömmichen insists he was ready to lead a celibate life as required of all Catholic priests. During seminary admission interviews he remembers being asked in a general way about his sexuality and whether he had any relationships.
“I said I had given up a relationship for this step because it was a greater source of excitement for me to enter the priesthood,” he told German radio. “When I tell people this they think, ‘he’s not quite the full shilling’.”
Catholic teaching states that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” but that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”.
‘Deep-seated homosexual tendencies’
The additional hurdle Frömmichen faced is a rule introduced by Pope Benedict XVI that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who support a “gay culture” may not become priests. The document from November 2005, the German pontiff’s first priority, says that only men who have “overcome” a homosexuality that was “transitory” and who have remained celibate for three years before joining the seminary are eligible for the priesthood.
Munich seminary director Wolfgang Lehners says he sees no reason why men with healthy relationships to men and women should not become priests.
“But when the rainbow is in the background of everything he does then it will be very difficult for someone to represent the Catholic church as a priest,” said Fr Lehners to Deutschlandfunk radio.
Six months after he was thrown out, Frömmichen went public about his shattered dream after the Holy See’s insistence in March that the church cannot bless gay couples. “There’s such a dishonesty and double standard,” he said. “As long as it’s not discussed, it’s fine . . . that’s what was insinuated to me.”
A new Vatican statement that has provoked widespread criticism for sharply rejecting the blessing of same-sex unions is the latest example of why it’s hard for many people to take the Catholic Church’s own professed values of equality and dignity seriously.
The decree, which notes God “cannot bless sin,” reiterates traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality. But the outpouring of painful reactions demonstrates the limits of Pope Francis’ welcoming gestures toward LGBTQ people and is a stark reminder that my church continues to deny people their full humanity. Straight Catholics who love our church and LGBTQ friends and family in equal measure are finding it increasingly difficult to square the church’s often contradictory messages.
The Catholic catechism insists gay people should be treated with dignity and “every sign of unjust discrimination” should be avoided. This is the same church that, in a 2003 Vatican statement, said allowing children to be adopted by same-sex couples “would actually mean doing violence to these children.” The same church that has promised to welcome and accompany gay Catholics is now opposing the Equality Act in Congress, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And in a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be decided this summer, Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia wants to continue operating as a government contractor and receive city funding while refusing to place foster children with same-sex couples.
It’s a strange and un-Christian form of love that tells people they are equal in God’s eyes but then acts in ways that deem their committed relationships and parenting as inferior.
The Vatican’s latest statement is likely to cause spiritual and psychological damage to young LGBTQ people who already experience higher rates of suicide, and push more people away from the institutional church. This statement stings even more coming after what has felt like, for many LGBTQ Catholics, a shift with Pope Francis toward more welcoming and inclusive language.
“Not since the anger over sex abuse in 2002 and 2018 have I seen so many people so demoralized, and ready to leave the church,” tweeted the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and advocate for LGBTQ Catholics who has met with Pope Francis and serves as a Vatican adviser. “And not simply LGBT people, but their families and friends, a large part of the church.”
Perhaps a necessary reckoning over how the church thinks about LGBTQ people and human sexuality is arriving. Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said the Vatican statement left him with “intellectual and moral incomprehension.” In a commentary published in several Belgian and international newspapers, the bishop apologized for those who found the decree “painful and incomprehensible.”
The bishop noted that he knows same-sex couples “who are legally married, have children, form a warm and stable family and actively participate in parish life. I’m immensely appreciative of their contributions.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, told The Tablet, a weekly Catholic journal, the statement “isn’t by any means the end of the conversation. I think it should give greater impetus to another kind of conversation about inclusion.” Even the Vatican statement, which in part came as a response to German bishops involved with ongoing discussions about blessing same-sex couples, cites the “positive elements” of gay relationships and acknowledges they should be “valued and appreciated.”
Several U.S. Catholic bishops in recent years have made efforts to show greater welcome toward LGBTQ people. After the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich called for “real, not rhetorical” respect for gays and lesbians. Newark Cardinal Joe Tobin welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral in 2017. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has said the church’s description of gay sexual intimacy as “intrinsically disordered” is “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”
LGBTQ Catholics and allies will continue to remind our church that until there is real discernment about how a disordered theology that excludes and wounds is never holy, welcoming rhetoric rings hollow. Catholic leaders can begin by showing more humility. The hierarchy does not have a monopoly on truth when it comes to the complexities of gender and human sexuality. Reform and renewal first begin by listening — and acknowledging you have something to learn.
More than 230 professors of Catholic theology in Germany and other countries where German is spoken have signed a statement protesting the Vatican’s recent pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions, adding to dissent over the document.
The statement issued Monday declared that last week’s text “is marked by a paternalistic air of superiority and discriminates against homosexual people and their life plans.”
“We distance ourselves firmly from this position,” it added. “We believe that the life and love of same-sex couples are not worth less before God than the life and love of any other couple.”
The document released a week ago by the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”
The congregation’s note distinguished between blessing same-sex unions and the Catholic Church’s welcoming and blessing of gay people, which it upheld. The document argued that such unions are not part of God’s plan and that any sacramental recognition of them could be confused with marriage.
It pleased conservatives and disheartened advocates for LGBT Catholics. The German church has been at the forefront of opening discussion on hot-button issues such the church’s teaching on homosexuality.
The professors’ statement, which was drawn up by a working group at the University of Muenster in Germany, said the Vatican note lacked “theological depth” and “argumentative stringency.”
It included signatures from professors in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
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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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!
What are some highlights from your time at Union Theological Seminary? Were there any favorite courses or experiences for you?
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.
We’ve looked at the statistics of women leaders in the field of animation and women women voices and representation is a big issue in this industry. What are your hopes for the future both for the field in general and professionally?
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.
Is there is anything else you would like community members at Union to know?
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.
Bernard Preynat, a former Catholic Priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of boy scouts in the 1970s and 80s is on trial. In court he claimed that he himself was a victim. For Catholic activist and journalist Christine Pedotti, this trial, and that of the Bishop who covered up the abuse, reveals a systemic problem in the French Catholic Church, which has its roots in the masculine domination of the clergy.
Christine Pedotti, the editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper Témoignage Chrétien, was part of a group calling for a commission to look into the wider problem of sex abuse in the Church. The Catholic Church set up an independent commission in February 2019, and has so far collected over 2000 stories.
Q: You are active as a feminist, and have questionned how the Church approaches the issue of women, and sexuality and homosexuality. How is this current crisis of sex abuse a feminist issue?
Christine Pedotti: I see the issue of paedophilia as a symptom of an inward-focused, masculine clerical culture, in which sexuality is always seen as a sin.
What’s terrible is that deep down, some clergy consider that sexual acts with children are less serious than sexual acts with women. This shows there is a very negative view of women.
The Catholic Church doesn’t know how to talk about sexuality, because it’s incapable of seeing women as desirable. That’s where this meets feminism.
Q: How has France approached the issue of sex abuse by priests differently from elsewhere?
CP: France is France, so we think we’re exceptional. This was happening everywhere else: in Canada, in the US, in Australia, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Poland, Chile. France thought the problem would stop at our borders.
The French church had to realize it had a problem, and it wasn’t an exception. That’s a difficult realization. It’s difficult to come to terms that this happened in France just like everywhere else. That four Bishops of Lyon, one after the other, closed their eyes on this priest [Preynat], who everyone knew was a criminal.
CP: Many people ask why not become Protestant? First, I don’t think things are any better in that Church. And second, it would be like changing countries or nationalities. That’s not easy to do.
I grew up Catholic, and am imbibed by Catholic history and culture. It interests me a lot. So I stay with it, and try to change it. I created an association whose mission is: “neither leave, nor stay quiet”. And I talk, and I bother the Bishops.
A French newspaper called me a “pain in the ass for church people”. I think it’s rather a compliment!
Q: Preynat is on trial, Barbarin was convicted last year. There is a growing awareness of this problem in the French Catholic Church. Are things changing as a result?
CP: I am hopeful, but Pope Francis has pointed out the main issue, which I agree with (I love saying that the Pope and I agree!). The issue is clericalism and the isolation of the priest, as sacred, and separate. How do we fight against this feeling of exceptionalism that priests have?
This is not just a French issue, it’s an issue for the Catholic Church as a whole. Who are these men – because they are exclusively men, and celibate – who have a special rapport with the divine? It’s very strange, and rather archaic. It puts the Catholic Church in a rather uncomfortable position.
Q: Your work has often been on the margins of the mainstream approach to Catholicism. You have focused on taboos subjects. How have these sex scandals, and the reactions to them, changed the way people see your work?
CP: Today I’m invited to conferences more than before. People are starting to see that that what I’ve been saying for a long time is true. It’s almost an oxymoron to say you’re Catholic and feminist. It seems impossible. Today, some people are saying: Maybe she’s right – not just me, but a certain number of Catholics who take very disruptive positions.
Today I can say that there are points on which I agree with the Pope! Not on the issue of women, but on some issues we have a common analysis – so I’m less marginalised.
I think many people agree with me that there was a real error in what Pope John-Paul II did, to focus the church on the Priest, male, celibate, as sacred. And placing women as mothers, wives, reserved and quiet like the Virgin Mary.
Q: You speak about the lack of credibility in the French church. Will these alternative ways of thinking attract people back to Catholicism in France?
CP: That’s complicated to say. Today the French Catholic Church is fragile. It receives no public funds, and donations have gone down. It’s a complicated crisis, because it comes from inside.
So to know what will happen, is a real question. I still believe in the religion, and there are resources in faith. But we are moving towards a smaller Church. The Church and power went hand-in-hand over the centuries. This was probably an error. Now we have to unlearn what we’ve done since Constantine, which was 16 centuries ago. So there’s a ways to go.
Catholicism counts a lot on its pope. Pope Francis is not young. It will be interesting to see how those in power, across the world, will choose who will replace him. Will they decide on conservatism, to avoid change? Or will they say that in order to announce the gospel in the 21st, we need to change something?
Belief in the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their birth stories are different, but both present Mary as a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Mary and Joseph begin their sexual relationship following Jesus’ birth, and so Jesus has brothers and sisters.
Catholic piety goes beyond this, with Mary depicted as a virgin not only before but also during and after Jesus’ birth, her hymen miraculously restored. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are seen as either cousins or children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
In Catholicism, Mary remains a virgin throughout her married life. This view arises not from the New Testament but from an apocryphal Gospel in the second century, the “Protoevangelium of James”, which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.
From the second century onwards, Christians saw virginity as an ideal, an alternative to marriage and children. Mary was seen to exemplify this choice, along with Jesus and the apostle Paul. It accorded with the surrounding culture where Greek philosophers, male and female, tried to live a simple life without attachment to family or possessions.
This extolling of virginity, however unlikely when applied to Mary, did have some advantages. The option of becoming a celibate nun in community with other women gave young women in the early church an attractive alternative to marriage, in a culture where marriages were generally arranged and death in childbirth was common.
Yet belief in the eternal virginity of Mary has also inflicted damage over the centuries, particularly on women. It has distorted the character of Mary, turning her into a submissive, dependent creature, without threat to patriarchal structures.
She is divorced from the lives of real women who can never attain her sexless motherhood or her unsullied “purity”.
A strong minded leader
Yet in the Gospels, Mary is a vibrant figure: strong-minded and courageous, a leader in the community of faith.
Simone de Beauvoir, the influential, early French feminist, observed that the cult of the Virgin Mary represented the “supreme victory of masculinity”, implying that it served the interests of men rather than women.
The ever-Virgin diminishes women’s sexuality and makes the female body and female sexuality seem unwholesome, impure. She is a safe and nonthreatening figure for celibate men who place her on a pedestal, both literally and metaphorically.
It is true that Catholic women across the world have found great solace in the compassionate figure of Mary, especially against images of a very masculine, judgmental God, and the brutality of political and religious hierarchy.
But for this women have paid a price, in their exclusion from leadership. Mary’s voice has been permitted, in filtered tones, to ring out across the church, but real women’s voices are silent.
In today’s context, the cult of the Virgin becomes emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.
Marian piety in its traditional form has a deep contradiction at its heart. In a speech in 2014, Pope Francis said, “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary” who “in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God.”
If that were true, women could be ordained, since their connection to Mary would allow them, like her, to represent the church. If the world received the body of Christ from this woman, Mary, then women today should not be excluded from giving the body of Christ, as priests, to the faithful at Mass.
The Virgin cult cuts women off from the full, human reality of Mary, and so from full participation in the life of the church.
It is no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Vatican forbade Mary to be depicted in priestly vestments. She could only ever be presented as the unattainable virgin-mother: never as leader, and never as a fully embodied woman in her own right.
The irony of this should not be lost. A fully human Gospel symbol of female authority, autonomy, and the capacity to envision a transformed world becomes a tool of patriarchy.
By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels, the God-bearer and priestly figure – a normal wife and mother of children – confirms women in their embodied humanity and supports their efforts to challenge unjust structures, both within and outside the church.