The most bizarre news stories that have come across my computer desktop in the last few weeks have to be those that have focused around space aliens and exorcisms. Are there any lessons in these topics that Catholic advocates for LGBT people can learn?
Space aliens made headlines because of Pope Francis’ well-noted line that if Martians showed up on earth and asked to be baptized, he would do so. Out of context, the statement sounds extremely bizarre, but in the context of the homily he was giving, the pope’s comments make some sense. He was trying to make the point that the Spirit of God, not our human prejudices, should lead us to act. Catholic News Service provided context for the pope’s remarks, which were given in a homily on Acts 11:1-18:
“From the very beginnings of Christianity, the pope said, church leaders and members have been tempted at times to block the Holy Spirit’s path or try to control it.
” ‘When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, “No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way” he said. ‘Who are we to close doors?’
“Many parishes, Pope Francis said, have ushers to open the church doors and welcome people in, ‘but there has never been a ministry for those who close the doors. Never.’ “
When Gay Star News ran the story about aliens, they did so with the headline: “Pope Francis will not marry gay couples, but will baptize aliens.” While that is true enough, it is a little misleading, too, since the pope did not make any comment at the time about marrying gay couples. Moreover, the Gay Star News story doesn’t even mention marriage in the body of the text.
But more importantly, it misses the point that Pope Francis’ message was actually a message of welcome, of saying the church is open for all, even those who we might think of as the most “alien” to ourselves. To me, that is a wonderful message of welcome to Catholics who feel marginalized, such as many LGBT Catholics do.
What is also wonderful about this story is that Pope Francis’ question,”Who are we to close doors?” so beautifully echoes his famous comments about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” It seems that Pope Francis is building up a theme in his pontificate of cautioning people from feeling too arrogant.
The news stories about the exorcisms might be a little more complicated. The Washington Post ran a story about Pope Francis’ seeming interest in the reality of the devil and the rite of exorcism. Entitled “A modern pope gets old school on the Devil,” the article notes:
“After his little more than a year atop the Throne of St. Peter, Francis’s teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI, whose papacy in the 1960s and 1970s fully embraced the notion of hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.
“Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.”
The article explores Catholic history and ideas about the devil, but where the topic becomes problematic for Catholic LGBT advocates is when it quotes a priest who is a practicing Catholic exorcist and an experience he had on an airplane:
“. . . [T]he Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. ‘Two lesbians,’ he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.
“Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that ‘once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.’ ”
The homophobia in such a comment makes one realize that so much of “devil talk” relies more on people’s own prejudices, and less on a belief in objective evil.
It’s not just Catholicism that runs this risk of prejudicial Satan-labeling when it comes to lesbian and gay people. Certain Charismatic Christian groups are also involved in such activity. Slate.com’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote an article that took a look “Inside The Horrifying World of Gay Exorcisms.” He cites a very reliable source, credible because he experienced such an exorcism:
“Roland Stringfellow, a pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, notes that these denominations spiritualize just about everything and believe that people have a spirit for every problem. Homosexuality, to these religions, is its own discrete problem—one even more troubling than alcoholism or drug addiction. Accordingly, Charismatic congregations are eager to cast the ‘demon’ of homosexuality out of gay people through exorcism, often in public at the altar of a church.
“Stringfellow himself was subject to such an exorcism when he was in college and was still closeted.
“ ‘I was trying to get rid of my same-sex attractions,’ he told me. ‘The person at the altar yelled so everyone could hear: “Demon of homosexuality! Come out of this young man!” And he smacked me on my forehead to “slay me in the spirit.”A friend had to get me up from the altar, pick me up, and get me back to my seat, because I was absolutely mortified. My secret had now been announced, proclaimed, to all of these individuals.’ ”
Professor Mathew Schmalz, College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school, acknowledges a belief in the reality of the Devil, but he notes that the recent rise of interest in Satan can be dangerous. Schmalz concludes a Huffington Post article on the topic with the following concluding paragraph:
“As a Catholic, I do believe that Satan exists and that there is something both intellectually and psychologically valuable in understanding evil as an objective force or entity. But I was also always taught that Lucifer was the most beautiful of the angels — and that evil can come under the most beguiling and attractive forms. For this reason, we have to be very careful where we see the Devil. When you try to cast out demons, it’s all too easy to conjure more in the process.”
Schmalz’ caution is one that U.S. Catholic bishops should heed, especially when they ramp up their rhetoric, a la Springfield, Illinois Bishop Thomas Paprocki, to insinuate that marriage equality is the work of the devil.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry