A new book by a University of Virginia history professor makes the claim that same-gender marriages existed in the city of Rome during the Renaissance.
Gary Ferguson, the Douglas Huntly Gordon Distinguished Professor of French at the Charlottesville school, recently published Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity and Community in Early Modern Europe(Cornell University Press, 2016) in which he displays evidence that, while not commonplace and not legal, the idea of marriages between two men or two women did exist in 16th century, just under the shadow of the Vatican.
In an essay for The Daily Beast, Ferguson begins by noting some literary evidence for the practice of same-gender marriages:
“In the late 16th century, the famous French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote about two marriages between people of the same sex. The first involved women in eastern France, the second a group of men in Rome. At the time, same-sex marriages were not recognized by religious or civil law, and sodomy—a term that included a wide range of sexual acts—was a crime. As a result, when those involved were discovered they were usually brought to trial and punished, sometimes by death.”
Ferguson’s thesis is that even in the Renaissance, “marriage was a highly contested issue.” He explains:
“Marriage between two men or two women might seem like a concept that has emerged only in recent decades. For centuries, however, same-sex couples have appropriated marriage in their own ways.”
Using one of Montaigne’s examples as a case study, Ferguson examines the French writer’s story by exploring “several sources—diplomatic dispatches, newsletters, fragments of a trial transcript, and brief wills. . . ” The result is a description of a planned marriage, thwarted by authorities:
“On a Sunday afternoon in July 1578, a sizable group of men gathered at Saint John at the Latin Gate, a beautiful but remote church on the outer edge of Rome. Many of them were friends who had met there on previous occasions. They were mostly poor immigrants from Spain and Portugal but included several priests and friars. They ate and drank in an atmosphere that was festive, yet strangely subdued. It turned suddenly to confusion and fear with the arrival of the police, who arrested 11 of those present. The rest fled.
“The Roman authorities had been tipped off about the group’s plans to celebrate a marriage, perhaps not for the first time, between two of its members. In the end, the wedding between Gasparo and Gioseffe hadn’t taken place: The latter—reportedly ill—failed to appear. But Gasparo was among those taken prisoner, and, following a trial that lasted three weeks, executed.”
Ferguson reveals that the marriage which was to have taken place would not have been a traditional one for many other reasons besides gender, including the fact that it may not have been intended as a sexually exclusive arrangement. But the fact that such ritual practices is still significant, he claims:
“The evidence, then, points to a handful of motivations behind the Roman weddings. Since the friends took the ceremony seriously enough to put themselves at considerable risk, it very likely served to recognize and sanction Gasparo and Gioseffe’s relationship, claiming that such a union should be possible. At the same time, it may also have had a playful element, parodying and subtly criticizing elements of a traditional wedding.”
In fact, because of the greatly different historical situations, Ferguson says that these unions are not identical to modern same-sex marriages:
“. . . [T]he context for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples today is very different from the 16th century, when most marriages weren’t based primarily on love and didn’t establish legal equality between the spouses.
Yet, their historical significance must still be considered for another reason:
“. . . [T]he stories from the 16th century show that marriage has never been a universal and fixed phenomenon. It has a contested history, one that both excludes and includes same-sex couples, who have claimed marriage on their own terms.”
Ferguson’s case brings to mind John Boswell’s 1994 Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europewhich made the case that union ceremonies, equivalent to marriage, between two men or two women took place, often in religious settings, during the medieval era. Some critics of Boswell claimed that the texts he had which described union ceremonies were not analogous to marriage, but represented other forms of friendship. Boswell, unfortunately, died shortly after the book’s publication so he could not defend his thesis against such attacks.
I hope to get a chance to read Ferguson’s book in the coming months and provide a full review in a later post here at Bondings 2.0.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 17, 2017
New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers: Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv. Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader: Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS. For more information and to register, visit http://www.Symposium2017.org.
Following a Missouri Catholic high school’s rejection of a proposed LGBT student group, community members are asking questions about how and why this decision was made. So far there are few clear answers.
At Nerinx Hall Catholic High School, in Webster Groves, near St. Louis, School President John Gabriel said the Archdiocese of St. Louis directed him to reject a request from students for an LGBT club, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In a response to concerned alumna, Jill Allen, Gabriel explained that the archdiocese mandated any student LGBT group at the all-girls school follow “a carefully charted course of action that includes conversion therapy.” He would later say he misread this archdiocesan directive. He also told Allen:
“Nerinx Hall believes that we can best minister to our LGBT students through our Loretto charism and the Loretto school values of faith, community, justice, and respect.”
But, Allen wrote in her initial letter to the school president, that rejecting an LGBT group “doesn’t reflect my experience of Nerinx,” and is not consistent with Loretto values. And Allen is not alone. Within a day, more than 600 people joined a Facebook group protesting the rejection. Beth Schumacher, class of 2001, told the Post-Dispatch:
“‘There are a lot of alumnae out there who are really, really disappointed both with the decision and with the direction it might be going in right now. . .There are young people at risk. If someone is asking for a club of that nature, then there are definitely individuals who can use that level of support.'”
The school was founded and is currently sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto. It an independent institution not formally affiliated with the Archdiocese. On the school’s website, the statement of philosophy says that the school believes “educated, caring, and empowered young women are essential to our world.” It shares in the Loretto School Values, which include:
“Community: Building relationships that are affirming, inclusive, empowering, and compassionate
“Justice: Promoting changes to eliminate oppression, and creating systems and relationships in which people, especially women, are treated fairly and impartially
“Respect: Being open to differences, and believing in each person’s potential. Promoting the dignity of individuals and protecting the sacredness of all creation.”
Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder and lifelong Catholic advocate for LGBT people provided the following comment to Bondings 2.0 about this decision made at a school that is sponsored by her religious community:
“As a Sister of Loretto, I am embarrassed and ashamed by the stance taken by Mr. John Gabriel. Such a posture does not reflect the Loretto values of inclusion, diversity, and care for all. The students and alumnae of Nerinx deserve leadership that displays these Gospel-based values.”
The story of the school’s decision became even more complex when later in the day, in a letter to parents after news of the rejection broke, Gabriel retracted his claim about “conversion” therapy, writing:
“Today, a Post-Dispatch reporter reached out to Nerinx Hall and the Archdiocese. In preparing my response to the reporter, I also spoke with Archdiocesan Superintendent Dr. Kurt Nelson. It was during my conversation with him that I realized I had misunderstood the Archdiocesan position on conversion therapy within school LGBTQ+ groups.”
Responding to the Post-Dispatch, Gabriel simply “sent a reporter a list of Nerinx Hall’s initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, which include training for teachers on ministry to LGBT individuals and diversity forums for students.” He commented only that Nerinx Hall would be consulting with the Archdiocese on next steps.
Unfortunately, it is not merely Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators who are involved, as they may be more willing to listen to alumnae. Gabe Jones, an archdiocesan spokesperson, said Archbishop Robert Carlson is responsible for all Catholics, and “[w]hen it comes to Catholic teaching, the archdiocese is the arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not.”
At issue in this debate are guidelines on LGBT ministry published by the Archdiocese last year. Titled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those with Same-Sex Attraction,” these guidelines include a “triage checklist” for dealing with LGBT people, and discourage people from publicly coming out. The guidelines also mandate that the Archdiocese be consulted if an LGBT group is being considered at a school or parish. The guidelines express concern about how adolescents are considered in such groups:
“[T]he boundaries between transitory same-sex attraction and more deep-seated tendencies are not always clear. It is not unusual for a young person to experience attraction to a person of the same sex. It is important not to assume that such experiences are the result of a deep-seated tendency.”
Perhaps this is what confused President Gabriel into citing conversion therapy as a reason for the rejection. It is troubling that a lack of clarity still exists about how, why, and by whom the decision was made. This haze is similar to other LGBT controversies at Catholic institutions where culpability for unpopular decisions is treated as hot potato, passed around by church officials.
But this is a prime moment in which a Catholic high school can assert its independence and take a firm stand for its LGBTQ students. As a former Loretto Volunteer and friend of some Sisters of Loretto, I have come to know well the values of the Loretto Community, with which Nerinx Hall is affiliated. The Sisters “work for justice and act for peace because the Gospel urges us,” and have done so with a pioneer mentality for over two centuries. President Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators should tap into the Community’s rich Catholic roots to find a way forward consistent with this history and these values.
What would be best at this moment is for administrators at Nerinx Hall and Archbishop Carlson to share transparently what happened: Did the Archdiocese demand the group be rejected? Are Nerinx Hall administrators hiding their decision under the Archdiocese’s umbrella? Was conversion therapy a relevant aspect in the rejection? And what happens now? Nerinx Hall students, alumnae, teachers, parents, and Catholics in St. Louis generally deserve nothing less than honest and clear answers to these questions.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 16, 2017
A Catholic scouting organization in Ireland is developing a policy about transgender girls that looks like it will be accepting them.
While the Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland (CGI) does not currently accept openly transgender children, the group’s leader told the Irish Independent that they are working to develop a policy:
“Linda Peters, chief executive officer of the Irish Girl Guides, said in yesterday’s Irish Independent that ‘our policy is that anyone who lives their life as a female is welcome to join our organisation’.
“However, when asked if she would presently accept a boy identifying himself as a girl, she said: ‘I don’t know. It’s a hypothetical question, so I’m not going to answer it or comment further. We’ll be in a better position to go into more detail when we finalise our guidelines on this topic.’ “
Peters’ words that they would like to welcome “anyone who lives their life as a female” seem to indicate that their new policy will be welcoming.
CGI spokesperson Michelle Finnerty explained that the group would not currently accept a transgender girl but that the organization feels this is “in the best interests of everyone, and especially for that child, until a policy is developed.” CGI, she said, did not want to make trans children’s’ lives “any more difficult.”
The policy in development, which Finnerty said can be expected “very soon,” was sparked by a CGI volunteer who is interested in transgender issues.Finnerty explained:
” ‘One of our members has a special interest in this area and had gathered a lot of useful information on this topic while she was over there [at a recent round-table discussion in Sweden on gender and membership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts].’
” ‘Putting together a policy on this is going to take a long time, because it will need a lot of consultation. We have to listen to the views of our youth members and parents’ opinions, along with expert advice, too.’ “
The organization is also consulting a CGI volunteer who has a transgender child who is not a member of the group.
Reading this news story, I thought back to a similar response offered last year by a Catholic school in Rhode Island. Administrators at Mount Saint Charles Academy had implemented a ban on transgender students, the reasoning for which is that the school did not provide sufficient resources to support trans youth. Administrators retracted the policy quickly after alumni organized, and the school instead undertook made efforts to expand its supports for LGBT students while concurrently welcoming all applicants.
Interestingly, Alan Matthews, a scouting leader for boys in Dundalk, Ireland, offered some wisdom to the Independent on how he would react to a trans boy seeking membership:
” ‘I don’t see why we wouldn’t let them join. If they want to identify themselves as a boy, fair enough. I suppose it’s their human right and we’re not going to stand against them. I’m sure six- and seven-year-olds wouldn’t notice the difference.'”
Societies tend to discount the agency of children, and in doing so, we too frequently miss the lessons they offer the rest of us. But I think Matthews is correct that answers to questions about gender and Catholic organizations may be found in the wisdom of young children, to which Jesus himself exhorted us to listen. If children are seeing each other as another person first, rather than as a gender, then we should make that our starting point for any policy: always welcome the persons before you, and then figure out how to accompany them.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017
At the LGBT spirituality blog, Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry offered a poignant remembrance this week of Jeanne Cordova, a lesbian advocate who had been a Catholic nun and who contributed to former woman religious and lesbian woman who was a contributor to the groundbreaking 1985 book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cordova passed away a year ago this past week.
Cherry remembered that Cordova was instrumental in the greater history of LGBT equality, beyond her “radical revelations about lesbian nuns.” Cherry stated:
“‘Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence’ remains the definitive work on this hidden and forbidden subject more than 30 years after it was first published. It is also one of the best-selling lesbian books of all time. . .Both the church and the secular LGBTQ community may prefer to forget the uncomfortable truth: Same-sex love exists in the church, and the church trained some leaders of the LGBTQ rights movement.”
In her post, Cherry offered a more expansive remembrance of Cordova’s life, drawing from her writings and from interviews. Cordova grew up in a conservative Catholic family, attending Catholic schools before entering religious life. In her own words, she “fell in love with God at the age of seven,” and this love was the main reason she became a woman religious. But there was a secondary reason why Cordova joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1966:
“I chose the convent because I knew I wasn’t interested in the world of men and women, marriage, children—’that’ lifestyle. Being in the service of God within a community of women felt natural and right.”
Cordova left after a year in the novitiate, a year after Vatican II ended, when religious life was changing dramatically. The IHM community in Los Angeles would eventually separate from the church just a few years after Cordova left, but during her year there, she experienced religious life in a time of postconciliar tension between hopeful reforms and lingering ills in the church. Cherry wrote:
“[Cordova] was enrolled in Immaculate Heart College, where sensitivity training, encounter groups and open classrooms exposed her to new ideas and emotions. She found out for the first time about drugs, the peace movement and covert homosexuality.
“As 1967 began, her Mother Superior informed her that she and her fellow novices were being sent to live in the ‘real world’ — Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and the black ghetto of Watts. She was appalled and radicalized by seeing poverty and racial injustice for the first time.”
Cordova said Vatican II had ‘destroyed my dreams’; she sought a quiet life as a nun amid the trappings of the preconciliar church with its Tridentine liturgy and stiff habits. Her decision to leave was not just about coming out as a lesbian woman. Cordova underwent a more fundamental conversion. She explained:
“‘I left the convent because of my political radicalization and inability to justify the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and actions regarding social justice, and its ongoing battle with my IHM order to keep women in line under patriarchy. My newly realized lesbianism was actually secondary to falling out of love with the Catholic Church, which I had questioned all my life.'”
No longer a nun, Cordova began working as a social worker and community organizer who “helped decriminalize homosexuality and protect the jobs of openly lesbian and gay teachers.” But in the church, she is known for her contribution to Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cherry explained that this work had influence outside the church, too:
“As the foreword to the 2013 reprint edition notes, the book ‘played a significant role in the mainstreaming of lesbian print culture.’ The editors ‘wanted to shatter the silence that denied the existence of lesbians in religious life and to make it clear that ‘lesbians are everywhere.'”
The book included stories from fifty nuns, cultivated from some 400 submissions. Cordova later wrote a more detailed account of her own life in Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun’s Story and When We Were Outlaws. Before dying of cancer last year, Cordova said in an open letter, “It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians.”
Finally, Cherry highlighted a key insight from Cordova that social justice movements, including for LGBT rights, have been filled with and led by former women religious. In Cordova’s words, religious life was “a boot camp for us all.”
The experiences of lesbian women religious are still quite hidden, and their contributions to the church and the world are still under-appreciated. For over 20 years, New Ways Ministry has had a project called Womanjourney Weavings which is an educational program for not only lesbian nuns, but for the leaders of women’s religious communities, and nuns who work in vocation and formation ministries. For more information, contact: info@NewWaysMinistry.org.
Whether one is a woman religious, a former woman religious, or another part of the faithful, Cordova’s story is instructive. Her witness reminds us of the immense power of being in love with God and living authentically from that love can draw forth from us. With it, we can change the world. As we remember, we ask her intercession: Jeanne Cordova, pray for us.
Note: If you are not aware of Kittredge Cherry’s blog, Jesus in Love, and her wider work on queer spirituality through the site Q Spirit, they are a good resource and well worth checking out. Like her post on Jeanne Cordova, Cherry offers many reflections on LGBTQ saints — some who are commonly known, others who are a bit more obscure.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 14, 2017
The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently featured an interview with Fr. Philip Bochanski, the new director of Courage, a ministry which promotes celibacy as the only path for gay and lesbian Catholics. The article states that the priest reported that “the organization feels supported by Pope Francis’ encouragement to accompany those ‘with same-sex attraction’ on their spiritual journeys.” Bochanski is quoted as saying that Francis’ language of accompaniment, “is very useful for us. It recognizes the approach we take.”
It is noteworthy that Courage is taking direction in their pastoral work from Pope Francis, who is seen by many as having initiated on new openness on LGBT issues in the Church. But, as the NCR article points out, the leadership of Courage does not follow Pope Francis when it comes to language about LGBT issues. The reporter stated:
“[The Courage] approach includes using a language that some might consider arcane. Unlike Francis, Courage does not use the term ‘gay, preferring the phrase ‘same-sex attraction.’ Still, the pope’s Amoris Laetitia apostolic exhortation on the family also uses the more formal same-sex attraction language.”
The language difference is not insignificant. First of all, for many gay and lesbian people, the term “same-sex attraction” is offensive because it does not adequately describe themselves or their personal experiences. To call someone “a person with same-sex attraction” sounds very much like referring to someone who has a disease or condition which is different than the natural way that things should be. Gay and lesbian people, however, do not experience their sexual identities as something irregular, but as something natural to themselves.
When Jesuit Father James Martin received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Awardlast autumn, he noted in his acceptance speech that the Catechism calls people to treat lesbian and gay people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. He noted that it is a sign of respect to address people in the way in which they identify themselves. Fr. Martin elaborated:
“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. On a personal level, if someone says, ‘I prefer to be called Jim instead of James,’ you naturally listen. It’s common courtesy. And it’s the same on a group level. We don’t say ‘Negroes’ any longer. Why? Because that group feels more comfortable with other names: ‘African-Americans’ or ‘blacks.’ . . . Everyone has the right to tell you their name.
“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like “afflicted with same-sex attraction,” which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even “homosexual person,” which seems overly clinical to many. . . .And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”
In the NCR article, Bochanski is quoted as saying “A person is not defined by a sexual orientation.” But referring to oneself as gay or lesbian does not mean that one defines oneself by that designation. It is merely descriptive of one feature of person’s constitution. If a man describes himself as “a tall guy,” it doesn’t mean that he defines himself by his height.
Another problem with the use of the “same-sex attraction” language is that for many people it actually seems to emphasize sexual activity more than “gay” or “lesbian” do. Many gay and lesbian people view their identities as being about so much more than their attractions, which is only one part of their sexuality. Their sexual identities are also about their relationships, emotions, and personal interactions. Their sexual identities also have a social dimension, by which I mean that lesbian and gay people have often been made to feel different or stigmatized in mainstream culture which is predominantly heterosexual.
For the NCR article, I was asked about the difference between New Ways Ministry and Courage:
” ‘The difference in approach has less to do with celibacy and more to do with the understanding of sexual orientation,’ he said. New Ways Ministry sees gay orientation as a gift from God, not a problem that needs to be overcome, said DeBernardo.
” ‘Courage has often taken a 12-step approach to sexual orientation, seeing it as a defect in a person. We don’t believe that is an authentically helpful response.’ “
In one respect that difference is encapsulated in the difference between the terms “a person with same-sex attraction” and “a gay or lesbian person.”
The good news from this article is that Courage has officially separated itself from reparative therapy. The reporter stated:
“Courage has evolved, taking a different position on what some call reparative therapy, through which gays are encouraged to become heterosexual. In the 1990s, Courage literature was encouraging, stating, ‘for those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly.’ “
“Courage is now officially neutral on reparative therapy which, while popular in some evangelical Christian circles, is controversial in the wider counseling community.”
Even better than remaining neutral on the topic would be for Courage to condemn it outright since it has proven to be pastorally and psychologically harmful for so many people.
The article also noted another development in Courage’s policy:
“Bochanski said he is open to discussion with other ministries to Catholic gays, including New Ways Ministry, an organization which holds that gays can be sexually active and still maintain their Catholic faith. But the difference in approach makes such dialogue difficult, he said.”
It is good to know that Courage is open to dialogue. We here at New Ways Ministry would welcome such an opportunity. We do not see that our differences would make dialogue difficult. Dialogue is, after all, precisely about differences. We believe dialogue would help us understand one another better, and help our organizations minister more effectively to LGBT people.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 11, 2017
Throughout the past autumn, Bondings 2.0 has been reportingon the same-sex marriage debate in the heavily Catholic nation of Mexico. As we reported, Mexican bishops, supported by Pope Francis, led the opposition to the campaign for making marriage equality, which already exists in several Mexican states, a reality throughout the entire nation.
Earlier this month, the proposal for marriage equality was defeated with a vote of 18-9 by the Commission on Constitutional Matters in the lower house of the Mexican legislature. Yet, despite the loss, the experience may be a positive turning point for the Mexican Catholic hierarchy in terms of taking steps, however small, towards respect for LGBT people.
Key to this change is the Vatican’s nuncio to Mexico, Archbishop Franco Coppola, appointed in July 2016 by Pope Francis . In response to the marriage equality proposal, Coppola called for a more civil discussion of this, and other controversial topics. The Catholic Herald reported:
“Amid the activism, comments on same-sex marriage from the new apostolic nuncio to Mexico appear to suggest the Vatican would prefer a less confrontational approach.
” ‘Mexicans, rather than confronting each other, making proclamations or marching, have to sit down at the table and talk to each other,’ Archbishop Franco Coppola told reporters.
” ‘When we are speaking of the constitution, it has to become something that all Mexicans, or at least a great majority of Mexicans, can share.’ “
The Pilotreported that some observers see the archbishop’s comments as a Vatican decision to soften anti-gay rhetoric:
“Some media, such as the Spanish newspaper El Pais, interpreted the remarks as the Vatican ‘de-authorizing the anti-gay marches.’ “
Earlier in the marriage equality debate, Coppola also spoke words of reconciliation and outreach to gay and lesbian people. The Yucatan Times reported:
“. . . [T]he apostolic nuncio, Franco Coppola, said it is necessary to recognize gay rights as any other citizens’ rights.
” ‘The doctrine of the Church is the doctrine of the Church, but we have to adapt it so we can offer answers to men and women of different times,’ the new representative of the Vatican in Mexico told reporters.”
Coppola is not the only Catholic leader in Mexico who has softened his rhetoric. Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico City and Primate of Mexico, recently apologized for negative comments he made about the sexual acts of some gay men, and he invited “people attracted to the same sex” to meet with priests, acknowledging that church ministers need education.
“In the past, Cardinal Carrera maintained that he would not apologize for his rhetoric toward the LGBT community even if it was considered offensive by some people, but something seems to have changed in him, as he recently came out on behalf of the Archdiocese of Mexico and asked for forgiveness if at any moment they had used ‘inadequate expressions’ to refer to the gay community, saying ‘you should know that it was never my intention to offend anyone.’ “
The cardinal also stated:
” ‘You have asked me about people attracted to the same sex coming to the vicarage to discuss the subject, and I not only see it as an agreeable idea, but as a necessary one,’ he said. ‘Priests shouldn’t be expected to know all that there is to know; many times, they must also be taught about a topic.’ “
The statements made by Coppola and Rivera Carrera are good first steps. Perhaps the extremism of the Mexican debate on marriage equality made them realize that the hierarchy’s rhetoric was too heated and pastorally harmful. Perhaps the example of Pope Francis has awakened them. At a minimum, let’s hope that Rivera Carrera learned his lesson not to be so focused on particular sexual acts, as if they defined the totality of a person or a relationship.
These small steps of openness need to be built upon, and the next time Mexico looks at a marriage equality proposal, perhaps the nation’s bishops will conduct themselves more civilly. If they don’t these recent statements will sound like a noisy gong and clanging bell.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 29, 2016
“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues. We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.
Once a month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years. We will comb through editions ofBondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings, New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format. We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases.
Thirty years ago today, the Vatican released a document entitle “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” This document is probably the most influential piece of church teaching on the topic of homosexuality, and debates about it still continue among theologians, lay people, pastoral ministers, and bishops. It set the tone for most of the very harsh messages about gay and lesbian people that emerged from Catholic leaders over the past three decades.
Because the news of this letter made headlines on the following day, October 31st, (and probably also because of the harsh content of the document) it is sometimes referred to as the “Halloween letter.” (In fact, the Letter was actually promulgated on October 1st, but not made public until the 30th.)
Because the document was authored by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which was the Vatican office which released it), it is also sometimes referred to as the “Ratzinger letter” or “CDF letter.”
It’s official Latin title is perhaps the most telling about the document’s contents. Latin titles of church documents are always the first two or three words of the document itself. In this case, the Latin title is “Homosexualitatis probelma” or “the problem of homosexuality.” From the very first words of the document, the author understood the issue in negative terms, as a problem. The introductory paragraphs explain that the letter was written in response to a growing acceptance of homosexuality, not only in society, but in the church too:
“The issue of homosexuality and the moral evaluation of homosexual acts have increasingly become a matter of public debate, even in Catholic circles.” (section 1)
Reading between the lines, and remembering the historical context of this document, it’s important to point out that this Letter was, in fact, a reaction to many positive developments concerning lesbian and gay persons that were occurring in Catholicism. The 1970s and early 1980s were a rich time for discussion and initiatives in the Church around lesbian and gay issues. This Letter was designed to shut down those projects, as we shall see later in this post.
A more proximate cause of the Letter’s origin was the fact that in 1975, in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Sexual Ethics,” homosexual orientation was recognized as not a sinful state, though homosexual activity or relationships were still considered immoral. So, in this new document, the CDF set out to clear things up:
“In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” (section 3)
Those last two words, “objective disorder,” were the ones which launched the major battles of the next thirty years. Although theologians explained that it was not intended to refer to a medical or psychological disorder, but instead was a philosophical term to describe heterosexuality as part of the natural moral order, the term has caused great pain and harm to people. Only a few understand the philosophical nuances of it, and many who proclaim it are likely intending people to accept its very negative connotations.
In addition to the theological content of the letter, a significant feature of it was how it tried to close down any positive discussion of lesbian and gay issues in the church. The letter contains many references to Catholics who question or challenge the church’s teaching on homosexuality. Some examples from the Letter:
“Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people today, even within the Church, are bringing enormous pressure to bear on the Church to accept the homosexual condition as though it were not disordered and to condone homosexual activity. Those within the Church who argue in this fashion often have close ties with those with similar views outside it. . . . The Church’s ministers must ensure that homosexual persons in their care will not be misled by this point of view, so profoundly opposed to the teaching of the Church. But the risk is great and there are many who seek to create confusion regarding the Church’s position, and then to use that confusion to their own advantage.”(section 8)
“The movement within the Church, which takes the form of pressure groups of various names and sizes, attempts to give the impression that it represents all homosexual persons who are Catholics. As a matter of fact, its membership is by and large restricted to those who either ignore the teaching of the Church or seek somehow to undermine it.” (section 9)
“. . . [T]his Congregation wishes to ask the Bishops to be especially cautious of any programmes which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so. A careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful. For example, they may present the teaching of the Magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience.” (section 14)
“The Bishops are asked to exercise special care in the selection of pastoral ministers so that by their own high degree of spiritual and personal maturity and by their fidelity to the Magisterium, they may be of real service to homosexual persons, promoting their health and well-being in the fullest sense. Such ministers will reject theological opinions which dissent from the teaching of the Church and which, therefore, cannot be used as guidelines for pastoral care.” (section 17)
“All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely. Such support, or even the semblance of such support, can be gravely misinterpreted. Special attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use of Church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges. To some, such permission to use Church property may seem only just and charitable; but in reality it is contradictory to the purpose for which these institutions were founded, it is misleading and often scandalous.” (section 17)
So, far from being a document which was theological in nature, the Letter had a strong emphasis on trying to repress discussion of homosexuality and in the church and to silence any and all forms of openness towards lesbian and gay people and their concerns.
The Letter had some seemingly positive statements, but these statements were always undercut by other messages in the text. Section 10 of the Letter is a classic case of this phenomenon:
“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”
Yet the next paragraph undercuts any positive message from the one above:
“But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”
In terms of pastoral care, the Letter offered similarly mixed messages. For example, in section 17 the Letter stated:
“. . . [W]e would ask the Bishops to support, with the means at their disposal, the development of appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons. These would include the assistance of the psychological, sociological and medical sciences, in full accord with the teaching of the Church.”
Yet, earlier in the Letter, they warned against scientific understandings:
“The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.” (section 2)
And earlier on , the Letter described what an appropriate pastoral program would look like, and it was one which assumed that gay and lesbian people were always tempted towards sexual activity:
“No authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.” (section 15)
We are still living with the effects of the 1986 Letter, but there may be signs that some leaders in the church are moving away from it’s negative message. During the 2015 synod, we heard many bishops state that the language of “objective disorder” and “intrinsic moral evil” needed to be scrapped. We also see that some bishops are willing to open discussions about homosexuality, and to listen to voices which disagree with the Church’s teaching. We see gay-friendly parishes and diocesan programs which do not see avoidance of sexual activity as their prime focuses.
The 1986 Letter did an enormous among of pastoral harm and damage to lesbian and gay people. Many people, straight and gay, left the Church because of its message, and many more continue to do so when they hear its message proclaimed.
But perhaps, 30 years later, we are starting to see that the criticisms that theologians and lay people have leveled against this document are starting to reach the highest levels of the Church.
Whenever I read the Letter, I always end up having an idea that the author imagined the Church being besieged from inside and outside by people who had a positive view of lesbian and gay people. I always imagine that the authors imagined that this Letter was building a fortress wall around the Church. Perhaps, thirty years later, we are seeing that wall begin to crumble at least a bit.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 30, 2016