The Pope Converts
This essay is drawn from the introduction to Mark D. Jordan’s new book, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, available from University of Chicago Press.
Imagine this. Overnight, God changes the hearts of the majority of officials in the Vatican. They awake in the morning convinced that the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnations of “homosexual acts” are both untrue and unjust. They resolve to revoke them. What would they have to revise in church doctrine or practice in order to correct the teachings about gays and lesbians? 1
To give this question any force, we have to picture the Holy Spirit bestowing courage as well as insight. Imagine, for example, that particular morning-after at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s principal bureau for doctrinal surveillance. Each ecclesiastical bureaucrat is aware of a profound change of heart in himself (the masculine pronoun is appropriate). Who will be first to broach such a topic? Who will take the risk? Imagine that it is a morning toward the end of May, say the Monday after Pentecost, the commemoration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian Community. Outside, the signs of early summer: the sky is “almost black with its excess of blue, and the new grass already deep, but still vivid, and the white roses tumble…” Inside, dry mouths and palpitations over coffee.
So we must imagine a divine infusion of courage—not to say of independence, that rarest of virtues in any bureaucracy. Let us suppose that God has worked a change in the pope himself (here the masculine pronoun is obligatory). It would take at least a thorough conversion in the pope to make the doctrinal change possible, and it would take a pope not enchained by his handlers to make it plausible. So let us imagine that the pope’s heart has been converted and then comforted with courage. He has decided to right a wrong done to homosexuals over the centuries. His advisers have persuaded him to at least go slowly—to “study” the problem before acting on it. Rumor rushes down the clerical layers: The moral teachings about homosexuality are to be corrected by papal command in obedience to God’s will, in faithfulness to the message of Christ. The Holy Father asks, What is required for the thorough correction of the teachings?
No serious answer to the question can be simple. In fact, to change Catholic teaching about homosexual acts would require changes under many other headings of Catholic theology. “Conservatives” are right to suspect this, though they are wrong to think that this is a reason for not correcting the teachings. The moral teachings on this topic are just the most visible sign of a larger failure. If the church could be so violently wrong about this for so many centuries, there must be some deep deformity in church governance. Any correction of teachings about homosexuality will have to begin by considering topics as different as the structures of church power and the styles of moral theology, the hypocrisies of the confessional practice and the screening of seminary candidates. The correction would end… but that is a question.
What is required for a thorough correction of the teachings? No one knows. Homosexuality has been silenced so successfully in the Catholic Church that we do not have the kinds of evidence required for a convincing answer. A subject that Catholic theologians cannot discuss during centuries except with thunder, derision, or disgust is not a subject on which Catholic theology can speak.
Some theologians have indeed begun to speak about it more freely in the last thirty years, and they have made some helpful and even bold beginnings. We now have notable first essays in lesbian and gay theology, not least because we have lesbian and gay appropriations of liberation theology, feminist theory, the writing of church history, and so on. But three decades cannot undo two millennia. Catholic theologians will have to be able to speak freely about homosexuality for many years before they can write serious moral assessments of it.
In order for them to “speak freely,” many changes will be required. It is not enough for the CDF to promise that it will no longer prosecute moral theologians who dissent from its diagnosis of homosexual orientation (though just that now seems utopian fantasy). The church, in some broader sense, will have to encourage homosexual Catholics to live openly and proudly. Serious moral theology cannot be principally the framing and manipulation of quasi-legal propositions. It must begin and end in the discovery of particular lives under grace. Lesbian and gay lives will have to become audible to the church, readable within it, before their graces can be discerned and described.
Indeed, the church will need to recognize homosexual saints in order to learn God’s will in same-sex love, since it is typically and properly saints that instruct Catholic communities about how to live. By “homosexual saints” I do not mean lesbians or gays who felt obligated to martyr themselves in celibacy. I mean saints with lovers. The icons that show “Harvey Milk of San Francisco” are not just jokes, in good taste or bad. They are reminders that Catholic theology needs to watch how saints live a way of life before it can say much about it.
Correcting Catholic teachings on homosexuality is not only or mainly a matter of proposing amendments to specific documents. The official doctrine is more deeply embedded than that. It is more intimately connected to old arrangements of institutional power. Changing the language without reforming institutional arrangements would be useless, even if it were possible. The most important relations between Catholicism and homosexuality are not embodied in official propositions about homosexuality, nor even in official regulations for homosexual behavior. The forces at work here are only the forces of words.
Imagine morning again. The Holy Spirit has indeed worked overnight in the Vatican, but microscopically. Conceive a middle-aged staff “theologian” who has spent an entire career being cautious. He awakes to find that his convictions have changed about—about this, of all things—living as homosexual. Disturbed and yet compelled, he might try to broach the topic with colleagues in a round about way. Perhaps he would raise it directly to a particular confidant. Or perhaps he would simply delay, hoping that his peculiar mood would pass.
On this May morning, his behavior would resemble that of many closeted gay men in the Catholic clergy. They feel compelled to play a sad game of concealed solicitation, of saying and not saying, of showing what they want only to those who surely want the same thing. Our staff theologian will be just like someone cruising from inside the closet. He may well have had that guilty experience too.
Behind the fixed rhetoric of the Vatican’s bureaucratic speech are comprehensive structures for creating and enforcing clerical “discipline.” For centuries now, these structures have been much preoccupied with controlling the appearance and the reality of clerical sexuality, especially homosexuality. The official words about homosexual activity are anchored in an apparatus for disciplining the facts of homosexual activity in the clergy. 2 Whatever the original causal relations between official teachings and clerical discipline might have been, it is now certainly true that clerical discipline keeps many clergymen from speaking candidly about the possibility of changing the official teachings. It keeps some of them from even thinking about that possibility.
Clerical discipline shows itself well in the very bureaucratic style of the modern Catholic Church’s moral “teachings,” which is to say, its moral regulation. Whenever the Vatican does change moral teachings on a controversial point, as it did 150 years ago in the case of slavery, it insists all the more loudly that nothing has changed. Bureaucratic speech strives to maintain the illusion of unchanging control. So Vatican pronouncements work hard to convince us that nothing important ever changes in church teachings —or could change.
Imagine a final version of that Monday after Pentecost. A staff theologian awakes after a night of cruising in the city—perhaps Monte Caprino on foot, for old time’s sake, or the “Capolinea” and the “Colosseo quadrato.” Or perhaps he has just returned from a vacation in lay clothing on the shores of the Aegean or at a gay enclave beyond the Alps. Over the years he has enjoyed regular sexual encounters—some negotiated in gay bars, some bought on the streets, some solicited within the concealing walls of church institutions. He has always been careful to hide his employment and usually his priestly status when consorting with laypeople. Not from guilt, which he claims not to feel, but from prudence. He will narrate his encounters, deliciously, to one or another friend in an informal club of similarly active clergymen, but he professes to find the very idea of “coming out” tasteless. Yet he discovers this morning that hearts have been changed around him. What has seemed so long a tidy arrangement of his private pleasures is now being called an injustice. How enthusiastically do you think he will respond to proposals for correction in official teachings?
The premise of my Pentecost fantasy is not entirely hypothetical. Since gay Catholics believe that God does try to guide even the Vatican bureaucracy, and since most of them also believe that the Vatican’s present teachings on homosexuality are not inspired by God, they must trust God to offer during each night and during each day the grace to change the Vatican. Every morning in Rome is a morning on which the pope or his curia could be converted. If they don’t convert today, that need not imply some lack in divine will. It may imply something about human stubbornness. It may also suggest the magnitude of the changes required.
The most important theological facts about Catholicism and homosexuality are not bureaucratic words that Catholic authorities speak. The truly significant facts concern the homosexuality of the Catholic Church itself—of members of its priesthood and its clerical culture, of its rituals and spiritual traditions. If the pope had succeeded in miraculously changing all the official words this morning, he still would not have touched the deepest connections between homosexuality and Catholicism. He would not have admitted the church’s richest knowledge of the homoerotic.
The facts of the effects of the homosexual clergy are hardly unique to the Catholic Church. The current controversies over ordaining “practicing” homosexuals in the major denominations suggest how ecumenical the situation is. Nor are closeted clergymen confined to Christianity. In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, one of the best-known ancient Latin novels, the priests of Cybele purchase a donkey, who happens to be our unlucky hero Lucius in animal form. There is some suggestion that they mean to enjoy his sex immediately, but their interest turns to a “built” farmer whom they invite to their private banquet in a small town. Their well-plotted orgy is prevented by the braying of Lucius, who summons the locals. The priests are driven out of the town by mockery. (Do note that these pagan priests are neither exiled to permanent silence nor burned at the stake.)
This kind of orgy—there are others like it in Greco-Roman antiquity— raises interesting questions about the links between sexual identity and holiness. The stories can be multiplied many times over by evidence from other cultures. Is it that holy figures need somehow to be set aside from the worldly fame of marrying and child-rearing, which is to say, of alliance and inheritance? Are members of sexual minorities, of a “third sex,” freaky or uncanny in a way that associates them with the divine? These questions direct us to analogies for what could otherwise seem particularly Catholic arrangements. But they can also distract us from looking at the evidence right in front of us. It is often easier to think about the priests of Cybele than the priests at the parish right down the block.
Within any society that universally persecutes same-sex desires, those desires will be kept silent. When members of that society’s religious institutions feel them, they will treat them as secrets. When they act on their desires, they will do so secretly. More elaborate priestly or clerical secrecies will be constructed when the religion itself reinforces or initiates persecution of same-sex desires. The most elaborate secrecies will be found in religious institutions that condemn same-sex desires fiercely while creating conditions under which they can flourish: the situation of modern Catholicism.
We need to consider the multiple forms or places of male homosexuality within modern Catholicism. 3 It is worth doing so for a number of reasons, whatever one’s views about the truth of Catholic dogma.
Throughout much of the world, first, the Catholic Church remains the most powerful of Christian organizations. Even in the United States, which has never been a “Catholic country,” Catholic bishops enter aggressively into public debates over homosexuality and other matters of sexual morality. They are also able to do so because religious condemnation remains the most potent homophobic rhetoric. So the features of Catholic homosexuality are particularly consequential outside the church.
Second, Catholic homoeroticism has a distinguished and varied history. Catholic clerical arrangements, for example, are very old by Christian standards. They produce rich articulations of male-male desire, both because of centuries of compulsory priestly celibacy and because of the enormous development of all-male religious orders.
Third, and most importantly, the Catholic management of same-sex desire has been decisive in European and American histories of what we now call “homosexuality.” This is not just a matter of moral teachings, national legislation, or international bureaucracies for enforcement and punishment. Catholicism has been one of the most homoerotic of widely available modern cultures, offering encouragement, instruction, and relatively safe haven to many homosexuals. You will not understand modern homosexuality unless you understand Catholic homosexuality, and you cannot understand Catholic homosexuality unless you begin with the clergy.
Other arguments could be made for the importance of paying particular attention to homosexuality in the Catholic Church. But the most telling argument for me is very particular. The Catholic tradition is my Christian tradition. It is not only the one in which I found Christianity or the one I know best by experience, but it is the tradition within which I have had to work out the central paradox for any gay Christian: many Christian churches are at once the most homophobic and the most homoerotic of institutions. They seem cunningly designed to condemn same-sex desire and to elicit it, the persecute it and to instruct it. I sometimes call this is paradox of the “Beloved Disciple”: “Come recline beside me and put your head on my chest, but don’t dare conceive of what we do as erotic.” Perhaps it is more clearly seen as the paradox of the Catholic Jesus, the paradox created by an officially homophobic religion in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man. How could such a religion be officially homophobic—and also intensely homoerotic?
Can anyone live happily ever after as a gay man within the Christian faith? Edmund White puts the question as an exasperated accusation: “I never thought I’d live to see the day when gays would be begging to be let back in to the Christian church, which is clearly our enemy.” Unfortunately, we could speak the same accusations at most of our major institutions, which have at best been explicitly homophobic until the last decades. Why participate in the churches? Indeed, why participate in the universities or the publishing houses or the major newspapers?
The alternative to participating is not Bohemianism, but barbarism. Thinking about how one can be gay and a member of some Christian community is just a form of a question that ever homosexual faces: How can I make a place for myself in what has been and mostly continues to be a homophobic culture?
I do not mean to suggest that questions about staying in the church should be dismissed as silly. Compelling cases can be made that identifying as a Catholic (or Christian) at this moment in American life can only be a form of collaboration with homosexuality’s most dangerous enemies. As I have already hinted, we have a great deal to learn about homosexuality from modern Catholicism, even if we never were or will not long remain Catholic. So, too, we have a lot to learn from modern homosexuality about Catholicism, perhaps especially if we are interested in continuing to conceive ourselves as somehow Catholic.
Who am I to say such things? Any Catholic has been taught to practice self-examination and even self-abasement before daring to voice criticism, especially against the church. Self-examination can be an important antidote to pride or anger or vanity. It can also be an effective means for enforcing silence about Catholic homosexuality. It can function as one of a series of constraints, of double binds, that contrive to make it impossible for anyone to speak —except for the “competent authorities” in the Vatican.
If I were a former priest or member of a religious order, my criticisms would be dismissed at the bitter fruit of a failure to live up to my vows. I am neither a former priest nor a former religious, so they can be dismissed as uninformed.
If I were an accredited moral theologian teaching at a pontifical faculty, my criticisms would be dismissed as defection. I am not such a moral theologian, so they can be dismissed at the rant of an amateur.
If I were not “out,” my criticisms would be dismissed as evidence of closeted gayness. I am “out,” so they can be dismissed as my own agenda.
These double binds are constructive to prevent anyone from talking about Catholic homosexuality except in the approved ways. The only people who are permitted to speak about it are those who are guaranteed never to speak about it honestly. The only people who are authorized to speak about it are the silencing authorities themselves.
Better scraps of speech than silence. If we let the ambiguity of our position or the diversity of the evidence frighten us away from speaking, we surrender speech to its abusers. There are, of course, any number of prominent Catholics who are content to speak endlessly about homosexuality. They are the broadcasters of the official teachings, and they are curiously unconstrained by historical evidence or by the diversity of present experience. To be bound up in silence by the fear of overgeneralizing would be to allow the most aggressive programs of generalization to go forward without dissent.
Other contradictions bind you, my reader. Many of you who have the greatest familiarity with my topics will also have the greatest stake in denying what I say. I am not thinking in the first instance of church-employed experts in history and theology. I refer instead to closeted clergymen whose hatred of their own desire has become strict “orthodoxy”—I mean, homophobic rage.
According to an etymology that goes back in the Latin tradition at least to St. Jerome, patron of Catholic Bible translators, the place-name “Sodom” in Genesis 18-19 means “mute” or “silent beast.” Various explanations of this etymology are supplied by later theologians. Sodomites are rendered animal-like by their addiction to physical pleasure. Or sodomites lose rationality by acting against nature. Or the activity of sodomites is to be shrouded in silence among Christians. Sodomy is, after all, the “nameless” sin or crime—according to another misreading of the Scriptures (Ephesians 5:3). So Catholic confessors and preachers are warned against speaking about the sin with any clarity. They are not to inquire after it or preach against it for fear of inciting the laity to deeds not yet discovered. But the deepest sodomite silence come from priestly texts written for priestly audiences. The same texts insist that sodomy is typically a priestly sin.
Over the last millennium, Catholic writers have exercised themselves in painting pictures of the sodomitic soul — of the soul of the sinner given over to the practice of sodomy. They always depict the soul from outside, from far away, because of course they have never seen it up close. They show it as a Sodom in miniature—a city of anguished secrecy, of perpetual exile, of deserved death, over which fiery clouds always rain cinders. They project every vice into this city. They compare its inhabitants with the worst of history’s criminals.
If these garish pictures seem to be projections of fantasy, they still capture something real. Instead of depicting the souls of average Catholics who love members of their own sex, they show the hellishly intertwined lives of closeted members of church institutions and their pharisaical persecutors. There is indeed a silent Sodom. It is housed within the structures of churchly power. Its silence must be disturbed before there can be mature Catholic teachings on “homosexuality”—or mature criticisms of how “homosexuality” itself fails to describe gay Catholic lives. The silence of Sodom envelopes a Catholic science of sodomy, of homosexuality, about which we must now speak.
|3||Because I am concerned with the internal connections between Catholic homosexuality and its most official impositions of silence, I
focus on the priesthood and the male religious orders. Women are still sufficiently disenfranchised in the Catholic church to make lesbianism
a separate concern in analyses of the exercise of church power. In any case, we would need to think of Catholic lesbianism and Catholic gayness separately. Categories that combine gay men with lesbians are categories created to persecute both.”
Mark D. Jordan is a Guggenheim Fellowship Recipient and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion at Emory University.