Pope Benedict, on the Queer Lessons in the Church’s Martyrdom of St Joan.

At Enhanced Masculinity, I came across a post which reported on an address by Pope Benedict about the martyrdom and later canonization of St Joan of Arc. I was pleased to see this, as I have written before of the importance of Joan as a queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later rehabilitated and honoured. Much the same will surely occur in time to those modern queer heroes who have been professionally martyred, by the Church which has deliberately destroyed their careers, for the great sin of attempting to speak the truth on sexual ethics or LGBT inclusion.

Benedict’s frank admission of the patent error of the church theologians who presided over Joan’s trial and passed sentence on her, together with his quotation from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium on the constant need for purification, made a welcome contrast with the usual glossing over of past mistakes and the insistence on a constant and unchanging tradition. His words also immediately reminded me of the words of a much younger man, when he as Fr Joseph Ratzinger he wrote a commentary on the Second Vatican Council:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

So, in addition to the significance of this address to my own arguments about the relevance of the queer saints and martyrs, it also relates to the current theological ferment on sexual ethics and widespread criticism of the institutional church. When I then crossed to the Vatican website and read the address in full, I found even more in Pope Benedict’s words that can guide and inspire gay in lesbian Catholics in our struggles to withstand the hostility of the traditional, disordered teaching on homoerotic relationships.

First, this was Westernstock‘s reflection on the address, in a post called, “Blindness of Men of the Church”:

Pope Benedict in his General Audience yesterday was talking about Joan of Arc. He spoke of the inability of her judges, a body of Theologians of the University of Paris presided over by a bishop and by a member of the inquisition, to see her sanctity and the truth of her cause. He saw this as a significant moment in the history of the Church, illustrating the teaching of Vatican II that the Church is at once holy and in need of purification. I could not help feeling on reading this that this inability of men of the Church to see is with us in these days with regard to attitudes towards homosexuality, or, as I like to call it, Enhanced Masculinity. Thirty years after Joan of Arc’s condemnation by men of the Church a re-habilitation of her was set in motion by the Pope, Callixtus III. Ultimately, she was canonized by Benedict XV in 1920. So Papa Ratzinger shows us that things can change in the Church, mistakes can be recognized, the dominion of sin in the Church is nothing new, and will be present until the end of time. This, if you analyze it, gives us hope for the ultimate recognition in the Church of the good of Enhanced Masculinity, and the sin of homophobia. For the moment, and for centuries, men of the Church have condemned homosexuality, because they are prejudiced, as the Pope says the judges of Joan of Arc were, but what of the future?

This frank acknowledgement by the Pope of the mistakes of the Church in the past, with its implied admission that there could also be mistakes in the church of today, is welcome – but so far, he could almost have been paraphrasing my own observations, that St Joan deserves particular consideration among the ranks of queer saints and martyrs as one who was first martyred by the Church, before later being rehabilitated and honoured as a saint. The same rehabilitation which surely come to some of the others of our own day who have been metaphorically martyred by the Church, by impeding or destroying their careers as theologians.

After I read the commentary at Enhanced Masculinity, I read the full post at the Vatican website, and found the Pope’s reflection bristling with even more relevance for modern gay and lesbian Catholics than I had previously considered. Here are some key passages, together with my commentary



Paul VI Audience Hall Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Saint Joan of Arc

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to talk to you about Joan of Arc, a young Saint who lived at the end of the Middle Ages who died at the age of 19, in 1431.  They (Joan and Catherine of Sienna) were in fact two young women of the people, lay women consecrated in virginity, two committed mystics, not in the cloister, but in the midst of the most dramatic reality of the Church and the world of their time. They are perhaps the most representative of those “strong women” who, at the end of the Middle Ages, fearlessly bore the great light of the Gospel in the complex events of history.

(Benedict does not spell out the quality that most directly includes her in my understanding of !queer, her cross dressing, but his description of these two as “strong women” – i.e, in the context of the times,  defying the socially approved gender roles, perhaps qualifies them anyway. Also note his reference to her as a great mystic).

The Church in that period was going through the profound crisis of the great schism of the West, which lasted almost 40 years. …. (and) the protracted Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

(It is possible that future Church historians will see this period as the start of a comparable, protracted schism or reformation)

Joan was born at Domremy, a little village on the border between France and Lorraine. Her parents were well-off peasants, known to all as good Christians. From them she received a sound religious upbringing, considerably influenced by the spirituality of the Name of Jesus, taught by St Bernardine of Siena and spread in Europe by the Franciscans.

We know from Joan’s own words that her religious life developed as a mystical experience from the time when she was 13 (PCon, I, p. 47-48). Through the “voice” of St Michael the Archangel, Joan felt called by the Lord to intensify her Christian life and also to commit herself in the first person to the liberation of her people. Her immediate response, her “yes”, was her vow of virginity, with a new commitment to sacramental life and to prayer: daily participation in Mass, frequent Confession and Communion and long periods of silent prayer before the Crucified One or the image of Our Lady.

The young French peasant girl’s compassion and dedication in the face of her people’s suffering were intensified by her mystical relationship with God. One of the most original aspects of this young woman’s holiness was precisely this link between mystical experience and political mission.

(Like Joan, the greatest weapon that we as gay and lesbians in the church can forge, in our battles with disordered teaching, is to develop a strong spiritual life of our own. “Tale a Chance on God”, John McNeill tells us. To do so in confidence, we need the assurance that comes from spiritual experience and practice).

The years of her hidden life and her interior development were followed by the brief but intense two years of her public life: a year of action and a year of passion.

At the beginning of 1429, Joan began her work of liberation. The many witnesses show us this young woman who was only 17 years old as a very strong and determined person, able to convince people who felt insecure and discouraged. Overcoming all obstacles, she met the Dauphin of France, the future King Charles VII, who subjected her to an examination in Poitiers by some theologians of the university. Their opinion was positive: they saw in her nothing evil, only a good Christian.

Joan’s passion began on 23 May 1430, when she fell into enemy hands and was taken prisoner.

It was a great and solemn Trial, at which two ecclesiastical judges presided, but in fact it was conducted entirely by a large group of theologians from the renowned University of Paris, who took part in the Trial as assessors. They were French clerics, who, on the side politically opposed to Joan’s, had a priori a negative opinion of both her and her mission.

This Trial is a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).

(The “theological” verdict was in fact based in politically motivated a priori convictions. Sound familiar? In this reference to the constant need for vigilance and purification, Benedict here clearly lays open the possibility that the Church may, at times, make mistakes. The German theologians, and many Catholic ethicists elsewhere, would most certainly agree).

The Trial was the dramatic encounter between this Saint and her judges, who were clerics. …These judges were theologians who lacked charity and the humility to see God’s action in this young woman.

The words of Jesus, who said that God’s mysteries are revealed to those who have a child’s heart while they remain hidden to the learned and the wise who have no humility (cf. Lk 10:21), spring to mind. Thus, Joan’s judges were radically incapable of understanding her or of perceiving the beauty of her soul. They did not know that they were condemning a Saint.

About 25 years later the Trial of Nullity, which opened under the authority of Pope Calixtus III, ended with a solemn sentence that declared the condemnation null and void (7 July 1456; PNul, II, pp. 604-610). This long trial, which collected the evidence of witnesses and the opinions of many theologians, all favourable to Joan, sheds light on her innocence and on her perfect fidelity to the Church. Joan of Arc was subsequently canonized by Benedict XV in 1920.

Dear brothers and sisters, the Name of Jesus, invoked by our Saint until the very last moments of her earthly life was like the continuous breathing of her soul, like the beating of her heart, the centre of her whole life. The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc which so fascinated the poet Charles Péguy was this total love for Jesus and for her neighbour in Jesus and for Jesus. This Saint had understood that Love embraces the whole of the reality of God and of the human being, of Heaven and of earth, of the Church and of the world. Jesus always had pride of place in her life, in accordance to her beautiful affirmation: “We must serve God first” (PCon, I, p. 288; cf. Catechismo della Chiesa Cattolica, n. 223). Loving him means always doing his will. She declared with total surrendur and trust. “

Virginity of soul is the state of grace, a supreme value, for her more precious than life. It is a gift of God which is to be received and preserved with humility and trust. One of the best known texts of the first Trial concerns precisely this: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there’” (ibid., p. 62; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2005).

Our Saint lived prayer in the form of a continuous dialogue with the Lord who also illuminated her dialogue with the judges and gave her peace and security. She asked him with trust: Sweetest God, in honour of your holy Passion, I ask you, if you love me, to show me how I must answer these men of the Church” (PCon, I, p. 252). Joan saw Jesus as the “King of Heaven and of the earth”. She therefore had painted on her standard the image of “Our Lord holding the world” (ibid., p. 172): the emblem of her political mission. The liberation of her people was a work of human justice which Joan carried out in charity, for love of Jesus. Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision, as a century later another great Saint, the Englishman Thomas More, was to testify.

As we learn, together with McNeill and following the example of Joan,to take a chance on God, we must never forget that the message of Jesus is a liberating one, for ourselves and for the other oppressed groups with whom we must identify. Growth in this personal relationship with the Lord is our greatest asset as we withstand the hostile forces in the Church.  Many of us would find it more difficult though, to go along with Benedict’s remarks on Joan and the Catholic Church:)

In Jesus Joan contemplated the whole reality of the Church, the “Church triumphant” of Heaven, as well as the “Church militant” on earth. According to her words, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing” (ibid., p. 166). This affirmation, cited in theCatechism of the Catholic Church (n. 795), has a truly heroic character in the context of theTrial of Condemnation, before her judges, men of the Church who were persecuting and condemning her. In the Love of Jesus Joan found the strength to love the Church to the very end, even at the moment she was sentenced.

But perhaps Benedict is right. The Church after all is much more than some misguided and distorted teaching, much more than an autocratic, out of touch bureaucracy, although those are what catch the public eye. Alongside these there are many treasures. Among the greatest of these is the Mass and its central celebration of the Eucharist, or communion. I have a growing conviction that regular communion is one of the best routes to growing in that personal growth with the Lord that is so important.

I also take great and perverse satisfaction in knowing that in the Mass, so central to Catholic tradition, there are at least three clear reminders that whatever may be the impression given by the modern institutional Church, the  Gospels themselves and church history are truly inclusive:

  • The Mass itself is a celebration of Christ’s marriage to the Church, symbolized as Jesus as the bridegroom in the wedding at Cana – and just possibly, John the Beloved Disciple as the bride (making it a gay wedding at Cana’)
  • The Eucharistic Prayer, with its listing of several same-sex pairs of saints, is a direct echo of the liturgy for blessing same-sex unions in the early church
  • The prayer before communions, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you”, is almost a direct quotation of the words of the Roman centurion, “Say but the word, and my servant will be healed”. Always remember as you join in this prayer, that the (male) servant in question will also have been a sexual partner.

And so, I urge: even if you are unable to follow Joan in loving the hostile elements in the Catholic Church – try at least to love the Mass.

Related articles

One Response to “Pope Benedict, on the Queer Lessons in the Church’s Martyrdom of St Joan.”

  1. Paul Robert Says:

    Gratified that the little spark that I struck has fired up such a wealth of reflection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: