Exceptionalism: failing to learn from history

(Gay priest Bart writes on the impact of the culture of clericalism on the Church):

Exceptionalism (Wikipedia; Collins English Dictionary) is the perception that a country, society, institution, movement, or time period is “exceptional” (i.e., unusual or extraordinary) in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles. In recent decades, we heard more often of the term “American exceptionalism”, but really this word has a long pedigree, with British and Soviet exceptionalism being other recent examples. The perception behind exceptionalism is not dissimilar to that belief which holds that certain companies or institutions are too big to fail. The last decade disproved  this perception in a horrific way, first with the Enron collapse, and then more recently with the collapse of Lehman Brothers (and with it the whole banking sector), followed by the bailing-out of a corporation that used to boast a product output that was larger than the GDP of most countries: General Motors. As I sat reading Terry’s Thoughts on Popular Revolutions: in Egypt, in South Africa – in the Church, I couldn’t but help remembering that the Catholic Church promotes its own brand of exceptionalism. I would like to share a couple of thoughts on this point with my readers.

Catholicism locks onto a cluster of foundational principles, the most important being the following:

1.      The belief that the Church is established by Jesus Christ, who also promised that he would be with it till the end of time (Matthew 16:18-19; 28:20);

2.      The belief in the unifying, leadership role of Peter the Apostle and his successor, the Pope, the bishop of Rome (Matthew 16:18-19); and

3.      The belief that the one Church of Jesus Christ – “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” (Nicene Creed) – subsists in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, in n. 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, stated that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in this present, world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic unity.”

 

pope-benedict-saturno-hat

Image by Waka Jawaka via Flickr

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Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos, 3rd Century Lovers and Martyrs.

The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar – but should be.  John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before  Sergius & Bacchus .
Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians.  The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.

The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

In “The Sexual Person“, the Catholic lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler give a useful historical review of the substantial shifts in the orthodox doctrine on sex and marriage – while also illustrating how much of that teaching is stuck in the fourth century thought of Augustine, and that of Aquinas from the thirteenth century. (Is there any other field of human thought that is so rooted in those two distant periods?) This is an important book that I will be discussing regularly in small bites. For now, I simply want to point to the briefest summary of the main argument, in preparation for a specific extract referring to Pope Paul VI and Humane Vitae.

Two things strike me in this account. As I have frequently noted before, it is completely untrue that the Catholic Church has a “constant and unchanging tradition” on sexual ethics.  Rather, the tradition has been constantly evolving. Just consider the complete transformation of the view on sexual pleasure – from one that it is to be avoided at all costs, even while begetting children or in nocturnal involuntary emissions, to one where it can contribute to the sacramental value of marriage. What has evolved in the past, will surely continue to evolve. That evolution will surely be aided by the capacity of theologians and popes to retrieve, when required, obscure and forgotten pieces from history – and proclaim them of fundamental importance. In two thousand years of theological writing, there will surely be a plethora of documents now obscure, which contradict some current thinking. Some of these will no doubt be retrieved by scholars – and being rehabilitated, will influence further adjustments in the changing tradition of the Church.

 

St Augustine - 6th cent fresco, Lateran

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The Fall of Rome, Reality Based History – and Gay Adoption

The vocal opponents of family equality are fond of making sweeping statements (in flagrant disregard of the evidence) about how marriage has “always” been between one man and on woman, how the proponents of equality are “redefining” evidence, quite ignoring the ways in marriage has been constantly redefined in the past – not least by the Christian churches. A variation on the theme has been that homosexuality has destroyed great civilizations, such as that of Rome. Illinois state Rep. Ronald Stephens has repeated this claim, blaming “open homosexuality” for the fall of Rome.

In a fun, sane response in the Chicago Sun-Times, Neill Steinberg dismisses the claim, basing his response on, well, historical fact, not what he calls Stephens’ talking points. His most important observation is that the best known extensive study of the fall of Rome, Edward Gibbons “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, concluded that Roman civilization collapsed not because of homosexuality, but because of – guess what? Christianity.

Would that be a argument to ban Christianity today, for fear that it could cause the collapse of modern Western civilization?

The point I want to make is not that Gibbons was either right or wrong, but to heartily endorse Steinberg’s larger point, that grand claims about the lessons of history really ought to be checked against the facts. This is certainly true in the secular sphere, but also in religious discourse. The often -repeated Vatican claims of Catholic “constant and unchanging tradition” are a smokescreen, often used to used to hide the importance of recently introduced changes, as Martin Pendergast noted recently, writing about gradualism in Benedict’s theology.

But today, I do not want to explore this theme of the Church’s constantly changing tradition. Let’s just enjoy, instead, Steinberg’s thoroughly delightful response to rep Stephens’ ignorance. Here are some extracts: Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Benedict, and “Homosexual Orgies in the Lateran Palace”.

A few days ago, there were several breathless reports that Mel Gibson’s father had claimed that Pope Benedict XVI, along with half the Vatican, were “homosexuals”. It turned out though, that these were old claims, made in a January radio interview which were totally unsupported by any evidence.

Allegations of widespread homosexuality among high ranking Vatican officials are not new though, nor are they surprising. Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Romero: Bishop of the Poor

As Bishop of the Poor, Oscar Romero is an appropriate model for all of us. By standing up firmly as a witness for truth, and against injustice and oppression of all kinds, he has additional significance for us as gay men, lesbians and transgendered in the Church.

If you want peace, work for justice.

 

Oscar Romero worked for justice, in the face of open opposition from his fellow Salvadorean bishops.  He was on the side of history, they were not. He understood that the obligation we have is to follow the Gospel, before we follow the rules of the Curial cabal. Where faithfulnesss to God and loyalty to a state are in conflict, the Church has always taught that loyalty to God must come first. Where faithfulness to the Gospels and loyalty to the bishops conflict, Romero showed that the truth of the Gospels is primary. Read the rest of this entry »

Gay Popes: Julius III

When I wrote about Paul II earlier, I referred to Julius III – then realised I have never given you more than a snippet on this flagrant lover of boys including one in particular, a street urchin whom Julius appointed as Cardinal at the grand old age of 17

In his early career in the Church Julius established a reputation as an effective and trustworthy diplomat, and was elected to the Papacy as a compromise candidate when the Papal Conclave found itself deadlocked between the rival French and German factions. As Pope he lost, or failed to show, any of the qualities which had distinguished his previous career, devoting himself instead to a life of personal pleasure and indolence. His lasting fame, or notoriety, rests rather on his relationship with the 17 year old boy whom he raised to the position of Cardinal-Nephew, and, it was said at the time, with whom he shared his bed.

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