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 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 »

Military Transitions: Australia Supports Transitioning Soldier

While the US continues to dither over DADT, its military allies have moved way beyond lesbian and gay inclusion, to providing also for transgender service – and full support during the transitioning process.  News from Australia is that military authorities there will not only allow a transitioning soldier to continue to serve after transitioning, they will provide full support during the process (including state funding for the surgery). I known of at least one similar case from South Africa – I am certain there are others elsewhere.

Somewhere along the line of modern history, the myth arose that only hetero males could make good soldiers – completely overlooking the evidence from around the world that in some societies, women, gay men, and transgender people have frequently served with distinction.  Classical Greek history and literature are littered with pairs of military lovers, including the renowned Sacred band of Thebes, which was exclusively composed of such pairs. Similarly, the famed Japanese Samurai mentored younger men who served also as sexual partners. Many African societies had entire regiments of fighting women, including the Amazons of Dahomey and Shaka’s Zulus in Southern Africa. In North America, the widespread institution of the berdache included many instances where biological males adopted female dress and roles – but also fought with distinction in military battles. It is good to see how so many countries in the modern world are putting historic myths and prejudices aside, to focus only on service members’ abilities, and not their genital or psychosexual characteristics.

When with the US finally follow suit?

Tammy (left) and Bridget Clinch.

From the Australia Herald Sun:

Sex-change case through Defence

DEFENCE force chiefs will pay for the sex change operation of a soldier who wants to return to work.

Army Captain Matthew Clinch, who served twice in East Timor, will become Bridget Clinch after gender reassignment-realignment surgery, funded by taxpayers.

Victorian RSL president Maj-Gen David McLachlan said he was surprised the Army was picking up the tab.

“It seems a little odd that they would allow such an abnormal situation get this far,” Maj-Gen McLachlan said. “The soldier involved would be putting themselves in a situation where they would be subjected to all sorts of peer pressure.”

Asked if paying for the surgery was a good use of defence funds, he said: “It’s unusual.”

Capt Clinch is in Brisbane with partner Tammy and two daughters on extended sick leave from her job as second-in-command of the army’s Adventurous Training Wing based at Wagga in southern NSW, but wants her former job back.

Appearing on Seven’s Sunday Night last night the decorated East Timor veteran, who did two tours of duty with the Townsville-based 1st Battalion, said she’d always felt like a woman locked in a man’s body. “There is no difference between what I can do and what any other female can do once I’ve finished all of my treatment,” Capt Clinch said. Tammy, who also trained as an army officer and describes Capt Clinch as her “knight in shining armour”, is angry the military took so long to agree to fund the treatment.

“Matt was a good army officer, I think that Bridget will make a better army officer, they just need to realise it.

“I saw my partner suffering really badly and I helped him. It was hard though because I was helping destroy the outside bit of the man I loved.”

Read the full report

Recommended Books

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality

Roughgarder, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Blessed John Henry and Ambrose: Newman’s Last Sermon

The media caravanserai has moved on, but Cardinal John Henry Newman is now and will remain known as Blessed John Henry. He remains also a significant, if complex, figure for gay and lesbian Catholics in his relationship with his beloved Ambrose St John, and in his theology for progressive Catholics more generally. The theology is subtle, and has been too easily misappropriated by people on both sides of the Church ideological divide. I do not (yet) want to enter that territory. About the relationship with Ambrose, I feel more secure.

 

Inscription for a grave in which both John Henry and Ambrose were buried.

Alan Bray (“The Friend “) has written extensively about this relationship, showing how it fits into an ancient tradition of close, even passionate friendship between male couples in the Church: Read the rest of this entry »

The Road Ahead: How Long, How Long!

After I placed a report this week on the UN accreditation for an LGBT Human Rights Group, I noted in a comment that it is important as we celebrate each landmark (as with gay marriage success), we should also look back and recognise how far we have come.

Sadly, I was reminded this week that we also need to look ahead and consider just how far we still have to go. At one end of the scale, there are still five countries that impose the death penalty for homosexual acts. On the other, not even the most progressive countries have year reached  full equality: there are still only a handful of countries with full protection against all discrimination on grounds of both orientation and gender identity. None of those has a full slate of legal protections.

My interest today was triggered by a report from Canada, concerning the possibly imminent execution of an Iranian man, urging the Canadian government to “intervene”. The difficulty in these countries, which are generally pretty hostile to the West in the first place, is knowing how to intervene without aggravating the situation.  The death penalty also still applies in four other states (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania and Sudan), as well as in some parts of Nigeria and Somalia.

In search of fuller information I went to ILGA (International Lesbian Gay Association), and downloaded their report  on “State Sponsored Homophobia“. This is dated May 2010, so its pretty up to date – but beware. The listing for marriage gives only three countries, omitting Portugal, Iceland Argentina. This a sharp (and encouraging) sign of just how quickly things can sometimes change. Read the rest of this entry »

Gay Pride, Warsaw- In the 16 th Century!

Most Pride celebrations are local, for a specific city or town. In Europe, things are a little different. Every year, one city is selected for a continental celebration, drawing in visitors from right across the continent for Euro Pride. A few years ago, it was London’s turn. Today, Warsaw hosts Europride.

This has attracted the attention of activists who are conscious of modern Poland’s reputation as a bastion of homophobia, one of the few European countries where gay marriage is constitutionally prohibited, and where some major political parties campaign on gay-bashing.  UK government minister Chris Bryant, the most senior openly gay man in the new coalition,  has gone to Warsaw to join the parade, in the hope that Euro Pride in Warsaw will contribute to an erosion of the hostile political culture.

 

 

Sigmund Column: Symbol of Warsaw - and a Gay Memorial

 

At least one gay Pole objects to this image. Writing a “A Postcard From Gay Poland“, ?ukasz Palucki exposes an extraordinary amount of what for most of us is hidden gay history, showing how Poland was for centuries a bastion of gay tolerance. Read the rest of this entry »