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.”



Image by Waka Jawaka via Flickr

Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Benedict’s Strong Argument for Gay Marriage, Queer Families.

Last Sunday, I picked up a little book at the Soho Masses bookstall called “Christians and Sexuality in the Time of AIDS“, a useful little book, which I bought at a ridiculously low bargain price. Some of the insights have little to do directly with the main theme, and it is one of these that is relevant here, an observation made by James Alison in his introduction, writing about Pope Benedict XVI and the nature of his theology.  James has frequently observed that when we respond too quickly or too superficially to the pope’s reported remarks, we often underestimate his thinking, which is substantially more nuanced than we usually recognize. In his position, he argues, Benedict cannot do other than repeat the well-worn, established magisterial positions on topical issues.

The really interesting questions surrounding what a pope is doing are never the politically immediate headline grabbers, but always the small, apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges which are either going to make change possible over time, or try to block it.

When I read these words, they brought into focus for me the speech that Benedict  gave to a group of Italian politicians and public officials last Friday, which has been widely interpreted as an attack on gay marriage. This is not the way I interpreted the speech: instead, I wrote (in the post below) that the reference to “marriage between a man and a woman”, and to the forces undermining it, were curiously minor. The main thrust of the speech was more usefully seen as in praise of strong families – which could equally well apply to the families of same sex parents as to any other.   After reading James Alison, I thought how perfectly his warning applies to the present case: well, of course he made the obligatory noises about marriage between a man and a woman (how could he not?) – but the headline writers have missed the main points. With just a little “apparently insignificant tinkerings around the edges”, this attack on gay marriage can instead be read as a statement in praise of all families – including those which are queer.

I submit my original post below, just as I wrote it Sunday — with profound apologies to my colleague Bart, who very generously responded to my request for preliminary comment with some very useful and helpful suggestions, which I have duly ignored. This is not in any way a reflection on his contribution – but just on my acute lack of time this week.  (I am writing this close to midnight, as it is). I will revise and refine this text later, to incorporate the additional links, Bart’s contribution – and possibly later thought as well (both my own and that of readers’ comments).

Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Benedict’s Gay Circus at the Vatican

The net was briefly ablaze last month with reports and youtube clips of these circus acrobats’ performance for Pope Benedict. Commentary was divided: queer and queer friendly sites simply asked us to enjoy the show – or noted wryly that the pope appeared to be doing so himself. Other less friendly sites expressed shock at the scandal of this homoerotic display in the hallowed halls of the Vatican. At the time, I read a couple of reports, watched the video – and moved on, without comment.

A more recent report by Randy Engel in Spero News caught my attention this week, for suggesting that there may well be something of more interest to it for LGBT readers, claiming that the performers are definitely gay aligned, if not specifically gay men themselves. It seems that they formed part of the gay circus, which performed as part of the Euro gay games in Barcelona, 2008.

On July 25-27, 2008, the Pellegrini Brothers appeared in the Gay Circus, a specially-staged 3-day event set within the framework of the XII EuroGames (“Gay Olympics”) in Barcelona, Spain. Up until this point, the Pellegrini name had been associated with well-known international circuses including the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus (USA), the Circus Knie (Switzerland), and the International Circus Festival (Monte Carlo).

Billed as “a show for people without prejudices,” that is “a gay and lesbian friendly audience,” by publicist Irene Peralta, the “Gay Circus” was created as an artistic tribute to gay culture and as a “contribution to the normalization of homosexuality.” It featured male/male performers in a homoerotic setting. Peralta told reporters that “Gay Circus will transform the traditional understanding of the circus.”

As always with Randy Engel, the piece needs to be read with a health warning. She is described as “one of the nation’s top investigative reporters”, but by whom? Well, her own website. She is indeed prolific, and has a track record of writing extensively about a supposed “gay mafia” in the Vatican, and has made extensive claims of homosexuality against numerous bishops and cardinals worldwide – and against some recent popes, most notably John Paul I and Paul VI. Many of her claims are at least credible, but not all are generally accepted as proven by more established journalists. In this piece, her claims about the Pellegrini brothers can presumably be quite easily verified, but I confess I have not had the energy to do so myself.

If you like, do the fact checking yourself – or simply take her piece at face value,  and enjoy its implications.

The Circus at the Vatican: Reflections on how it came to be

Saturday, January 08, 2011 By Randy Engel

“Topless Acrobats Perform for Pope”, “Bare-chested Acrobats Perform for Pope”, “Pope Captivated by Shirtless Male Acrobats”, “Surprise Strippers in Vatican!”

These headlines which flooded the Internet and international media following the Papal General Audience of December 15, 2010, held at Paul VI Hall in Vatican City were enough to unsettle even the most intrepid post-Conciliar Catholic.

The scandal in question involved the Pellegrini Brothers, heirs to the well-known Italian circus dynasty, who were invited to entertain the pope and his entourage and the more than 6,000 visitors assembled for the weekly audience during the Advent season in Rome. It was, however, not their short hand-balancing act, but rather their grand entrance and provocative salutation to the Holy Father that sparked controversy.

On cue, the four young men mounted the platform area, faced the pope seated across from his secretary and cardinals on stage, and then in a manner reminiscent of the Vegas Chippendale male strippers, peeled off their jackets revealing their bare muscular upper torso. The Fratelli Pellegrini were accompanied on stage by a statuesque, well-endowed brunette with stiletto boots who had been poured into a black skin-tight leather outfit and whose task it was to gather up the performers’ jackets, stroll across the stage and await the end of the exhibition. The only fashion accessory she lacked to complete the sadomasochist scenario was a whip.

The anti-climatic gymnast act completed, the Pellegrini Brothers followed by the madam in leather, left the stage to the sounds of clapping from an enthusiastic audience, including a smiling pope and host of cardinals.

Pellegrini Brothers Perform at “Gay Circus”

On July 25-27, 2008, the Pellegrini Brothers appeared in the Gay Circus, a specially-staged 3-day event set within the framework of the XII EuroGames (“Gay Olympics”) in Barcelona, Spain. Up until this point, the Pellegrini name had been associated with well-known international circuses including the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus (USA), the Circus Knie (Switzerland), and the International Circus Festival (Monte Carlo).

Billed as “a show for people without prejudices,” that is “a gay and lesbian friendly audience,” by publicist Irene Peralta, the “Gay Circus” was created as an artistic tribute to gay culture and as a “contribution to the normalization of homosexuality.” It featured male/male performers in a homoerotic setting. Peralta told reporters that “Gay Circus will transform the traditional understanding of the circus.”

The homosexual media touted the event as an opportunity for parents to introduce their sons to other forms of sexual love outside the traditional male/female model, and to give greater exposure to homosexuality as a legitimate sexual preference. Video selections of the Gay Circus show many children in the audience. Ticket sales were estimated to be over 12,000.

The theme of the Gay Circus centered upon the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. Sadomasochist elements which dominate gay culture were visible both in the costuming and demeanor of the performers. One aerial act featured two male “angels” in a tight embrace naked except for a g-string. Another, with two “devils” in black leather jockstraps and harnesses. A short video of the Pellegrini Brothers performance at the Gay Circus, which was very similar to the portion of their act performed at the papal audience complete with an opening strip scenario, showed two burly shirtless men acting as jacket attendants.

According to Gay Circus producer Genis Matabosch, artistic performance and quality were the primary criteria for casting, not sexual orientation. Matabosch admitted he did not know who among the cast was homosexual and who was not.

Related articles

A Reader’s Excellent Questions On Celibacy.

My reader William is not Catholic, and has declared to me in private correspondence that he does not regard himself as a highly educated man. Sometimes though, it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things clearly, and sometimes great learning just gets in the way. I find great wisdom in his question, below, which we supposedly educated Catholics would do well to ponder – and also his conclusion.

I am going to take a stab at this and please understand I am not trying to offend anyone who regards themselves as Catholic. It is my understanding that the Catholic Church regards Peter as the first Pope. Then please tell me why Jesus would make a married man Pope if He was opposed to men, in the service of the Lord, being married? As I recall were not the majority of the priests in the Old Testament married? How is it that the ruling body of this church consist entirely of men who say they are celibate and have remained so their entire “official” life, how can someone without any sexual experience advise anyone on a sexual matter much less make regulations regarding a subject they know nothing of? Of course this could also be asked of anyone who regards themselves as heterosexual and claiming that being homosexual is a choice. The fact that they are heterosexual eliminates them from any discussion on any sexual matter not related to heterosexual matters.

The bottom line as far as I am concerned is that if Jesus did not oppose marriage for His followers including Peter and future Popes and if He also did not have anything to say about same sex matters then we who are His creation should remain silent as well.

“Gradualism” in Benedict’s Theology.

Amidst a flood of commentary on Benedict’s observations on condoms, one of the pieces that I have found most useful is by my friend Martin Pendergast, writing at the Guardian. Martin reflects on the broader character and style of Pope Benedict, and says that he is not surprised by the shift in emphasis now apparent. Although one would never think it from public Vatican statements, which are usually well-padded with references to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, in fact the Church’s teaching is constantly changing. This is a process theologians describe as “development”:

Why am I not surprised that Benedict XVI has edged away from the Vatican’s previous opposition to the use of condoms in HIV prevention? The answer might be that this pope is, above all else, a theologian.

While his grassroots pastoral experience is as limited as his academic record is huge, he is strongly aware of the centrality of “development” as a key principle of all Catholic teaching. This enables the Catholic hierarchy to forbid something one day and make it compulsory weeks later; for a pope to assert in doctrinal statements, “as my venerable predecessors have always taught”, when patently they have not.

Pendergast notes that the Pope already has a track record of modifying the hard-line sexual teaching of his predecessor, as in the example of a 2oo5 address to conference on family, in which

he delicately overturned John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, indicating principles of “humanisation” rather than “idealisation” in the realm of sexuality.

He also emphasises an aspect of Benedict’s personality that I have frequently come across elsewhere – that for those who have dealt with him personally, he shows readiness to listen and engage in argument. Pendergast also refers to the evidence I have reported on before, that in same-sex relationships, he has been a moderating influence, possibly toning down the language of the CDF Pastoral Letter he was compelled to sign; affirming to Sr Jeannine Gramick during an in-flight conversation that her conscientious dissent was not an excommunicable offence; and the Vatican support under his watch for our London pastoral ministry to LGBT Catholics.

This article agrees with my view that this latest development is not a “radical change” in Catholic teaching, but he has useful comments on the implications for Catholic practice on the ground. There will also be, he says, unforeseen implications:

What is not in doubt in any of these comments, including those on the need to ponder sexual ethics issues more deeply, is that the pope seems to be endorsing the principle of Catholic moral theology known as “gradualism”.

Heavily criticised by John Paul II (in his 1993 encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor) this approach recognises that moral decision making is a step-by-step process. Progressive Catholic theologians, including bishops and cardinals, have applied this principle to a range of sexual ethics questions, including HIV issues, civil law and abortion, and sexual orientation law reform. Who knows, perhaps this might open the door even to a direct papal dialogue with the victims of abuse, people living with HIV, and God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered daughters and sons?

Other commentators have also noted that this approach has been applied for years by many theologians and the more progressive bishops. What is new, perhaps, is that this gradualist approach is now reaching the public domain, as having the approval of the Pontiff – rather than condemnation, as with John Paul II.

As always with Benedict, it is dangerous to reach conclusions based only on the simplistic summaries of journalists (or bloggers, myself definitely included). Read the book. Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times has now been published, and should be available from today.

The Problems of the Pope’s “Condom” Interview.

Two things are clear about Benedict XVI’s interview with his remarks on condoms: the extraordinary interest, and the widespread confusion it has created. A front page story in yeterday’s Guardian featured interviews with Catholic students at my previous home parish in Johannesburg, Holy Trinity.  They objected  to the “approval” given to gay prostitutes, as gay sex (in their view) was totally wrong. Instead, they believed he should have approved it for married couples. Gay activists nearby had  a different take – they were concerned that the restriction to condom use in prostitution was insufficient- he need to approve gay relationships more generally.

Even professional journalists and regular bloggers cannot agree on the precise context: was he referring to all prostitutes, only to male prostititutes, or only to male gay prostitutes.

This has since been clarified. The papal spokesman Fr Lombardi has confirmed that the gender is not relevant: Read the rest of this entry »

Condoms and the “Marital Act”.

I got home late last night to find the news sites ablaze with reports that Pope Benedict has conceded that there could be some justification for the use of condoms “in certain cases”. Most reports see this (very slight) shift as significant: the Daily Telegraph headline calls it “historic”. Others are less convinced, noting that the example he gives is very specific, that of a male (homosexual) prostitute, for whom contraception is clearly a non- starter in the first place.

Condom Permitted?

Read the rest of this entry »

John XXI: The Pope Who Promoted Birth Control, Abortion and Aphrodisiacs

I love the oddities that can be discovered in the lesser known corners of Church history. Peter of Spain has gone down in history as Pope John XXI, whose brief papacy (1276 – 77) ended when part of the ceiling of his library fell on his head. He is also the only pope placed by Dante in the third book, “Paradiso” of the Divine Comedy. (He placed in Inferno, or Purgatorio – which says something of his view of the papacy.)


Read the rest of this entry »

What (European) Catholics Believe.

The Economist this week has an excellent analysis of the state of the Catholic Church in Europe . Headlined  “The Void Within“, it argues that the church is “hollowing out” at it’s centre. It’s not a flattering picture, but is worth reading in full.

The bottom line is that barring a few exceptions, the Church in Europe is in precipitous decline. There has been a gradual erosion of loyalty and attendance for many years, but this has accelerated since the abuse crisis, and is compounded by a dramatic collapse of church structures and clergy:

….in many European places where Catholicism remained all-powerful until say, 1960, the church is losing whatever remains of its grip on society at an accelerating pace. The drop in active adherence to, and knowledge of, Christianity is a long-running and gentle trend; but the hollowing out of church structures—parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, charities—is more dramatic. That is the backdrop against which the paedophile scandal, now raging across Europe after its explosion in the United States, has to be understood. The church’s fading institutional power makes it (mercifully) easier for people who were abused by clerics to speak out; and as horrors are laid bare, the church, in many people’s eyes, grows even weaker.

Read the rest of this entry »

Un-Catholic at Pride: Protest the Pope, or Ignore Him?

While walking down Oxford Street with other gay/lesbian Catholics, I suddenly found myself faced with a BBC television camera and reporter. “What,” she asked, “do you think of the pope’s UK visit?”

This has become highly topical, and highly emotional here. Even today, there are some permanent tensions which have their background in the historical development of the Anglican church, and the subsequent suppression of the Catholic faith, when Catholicism was seen as a form of treason (and incidentally, lumped  together with heresy and sodomy as the greatest of sins against religion. Today, traces of the legal restrictions remain in the unequal status of the “established” Anglican church and the others, while deep suspicion lingers in some quarters about the Catholic (and other) faith schools, about the regular interventions by Catholic bishops in political debates on abortion legislation,  civil partnerships / gay marriage, gay adoption rights, and most recently about the successful attempts to thwart parts of recent equality legislation intended to prevent discrimination by church employers. The stories of clerical abuse and inadequate church response over the past year have simply added to the hostility of a small anti-Catholic minority, and a wider anti-papal/ anti-Vatican feeling of some others (including many progressive Catholics). What has really added fuel to the fire, is that this is to be treated as a state visit, with substantial cost to the British taxpayer, at a time when the new government is announcing plans to slash expenditure across a wide front. No wonder some people are angry.

This particularly includes the LGBT community, and so there was a strong anti-papal presence at the London Pride parade, with a banner, and leaflet distributors. The reporter in front of me was clearly preparing a program not on Gay Pride specifically, but a broader current affairs program on the papal visit, with gay and gay Catholic reactions just one element. Read the rest of this entry »