In the theology of the apostle Paul "Flesh" and "Spirit" refer not so much to body and soul, as to two orders of being, the one characterised by bondage, wickedness and a closed, darkened mind hostile to truth, the other by a glorious freedom, standing in righteousness and in hope-filled openness to God's future. Irish gays may be intimidated by those who harp morosely on their "sins of the flesh," and indeed may be prone to accuse themselves of mediocrity and failure. That is largely because they have internalised the criteria of human worth traditionally upheld by Irish society, in which very simple and exceptionless rules of sexual orthodoxy were automatically invoked to classify people as good or bad.
However, it is encouraging to remember that Jesus frequently pointed out that the sexually unorthodox were streets ahead of the religious and legal authorities in God's eyes. Comparing the works of the Irish gay community - the spread of honesty, tolerance, friendship and a spirit of caring - with the attitudes of those who have thrown the weight of their authority behind the law which destroyed Oscar Wilde, I think it not unlikely that it is the puritanically sexless people who are really in bondage to the flesh, while those who live their sexual lives honestly, albeit not angelically, are the ones who are more open to the spirit.
Jesus lived as the prophet of “the kingdom of God" which was to fulfil every human dream of liberation. To enter that kingdom one must be born anew, born of the Spirit. Some have defined this kingdom as "inclusive community," the intimate communion of men and women with God and with one another. Our world is clearly not that kingdom - one cannot claim that the thousands who starve on the streets in India enjoy inclusive community with those of us who live in a world of super-packed refrigerators. And the capitalist system has so conditioned us to utter selfishness that we cannot enjoy inclusive community with them either. A revolutionary transformation, involving a death and a resurrection for each of us, is what we ask for every time we pray "Thy kingdom come.” Rome knew what it was at when it persecuted the early Christians for that prayer. Wherever Christians are really trying to change the world today, they encounter persecution in the same way, and their witness calls us to a new sense of human brotherhood in resistance to the fear, greed and pride that divide people from one another and from God.
Now an inclusive community is also one that includes the whole person, and it is one in which a person is accepted in his or her sexuality. The Christian Church does not point to the kingdom when it asks of its members that they forget or conceal their sexuality, or when it tries to wrap this dimension of life up in sanitized packages. Too many Irish men are cowed by a church which makes them feel ashamed of their sexuality. In general a chronic malaise about sex is one of the chief causes of the anaemic and unreal character of the public life of the church in Ireland, its failure to mesh with the reality of people's lives and their struggle.
Fear, greed and pride are at work here, and must be resisted. If we fear one another so much that we compulsively conceal our sexuality and present a false front to our neighbour, or are unable to accept the full humanity of our neighbour: if we are so greedy for the security of our little capitalist niches – or for the success of our church – that we dare not risk giving offence by embracing undesirable people or by revealing ourselves in a light others might find undesirable: if we are so proud of our religious or national identity that we root out our own sexuality as unCatholic or unIrish; then is it any wonder that the harp and shamrock are yielding to the gun, the bottle, the syringe needle and the fast buck as the emblems of Irish life? If we lie on a grand scale in the area of sexuality, can we hope to have the honesty and radicality needed to steer the country through its present difficulties to a future of peace, integrity and economic freedom? Can our faith be a liberative force in these areas if it is associated with obscurantism, servility and mutual mistrust at a more intimate level?
The church is the community in which we unlearn fear, greed and pride, not one in which we become expert at branding one another as sinners. A church in which we are not accepted - or cannot accept ourselves - as we are. cannot transform us into kingdom-people. The Irish churches are still human all-too-human, still full of mistrust and paralysis; they need a touch of kingdom recklessness to make them truly human. They need to throw away their respectability, their possessions, their denominational hang-ups as promptly and as boldly as martyrs ancient and modern have thrown away their lives.
Each person's sexuality is one of the major factors that orient him or her to the inclusive community of the kingdom. That is a reason why everyone should have the right to understand, explore and express their sexual identity. I agree with D.H. Lawrence that most of the time the physical expression of sex is not appropriate, and that a general sexual looseness is no sign of freedom or fulfilment. But, conversely each person should be warmly and wholly alive from womb to grave, and should not be forced to hide the sexual dimensions of their vitality under a mask. If our sexuality can serve to build up a community of mutual trust, then it is spiritual; it cannot be classed with the "uncleanliness" against which St. Paul warns. If our sexuality keeps us humble, open and understanding in our dealings with one another, then it can help us to "pass from death to life" through "loving the brethren" according to the Johannine ideal. It is not at all easy to bind sex to trust, generosity and compassion rather than to suspicion, empty hedonism and unloving individualism; but that is the creative venture many Irish gays are embracing. In this venture the church has much to learn from dialogue with them, while in refusing that dialogue it may be taking yet another step away from the inclusive community this island needs so badly.
From: Out (Dublin) 1:1 (Dec. 1984-Jan. 1985)
APPENDIX (Out 12, 1986):
The "Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People" from the CDF has already been universally denounced for its pastoral insensitivity, and gay Catholics in particular have reacted with rage and grief. Theologians may discuss the letter's "arguments" sine ira et studio, but such a dispassionate response may be lacking in Christian and prophetic sensitivity to injustice. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are those who shout and scream. One of them is the much suffering sterling Jesuit John McNeill, now to be suspended from the Jesuits for his public criticism of the document as "evil".
The claim that the letter's views "find support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences" (paragraph 2 of the text) is unsupported by any reference, Acquaintance with other texts on the subject by authors defensive of the "tradition" leads me to suspect that if references had been given, the scientific authorities in question would be found to enjoy only limited respectability. Freud's theory of universal bisexuality, Jung's glowing evaluation of homosexual sensibility, Kinsey's spectrum of sexual preference, Lorenz's observations of homosexual patterns in the animal kingdom, would probably ensure that these great names are absent from the CDF’s list of approved authors.
The upshot of these scientific researches is that homosexuality cannot be abstracted from the unbroken continuum of human sexuality, that it is part of the economy of sexuality throughout the animal kingdom, that it is an indispensable part of the very fabric of sexuality itself. Predominantly homosexual individuals indeed suffer disadvantages in regard to procreation and knowledge of the other sex; but these are compensated for by unique qualities which have their proper function. Homosexual love-relationships (coloured by an element of creative narcissism) can bring an almost preternatural degree of immediate understanding between the partners; can a man ever understand a woman, or vice versa, as radically and completely as a man can understand another man or a woman another woman in the homosexual situation?
"An overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good… It is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder" (par.3). Here homosexual affectivity is reduced to an animal urge. That homosexual feeling can be ordered to Platonic, spiritual friendship, towards the mutual love and support of a Ruth and Naomi or a David and Jonathan, is ignored. Yet these are not only well-known facts; they are also enshrined in Christian tradition, in such works as the De spiritali amicitia of Aelred of Rievaulx.
The Letter’s doctrinal innovation contradicts this noble tradition of the Church. It would make the beatification of John Henry Newman impossible, since he never apologised for the homosexual sensitivity which was the cement of his friendships. Such a doctrinal innovation, introduced by a small handful of men, who have made no effort to dialogue with the gay community, with pastors, the laity, theologians, or the human sciences, and who show evident signs of prejudice and fear, cannot in my opinion be regarded as an authentic exercise of the Church's teaching magisterium.
In Japanese and Malay culture the stigmatization of homosexual feeling from which the West has suffered has never taken root. Am I, as an occasional lecturer in moral theology, now obliged to teach people from these cultures to hate their own natural feelings? If I see two Filipino men or women holding hands, am I to rap them with a stick in the name of the CDF’s puritanical intuitions? In Western culture, too, many great achievements depend intrinsically on what the CDF dismisses as a disorder: Plato's Dialogues, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Michelangelo’s Captives, Virgil’s Eclogues, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past - the list is endless. Is the source of so much vision, insight, and beauty not something to be cherished as an irreplaceable component in the humanity of humankind? What sort of Philistinism is it that would brand Shakespeare a "poof" and Plato a"queer"?
In teaching people to hate their own sexuality, the Letter confirms a pastoral policy which has always been disastrous. How many young souls have been destroyed in the confessional? How many have been taught a masochistic self-hatred, leading to psychological oppression and confusion, schizophrenia and suicide? Can such evils occur in the Church of Christ? Ask the Jews.
The catena of biblical proof-texts in paragraph 6 proves nothing at all. The stories of Sodom and Gibeah stink of the patriarchal immorality which would “Expose a matron to avoid worse rape” as Milton put it. The Holiness Code of Leviticus is a bloodthirsty document which cannot be held up as a pattern of Christian morality. The lists of vices in Pauline writings reflect only the conventional moral wisdom of a time in which a correct understanding of homosexuality was not accessible. There is no evidence that any bibical author ever considered the moral dilemma of homosexual persons trying to find their way between a lonely celibacy, an unsatisfying promiscuity, and a responsible choice of a relationship of mutual support which may have a physical expression.
Like so many other parts of the letter, this section glosses over fundamental theological problems, in this case, the hermeneutical issue of the relevance of the concrete moral teachings found in Scripture to contemporary Christian morality. The Letter pours scorn on exegetes who make out that these texts do not constitute a condemnation of homosexuality. Such ill-educated scorn can only rebound on the heads of those who express it. Indeed, biblical fundamentalism of the crudest sort seems to be sweeping the halls of the Vatican of late. The entire Curia have turned into a bunch of born-again Christians who have deserted their old favourites, Aquinas and Augustine, for the superior charms of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. Thus John Paul II revels in an elaborate angelology and demonology based on the most naive and unliterary reading of Scripture; even Adam and Eve are being reinstated as historical personages! Two centuries of biblical exegetes have laboured in vain.
"When they engage in this activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent" (par.7) The same argument once proved that all sexual activity is intrinsically sinful. The projection of a metaphysical taint on natural desires leads inevitably to Manicheanism, a denial of the goodness of God's creation. It also sows mistrust at the heart of the most basic human relations. For instance, if I see a baby boy kissing his father on the cheeks, I would be ill advised to wave a homophobic blackthorn stick. Psychologists now assure us that without some measure of parental "seduction" an infant suffers affective deprivation.
The veiled reference to AIDS in paragraph 9, in a context which implicitly reduces the entire gay rights movement to the advocation of promiscuity, ignores the fact that any sexual intercourse can transmit this disease. Thus to use it as an argument specifically against homosexual activity is illogical. The question of promiscuity is a different one. AIDS is a tremendous tragedy for the human race, and it promises to dwarf all our concerns for civil rights, gay liberation, truthfulness in church leaching; but it cannot eclipse the essential correctness of these concerns. Even if AIDS and the Church in tandem were to crush the gay cause now, it will ultimately triumph, because it has reason on its side. How sad that the Vatican's first response to AIDS is to use it as a stick to beat gays with. I wonder would a statistical breakdown of AIDS patients show a disproportionately large number of Catholics? I imagine it might, for the Church's sexual intransigence has left very many people without any sexual ethic at all and has pushed them to promiscuity in reaction.
The CDF’s willingness to use the suffering of gay people as amoral argument recalls the old arguments from the sufferings of the Jews to the falsity of Judaism. Indeed there is even the smell of a persecutory intent to the following: "When civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase"(par.10). In the Republic of Ireland this will be interpreted as support for the law making "sodomy" a crime deserving of life imprisonment. The views of the Letter have always been associated with the persecution of homosexuals, in Nazi Germany, in Marxist regimes, and in all Christian states.
It is true that Pius XII taught that "What does not correspond to truth and moral norms has objectively no right to exist, to be propagated and to act" (6th December, 1953); yet Vatican II recognized freedom of conscience as a natural human right. Nonetheless, the Letter shows no respect for the freedom of conscience of homosexual individuals or groups. Catholic groups like Dignity and New Ways Ministry are accused of materialistic motivations and of hypocrisy in their presentation of church teaching (an accusation that could be made with equal justice against the episcopal conferences who gave liberal interpretations of Humanae Vitae). This a priori judgement on the good faith of so many people they have never met reveals the CDF's unwillingness to practise respectful dialogue with those who conscientiously disagree with them. The Letter claims that these groups do not represent the vast majority of Catholic gays. Of course not, the vast majority of Catholic gays are cowed and silent, and their sexual lives are conducted under oppressed and self-hating conditions. That is the way the CDF wants it.
Another fundamental theological issue raised here is that of the role played by Vatican teaching in the individual Catholic's life. The Letter ignores the debate on this issue that has been going on among theologians in light of the reception or non-reception of Humanae Vitae. Would the CDF he feel entitled to berate in the same tones those good married couples who use contraceptives? Most theologians teach that the Church's teaching has value in formation of our conscience. But we have no absolute obligation to accept that teaching, if it fails to appear reasonable and convincing to us. Nor can the Church's moral teaching usurp the freedom and responsibility of conscience in its actual decisions. Catholics simply do not know how liberal Catholic moral theology is; and the Vatican are intent that they shall not know; hence the silencing of Charles Curran, the leading moral theologian in the English speaking world.
There is a silver lining to this cloud: the Letter's arguments are so bad that they invite their own reversal. The argument that people have "no conceivable right" to a sexual life if they are gay can be overturned exactly as Vatican II overturned the argument that false religions have no conceivable right to exist. The argument that homosexual affectivity is disordered because oriented to immoral acts can be reversed as follows: "Because homosexual affectivity is an intrinsic element in the natural order of sexuality, it shares in the goodness of that order. Like all sexuality it is oriented to love, creativity, and pleasure (cf. Augustine on the three ends of marriage: love, children and relief of concupiscence); this orientation is basically moral and should not be unreasonably thwarted. For most homosexuals the fulfilment of their natural sexual orientation will involve sexual activity. Pastoral care for them must include helping them to find an ethically responsible way of living their sexuality."