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Gay Catholics: “The Church in Four Dimensions” (Part 1)

A comment here to my recent post “Excluded from God’s People: the Problem with Homosexualitatis Problema” puts the question, “Why not just join the Anglican Communion?”, a frequent question whenever I write about the flaws in the official Vatican line on “homosexuality”.  (This is odd, as I have never yet seen the same question put to people who question the teaching on contraception, for instance.)

My short answer was:

Why, indeed? I may disagree (strongly) with the Vatican on certain issues, but  the Catholic Church is far more than just a handful of power obsessed clerics in Rome, and far more than the bizarre teachings on sexuality. I will be writing more on this shortly.

My longer answer goes along the lines clearly expressed by the Australian Catholic theologian Michael B Kelly, in an address he gave in the Melbourne City Hall, at the invitation of the Cultural Affairs Office of the city of Melbourne in January 2004.  This is contained in his excellent book, “Seduced by Grace”, which I was reading just yesterday, and which I summarize below.

Kelly’s preamble

Before discussing this specific question, Kelly reflects on the irony of the invitation he has received from the city where he grew up, a city with a past and culture which in many ways was deeply homophobic, where for many young people gay-bashing was seen as simple “sport” and recreation.  He tells of a meeting he was once invited to, with two directors (one of them a priest) of  of one of the most important Catholic social welfare networks in Melbourne. This organisation, he writes,

Does real grassroots work with prisoners, drug addicts, homeless lads, street workers, refugees.  They represent the Church at its best.

Kelly had been invited to this meeting because field workers had identified the fact that a high proportion of the homeless young people were gay, and they wanted to know if he could offer guidance on how this agency could best use its resources in helping them. They had, he says, a useful discussion, he had to put to them a question of his own. Turning to the priest, he asked:

“Have you given any thought to how your organization might begin addressing the problem at source? How about changing the attitudes of people in homes and schools and parish churches and rural communities so that these people don;t end up on the street in the first place?”

(I should interject here, with the observation that around the world, verbal and physical bullying of gay youth are a major reason why young gay and lesbians are not only more prone to homelessness, but to a much higher rate of youth suicide than other groups.)

Of course, the directors had to admit that such an obvious approach to tackling the problem at source, would be way outside the mandate of a church-based agency.

The question and answer

In his address, Kelly then puts the key question:

I need to ask then, how I, as a gay man, can remain a Catholic.I many ways it would be easier for people like me to walk away from the institutional churches, shaking the dust from our feet as we go.  I must say that, for many gay and lesbian people, they may need to do just that.

It is also worth noting that in the past few years the struggle within the churches has emerged into the spotlight worldwide. This is beginning to look like a watershed, defining concern for Christianity in the twenty-first century.

I would like to reflect with you on this experience of being gay and Catholic today.  Because the topic is huge and time is short I am going to do so in broad brushstrokes.  I would like to approach the topic under four headings: length, breadth, depth and height.


By “length”, Kelly is referring to the long sweep of historical time over which current teaching has developed. He points out that the origins lay in a time when, with the supposed imminence of the second coming, virginity and celibacy came to be seen as ideals for all. Parallel with the exalted ideas about virginity and the celibate state, were also embedded older ideas from Hebrew culture embracing a “quagmire of ancient misogyny” embedded in the Jewish purity codes. Of course, marriage and family continued for some, but at the cost of developing an entrenched class-based society of two casts:

In those early centuries the developing church faced intense struggles between the reality of marriage, “house-holding”, procreation and the need for stable, structured forms of human community, and the radical “spiritual” renunciation of of time-bound, earthly, fleshly lifestyles..By the end of the Patristic period , a kind of “deal had been struck.  In short, the church embraced the idea that permanent virginity, celibacy and total sexual renunciation were always to be preferred as a higher form of Christian life.However, marriage, sexual activity and procreation were to be permitted within specific norms……. for the purposes of procreation.

So, what we had developing here were not just two approved lifestyle for Christians, but two classes.  Virgins, monks and committed celibates formed the higher class of Christian.  Married people formed a lower class…..  This “deal” was amazingly successful.  So successful, that we have it still.

However, in the twentieth century, there emerged a major change in Church thinking about sex. It was finally recognised that sexual expression within marriage is not only about procreation, but also has a unitive value, and can be good i itself. This was recognised in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae”.  This is best known for its controversial rejection of artificial contraception, but its acceptance of “natural” family planning, says Kelly, was in fact of enormous importance.  This shift has not yet embraced gay people (or “artificial” methods of contraception, but it could.

“Of course, it is not a big step from here to suggest that same-sex couples can be committed, loving, generous and responsible in their sexual activity – and so they can be.  When they come forward i the Church, however, and seek honest acceptance, support and blessing, only the collapse of the ancient “deal”, the old mentality around sex, body, pleasure and holiness comes into sharp focus.

This is one of the key reasons why  gay relationships are becoming a watershed issue in the church.  They make it clear that the structures, theology, legislation, and spirituality built up around the ancient “deal” regarding sexuality are falling apart. they call for honest change – or rather, they call for change to be faced honestly.

When I, as a gay Catholic, seek to engage with the institutional Church I need to be aware that I am at the centre of a maelstrom. I also need to see that the  long and complex history I have so briefly sketched will continue to unfold, and that my life, faith and experiences are part of that. The “story” is far from over.


To Kelly’s analysis of the history (which I endorse fully), I would add some further observations of my own.  The historical development as he outlined it, did not unfold in a simple straight line.  As medieval historians like John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, there were periods in the first millenium (and more) where the Church showed rather greater tolerance for homoerotic relationships than is commonly recognised – just as the following centuries saw vicious, active persecution under the Inquisition.

The early theologian, St Paulinus of Nola, is credited in the Church history with accomplished religious verse: elsewhere, he is remembered for the frankly erotic love poems he addressed to his male lover. Saints Sergius & Bacchus, and also Polyeuct & Nearchos, were two pairs of early martyrs – and both pairs were also lovers. In the medieval period, the saints Anselm of Canterbury, Alcuin and Aelred of Rievaulx were all renowned for their passionate (if celibate) male love affairs.

In the 11th century, a young man in France, John, was named as Bishop of Orleans. It was well-known that he had a history of promiscuous male love affairs, which included the king of France, Ralph, the Archbishop of Tours, and the previous Archbishop. The appointment was strongly opposed – not on the grounds of his sexuality, or even his promiscuity, but his youth. Nevertherless, the pope refused to intervene, and the consecration went ahead.

When Saint Peter Damian proposed a number of reforms to the practice of the Church, he included a plea for harsher condemnation of homesexual activity, which he claimed was rife in the monasteries.  All his proposals were accepted by the reform- minded pope – except that on homosexuality.

Where the Church’s teaching and practice have fluctuated over the centuries, it will surely change again, just as it has already done on so many other issues of both doctrine and internal regulation.

To come, in Part Two:

Kelly’s discussion of his other three “dimensions”- breadth, depth, and height.


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