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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sex, Lies, and Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI and his private secretary Georg Ganswein arrive to lead a general audience dedicated to the altar servers in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on August 4, 2010. About 50,000 altar boys and altar girls coming from 17 countries gathered at the Vatican to attend the audience. The pope urged the young altar servers to follow the example of their patron saint Tarcisius a third century martyr. Pope Benedict XVI wears his red Saturn hat, named after the ringed planet Saturn. Photo by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Excerpt from a Sunday essay on the Pope's sexuality by the devoutly Catholic Andrew Sullivan, under the ironic title "The Pope Is Not Gay":
The choice between this kind of affirmation of spirituality and love and a politics of control and fear was what the church faced under John Paul II, as modernity pressed. . . . The pursuit of control is really a fear of scrutiny and transparency which, when added to the unspeakable crimes of the past, ineluctably led to the current meltdown in the West. The homosexual question is not in any way marginal to this; in fact, you could see it as a central challenge for a church caught between truth and power. . . .

It seems pretty obvious to me - as it does to Angelo Quattrochi, whose book is reviewed by Toibin - that the current Pope is a gay man (just as it was blindingly clear that John Paul II was straight). I am not claiming that Benedict is someone who has explored his sexuality, or has violated his own strictures on the matter. There is absolutely no evidence of that, or of hypocrisy of any sort. But that does not mean that he isn't gay. In fact, Ratzinger's command that gay priests should actively lie about their orientation makes any public statement about this on its face lacking in credibility. But when you look at the Pope's mental architecture (I've read a great deal of his writing over the last two decades) you do see that strong internal repression does make sense of his life and beliefs. At times, it seems to me, his gayness is almost wince-inducing. The prissy fastidiousness, the effeminate voice, the fixation on liturgy and ritual, and the over-the-top clothing accessories are one thing. But what resonates with me the most is a theology that seems crafted from solitary introspection into a perfect, abstract unity of belief. It is so perfect it reflects a life of withdrawal from the world of human relationship, rather than an interaction with it. Of course, this kind of work is not inherently homosexual; but I have known so many repressed gay men who can only live without severe pain in the world if they create a perfect abstraction of what it is, and what their role is in it. Toibin brilliantly explains this syndrome, why the church of old was so often such a siren call for gay men who could not handle their own nature. In Benedict, one sees a near-apotheosis of this type, what Quattrocchi describes as "simply the most repressed, imploded gay in the world." . . .

I would like to return to the world where this kind of speculation was disgraceful, unnecessary and blasphemous. But when this Pope has already enabled the rape of children, has covered up the crimes of many priests, when he has responded by blaming gay men for the moral failings of his own church, when he has publicly demanded that gay Catholics remain in the closet, i.e. lie about themselves as a sacred duty ... then such deference becomes much more difficult.
What I Say:  As a gay man, and an Episcopalian-on-hold, I understand the point Sullivan is making about being attracted to a spirituality supported by liturgy, ritual, and finery; in fact, as I've blogged in the past, I do think that the love of beauty - creating, revealing, sharing it in any of a myriad possible ways - is a defining element of the gay personality, which of course also comes in many shapes and sizes from silly twink to gruff leatherman.  But when you get past whatever the exterior may be, I think you find the same motive animating all of us at heart.

In contrast to our straight brothers, some of whom are very creative indeed and might take great delight in crafting pastries or growing roses - as did one very butch and very straight retired Marine captain I once knew.  Yet my hunch is that for them the beauty motive is a sideline, not the animating principle; seems to me that the heart of an unambiguously straight man is driven to build a metaphorical fort, not a house or a garden, as well as finding the means to knock down the other guy's fort.  In other words, aggression and domination, or to put it differently, the defender and the warrior, two sides of the same coin:  that's what makes them tick and sets their life agenda.

Continued after the jump . . .

Which, if true, is probably why so many of them feel a great repugnance at the thought of homosex:  they can't imagine such a thing in terms of mutual desire and mutual pleasure that involves no diminishment of status or equality.  For them, I strongly suspect, even though they have been well-trained in this feminist age to pay lip service to gender equality - in their heart of hearts, they experience the sexual act as one of "natural" dominance and submission, both physically and metaphorically.  Natural, it seems to them, because it accords with their deepest sense of who they are, their life-motive for want of a better term:  not conceiving that it is entirely possible to have the very same physical make-up and yet be actuated by a different core principle.

Well that's just my little pea-pickin' theory; the philosophers and psychologists can have a field day with all of that if they want to.  But the point I'm trying to get to is this:  what Sullivan is talking about, at least in part, and you really should read his whole post, is the terrible damage that Catholicism and Christian churches in general have done by conflating sexuality with morality.  And here, to be fair, we must include the other Abrahamic religions - Judaism and Islam - as well.  And more than that:  unless your Head Trucker is badly mistaken, every other major religion in the world still practiced up to the present day.  I can't say I've made a study of world religions, but if there is one with millions of adherents whose scriptures and practices treat heteros and homos just alike - send me a postcard, boys, because I sure would like to know of it.

Yes, I realize there are some proponents and subgroups of the various major religions that are now, in light of the change in Western society in the last few decades, welcoming gays as equals, or at least open to discussion on that point.  But they are all swimming against the tide of tradition in their faiths, aren't they?

One thing seems pretty damn certain to your Head Trucker, and that is that all the world over, Man has made God in his own image.  And that collective Man was a straight boy who simply did not know or did not care about any other point of view, any other mode of being, any other sexual orientation.  Which to him seemed, and seems, deeply frightening because for him it would, he fears, negate, if not destroy, his essential nature - his concept of self as the-man-in-charge (remember Al Haig's infamous remark, a Freudian slip if ever there was one) - rather than, as we gay men experience it, fulfilling our own essential nature - men-sharing-manhood.  For him, ugly - for us, beautiful.  For him, the price of manliness is eternal vigilance - for us, two are even better than one.

This attitude is, be it remembered, quite literally beaten into every boy who successfully achieves straight-man-status; it may take only one small beating or spanking or schoolyard fight, or it may take several, but the reinforcement of the warrior ideal takes a deep hold in a straight man's psyche, and usually very early on in a guy's life.  Now the women have been writing about the "patriarchy" of (straight) male-dominated religion and society for quite a long time, and I was slow to pick up on what they were really getting at.  But at this late age, I have come to see their point.  Man, straight Man, created our traditional concept of God, not the other way around.  A little reading on the subject of ancient Near Eastern religion - which was full of female deities - is very enlightening on this point.

Which is not to be taken as proof that there is no God, or that straight men are evil - they aren't, and that defender/warrior motive is in some ways very useful to the world.  They are simply human - and we all, gay or straight, male or female, old or young or in-between, if unchallenged and uncorrected, naturally tend to believe, and believe strongly, that our own particular way of seeing and doing and thinking is the One, Right, Universal Way of being - do we not?  This extends all the way down from ontological debates to which way to hang a roll of toilet paper.  My way or the highway:  that is what unenlightened - theologians might say unredeemed - human nature is, left to its own devices.

But here is where morality and religion intersect - the nexus where humanity has so very often gone so tragically wrong.  Positing a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, in some utterly unfathomable way the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, transcendent Ruler of the universe and yet also the immanent life-motive at its heart - well if you take all that as a given, it seems pretty clear to your Head Trucker, who just about reached the limits of his vocabulary and theology in the first part of this sentence, that as Dolly Parton so memorably said in Steel Magnolias:  "God don't care what church you go to, long as you show up."

And more to the point:  a God who is Love himself - the still, small voice at the heart of all things, at the heart of each of us, somewhere down inside, no matter how flawed or fractured we may be - that God just flat don't care, and couldn't care less about, what you wear, eat, drink, smoke, chew, ride, screw, say, or think, it seems to me like.  Why in the world would he? (Or she, or it, or them - use your own pronouns here if you have a mind to.)  When all that our eyes can see, our senses comprehend, here on this great globe of Earth is, in a way of speaking, but one atom in a single grain of sand on an unending strand alongside an infinite ocean?  That God I'm talking about no more cares about the rightness or wrongness of all our petty human details than your mama cared whether you wore your blue or your red t-shirt to school, as long as you dressed yourself and weren't late for breakfast. 

Except - except except except - when it involves how you treat your neighbor, which of course means any and all other human beings, we're all neighbors on this little ball.  That, your Head Trucker believes most sincerely, is what the whole shootin' match comes down to, what it's all about:  living an unselfish life, as near as you can.  Which of course is simply the flip side, a negative way of stating the Golden Rule - which your Head Trucker has found out is indeed taught by nearabouts every religion there is in the world, past or present.  Love your neighbor as yourself:  the most important thing in the world.  That simple - that difficult.  Easier for some, harder for others - for some of us, very hard. 

Maybe for some of us shitkickers, just because we are who we are and simply can't change it, no matter how or what we try, the very best we can ever do along that line is simply to refrain from kicking down the other guy's sandcastle.  A negative accomplishment - one that will win you no medals, get you no honors or thanks or recognition in this old world at all.  Except from your mama, who could tell by looking at you out of the corner of her eye just what you was thinking of doing, and knowed how hard it was for you not to do it.  Like all mamas know.

But God knows too because God is mama and daddy both, to all of us - a little secret your preacher probly never let on about, if he even knew it hisself.  But it's there in Scripture, if you know where to look; it's also a very simple theological conclusion.  And if all you can do, the very best you can do, is just to leave your neighbor the hell alone and not crash your fist into his smile - which is to say, denying yourself a pleasure in order to let the other guy have his pleasure, just because that's the right thing to do - God knows as sure as your mama does how much effort that negative accomplishment cost you inside.  And values it.  Of course, I'm talking about an extreme case - but maybe you get my point here.  Love your neighbor/live unselfishly - even haltingly and sporadically if that's the best you can do - that, my friends, is the only thing the God I'm talking about - the God I believe in - would, or even could judge us on.

It's the difference between being merely human - which all of us are born that way - and fully human, which is something to cultivate, for it partakes of the divine, of God by whatever name you want to call him, which is to say - it partakes of and makes us part of the Love that moves the stars, in Dante's exquisite phrase.

No, I ain't readin' outta nobody's book here, just setting down my own homegrown thoughts as they come to me.  For whatever it may be worth to somebody, which is not much, your Head Trucker knows.  The hum of a bee that swoops close to your ear once and then flies off never to be seen again.  The indistinguishable chirp of one faraway, invisible cricket in a field of ten thousand on a sultry summer night.  The faint, momentary gleam of one very small meteor that is seen but once and falls unremarked to earth.

But fellas - maybe its just my way, insignificant though it may be in the scheme of things, of doing all that I can do.  Or nearly so.  Ya know what I mean?

Though it does occur to your Head Trucker that there's plenty of old boys has made theirselves a mint outta a whole lot less than what I've just wrote here, especially if they could afford 'em a printing press or a TV show.  I reckon if there was more straight boy in me, I could be a-setting on easy street right now, proud as punch.

But hell, fellers, maybe after all's said and done, it's better to be poor in spirit, as I heard somewhere wunst.  God knows, I don't.


Reality Obsercer said...

I have always suspected the subject of the article to be hiding something...

Others think so too in our neck of the woods. Incredible!


CRHGates said...

Dear Head Trucker, AMEN! It is quite evident that you have “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” the TRUTH of our Faith. Good for you for proclaiming that Truth. As Psalm 50 says [get out your BCP 1979 p. 654-656 vs. 16-21] speaking of those who take God’s name & claim to be doing his work with malice in their hearts, “These things you have done and I kept still, and you thought that I am like you.” You have quite a powerful theology and tell it well. If you are ever in Dallas, seek out St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church. You will find one of those places where you are welcomed as you are. Their rector is a great, good, holy man.

Russ Manley said...

Mauro - who knows, but Sullivan sure makes a good point, huh.

CRH - I've heard of St. Tom's, maybe I'll visit one day if the mule don't throw a shoe. Appreciate ya bud.

dave said...

You and Sullivan both have a way with words.

Russ Manley said...

I'll take that as a great compliment, dave. Thanks buddy.

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