In early July John Paul expressed `bitterness for the insult’ of homosexual men and women gathering in Rome during the grand Jubilee of the year 2000. In addition, the Pope underscored the “offense to Christian values” that, he said, was caused by homosexuals.
The Pope’s strongly worded remarks were deeply Christian, even if not in the way the Pope intended. Offense, after all, has a significant place in any discussion of Christian metaphysics — God, grace, and Jesus. According to the scriptures, Christ’s public ministry was marked by scandal and offense. He was, according to one biography, “A Marginal Jew.” Furthermore, according to Paul, Jesus’ death on a criminal’s cross was deeply scandalous — a stumbling block to belief. Indeed, throughout history Christians have been regularly perceived as giving public offense. Even after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (AD 312), as one scholar notes, Christians were “quintessential outsiders.”
There is, then, another side to “offense,” which Jesus was very aware of in his public ministry. No stranger to public scandal, Jesus used offense with calculation, as even a cursory reading of Mark’s gospel indicates. “Blessed are they who are not offended in me,” Jesus told the disciples, Pharisees, and anyone who would listen to him — knowing full well that he hoped they would be offended. Christ provoked offense in order to teach; offense moved to epiphany, conversion, and the possibility of grace.
Nonetheless, given the increasing stridency in the Church over the last decade on the issue of homosexuality, it is difficult, in the words of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, to “put the best interpretation” on the Pontiff’s remarks, or to believe that in his mind “offense” is a prelude to epiphany and grace. One can dismiss John Paul’s remarks as a momentary lapse, the wanderings of a strong mind afflicted by age and stifled by years of bureaucratic defensiveness. However, one cannot dismiss the two decades previous in which the Pontiff’s remarks have been borne out in repeated offense against Catholic homosexuals. One notable action was demonstrated by Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 so-called pastoral letter on the “problem of homosexuality” (the letter’s Latin title is Problemitas Homosexualitas) in which he banned a Catholic homosexual advocacy group from meeting in Catholic churches or on its property. Just recently the Vatican brought to close a series of extended inquisitions against New Ways Ministry, also an educational “outreach” for Catholic gay and lesbian persons. The repudiation of the decades-long ministries of Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeanine Gramick are of a piece with the symbolic foreclosure of homosexual presence more widely during this Papacy.
Why should the Pope turn so directly to lecture homosexuals? In the first place it is easy to do. There are so many of them, as even the Catholic Catechism attests, and violence indirectly dispensed through language is a customary social action which homosexual men and women, still in 2000, are largely powerless to resist. One suspects, however, that the problem isn’t so much homosexuals as what contemporary political use they might serve. That is, one can argue that modern first-world Catholicism has lost much of its former glory — due to a combination of factors including doctrinal rigidity, conciliar change and experimentation in the 60s, and, in general, more relaxed attitudes toward religion. During the last two decades, it seems that energy expended over abortion and homosexuality (particularly the latter) is an effort to consolidate belief literally on the disposable bodies of people it is easy – indeed, conventional – not to like. Witness the tragedy in Roanoke, Virginia, this past year. A man stopped at a bar and asked directions to a gay bar, saying he wanted to “shoot gay people.” He was obligingly directed to the Back Street Bar where he pulled out a hand-gun and shot eight people, killing one of them.
But policing homosexuals is no answer to declining church numbers. Further, I wish to make an observation about the Pope’s remarks. First, that he (as well as other churches and organizations in general) find it necessary to rachet up rhetoric around homosexuals suggests that what once went without saying does no more. Thus, the extreme tone-deafness of the Pontiff and church officials (to other Christian groups who do not find homosexuals worthy of exclusion, for instance) might signify a retrenchment in Catholic teaching on the matter. On the other hand, it might suggest the more banal conclusion that, simply, fewer people are paying heed. No one is listening. The Good News is a broken record. The crisis of faith is not homosexuals, but the discredibility of the dry, desiccate doctrine that uses them as political leverage.
It takes no great historical awareness to say that homosexuals are an “offense” against Christianity (in fact it requires a lack of such awareness). Nor does it take much charity to escort homosexuals to the door of the church, actually as well as symbolically, and to close that door. And this failure of mercy — not any “condition” of the homosexual, nor offense nor threat of their alarming presence in Rome — is the scandal of the modern Church. And this sin, I note, was not one included in the Pope’s highly-publicized Advent confession, made in preparation for the opening of the Jubilee year (a time, ironically, for lifting of debts and freeing captives).
Finally, speaking as a gay man. Why is it important to register the inappropriateness 1) of the rhetoric and 2) to deplore ecclesiastical inaction? For surely, inaction has at stake consequences which intend spiritual, and sometimes physical, death. When Ratzinger bewails the violence against homosexuals in his “Letter to the Catholic Bishops” (1986) while noting at the same time that such actions are “understandable,” even “expected,” he fails to see how he, and institutional structures, even bishops’ committees, are complicit in such tragedies as occurred in Roanoke — however much direct culpability for such actions is unacknowledged and disowned by being hidden in language. No pogrom happens without first preparing a language capable of excusing its violence.
Take, for example, the long-term result of Ratzinger’s 1986 letter, the above-mentioned decisions against New Ways Ministry (Summer, 1999/ Spring, 2000). By closing down this “educational outreach” group in the breathtakingly arrogant manner it did, the Vatican begins with the assumption that while homosexuals might be in need of grace they are nevertheless not to receive pastoral care. Pastoral care must, by definition, include care of the soul, and this is the education that the church has steadfastly refused to acknowledge, or to engage in, except in the most superficial manner. On the other hand, even the most benighted protestant theology holds out that homosexuals can experience grace and conversion. One finally wishes to answer the Pope in this way: if homosexuals insult Christianity, surely they do so because they have never been taught and so do not know any better. But here our teachers must bear part of the blame, those who will not teach us, nor permit us to teach ourselves.
Homosexuals do have souls. It seems silly to have to say it, and to apologize for it. We want to do well by our elders, parents, guides. Many of us, students and teachers alike, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have spent years trying to please, and be pleasing to, our parents, our church, our friends. Many well-meaning advisors assure us they have our best interests in mind – which nonetheless involves us being silent, in private as well as in public. Indeed, so far as the church is concerned, this public silence means having no spiritual life whatsoever.
I have a personal fondness and respect for the courage John Paul II has repeatedly demonstrated. Nonetheless, the Pontiff proves that powerful persons do not have to be right, or accurate, when they speak. In this manner the offense he charges against the homosexuals redounds upon the church. It could have offered us something better than short-temperedness and silence. Some churches — mindful of the Gospel injunction to preach good news even to the poor — do so, but it chooses not to. Offense, as Jesus knew, was a teaching moment for those who were offended by him. May it be such in this case. John Paul, we ask that your church teach us, and teach itself. This is the challenge your own bishops mandate in “All our Children”; you yourself advise a similar compassion elsewhere in that same July speech.
Author and educator Rev. Edward J. Ingebretsen is an ordained Roman Catholic priest and Associate Professor in the Department of English and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University. He earned his Ph.D. from Duke University and M.A. and B.A. degrees from Loyola University. He is the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King and Robert Frost’s Star in a Stone Boat: A Grammar of Belief.