Old wine in a new skin?
In 1986 the Office of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith issued “A Pastoral Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” The signatory of the document was (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Dean of the College of Cardinals and, now, Pope Benedict XVI.
There is something built-in to most of us that we want, very much, to please our elders, to do right by those in whom we have placed our trust and care. On the other hand, it is hard, as Freud reminds us, to recognize that our primary caregivers are not always right; that our parents do not always have the answers to our lives, despite their evident, and sincere, best intentions. Sometimes we must walk away, because what is deferred for too long becomes a poison.
Catholic gay persons who waited out the papacy of John Paul II, hoping that the new pope would usher in a “freer and gentler” church have now to face the reality. Cardinal Ratzinger was the author of John Paul’s doctrine on homosexual persons. He is the one who wrote, in the “Pastoral Letter,” that “it is deplorable but expected that violence happens where homosexuals are visible.” Here Ratzinger explicitly burdens the homosexual with the violence that waits to be visited upon her or him — implicitly, of course, if she or he is recognized as such. Nor does Ratzinger stop with suggesting, threatening, and exculpating social violence; he backs this implied threat with the explicit threat of ecclesiastical sanction. That is, while decrying violence against homosexuals — which Ratzinger finds “expected” — he himself authorizes church violence. As one consequence, since that year Dignity, a 30-year-old catholic homosexual group,has been forbidden any presence at all in church ministry or on church property. Pastors and well-meaning priests who contest this can – and have – lost their faculties.
Too often gay and lesbian persons lead diminished lives — closeted, deferred, waiting until some significant elder, parent or guardian passes before they come out. The analogy is exact, here, for the gay or lesbian Catholic. Indeed, the analogy is exact in more broad terms, for more than half of catholic constituency are women and if John Paul II refused to consider the issue of ordination of women, Ratzinger was the architect of his thinking on that and other issues as well. Certainly, then, the issue is not limited to being gay or gender-deviant. More broadly, issues of intimacy and gender, both individually and socially and politically, are at issue. Ratzinger was the only prelate mentioned in Karol Woytila’s final testament. The speedy election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new Pope insures that Roman Catholicism will remain precisely imperial, Roman, and hierarchical. And, we must conclude, it will continue to remain deaf to a very great number of its own children.
Ratzinger’s election as pope does not signal the end of gay spirituality as we know it. It confirms what we already know, and what has been the practice since 1986. During the subsequent decade and a half Church authorities acted in concert to support Ratzinger¹s ban of Dignity: individuals, priests as well as bishops were silenced, advocacy groups eliminated, ministries to homosexual persons closed down. The Pontiff, speaking from his own piazza in Rome, showed himself in support, calling homosexuals “an offense to Christianity.” There is no question but that a campaign of sorts was being mounted, whose goal might was a form of symbolic genocide. There is also no question that throughout this decade many persons, homosexual as well as heterosexual, lay as well as cleric, worked hard to disguise these actions from themselves, or, if seeing them, to call them something else.
One can love one’s parents, even when one does not agree with them. One cannot, however, defer one’s life while waiting for parental acceptance. One accepts the limited nature of parental love and goes on, hoping that one can love better, and more fully, one’s own children. Persons of spirituality who wish also to be also institutionally allied with Catholicism must, then, ask themselves, what price they wish to pay for this alliance. Rome has spoken, and will speak. Rome probably will not, however, speak to us, gay and lesbian Catholics, and probably it will not speak very much to women. But we are not alone. Rome does not speak very well to many, perhaps most Catholics who must live in the midst of this world, making what we can of the mess life sometimes hands us. Divorce, abortion, homosexuality — why these issues rather than world poverty, governmental abuse? Individual freedoms, global health and human dignity? Is it because, frankly, the Cardinals and other curial officers are men, safely removed, in general, from the cares of personal intimacies, and never have to reflect upon them and so can easily pass laws about them?
Whatever the case, Genesis reminds us that we are created in the image and likeness of the Divine. This is our spiritual claim. The temptation is to wait, still, for someone beyond Ratzinger to feed us. Defer no longer. As Jesus said to his disciples, when they asked, where shall we get bread for so many? He replied, feed yourselves.
This invitation is now ours, — ours, here, referring to the so many different kinds of persons who fail Rome’s exacting standards of inclusion.
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.