The CDF rightly insists that Christ should be at the heart of Christian theology – but curiously and conspicuously fails to take its own advice when addressing matters of homoerotic sexuality, of sexual ethics more generally, or of its own authority and religious rules. More mundanely, Bishop Soto of Sacramento recently claimed that there is much in the Gospels that gays might find difficult to accept. He is entirely wrong. It may be so that a full embrace of the Gospel message is hard for all of us – but emphatically not for the sexual outsiders, or for others on the margins of public inclusion. For us, the Gospels should be liberating and inspiring. It is the moral police, who attempt to enforce conformity and a moral rulebook on everybody else, who should find the Gospels more threatening and difficult than the rest.
In a series of posts over the Christmas season, I have outlined just a few of the implications of truly putting Christ back into Christianity. Earlier, I highlighted Patrick Chen’s useful Christological model of sin and grace for LGBT Christians. I could have considered much more: Christ as the healer, as a teacher, above all as a lover and friend. What he emphatically was not, was the figure that Catholic oligarchs pretend as they assume for themselves the role of his replacement on earth – a father (as disciplinarian) or a rulemaker.
In marked contrast to the established Church, it is many gay and lesbian theologians who have been particularly prominent in encouraging a commitment to the Gospels and to the example of Christ as a model for living. For all queer Catholics (and other Christians) who feel threatened or persecuted by the words or actions of church people claiming to use religion as a mask for their prejudice, we can do no better than to follow the example of our queer theologians, and take seriously the central message of the true head of the Church, Christ himself, in his words and actions.
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We can go further than simply studying and attempting to follow the words of the Gospel. In the best tradition of Christian spirituality, we can and should develop through our prayer life, a direct personal and intimate relationship with God – specifically in the form of Jesus, or more generally with the Trinity, or by concentrating on discernment of the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking within us. The renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner has observed that we all have the capacity to find a direct experience of God. When we do, he says, nothing, not the teaching of the church, or even he words of scripture, has the power to intervene between us and what we learn from that experience.
When events in my life led me to consider a return to the Catholic faith after some years outside it, I had an initial discussion with a priest who had been a personal friend when I was a university student. Among many wise words he shared, two key observations stand out. First, he answered some intellectual concerns I had expressed by stating emphatically that faith is not a matter of the intellect, but of experience. To my concerns about the conflict between the well-known teaching against homosexuality and my life as an openly gay man in a same sex relationship, he advised me not to prejudge anything, but to put my trust in God, to resume a life in faith, and to evaluate the situation only on the basis of my experience. (It is no coincidence that like Rahner, he too was a Jesuit). I took his advice, and can honestly say that the experience was wholly positive. I will not expand further on those details here, but it is emphatically true that whenever I have attempted to consider the ethics of homoerotic sexuality from the perspective of God, whether directly in prayer, under guidance of a spiritual director, or by careful study of the Biblical texts, I have never come away remotely threatened. On the contrary, my experience of sexual honesty has drawn me steadily deeper into a life in faith, and not away from it.
My friend’s advice to put my trust in God has been expressed more strikingly in the words of yet another Jesuit, the theologian and psychotherapist John McNeill, as “Taking a Chance on God”, which he used as the title of one of his useful books on gay/lesbian theology, which he subtitled “Liberating theology for gays, lesbians, ad their lovers, families and friends”. Liberating theology it surely is, and so it should be. As Patrick Chen reminds us, one important facet of Christ is that of the liberator, and Christ himself in his first public statement of his ministry, chose the words of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
How can a message of liberation from oppression possibly be found threatening by queer Christians?
John McNeill’s message is that just as children grow to maturity learning to recognize the fallibility of aduls, and must learn to criticize or ignore the mistakes of their parents, so as we grow to maturity in faith we too must learn to recognize the fallibility of the Church, and need to criticize or ignore its mistakes, most notably in sexual teaching.
Instead, he says, we must learn to release God’s power in our lives by developing intimacy with God. Doing so, we will learn to deal with the anger engendered by prejudice and the church, liberation from fear, and will find reconciliation in God’s presence. We will even learn celebrate the gay virtues, and to discover the freedom of sex as play.
“Taking a Chance on God” was written to encourage LGBT Catholics specifically in the field of sexual ethics, but it has a much wider relevance in Christian theology, and specifically in the spiritual practice of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. When I first began to explore Ignatian spirituality in the context of the CLC (“Christian Life Community”), the group I joined was an established one, engaged in investigating the important Ignatian precepts of trust and surrender – trust in God, and surrender to his will. These precepts have become of fundamental importance to me, and have been of great value, in the years since, in all periods of serious difficulty or major decisions in my life. They will have been of even greater importance to John NcNeill, in the major personal crisis that followed his leaving the Jesuit order to his important task and mission of writing about gay and lesbian theology, in the face of explicit Vatican opposition.
For a Jesuit to leave the order and active ministry is far more than a simple career change for the rest of us. It is simultaneously the loss of income, accommodation, and family – possibly with no immediate means of replacing any of those. McNeill described those difficult years in another book with a graphic, memorable title, “Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air” – but “Taking a Chance on God” could equally well have described that period of trust and surrender. Instead, the book title has been appropriated by the gay filmmaker Brendan Fay, who is working on a documentary of McNeill’s life. (See the trailer here, in a choice of formats, and watch out for the final product when it is ready).
Not everybody has the courage to “Take a Chance on God” as completely as John McNeill has done in his life. The fruits though are evident in a lifetime output that has brought hope and consolation to countless gay and lesbian Catholics (and other Christians), some of whom state quite explicitly that it has literally saved their lives, by keeping them from despair and suicide. For all of us though, we are well advised to take his advice at least in facing the challenge that the orthodox church teaching places to our attempts at sexual integrity. Take a Chance on God. I can testify that when you do, you will not be disappointed.
Books by John McNeill:
Also see the books by:
- What Part of the Gospels, Bishop Soto, is “Hard for Gays to Accept?” (Queering the Church)
- This Christmas, Let Us Put Christ Back Into Christianity (Queering the Church)
- Put Christ Back Into Christianity: The Body of Christ (Queering the Church)
- Put Christ Back Into Christianity: Robert Goss’ Queer Theology – Renewing Christianity (Queering the Church)
- Patrick Chen, on the Erotic Christ (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Patrick Chen, on the Out Christ (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Patrick Chen, on theLiberator Christ (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Patrick Chen, on the Transgressive Christ (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Patrick Chen, on the Hybrid Christ (Jesus in Love Blog)