Today, the church celebrates the feast of three young men, Shadrack, Mesach and Abednego, the companions of Daniel the prophet: they are important for highlighting a much neglected group in the church – the transgendered.We are probably all familiar with the stories of Daniel in the lion’s den, and of his three companions in the burning fiery furnace. What they don’t tell us in Sunday School, is that as slaves captured and taken to service in the king’s court in Babylon they were almost certainly eunuchs – castrated males. This was the standard fate of slaves in the royal court, as Kathryn Ringrose has shown, and as anticipated by Isaiah:
And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.-Isaiah 39:7If there is any group more likely to have the bible-pumping conservatives frothing at the mouth more than gay and lesbian Christians, perhaps it is the trans community. Yet this is entirely misplaced, as Isaiah makes clear elsewhere:
4For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.-Isaiah 56: 4- 5The three young men, forcibly castrated as slaves, are clearly not directly comparable to the modern trans community, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learnt, from them and from others in Christian (and non-Christian) history. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read
But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”The Babylonian slaves were clearly among those who have been made so by others. Those who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven may be a reference to the common religious practice in the societies surrounding the Jews of men who castrated themselves to serve as priests, especially in the cult of Cybele , and also in some other religions. (Some commentators believe that is this practice of castration that is meant by the words mistranslated in some of the clobber texts as “homosexuals”, lines which more accurately refer to castrated gentile priests. In this view, it is the association with pagan idolatry, not the sexual practices themselves, which made them taboo). The idea of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of God later led some early Christians to adopt the practice, notably the early theologian Origen, who castrated himself in. Metaphorically, it is the same idea of emasculation which underlies the Catholic church’s insistence on compulsory celibacy for priests in the Roman rite.Modern trans people are also not directly comparable to this third group – but they are arguably included in the first group: made so by birth. Less directly, some scholars argue that the biblical term “eunuch” is the closest parallel in biblical language to the modern term “homosexual”, and so the welcome promised by Isaiah may be said to apply to all who are queer in church –
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure foreverEven if we reject this connection, there remains a fundamentally important lesson for us all in the story of the three young men, a story that has relevance and resonance for us today that goes way beyond the children’s illustrated Bible pictures of men who could not be burned by the flames. To see this, remember why it is that they are commemorated. They were commanded by the king to eat the forbidden meat – to conform. It was for their refusal to knuckle under and give in to the pressure to abandon their fundamental religious identity that they were sentenced to death by burning.But in their faith and loyalty, they were protected from the flames. Centuries later, it was the Christian Church that again turned to burning as a punishment for those who refused to conform, either to orthodox religious belief, or to heteronormative sexual standards. We continue to live with the legacy of that prejudice, which masquerades as religious obligation. Like the three men in the Babylonian fire, we too must stand firm in our commitment to the truth. In our steadfastness, the flames of prejudice and religious bigotry will likewise be unable to destroy our queer Christian community.(The image used is a window by John Piper as a memorial to Benjamin Britten, whose “Burning Fiery Furnace” told the story of the three young men as one of his three “parables for church performance” – one act operas, although Britten himself avoided the term).
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of Tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns “Vexilla Regis” and the “Pange Lingua” (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three or four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers. Although never canonized, he was venerated as a saint in the medieval church, and his feast day is still recognized on 14th December each year.
“On the second or third night of the conference,” according to Mr. Bond-Upson, “after dinner, Jim got up to speak. He told us that he’d been doing a lot of hard thinking that summer. Jim told us he could no longer live a lie. He’d been hiding his nature — his true self — from everyone except his closest friends. ‘If the revolution we’re in means anything,’ he said, ‘it means we have the right to be ourselves, without shame or fear.’
“Then he told us he was gay, and had always been gay, and it wasn’t a choice, and he wasn’t ashamed anymore and that he wasn’t going to hide it anymore, and from now on he was going to be himself in public. After he concluded, there was a dead silence, then a couple of the young women went up and hugged him, followed by general congratulations. The few who did not approve kept their peace.” ’
CHARLES DE FOUCAULD (Brother Charles of Jesus) was born in Strasbourg, France on September 15th, 1858. Orphaned at the age of six, he and his sister Marie were raised by their grandfather in whose footsteps he followed by taking up a military career.
He lost his faith as an adolescent.His taste for easy living was well known to all and yet he showed that he could be strong willed and constant in difficult situations. He undertook a risky exploration of Morocco (1883-1884). Seeing the way Muslims expressed their faith questioned him and he began repeating, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”
On his return to France, the warm, respectful welcome he received from his deeply Christian family made him continue his search. Under the guidance of Fr. Huvelin he rediscovered God in October 1886.He was then 28 years old. “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.”
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed his vocation to him: to follow Jesus in his life at Nazareth.He spent 7 years as a Trappist, first in France and then at Akbès in Syria. Later he began to lead a life of prayer and adoration, alone, near a convent of Poor Clares in Nazareth.
Ordained a priest at 43 (1901) he left for the Sahara, living at first in Beni Abbès and later at Tamanrasset among the Tuaregs of the Hoggar. He wanted to be among those who were, “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He wanted all who drew close to him to find in him a brother, “a universal brother.” In a great respect for the culture and faith of those among whom he lived, his desire was to “shout the Gospel with his life”. “I would like to be sufficiently good that people would say, “If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?”
On the evening of December 1st 1916, he was killed by a band of marauders who had encircled his house.
He had always dreamed of sharing his vocation with others: after having written several rules for religious life, he came to the conclusion that this “life of Nazareth” could be led by all. Today the “spiritual family of Charles de Foucauld” encompasses several associations of the faithful, religious communities and secular institutes for both lay people and priests.-Vatican News Service
For a possible gay connection, through his close friend Louis Massignon, see Gay Mystic.:
Sometime ago, however, I received a personal communication via a White Father with many years experience in North Africa, (who is normally very defensive about the church and unwilling to relate negative comments about saintly figures) that Foucauld’s death was caused in part as revenge for his practice of entertaining handsome young Tuareg men in his hermitage in the evenings. Rumors also suggest that the 15 year old boy was something other than a guard. This source did not affirm any improprieties on Blessed Charles’ part, (and I for one, would not believe them, if they did), but they do suggest a predilection for beautiful young males. The rumors, like swirls of dust in the desert, are difficult to credit because of Charles’ own dissolute early life and female lovers, but then, who knows? Read below of his very close connection to the great Islamic scholar, Louis Massignon, who underwent a great psychological crisis because of his own homosexuality, and who partly attributed his conversion to Christianity to Charles de Foucauld. Blessed Charles would later name Massignon the executor of his will and Massignon was responsible for publishing Charles’ Rule for the Little Brothers of Jesus.
Vida Dutton Scudder is a rare example of a modern lesbian who is a recognized Christian saint (recognized by the US Episcopal Church, not the Roman Catholics). Her work and message are particularly relevant to the twentieth century, as we grapple with an economic crisis triggered in effect by corporate and consumer greed.
Born in 1861, over a long life Scudder was an educator, writer, and welfare activist in the social gospel movement. Much of her thinking has particular relevance to us today, as we grapple with a financial and economic crisis precipitated in effect by a corporate and consumer culture marked by unrestrained greed. Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. From 1919 until her death, Scudder was in a relationship with Florence Converse, with whom she lived.
After earning a BA degree from Smith College in 1894, in 1895 she became one of the first two American women admitted to graduate study at Oxford university. After returning to Boston, Scudder Continue reading Vida Dutton Scudder, American Lesbian Saint for Our Times
Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.
When I first wrote about Newman a year ago, I wrote that he has particular significance for gay Catholics, on account of his deep commitment to his beloved friend Aubrey St John, and his writing on conscience. That initial post was simplistic: I did not then realize how sharply opinions on John Henry divide, specifically on his ideas of conscience and loyalty. While some progressive Catholics celebrate and promote (their understanding of) his championing of conscience, some conservatives see this as entirely a misrepresentation of his understanding of conscience, which should rather be read in the context of his parallel championing of church authority and loyalty.
For a long time, I have been wary of writing anything further – although for a time I was trying unsuccessfully to put together something on the “paradox” of Newman. Now, after a flood of information and commentary leading up to the beatification, I stick by my original assertion. Blessed John Henry Newman indeed of great importance for queer Christians, with even more reason than I originally recognized.
Newman’s legacy is paradoxical: he is claimed simultaneously as hero by progressive Catholics for his stout defence of conscience, and by conservatives for his defence of authority. He is touted as a gay saint over his highly publicized deep relationship with Aubrey St John – and “defended” as obviously heterosexual because he was celibate, and so obviously not giving sexual expression to any same- sex attraction. All of these deserve further consideration, and have received plenty elsewhere.
For now, I want to limit my own observations only to two additional ways in which Newman’s career is particularly relevant for queer Christians, and especially the LGBT Catholic congregation of the Soho Masses, by prefiguring our own position.
We too live in a paradoxical state, with the official position of the Vatican (and many other leading religious bodies) urging noble ideas of treating us with dignity, compassion and respect – yet in their own actions they frequently do the exact opposite. They urge us to follow and to speak the truth – but when we do, we may find ourselves paying a heavy price. They have attempted to silence people like John McNeill and Jeannine Gramick for their attempts to speak the truth, a Canadian altar server was refused ministry for his, Michael B Kelly and many others have lost their jobs in Catholic schools and colleges, simply for telling the truth of their lives. The CDF reminds us that “the truth will set you free”, but for Catholics in Church employ, too often it simply sets us free of that employment.
Newman spent most of his life as priest under attack from all sides. It was only late in life that he began to receive recognition for his achievements as a theologian, when he was suddenly promoted from parish priest directly to cardinal, and eventually beatification. I believe that we as a queer Christian community are following a similar path, from persecution and exclusion, to ever-increasing inclusion – and even respect for what we can teach the wider church. We see this most clearly in denominations like the mainline Protestant groups that have already accepted the principles of full inclusion and equal treatment for queer Christians and clergy, or who are openly debating these issues – but we are also starting to see some embryonic signs of the same thing in the Catholic Church.
This was most dramatically illustrated for out Soho Masses community by the blaze of media publicity (mostly favourable) we received in the build-up to Newman’s beatification. We have been operating for over eleven years now, and for over three years in a Catholic parish as a formal pastoral initiative of Westminster diocese, and so under the patronage of the head of the Church in England and Wales. We have experienced continuous low level mutterings from some conservative opponents, but otherwise very little publicity, with not even a mention on the diocesan website.
This changed dramatically over the past few weeks. In addition to substantial coverage in BBC television and radio programmes, there were additional British reports in a range of newspapers and magazines. Coverage has since gone global. At last Sunday’s Mass, we had reporters present from Spanish national radio, Croatian radio, Czech Television – and Gaydar radio. (Gaydar is a major UK gay dating website, with an on-line radio service).
“Out of the shadows, into the light”, indeed.
Related articles on John Henry Newman
- Newman’s Democratic Church (Martin Pendergast,http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief)
- Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman (queering-the-church.blogspot.com)
- John Cornwell on the “Pontifical Hijacking” of Cardinal Newman(thewildreed.blogspot.com)
- Reflections on the Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman(thewildreed.blogspot.com)
- Cardinal John Henry Newman: a modern Christian (theglobeandmail.com)
- Pope visits Britain: Cardinal Newman’s beatification live (guardian.co.uk)