Late last Monday night I sat down to watch the television program Six Feet Under. I was exhausted after two days of interviews and discussions about the Rainbow Sash action in St Mary’s Cathedral. In that night’s episode David -“ the uptight, closeted brother -“ got caught up in a crisis in his parish. The priest had celebrated a same-sex wedding, and some of the deacons wanted him sacked. David had been haunted for some time by the bloody image of a local young gay man who had been beaten to death, and as he began defending the priest he could see the battered youth sitting off to the side. One angry deacon spat out: So, are you gay too? The young man looked up at David. Their eyes met, and David said, Yes, I am gay. At that Sunday’s church service David confronted his whole congregation, challenging them -“ and himself -“ to live out the truth that God is Love. Outside, after Mass, the young man appeared to David for the last time. He was handsome and healed, and he smiled quietly and said, Thank you.
People sometimes ask why we bother with the Rainbow Sash, why we bother challenging the Catholic Church with its harsh rules and its seemingly immovable bishops, why we waste our time and our energy. The answer is right there in that thank you.
The Catholic Church educates almost a third of all Australian youth. Many of these students will grow up to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and all these students will carry attitudes and opinions about non-heterosexual people into their lives, families and careers. Officially, every student will be taught that homosexuals are disordered and oriented to intrinsic evil, and that their sexual relationships, which can never be approved, undermine the family and destabilise society. Homosexuals should be treated with compassion, but all sexual activity must be condemned and their civil rights should be limited in some areas of housing, employment and spousal entitlements. Officially, all students will be denied any safe-sex education except for abstinence. All this will be done in the name of God and using public money.
However skilful and enlightened some schools and parishes may be in manoeuvring around such teachings, no teacher or priest can openly contradict them without putting their career on the line. The same applies if they say publicly, I am gay. Students are denied both a nurturing environment in which to sort out their sexuality, and the role models and mentors who could help them.
I was a Catholic teacher for 17 years, and I reached a point where not speaking out against the Church’s treatment of gay people became unbearable, where my careful manoeuvring and silence felt like colluding in oppression. I came out publicly and lost my career.
While I want to affirm those who continue to work within the Church system, many of whom give their all to find ways to support gay youth and educate for justice, they know as well as I do that the system needs to be exposed and challenged on many fronts and in many different ways.
The Rainbow Sash Movement is one way of working for justice. It calls the Church to account and opens it to critique in the public arena, it holds up a mirror in which the Church must face the ugliness of its homophobia, it shows that gay people can stand up for themselves with integrity, faith and courage. It also intrigues students -“ we often have senior students contact us about projects on justice for their Religious Education classes. They want to use us as a case study.
There are, of course, people who would rather we not provoke the likes of George Pell publicly, lest we make difficult situations worse. No one wants to trigger a clampdown on gay-friendly parishes or a witch-hunt on liberal teachers or priests. However, the idea of treading softly so we can maintain a more benevolent form of oppression strikes me as the tragic mentality of a beaten-down people. It is hardly the glorious freedom of the children of God promised by Christ.
In Latin America they talk of conscientization. Liberation theology says that only by waking up to the painful reality of structured and sanctified oppression -“ which you have lived with all your life and come to see as normal -“ can anyone be empowered to claim their dignity and work for change. Admittedly, it would be easier to opt for a cultural or spiritual ghetto where we feel secure and affirmed -“ and we certainly need safe havens -“ but in the end a prison is a prison, however much cologne or incense you sprinkle around.
Some people criticise our movement because we take our stand at Mass. The moment of Holy Communion is too sacred, they say, for this kind of demonstration. I wonder if this is how the chief priests felt when Jesus cleaned the buyers and sellers out of the temple. It is injustice, hypocrisy and misuse of power that defile the Eucharist, not peacefully wearing a symbol of gay dignity. In fact, Jesus shared dinner with people regarded as ritually unclean by the religious authorities of his time. He used these meals as images of the Kingdom of God. How far we have moved from that.
Other people say we should find a Church that will welcome us to Communion -“ or start our own. The prospect can be attractive, and for some people it is the way forward. For many of us, however, this would feel dishonest or even a bit cowardly. As David said in Six Feet Under: This is my Church and I will not be intimated into disappearing! Yet this is not simply personal. The Catholic Church is the oldest and largest organisation in the world. It is also one of the most homophobic. If lesbian and gay Catholics do not stand up for themselves and work for change, who will?
More deeply, the Catholic tradition is not the personal fiefdom of George Pell or John Paul II. It is a vast, profound, diverse spiritual community that carries immense richness and wisdom in its sacramental, theological and mystical heritage. Its social justice teachings are astonishingly radical and offer some of the best critiques of capitalist, corporate materialism. In the poorest countries in the world you will find priests, lay workers and nuns sharing the struggles of the oppressed, challenging brutal dictatorships, running AIDS clinics in sprawling slums, and educating women about sex, health and empowerment. In the life of the spirit, in the challenges of the mind, in the practical love of the heart, Catholic tradition has the potential to help re-invigorate the soul of Western culture, a culture increasingly harsh, empty and narcissistic. Frankly, it could also help bring some soul into what passes for gay culture these days -“ some of which could be described in the same three words.
Tragically, however, the Catholic hierarchy’s misuse of power, its oppressive and inflexible sexual regulations and its failure to engage creatively with the modern world have left the Church impotent and without credibility at the time when it could be most needed. People are walking away in disgust -“ and who can blame them?
Some of us, however, feel called to stay -“ but the only way to stay with integrity is to be an agent of change. As Dr Paul Collins, one of Australia’s most honest and skilled Church historians has said, being faithful to our Catholic heritage means receiving it, embodying it in our own way, transforming it in the light of our experience, and passing it on to new generations as a more liberating, more deeply human message of love and joy. As Jesus himself said: I have come that they may have life -“ in all its fullness! That fullness of life must be claimed and celebrated anew in every age and in every lifetime -“ and, I might add, in every lifestyle.
There are those who claim, of course, that Catholic teachings and practices can never change or be transformed. Some say the teachings are heaven-sent, some say the Church is just too rigid, some say rules are rules -“ obey them if you want to be on the team. The fact is, the Church is constantly changing. Slavery was approved for 18 centuries -“ and the bible was used to justify it. Enjoying marital sex while using infertile times to avoid conception was stridently condemned -“ this is now approved as the rhythm method. Galileo was denounced as a heretic by cardinals who wouldn’t look down the telescope. Change comes -“ but not by magic. It takes a lot of faith, hope and love to keep working at it.
All the same, after nearly six years of challenging the Catholic hierarchy with the witness of gay experience, I sometimes feel dispirited, washed out, ready to move on and leave the Church bureaucrats to play their power games. Then, on a quiet Monday night in Sydney I think of a battered young man -“ Matthew Shepard, if you like -“ and I imagine him watching quietly as we stand up within the Church wearing our Rainbow Sashes, and I see him whole and healed, smiling quietly and saying thank you, and I know the struggle must go on.