Mar 6, 2013

Colm Toibin on Benedict and Georg

Colm Toibin is one of my most admired gay Catholic authors, though he describes himself as very much a lapsed Catholic. His collection of short stories, The Empty Family, won Lambda's  Best Gay Fiction Award for 2011. His most recent novella, The Testament of Mary, a deconstruction of the Virgin Mary myth of Roman Catholicism, looks at the origins of Christianity through the eyes of a disillusioned mother of Jesus, aghast at the foolishness of some of her son's followers, who in seeking to consolidate their own power, are busy about mythologizing both her and her son. It is very much a radical critique, that challenges - perhaps unfairly and with insufficient appreciation - some of the most cherished assumptions of  Catholic culture. However, it offers a refreshing iconoclastic viewpoint that seems healthy in its intent, even if we can fault it for a certain insensitivity to the mystical currents of the faith. In April of this year the great British actress (actor) Fionna Shaw will bring Toibin's book to life in a one woman Broadway show that should be one of the events of the season. The mere fact it has landed a Broadway booking is an event in itself. 

Maureen Dowd both reviews the book and interviews Colm Toibin in a March 3rd article in the New York Times, entitled " How Mary  Feels About Being a Virgin." 

The review is well worth reading (with the usual assortment of irate comments from staunch and loyal Catholic tribalists side by side with angry anti-Catholic zealots, interspersed with a few measured and balanced observations). However, what most interested me were Colm Toibin's observations about Benedict's recent retirement, his relationship with his secretary, George, and on Vatican Gay Culture (in  capital letters) in general.

And so I quote:
I wonder what he thinks of the pageantry in Rome. He is dubious about the showy helicopter exit of Benedict to nearby Castel Gandolfo: “There’s absolutely no reason why he couldn’t have gone by car. The roads in Italy are really good.” But he expresses admiration for the easy affection between the 85-year-old former Holy Father and his 56-year-old private secretary, Msgr. (Archbishop) Georg Gänswein, whom Toibin has described as “remarkably handsome, a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, but in a way more beautiful than either.” 

Benedict may have given up his flashy red loafers, downgrading to brown ones made for him in Mexico, but he is taking “Gorgeous Georg,” as the younger German is known, to live in his new home, a monastery in the Vatican. Some cardinals are worried about the arrangement of having Gänswein serve two pontiffs, by day as prefect of the new pope’s household and at night as secretary to the emeritus pope.
“An 85-year-old man having such a beautiful companion with him morning and night to talk to and walk with,” Toibin said. “It’s like the end of a novel. It’s what all of us want for ourselves, straight or gay. It’s better than sex.”
They need to think very carefully about not recognizing that gay people, like all other people, are made in God’s image. It’s just possible that they have more gay priests than they know. I think most gay priests are very good people in the priesthood for very good reasons, and actually faithful to the vows of celibacy. On the issue of gays, Benedict made things even worse.”

As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict called homosexuality a “more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.” As pope, he reiterated the church view that homosexuals were “objectively disordered” and that men who had such tendencies could not be allowed into seminaries. He called gay marriage a threat to “the future of humanity itself.”

Toibin says that the church must have tolerance, and that its leaders have lost any sense of how their sanctimonious denunciations clash with their scandals and imagery, causing nothing but pain.

“I remember being at the Vatican at Easter 1994,” he recalled, “and watching all the cardinals and bishops, wonderfully powerful old men with great chins, sitting nobly with a long row of extraordinarily beautiful young seminarians standing behind, shading them with different colored sun umbrellas, some of which were pink.

“It was remarkable that none of them seemed to know what it looked like, and I watched it thinking, somebody must tell them.”

I share in Toibin's  admiration for the bond between Benedict and Georg. The relationship appears to be a gentle and tender one of mutual devotion, and I don't begrudge the retiring pope this companionship in his declining years. And of course it couldn't be anything but chaste. The added job of Head of the Papal Household recently assigned Ganswein is another matter entirely. However, speculation about Benedict's sexual orientation in light of this relationship seems to me to be entirely in order, because of the question of hypocrisy it raises, whether such hypocrisy is unintentional, unconscious, or simply repressed. I will not go into the 'reasons' for the suggestions made in the past that Benedict might be (most likely is) gay, but will refer the reader to  Richard Sipes excellent article on the subject here. Father Sipes, of course, is a leading expert on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and possibly the world's leading expert on the clergy and their sexuality. 

In the article, Sipes makes these pointed remarks:

The time has passed when popes are immune from observation of their humanity even their human sexuality. (I agree wholeheartedly.)

The fact that Benedict XVI has spoken out so vigorously and clearly about homosexually oriented men even those who practice celibacy makes him a prime target for investigation and speculation. If they are not suitable candidates for ordination to the priesthood (and their ordination is of questionable validity) what does that say of him and scores and scores of other prelates who are without doubt homosexually oriented?I have asked a number of Roman clerics and members of the Roman press corps if they think the pope is gay. None, of course, wish to be named for obvious reasons, but every one was convinced that Pope Benedict XVI is gay. (Italics mine)

And for an excellent response to Richard Sipes article, here is Colleen Colkoch of Enlightened Catholicism:

I was just saddened again this Christmas to hear the Pope once again castigate gays for most of the ills of the world.  Even though I've written a previous post about one of Benedict's droppings, it has left a bad taste in my mouth.  It's not like this is the first time he has chosen the Christmas season to throw lumps of coal at gays.  I happen to find this obsession of his pathological and hugely polluting for the spiritual energy of the Church.  I have never found it edifying to work for any leadership that can't admit to their own pathology because that pathology always plays out in the collective work force. It becomes the unstated underlying motivation for too many dysfunctional decisions.  In the case of Roman Catholicism, I firmly believe this is why so much time and energy is focused on dehumanizing gays and attempting to control women's reproduction through legislative means.  Call it the politics of pathology.  It's hardly surprising Catholicism leads the way in these endeavors since it's entire leadership core is carefully enculturated to both reflect and blindly accept the dysfunction coming from up the food chain, especially the dysfunction about human sexuality.....

So all of this angst propelled me to check in with Richard Sipe's blog because if anyone could explain this bizarre need of Pope Benedict's to bash gays at Christmas it would be the world's expert on clergy and their sexuality.  He has a new post up in which he gives answers to the most frequently asked questions he receives on lecture circuits and in interviews.  I found the answers to the following questions balm for my soul.  I guess one could say, this was not a Richard Rohr Christmas for me, it was a Richard Sipe Christmas.

Colleen quotes Sipes' remarks in reference to his previous article, Is the Pope Gay. These comments struck me with particular force, including Colleen's editorial comments in blue:

When I posed the question about the pope's sexual orientation it was only to raise these areas for calm and rational discussion. Many informed people in Rome believe that Pope Benedict XVI has a homosexual orientation. This is neither an accusation of fault nor any implication of wrongdoing. But the official teaching of the church proscribes that men of homosexual orientation should be allowed to train for the priesthood or be ordained (Cf.1961 Directive)

The patent hypocrisy of church teaching and practice is a travesty. Many saints had a homosexual orientation and many good priests are gay and celibate. (Pope Benedict might be reaching new heightsin hypocrisy in his castigation and persecution of gays. He is apparently oblivious to the fact many of his flock think he is exactly that state of being which he condemns.)

Homosexual orientation is neither an illness nor a perversion. To oversimplify: It is an inborn attraction and disposition to love persons of the same sex, even sexually - parallel to persons of heterosexual orientation and disposition. Homosexual persons can behave perversely and be ill just as heterosexually persons can. 

Hypocrisy is the greatest religious sin. Although homosexuality among the clergy and in the general population involves difficult and complicated social and moral questions to confront it is one area of necessary discussion for serious Christians.

I couldn't agree more and when dealing with the apparent or supposed hypocrisy of Benedict on such a grand scale, then scrutiny of his personal relationships is more than called for, it becomes an imperative of the Christian conscience, for the sake of so many young gay persons out there in the real world. Such a level of hypocrisy needs to be confronted, aired and 'outed' in the strongest terms. 

It goes without saying that if Karol Wojtyla were retiring to a monastery in the company of a handsome, charismatic personal secretary, no one would think to make an issue of the relationship. And if there were evident signs of mutual devotion between the two men, no one would raise an eyebrow. With Benedict, however, it is a whole different ballgame. Where there is so much pink smoke, there is bound to be fire. 

One final comment from Colleen in the comments section of her posting bears repeating here:

I don't think he will retire either, but you never know. There is precedent. If such a thing should happen, it would only be because he knew beforehand who his successor would be.


colkoch said...

Thanks for the shout out Jayden. I don't know that I was so prescient. There have been some things happening in Rome that lead me to think the script has changed, and changed drastically.

I think US, German, and some others are sending the Vatican Italians a message. "We're done being told how we will act, speak, and vote." I would like to think these men have learned something from their mishandling of the abuse crisis and that the presence of Sodano sickens them.

Jayden Cameron said...

I suspect you are right, Colleen. I think we are witnessing one of these historic event like the Fall of the Berlin Wall - seconds before it's fall.