Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate

Below is part 6 of a series of posts presenting excerpted videos and transcripts of an interview I conducted October 14, 2012 with my college best friend John Hazlet, whose struggles with doubt and depression were instrumental in my personal deconversion. (The full two part interview is here and here.) At the time of our interview John was a Benedictine monk, publicly discussing his homosexuality and struggles with mental illness. In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic. In the segment of our interview excerpted and transcribed below, John responds as I vigorously try to press him to take the Catholic Church’s mistreatment of gays as evidence that it is not an institution guided by a morally perfect God.

Dan Fincke: Hi. So, this is the Part II of The Camels With Hammers Show. I’m Dan Fincke, host of The Camels With Hammers Show, and I’m here with my best friend from college, Bede Hazlet, who is a Benedictine monk. He was instrumental, while he was in a period of doubt while we were college students together, a period of religious doubt inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, inspired me to go read Nietzsche. Bede is openly gay, yet celibate as a monk, and he is discussing… we’re discussing the homosexuali… the morality of homosexuality, and the Church’s role in defining homosexuality for many people, and how the Church understands… how the Catholic Church understands homosexuality. And what I’ve… what John is arguing – I call him John, because that was his name before he became a monk, he says I’m allowed to call him that – he says that… he’s arguing that the Church is always evolving, and that it has room for a progressive revelation–progressive is a loaded word, but progressively understanding God, and having moral change. And I’m arguing that the Church has been so far behind, historically, that there’s no evidence that it’s being especially guided by God.

And John is starting to concede that the Church is like other human institutions in coming to learn. And what I’m saying is that unless there are special indicators that God is especially guiding it towards truth, and especially guiding it towards morality, such that we find in the Church, you know, insights into truth and morality that are ahead of the curve, instead of constantly seeming behind the curve, as it looks, especially in our day in which the Church is so responsible for so many ruined lives of gay people, including so many suicides traceable to Christian teachings and Christian attitudes and Christian institutions. I’m saying, these are signs that the Church is not even… not even a particularly morally good institution, let alone one especially guided by a morally divine being, a morally perfect being who loves humanity. It seems like it’s not even passing the test of a minimally good institution for guiding morality, but in fact, an authoritarian, arrogant, one that can’t… it can’t even admit its mistakes, let alone be an engine of progress. And so I take that as evidence that the Church is false, not guided by a moral perfect… by a morally perfect omnipotent being, and I’m asking John to explain why he thinks that it is.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Um, well, I mentioned a few minutes ago before we were cut off, what you might think of as the role of the saints in the life of the Church. There are these examples of people who are sort of morally ahead of the curve, who have insights that are ahead of the time, and who live by them. That’s important, it seems to me. But it’s also important to recognize that the Church, as I understand it, doesn’t pretend to stand on its moral credentials. And to me, part of what’s most compelling about it is not so much the way it behaves as an institution, but the thing that lies at the heart of the tradition, just this understanding of God as human, um, in Jesus Christ, God as present in the created world, as a creature, and as having gathered up the natural world that we live in into God’s own life; the whole sacramental understanding of how the universe can be, if not transparent to God, at least translucent; and how one’s relationship with God unfolds in terms of human community and also in terms of a relationship with very tangible, material things. The fact that that lies at the heart of the Catholic tradition, and is a notion, or set of notions, so alien to both of the traditions from which it emerged, the Hebrew one and the Classical one, is compelling to me.

And I think morally it’s important because it gives the Church a set of resources for thinking about what it means to be human and how to live as a human being that are implicit in the Gospels and implicit in the foundational layers of the Catholic tradition, but that have never been fully appropriated or realized. That’s something that a French theologian mentions, and I don’t think I’ll mention his name, because I don’t know if I’m representing his views correctly. But just this notion that at the heart of the Catholic tradition, Christologically, in a Trinitarian sense, and sacramentally, there’s an immense cargo of ethical implications and anthropological implications that the Church has in one sense only begun to unload, or unpack and articulate.

So that, I mean… I guess, I don’t see the development of the Church in terms of the institution’s moral goodness, as much as I see it in terms of the gradual willingness to overcome certain cultural barriers, including barriers of ecclesial culture, and to take hold of things that have always been there at the heart of the tradition, some of which have just been so challenging that the Church itself has begun to behave like an established institution and has not been quite willing to appropriate those insights. Because this is a tension that lies… that goes all the way back in Christianity, that… Jesus Christ spawned this institution, or even set of now fractured institutions. And over the centuries they do come to behave like ordinary human institutions, including corruption and, um, paternalism, and so forth. And yet there’s a great deal that Jesus Christ said, or is recorded as saying in the Gospels, taught, and represents that can’t easily be accommodated to the requirements of maintaining that kind of institution. And to me, the way in which those two things have worked themselves out in the life of the Church over the centuries is fascinating, and compelling.

Dan Fincke: But how is it compelling of truth? How is it compelling of special moral guidance? It’s an interesting story if you’re trying to rationalize the whole human progress as guided in some way towards the good, and if you want to read that dialectic as having a divine hand behind it, and trying… if you were trying to rationalize from that assumption, or if you took that as dogmatically true, but why in the world should anyone looking at it from outside see it as anything but an interesting myth about humanity having a divine character in Go… in Jesus, or, you know, something like that, or the divine having a human character. It’s an interesting myth about human nature, but where there would be a notion of, This is really being guided by a supernaturally omnipotent omnibenevolent being. Why would such a being, again, lead… have its own institution be such a haphazard mess and not be the beacon on the hill? Not really be, you know, that specially, like, unavoidably, Wow, these are the people who are divinely inspired. I would almost believe, personally, if Plato was said to be divinely inspired, I could almost believe it. Not because Plato’s exactly right, he’s quite wrong on a lot of things, but I could still see more resources of moral genius there, more resource of… you know, had insights been, you know, really fully appropriated, at least some of them, I could really see something there. But even, there’s still fallibility of the human.

So the question is, like, it seems like there’s no evidential reason, or any preponderance of rational reason to think that this is the most likely candidate to be the vehicle of an… of what your claiming is a perfectly morally good God’s beliefs. Like, recently on your facebook page, you talked about having internalized, in your own psychology, you deal with these feelings that this God is like these bigots, the worst of the bigots, who you have to deal with, and who hates you the way that you feel like they do, you know, the worst homophobic bigots. And it is the case that the… that the people representing your institution are those people. They are the ones who have demonized you for being gay, and in that context, the leap to assume that this God is really there and on your side, it just seems so out of whack with what’s palpably observable.

Bede (John) Hazlet: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the Catholic hierarchy is among the foremost bigoted demonizers of queerness. It’s true that there are some fairly un-nuanced statements from time to time. But I personally have not encountered outright…

Dan Fincke: But the ability… the attempt to shift blame for authoritarian cover-ups of child rape onto gays is just appalling …

Bede (John) Hazlet: That, too, is something that’s been…

Dan Fincke: And the authoritarian nature of the institution …

Bede (John) Hazlet: That, too, is something that’s been advocated by a fairly small, but vocal minority. Among the Church’s hundreds of bishops, I don’t think that very many have taken that kind of attitude. And in my own experience, the reverse is what tends, within the life of the Church, to be most often articulated, that there is no group definable by orientation that’s to blame for the sexual child abuse crisis, but that there are aspects of the Church’s culture itself that are part of the problem. Those other voices are very strident, and tend to be focused on in the media, but they’re not really the majority voices when you think of the Church as a whole. But that wasn’t your central question. The central question was more about… could you express it again, just sort of briefly to remind me? Because I got sidetracked.

Dan Fincke: Just, like, on what rational basis to say that it’s a good belief, if not even a true belief, but let alone even a good one, to say that there’s a morally perfect being behind this institution, when it is so not special, let alone a city on a hill.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Well, I wouldn’t want to say that that being is behind the institution exclusively. What I believe is that that being is behind the whole universe. And that, too, requires dealing with the fact that the universe itself seems to be a fairly messy, morally ambiguous reality. So I think that any belief in God is going to require that you deal with this issue on one level or another, whether institutionally or cosmically. I think it’s one of the problems of faith in God.

And I tend to deal with it on both levels, cosmically and ecclesially, in a different way now than I… from the way I would have, say, when we were undergraduates. At that time, as you mentioned yourself, I tended to be very propositionally oriented, very much oriented around trying to distill some propositional statements of truths, and hash out whether they’re, in a sort of crystalline sense, true or not. I aspired, I think, to a very unpoetic, univocal way of using human language, and in some ways, a very context-less way of using language. Since then, I’ve come to think in a different way about all those things. I’ve come to appreciate, for one thing, that language by its very nature and at its roots, is poetic. So that everything one is going to say, no matter how much you try to express it in a crystalline, univocal way, is going to have lots of other things that it says at the same time. And I don’t want to say that that leads me to think in more vague terms about truth claims. But it does lead me to think in a different way about what it means to say something that is true. And it certainly leads me to think in a very different way about myth, for example, a much richer way. Seeing myth as potentially communicative of very deep truths, but not in that crystalline, propositional sort of way that used to be so important to me.

And I’ve also come to think in a lot of different terms, in terms of, about how language and community interrelate, and how aspirations to truth and claims to have access to some truth, or some wisdom, function in community terms. I guess my goal in the past was to get access to a set of propositions that I could strip out of whatever community context they might have originated in, and work out as true or false in a sort of vacuum. That, I’ve come to see as a self-defeating project, and I’ve come to see this whole way of dialoguing toward the truth in terms of living within and appropriating a tradition of one kind or another in a community of one kind or another. And that… I know that will all sound very vague and unsatisfactory, but that’s how I’ve come to think about this. And to give a lot more credit to what one of your blog readers has called, I think, deep human intuitions about things. That was one of my major issues as an undergraduate. I have these intuitions about, say, logic, but I have no way of establishing them other than by deploying the very resources that are in question, logically. That kind of circularity used to be very, very bothersome to me, very disturbing. Now, it doesn’t bother me. I see it as just the way human thought, human language works in human community. And if we’re going to have any access to truth or wisdom, that’s how it’s going to be.

Dan Fincke: But there are ways to check, not everything is… not everything is a self-contained system. You know…

Bede (John) Hazlet: No…

Dan Fincke: … scientific [garbled] of objectivity, logical canons, [garbled – tests of?] logical consistency…

Bede (John) Hazlet: But that’s…

Dan Fincke: And so, one of those tests is, if you have… you know, if you do have certain beliefs about what’s psychologically and morally good, and then you have a claim that somebody else is making that you can is destructive and… or an impediment to people’s real lives. As this Church is taking centuries, there are people who are right now dying, there are people right now being denied their rights to … and their ethical at-homeness in the world as gay people … when you see a Church standing athwart of that, there’s a contradiction morally there that no amount of poetization, or talking about internal coherent systems and communities can deal with. This community harms people.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Yeah, but every community harms people one way or another.

Dan Fincke: Right, but none of those claim that they’re specially guided by God. None of them… None of them put the lever onto their authority that says, Don’t question us, defer to the Church, take things as dogma. None of them… or, when they do do these things, there’s authoritarianism that’s so antithetical to people’s healthiness. And that what… so, yes, all human institutions are corrupt, but not all of them have built-in mechanisms for bullying people into submission who dissent.

Bede (John) Hazlet: But I think that’s an oversimplification of how Catholicism works. I realize that that’s how it would appear, you could say, from the outside, or on the basis of an acquaintance with the Church derived from the news. But experientially, at least, in my own experience, that’s not how Catholicism functions. There is an authoritarian dimension; there is also a populist dimension. There is a top-down dimension; there is also a bottom-up dimension. And although what one hears about most is the top-down kind of pronouncements, the life of the Church really happens most at much lower levels, the level of parish life, of monastic life in a particular community, for example. And the way in which those things, sort of, function dialectically, is a lot richer than this draconian, monolithic sort of vision that I could see one having from the outside, and even in some ways from the inside. But I realize that doesn’t address your deeper question. And I’m not sure how to go about addressing it. I [garbled] don’t want to …

Dan Fincke: But don’t you see where there’s a tension where… where if you are on the parish level and, say, your son comes out to you as gay, you feel the pressure that, I have to differ from the pulpit if I accept… if I go to his wedding, and I’m happy for him, and I accept his children, and I accept, you know, that this relationship is a good thing, then there’s this constant tension with this person who’s supposed to be the vicar of Christ. And like, I mean, yeah, that’s happening in a dialectical way, but… but I don’t see how setting up the institution so this person feels like he’s torn between the vicar of Christ and his son, is the ideal arrangement or a healthy community.

Bede (John) Hazlet: But I just don’t think in terms of ideal arrangements of that kind any more. I think of a healthy community in more developmental terms, and thinking of it in those terms requires that there’s going to be some tensions that you just have to inhabit. If there weren’t, there would be no dynamism, there would be no possibility for deepening or developing. And it’s true that’s difficult, I know that full well from my own experience. But I don’t think it needs to be fruitless. That does leave unaddressed this deeper question of, Well, what about people whose experience in the Catholic Church, as far as sexuality goes, has been so toxic as to drive them to suicide, for example. I don’t know how to address that, because I would see one’s experience in the Church as in continuity with one’s experience in the human community as a whole. And that has been part of one’s experience in the human community as a whole, too, until quite recently. And I think in practice, the way people in this situation are actually dealt with, pastorally, tends to be much more sensitive than you might imagine. It does involve the tension of recognizing, well… say, trying to get married as a pair of guys or a pair of women certainly is in contradiction to the Church’s current teaching about sexuality. The Church would not say you’re evil because of that; the Church would say that you’re practicing a disordered sexuality. But, if you have the courage to recognize that that is a tension within a developing institution, I think it can be fruitfully lived. And I think that in actual pastoral practice, it’s usually dealt with very sensitively. This is [garbled – gonna vary culturally, of course ?]…

Dan Fincke: No matter how sensitively, though… but no matter how sensitively you’re dealing, the fundamental choice is only celibacy or apostasy or sin. I mean, the …

Bede (John) Hazlet: No …

Dan Fincke: … does that … no matter how sensitively you put that choice to somebody, um, you know, and …

Bede (John) Hazlet: But that’s not the fundamental choice [little bit garbled]. I mean, there’s also this possibility of conscientious dissent.

Dan Fincke: But that can’t be a… that’s not being acknowledged by the Vatican.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Of course not. Because part of the Vatican’s job is to discourage that.

Dan Fincke: Right, but so, but, you see, the structure of the insti… so you say that, you know, you need a dynamic institution, that’s fantastic. That’s why we have democratic institutions, that’s why we have academic institutions that are dialectical, but the problem is, the way that those other institutions work to create dynamism is by not having any one person set up as an authoritarian vicar of Christ. You don’t have, in other institutions, the authority to stop someone from having the ability to teach within the institution just because they dissent from the vicar of Christ himself. So, it’s that authoritarian structure which is so antithetical to this dialectical process, which does put people out on a limb, where if they’re to be conscientious dissenters, they’re dissenting from someone who has a reputation for infallibility. It might be only when he wants to sit on the throne in a certain case and speak infallibly, but the dogma… you know, the ethos is out there that the guy has the final word. You know, and that ethos is a structural impediment to progress.

And even if the progress happens anyway, and even if bold and daring and brave conscientious dissenters were out there anyway, you have a system in which to do… to think the new and brave and morally advancing thought, is to be threatened with the implicit threat of excommunication, an implicit threat of sin, an implicit threat that God is against you. And it’s getting to the point where the Church would rather shut down its own adoption agencies than… than even allow non-Catholics to adopt. I mean, it’s coming down so strongly against gays, that to say that it makes any sense… to say, This is the institution guided by God, a morally good God who morally loves you, and even if you… and if you disagree with it on homosexuality, you can still dissent… yeah, maybe you can, but it’s not at all an institution that is set up to be… to be something that people of normal moral fiber and intestinal fortitude can deal with. And a lot of them are suffering contradiction, and a lot of them are going celibate, a lot of them are killing themselves, and suffering in ways that are so counterproductive, and so traceable to the authoritarian structure of the institution.

Bede (John) Hazlet: I’m not sure that that’s true, though. And I’m not sure that the way the Church is structured is as antithetical to development as you’re arguing.

Dan Fincke: In the popular mind is it?

Bede (John) Hazlet: In the popular mind, certainly. But, in the way in which it actually follows…

Dan Fincke: Well, where did that come from?

Bede (John) Hazlet: What?

Dan Fincke: Where does that come from? How does the popular mind get so distorted on its own Church’s dynamism, when that popular mind is catechized, and, you know, the people are forced, you know… as children, they’re brought to the Church, they have to go through this, and yet they still come out with…

Bede (John) Hazlet: So, you mean the Catholic popular mind …

Dan Fincke: … with the misconception … what?

Bede (John) Hazlet: You’re talking about the Catholic popular mind, then.

Dan Fincke: Yeah!

Bede (John) Hazlet: Okay, I thought you meant just in the mind of our culture at large. I think in the Catholic popular mind that’s not as big of a misconception, although it’s there to be found. In part because catechesis is not always well done. But the reality is a lot more nuanced. I mean, there’s a lot of breathing room, theologically. It’s true that theologians are occasionally asked not to write anymore, but it takes some doing to get to that point. It’s very, very rare, even unheard of for a theologian to be excommunicated for saying something disagreeable. But that whole tension is part of how this works out. I mean, theologians can advocate increasingly radical ideas. At a certain point, they’re checked by the intrinsically kind of conservative and stabilizing papacy. And over the per… the course of time, those ideas kind of resurface, and get reworked and discussed, and some of them will probably gradually be appropriated. I think that whole process is actually very fruitful, in terms of trying to maintain both a pattern of development and a stability and unity as a kind of community, a huge community.

And I think the courage… the Holy Father is a good example of this, as a theologian he was not un-progressive; he himself was in some ways on the theological vanguard in the sixties, understanding his role in terms of, kind of, advancing the tradition, proposing new ideas. When he began to take on hierarchical responsibilities, consummately now as pope, his role kind of shifted. I don’t think his most deeply personal, intellectual commitments have changed very much. But I think the context in which those play out in terms of his role, have changed a great deal. You’re right, that whole… the whole sense of how this works is not very well understood, even among Catholics. And yet, that is how it works, and is working. So, I’m not sure what more to say.

Your Thoughts?

The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:

How My Best Friend Helped End My Faith and then Became an Openly Gay Monk
Out of the Closet for the 1st Time, at Oxford
On Anglicanism and On Celibate Love
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate
Does Celibacy Infantilize and Create Child Molesting Priests?
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve

The transcripts in this series were created this summer by Josiah “BibleName” Mannion. He donated his time to produce the more than 22,000 word transcript of the entire interview. Josiah makes his living as a photographer and currently needs camera repairs done that he cannot afford. If you would like to chip in to this generous man, donate to and my friend Sarah Morehead will get the money to him. (UPDATE: The atheist community came through big and Josiah was able to get a new camera!)

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