The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, USA again made international news this past week. He issued a directive in which he, in effect, consigned gay people to hell. Specifically, Bishop Thomas Paprocki excommunicated people in same-sex marriages. His decree was for priests in his diocese to deny communion, last rites, and funeral rites to such sinners “unless they have given some signs of repentance….” This follows Paprocki’s 2012 pronouncement that voting for Democrats (who are pro-choice and favor marriage equality) puts “the eternal salvation of your own souls in serious jeopardy” (implying that those who are pro-choice and favor marriage equality are already damned). In 2013 the bishop held an exorcism service at the Illinois State Capital building while inside Governor Quinn was signing a marriage equality bill into law. “He has a history of homophobia,” this week’s news article says.
Yes, we agree that the bishop is what we call homophobic. But what is he afraid of, and what is his fear all about?
Homophobia, “It’s an abomination” the sign said at St. Louis Pride this week. [Thanks to son Andy Dobson and friends for these pictures of Pride in St. Louis.] But what is homophobia? We know it when we see it. It’s like fine art or pornography in that regard.
“Homophobia is irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” according to Miriam-Webster dot com. Oxford Dictionaries dot com avoids mentioning fear at all: “Dislike or prejudice against homosexual people.”
Psychologist George Weinberg is credited with bringing the term to the public’s attention in his book Society and the Healthy Individual, in 1972. He defined it as “dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.” He expanded on that, saying, “It is a fear of homosexuals which seemed to be associated with a fear of contagion, a fear of reducing the things one fought for – home and family.” Then, significantly, he added, “It is a religious fear and it has led to great brutality as such fear always does.”
It is this aspect of homophobia, religious fear, that I want to consider on this last day of Pride 2017.
What is this fear that motivates the bishop so passionately? Perhaps it is a fear of consequences. It seems in Bishop Paprocki’s case to be a fear of what is happening as LGBT people gain pride and equal rights. The Bishop’s fear is certainly tied to an increasingly acrimonious battle between his conservative side of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis’s liberal push. It would, then, not be homosexuals that His Excellency is afraid of, nor homosexuality, but a socio-cultural shift symbolized by the rise of gay couples into the ranks of legitimate families in society. I doubt if the Bishop goes as far as the politician did this week who declared that a massive wildfire was God’s judgment against transsexuals. Another lunatic spokesman, torn between fears, overcame his doubt about climate change long enough to attribute it to God’s judgment on us for failing to wipe homosexuals out. That, precisely, is what the leader in Chechnya proposed to do earlier this year. He was following the play-book of several other national leaders in Africa and the Middle East.
In all these cases, however, the thing feared is not homosexuals or homosexuality, but the cultural consequences of allowing gays to thrive or even to exist. It’s not that we’re going to breed, but that we’re going to succeed. It’s not that we are going to rape helpless youth (though that is often mentioned) but that society is going to change.
Anger is the product of fear of the loss of something, I was taught in counseling class. Anger turns violent in societies that condone violence. That is the salient factor, violence.
From my point of view it hardly matters whether the violence is to be executed by an angry god or to be perpetrated by human agents, such as the enraged 19 year-old fellow with the machete was going to do before he was arrested going to a Pride event last week. Anger leading to violence is the operative dynamic, and fear is being vented. It is not me or us as LGBT persons but the out-of-control change which we symbolize, that is feared.
The church is losing the power to control marriage and family life and the bishop is angry about it. In fact, the change has already happened, at least in post-modern USA. The bishop is in denial and looking for a scapegoat.
When a scapegoat is designated to take the blame for something the goat had nothing to do with, that is magical or metaphorical transference. It is metaphysical or religious, but not essentially political or cultural. Preventing gay couples from receiving religious sacraments will not restore the church’s authority to define family structure for American society. Piety and society are now two different realms. What happens in one has effect on the other only if there is a connecting factor.
For several millennia the factor connecting religion to society has been the consensus that religious authority was synonymous with civic well being. The Enlightenment of the 16th century, come to full-fruit in Modernism and Post-Modernism of the 20th century, has brought about a disconnection.
It might seem that recent trends in US politics have restored the church’s status, but calmer analysis is quickly agreeing that patriotic nationalism has simply clad itself in religious jargon, aided by the theological illiteracy and unconcern about history, of opportunistic individuals and organizations with distinctly political ambitions. That this is not basically an ideological movement can easily be detected by noticing how glibly it expands or shifts its targets from queers to Muslims to welfare cheaters to left-wing liberals to feminists or to any terrorists but their own. Religion in this modern era is being unhitched from civil power.
Religion has not been relegated to irrelevance by this, but, I believe, can now be restored to its right realm as the moral gyroscope for adherents and their link to the holy. Without the burden of empire weighing it down, religion has no need to defend civilization. It would not need a scapegoat. It can get on with spreading peace, as all major religions propose to do before they are diverted into service of king and country.
Religious based homophobia could wither.
Meanwhile, we have our work cut out for us to unlearn the loathing we have inherited and to dismantle the culture of violence that besets us with longing to destroy others because it is so much easier than to respect their humanity and love them.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.