Those who are familiar with Catholic LGBT history will remember that in 1976, Rev. John J. McNeill, SJ, published The Church and the Homosexual, the first book-length theological critique of the Catholic Church’s moral ban on same-sex relationships. It is a monumental work.
But the first defense of same-sex relationships by a Catholic theologian actually was made two years earlier by Gregory Baum, an ethicist from Canada. In an article in the February 15, 1974 issue of Commonweal, Baum wrote an article entitled “Catholic Homosexuals” in which he defended the ethical status of same-sex relationships.
Baum, who was a towering theological figure during and after the Second Vatican Council, is now in his 90s, and he just published his autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway (published by McGill-Queen’s University Press). In this book, for the first time publicly, Baum acknowledges that he is a gay man.
The acknowledgment comes in chapter 32, where the recounting of his experience will, I’m sure, sound familiar to any LGBT person who came of age before the turn of the 21st century. It is a poignant tale, filled with the usual confusion, fear, and denial which many had experienced. The twists and turns of his life will also be familiar. Describing his young adulthood, he writes:
“In subsequent years I fell in love with men on several occasions with a passion that was both joyful and painful at the same time: I had great joy in the presence of the beloved and great pain because my love could not be received.”
He explains that he became a priest, but that now, in hindsight, he sees it was for the wrong reason:
“Looking back I began to realize that my vow of celibacy had not bee a meaningful religious commitment but simply a promise to bracket my homosexuality, to refuse to explore its meaning and power.”
He decided to leave the priesthood “since I no longer agreed with the church’s official sexual ethics and was exploring my sexuality in non-conformist ways.”
Baum’s affectional and relational journey took additional twists and turns after leaving the priesthood, but I’ll leave it to you to discover those as you read his book.
Recalling his publication of the 1974 Commonweal article, Baum describes it genesis. After giving a lecture in 1973, he received a letter from Rev. Pat Nidorf, the founder of Dignity, then a ministerial support organization of gay and lesbian Catholics, which continues today in a much-expanded organization. Nidorf sent him a copy of Dignity’s faith statement for Baum to evaluate theologically.
Baum’s Commonweal article was the result of that evaluation. He made the case for same-sex relationships in two ways. First, he argued that “The definition of human nature tends to reflect the self-understanding of the cultural elite” and so “To say that homosexual love is ‘unnatural’ is to make a cultural statement,” not a moral one.
His second point comes from his background in ecumenical and interfaith relations. (Baum, whose mother was Jewish, wrote the first draft of Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s document on the Church’s relationship to the Jewish people, when he was a theological advisor at the Council.) So he argued that “The church’s anti-homosexual rhetoric has produced a culture that despises and persecutes homosexuals, devises cruel punishments for homosexual acts, and fosters self-doubt and self-hatred in homosexual men and women.” The antidote for this, he says, is “Christ’s great commandment–to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” To follow that commandment, he said, the Church needed to review its teachings in regard to all marginalized people.
Baum’s book is a treasure trove of the background of one of the great theological debates of the twentieth century, especially the Second Vatican Council. New Ways Ministry was blessed to have Baum as a plenary speaker at our Fifth National Symposium in 2002 which was entitled “Out of Silence God Has Called Us: Lesbian/Gay Catholics in the Vatican II Church.”
Even more so, the book is an inside look at a very gentle soul. In closing the chapter where he acknowledged his gay identity, Baum wrote the following beautiful analysis:
“I have asked myself if there is a special meaning in the homosexual condition. God creates the great majority of humans heterosexual and only a small minority homosexual. Is there a special task associated with the condition of the latter? Since they are an oppressed minority, aware of the hypocrisy of society and the damage done by the dominant culture, I have suggested that gays and lesbians are intended to extend solidarity to all marginalized groups and demand greater justice. Because homosexuals are largely invisible in society, their prophetic vocation will have a cultural impact and support the struggle for human emancipation.”
Gregory Baum has already been a gift to the Church. With his new book, he shows us the inner soul behind his keen mind, making the gift of himself that much more precious.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 29, 2017