The Little Man Behind the Curtain: Uncovering the Hierarchy Behind Church Teaching

Jason Steidl

Today’s post is from guest blogger Jason Steidl, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at St. Joseph’s College. He is currently writing a book on the history of LGBTQ Catholic ministry in the US and advocates for LGBTQ Catholics.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions come face to face with the movie’s namesake. For much of the plot, they had put up with his name-calling and arbitrary demands in a desperate bid to win his favor. After Toto pulls back the curtain on him, though, they discover that the one who called himself “the Great and Powerful Oz” is a diminutive old man. The “wizard” who projected his godlike image with fire, smoke, and clashes of thunder is, in the words of Scarecrow, a “humbug” desperate for attention.

We Catholic friends of Dorothy can relate to her experience. Behind the curtain of homo/transphobic church teaching are men who appear to have no knowledge of healthy gender and sexuality concepts.

On Thursday, Le Parisien reported that the Archdiocese of Paris will hold a canonical trial for Msgr. Tony Anatrella, one of the most prominent and (formerly) most powerful Catholic opponents of LGBTQ civil rights. The psychotherapist, nicknamed the “Church’s shrink,” is accused of having sexually abused several patients, including seminarians and at least one minor, during therapy sessions from the 1970s until the early 2010s.

Although a civil suit against Anatrella became public in 2006, church leaders then dismissed it as part of a smear campaign. When accusations persisted, they opened their own investigation, and more accusers came forward with claims that the priest had used nudity and mutual masturbation as part of their “treatment plan.”

At the peak of his ecclesiastical power, Anatrella had the ear of high-ranking church officials. His work appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, he spoke at Vatican-sponsored conferences and the 2014 Synod on the Family, and he was appointed as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family.

For many years, he railed against the dangers of “gender theory,” a pervasive, if nebulous, term popular in Vatican diatribes against modernity. He described homosexuality as an “incomplete and immature part of human sexuality”—an idea that helped justify the Congregation for the Clergy’s 2005 ban on homosexual seminarians. In France, Anatrella condemned the campaign for marriage equality as “a lobby that reduces the family to what it isn’t” and denigrated same-sex parents for “wishing to play Daddy and Mommy without having the appropriate characteristics.”

Because of his power and influence, Anatrella’s bigotry likely played a role in some of the Vatican’s worst anti-LGBTQ theologies, statements, and policies. Although ecclesiastical authorities are now holding him accountable for sexual abuse, his perverse legacy remains part of magisterial tradition. Why don’t church leaders question it?

Unfortunately, the scandal surrounding Anatrella reflects a much more serious and systematic problem in the Catholic hierarchy than clergy sexual abuse. Leaders believed and trusted Anatrella because they needed him justify their own homo/transphobia. They eagerly sought counsel from a sexual abuser because he told them what they wanted to hear.

Much of the hierarchy’s teaching on LGBTQ issues developed in the latter half of the mid-20th century, a time when religious leaders were caught off guard by movements for queer and women’s liberation. Centuries-old Thomistic anthropology offered few resources for understanding the changes taking place in society. For decades, the Magisterium bounced from one perceived crisis to another with little sustained reflection or dialogue with the outside world. Documents cited other documents that relied on long-discredited tropes. In the US, the bishops endorsed Courage, a group that tries to treat “same-sex attraction” as an illness. They didn’t seem to know that the Freudian psychology behind the group had been dying a slow death for decades.

Rather than learning from dialogue with science and LGBTQ people, church leaders doubled down on their homo/transphobia, inventing even crueler anti-LGBTQ theologies and rhetorics. 1975’s Persona Humana, for example, described homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.” In 1992, the CDF said that no one should be surprised if movements for gay liberation lead to “irrational and violent reactions.”

What could provoke such strong attacks against LGBTQ equality? Internalized homophobia may be to blame. Although definite statistics are hard to come by, the lowest estimates claim that around 15% of the clergy is homosexual, while higher estimates claim that the number is closer to 75-%. The ecclesiastical closet fosters secrecy, shame, and self-loathing that leaders channel into campaigns against LGBTQ civil rights. From the 1980s until the 2010s, the institutional church was the most formidable religious opponent of LGBTQ progress around the world.

The world, meanwhile, watches as many leaders in the hierarchy undermine the Church’s witness to truth. Most bishops present their teaching on LGBTQ issues as if it comes from God. Claiming to be the guardians of an ancient and sacred tradition, they confuse their participation in the culture wars with the gospel. If lay Catholics took the bishops seriously, they might believe that Jesus said all sorts of things about homosexuality and transgender people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This Pride, the Friends of Dorothy see the veil being lifted on Catholic leaders and their claims to divine revelation. Behind the wizard’s curtain is decades of fear and insecurity parading as doctrine. With Dorothy, we’re making our way back home—somewhere over the rainbow—with or without him.

Jason Steidl, June 26, 2021

6 replies
  1. James
    James says:

    The most cogent, candid, and incisive statement I’ve seen yet on why the Church works against its LGBTQ members to the point of joining with civic and political forces in their very un-Christian efforts to deny equality and protection under law for sexual minorities. Jason Steidl calls out Rome’s hypocrisy, blindness, institutional stubbornness, and refusal to meet the world where it is that we seem to be stuck with until, perhaps, a latter-day John XXIII comes along and throws open the windows for another try at aggiornamento .

    Reply
  2. Ann Marie Connolly
    Ann Marie Connolly says:

    Provocative and saddening look at where the Church is coming from in its intolerance of LGBTQ+ persons. Pathological stance has caused hurt and disillusionment for so many!
    May the Holy Spirit continue to unravel fake claims/ reveal false prophets and lead us all to a day of true respect for the dignity of EVERY beloved child of God!

    Reply

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