Benedict XVI in the Company of LGBTQ+ Saints

Today’s post is from guest contributor Jason Steidl Jack. Jason is a gay Catholic theologian and assistant teaching professor of religious studies at St. Joseph’s University New York. His first book, LGBTQ Catholic Ministry: Past and Present, has recently been published by Paulist Press. He is active in Out @ St. Paul, the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, and serves on the board of directors for Fortunate Families. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, Damian.

Benedict XVI is dead. He was a priest, theologian, professor, peritus, cardinal, Prefect of the CDF, Bishop of Rome, and pope emeritus. But he was not a friend to the LGBTQ+ community.

For a while now, I’ve reflected on how I’d feel upon hearing news of his death. Would I feel relief that his teachings can’t hurt us anymore? His teachings contributed to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment inside and outside the church which often resulted in both spiritual and physical violence against LGBTQ+ people. Would I pity him because he was shaped by the culture of internalized homophobia that dominated the church during his lifetime? Would I be angry thinking that he could have chosen to learn more about LGBTQ+ people, but didn’t?

His decisions caused great harm to the LGBTQ+ Catholic community. As head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), then-Cardinal Ratzinger expelled LGBTQ+ Catholic groups from parishes at the height the AIDS epidemic. In a 1986 letter, he said that queer folks brought violence upon themselves when they advocated for their rights. Through many decades he tried, and often succeed at, silencing our heroes and allies—theologians and pastoral ministers who worked for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

In the early 1990s, he railed against secular legislation that would guarantee access to housing, employment, adoption, and military service. According to him, “there is no right to homosexuality.” A decade later, as governments around the world moved to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples, he warned politicians that voting for such measures would be “gravely immoral.” As pope, one of Benedict XVI’s first official acts was to approve a policy barring “those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’” from seminary because they supposedly lack affective maturity and their situation “gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” Indeed, throughout his long Vatican career, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI invented new ways to ostracize queer folks and their allies.

These actions all caused great pastoral, personal, and, at times, even physical harm to LGBTQ+ people.

Now that he’s gone, I reflect on my belief in universal salvation. Some LGBTQ+ people may like to imagine the former pope in hell. Since I’m a universalist, I don’t. I trust that God’s love is strong enough to convince and transform even God’s greatest enemies. I don’t think Benedict XVI is in hell, or even that he was one of God’s greatest enemies.

Benedict XVI was gravely mistaken about LGBTQ+ people. He had a lot to learn in this life, but who could teach him? Since hearing of his death, I’ve imagined Benedict XVI sitting in a heavenly classroom where his teachers are queer martyrs and saints. In death, he’ll have to listen to them, a great change from his life when he claimed to have all the answers.

Benedict XVI will hear about queer love that transcends death from Saints Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs who died in each other’s embrace. St. Sebastian, the patron of AIDS victims whose youthful body was pierced by arrows, will tell him about the beauty and agony of desire. Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Roman Christian soldiers whose inseparable friendship was consummated in martyrdom, will share how their lovers’ union changed the world. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, will recount his erotic same-sex relationship with Jesus. St. Wilgefortis, who prayed for a miracle and grew a beard to escape compulsory heterosexual marriage, can fill him in on how God made her trans. St. Joan of Arc, who dressed as a man for battle against the English, shall reveal the spiritual power of her genderbending spirit.

More recent, uncanonized martyrs and saints can also teach him. Fr. John McNeill, a minister to LGBTQ+ Catholics who was expelled from the Jesuits and lived in a decades-long same-sex relationship, will talk about ways that God’s love breaks through barriers erected by the institutional Church. Marsha “Pay it no Mind” Johnson, the famed black drag queen who participated in the Stonewall Riots yet died a pauper, will disclose the many ways God cares for the poor and non-conforming ones. Alana Chen, the young woman from Denver who died by suicide after receiving dangerous counsel from a priest, will detail the devastation wrought by Catholic teaching and so-called conversion therapy. Matthew Shepard, a college-age gay man who was attacked and left to die in a remote Wyoming field, will articulate the need for LGBTQ+ civil rights and protections. Fr. Robert Nugent, whose commitment to the priesthood resulted in years of suffering after he was silenced by the Vatican, will demonstrate the good fruits of affirming, compassionate ministry.

How much Benedict XVI will have to learn and grow! Soon enough, I hope, communion with queer martyrs and saints will help bring him to perfection. It’s a pity he didn’t get an earlier start, but now he has an eternity to discover God’s beautiful work in queer lives.

Jason Steidl Jack, January 1, 2022

17 replies
  1. Loras Michel
    Loras Michel says:

    Your post, Jason, is beautifully written — a warm ocean breeze to ring in the New Year 2023. I too trust in God’s mercy and that all of us will have another chance to get it right the second time if for whatever reason, we missed the mark the first time. Praise the compassion of our God of second chances.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    Thank you for sharing this, seems like a good idea to alert the mentioned saints and martyrs that they have some good work to do in the near future. Peace in 2023.

  3. Thomas Berube
    Thomas Berube says:

    Thank you Jason! I too have been pondering about Benedict and his legacy. Your thoughts are most helpful. One That I will share: Had Benedict not had the humility to Step down we would would not have had these last 10 years with Francis. May he be kept well!

  4. John Montague
    John Montague says:

    Father Michal Judge will also be teaching Benedict XVI about what it means to provide true pastoral ministry to gay people.

  5. Jane Paris
    Jane Paris says:

    Oh Jason, that is a beautiful Litany of our LGBTQ+ Saints! Just how I image heaven for Benedict. He loved the Church and would defend it at costs, even against the gospel.

  6. Cathy Hoffmann
    Cathy Hoffmann says:

    Jason, thank you for your insightful reflection on Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s death. Processing the death of one who has caused such deep suffering is quite complex. It is only when I came to the realization that we each have caused another’s suffering at one time or another ~ often with good (but misguided) intentions ~ that I could go beyond my intense anger and desire for vengeance. And looking deeply at that space within myself, allowing myself to feel the pain it brings, can I look at another and recognize myself in them. In the years ahead, may we each strive to be less sure of absolutes and always search for the sacred within that connects us all.
    Wishing you a wonderful new year,

  7. Br. Brian McLauchlin
    Br. Brian McLauchlin says:

    I surely hope and pray that 2023 will not bring yet more mean-spirited, petty comments on Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, I acknowledge that his comments and theology around LGBTQ people could be harsh and cruel. Yes, he surely had a lot to learn, but so do the rest of us.

    I mean this sincerely: his greatest gift to LGBTQ people was his resignation, which I believe came as a result of prayerful reflection with the Holy Spirit. He realized that he was not the person to be leading a Church through issues that were beyond his ability. He had the self-knowledge and humility that he was not the person to lead a Church that had grown far beyond his capability and understanding.

    May he too rest in God’s gentle care.

  8. Bob Butts
    Bob Butts says:

    I think that the article is quite pastoral in its approach to ex Pope Benedict. I would like to add the following Saints who he may not consider as ‘clean’

    The millions that were abused by clergy while Benedict ignored this sin and neglected to do anything about it.
    The millions of LGBTQIA people who died of HIV- AIDS, because of Benedict’s rigid no condoms policies and systematic influence throughout the world
    The millions of LGBTQIA people alienated and rejected by church, families, jobs and society thanks to hate based letters on Pastoral Care.
    The Dignity Chapters that have been shut down or rejected by Benedicts bishops, leaving them no place for pastoral care or ministry.

    I struggle with using traditional Saints and public persons when there are millions of faceless, nameless folks that this Pope committed spiritual violence upon and yes, murder.

  9. Joseph Tevington
    Joseph Tevington says:

    You said it all in this one line: “Now that he’s gone, I reflect on my belief in universal salvation.”

    Universal Salvation is NOT a Catholic belief. The late German Shephard knew his responsibility to guide people to God who is love and truth.

  10. bh
    bh says:

    This reminded me of Benedict’s “Halloween Letter” in 1986 as I was in the first stages of coming out. I was attending Dignity in Chicago at St. Sabastian’s Church (now torn down). It was on the edge of Boys’ Town. It was demolished to make room for the expansion of Illinois Masonic Hospital. Digntiy/Chicago had a group discussion on that letter led by a very attractive young man who told us basically to ignore the letter. So I did.

    Later Fr. Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine came to the city where I was living. They stayed with me. They came to present one of their workshops. The local bishop would not allow them on church property. I arranged for them to hold the workshop at a local Episcopal Church. I remember the day. One local priest, Fr. Joe Pat Breen was there. One other memory from that day; there was a young metro policeman there who asked for advice about his sister who just came out as a lesbian. I am sure he got good advice that day from Bob and Jeannine. I also remember taking Bob and jeannine to Opryland.

  11. Lou Csabay
    Lou Csabay says:

    I would think the “heavenly classroom” would also be attended by the American Franciscan Friar, Mychal Judge who served as chaplain to the NYC Police Department. He worked tirelessly among the victims of AIDS in the city and ministered to the LGBT Community in a loving manner. As the first “official” death of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, he could teach about the hate that brings works of love to an end and how religious ideology often ruins peoples’ lives, regardless of the sect or tradition.


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