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