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Canon Law and Queer Believers

Two androgynously illustrated figures of faces with hearts to symbolise hair close to one another, looking at a trail of hearts emerging from between them and culminating as a fireworks display between them

Why do canonists have so much control over the lives of queer Catholics who want to follow their faith? This is one of the vexing queries I have had as a queer Roman Catholic. The Catholic church long ago found that written principles and rules were necessary for the smooth working of the church. Through the long existence of the church, the collected pastoral and administrative wisdom of church pioneers was recorded, composed, tried, and remarked upon by legal specialists. But this collection of guidelines and “canons,” as they were called to differentiate them from civil laws, turned out to be progressively difficult to use. Therefore, in 1917, the Catholic church distributed its first code of Canon Law. It provided clear rules for the conduct of priests and bishops, administration of church property, issues of education, the celebration of holy sacraments like marriage, baptism and so forth, etc. Pope John Paul II declared, in 1983, a re-examined Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, it is fundamental to understand their significance and the degree of their control.

Laws govern the community in which they are enforced. First, canon law, like other civil laws, makes the hierarchical structure of the Church evident. This includes questions such as how priests and bishops are to be appointed, how the church property will be administered etc. Second, canon law guarantees the best possible ways to uphold the sanctifying function of the Catholic church, which is the salvation of humanity. And this is possible only if the sacraments are taken and celebrated properly. Hence, canon law provides norms for their celebration so that a believer attains God’s grace. Third, canon law gives rights and responsibilities to its members and provides techniques for settling clashes amongst Church members. Consequently, canon law has been overseeing Roman Catholics in different ways. J. Coburn notes that canonists get the opportunity to meddle in the private lives of people, particularly queer people because they view  “homosexuality . . . as a deviation of the sexual instinct – whereby an individual opts exclusively or prevalently in his dealings and erotic encounters for a partner of the same sex”. [1]

Canonists consider homosexual ‘behaviour’ an inversion of psychosexual behavior that makes homosexuals desire people of the same sex, and they believe that it is a character disorder. Hence, homoerotic attraction and the refusal to engage in heterosexual sex become legal issues for canonists. The courts have generally focused their attention on who they deem a genuine homosexual, i.e., “people who are always homosexual” as opposed to those they describe as situational homosexuals, i.e., “people who in normal conditions would be heterosexual but who turn to persons of the same sex as a means of satisfying sexual tension produced by the stress of particular circumstances.”[2]

The above interpretations of homosexual behavior have affected my own psychological wellbeing which is interconnected with different parts of my life. Likewise, these laws have also affected the lives of queer people for a long time. The first code of canon law was set up in 1917 but stigma against sex and sexuality has existed in the Catholic Church for a very long time. Simply put, queer people are not seen as normal children of the Lord. The Bible states, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27)[3] However, in the Summa Theologiae,  theologian and philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) stated that “the unnatural vice” is the greatest of the sins of lust. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church repeatedly condemned homosexuality and often collaborated with civil authorities to punish queer people. Punishment of sexual “vice”, as well as of religious heresy strengthened the Church’s moral authority.

Given this, can voices from the margins be satisfactorily heard? Since canonists have a definitive capacity to shape what is viewed as legitimate, and accordingly, what is considered the ‘standard’, how can a more inclusive voice be heard?

Unlike in the sixteenth century, we don’t use the Bible to legitimise the subjugation of individuals of colour as they did in the US. Also, even though in the third book of the Bible, Leviticus considers a menstruating woman “unclean”, we know that menstruation is a biological process and does not make a woman unclean. So, why are canonists and radical Catholics not wiling to understand other issues and why do they still condemn homosexual desires as unnatural? The Bible, as Desmond Tutu clarified in the 2007 narrative For the Bible Tells Me So, “is the word of God through the words of human beings speaking in the idiom of their time.” So why follow canon law to invalidate queer people’s identity, expressions, and experiences of sexuality? Can queer folks not read the Bible queerly and feel represented and validated?

Regardless of whether the Bible was intended to be taken letter for letter when composed, times change. Therefore, what I am suggesting is that more people should interpret the passages from the Bible to help square its content with current issues and realities. In this manner, they will feel closer to their faith. A queer reading of the Bible has personally helped me reclaim my space in the Church as an institution. It has helped me feel belongingness, represented, and loved. Hence, reading the Bible from a queer perspective can help queer folk, who want to follow their faith, to re-interpret the Christian word of God through a queer lens.

I am going to share a personal queer reading to help put forth what I mean. One day, while I was reading the gospel of John for my family, the final words of Jesus, made me wonder whether Jesus could have been gay. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple. ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John 19: 26-27) That disciple was John, whom Jesus, the gospels assert, loved in an exceptional way. Jesus’ other disciples had fled in dread. Only three women and one man had the fortitude to go with Jesus to his execution. That man clearly had an interesting place in Jesus’s heart. In every great depiction of the Last Supper, a most-loved subject of Christian art, John is close to Jesus, head  resting against Jesus’ bosom. This subtle expression of love makes Jesus seem queer to my imagination.

It uplifts me to think that Jesus might have desired John the way I desire  my partner. It makes me feel closer to the scripture to think Jesus took “pleasure in his people” (Psalm 149:4) and in John. Because John was the only male disciple who came to witness the execution of his beloved Jesus. The passion with which he asks his mother to take John as her son and asks John to take Mary as his mother makes me believe that only a person who has loved his partner deeply can utter these words. Jesus knew his desire and love for John would end with him, but he wanted John to take care of his mother and to not forget the love he had for him.

Hence, if a canonist believes that Jesus was devoid of sexuality, I would then say he was not a proper human being as the Bible claims he was, because desire and love are very  human emotions and have existed from before the time of Jesus. So, I believe his relationship with John was not one devoid of sexuality but, on the other hand, of profound love and desire. Even though there is no rabbinic custom of sexual abstinence, Jesus could very well have decided to forgo sexual activity, regardless of whether he was interested in men or not. Numerous Christians will wish to expect that Jesus abstained from sex, yet I see no philosophical need to. To me, the physical articulation of unwavering affection is faithfulness. To think otherwise is to become tied up with the sort of fixed, narrow, and ‘dogmatic’ views of the Church which are unjust and harmful to human life and the basic tenet of love for humankind.

Regardless of whether Jesus was gay or straight or asexual, it does not even slightly influence his spiritual identity and significance and what he implies for our present reality. What makes a difference in this setting is that there are numerous queer devotees of Jesus – ordained and lay – who, notwithstanding the followers of Canon Law, surprisingly and unassumingly remain faithful to him. If Christian places of worship, in their different guises, would more straightforwardly acknowledge, accept, respect and love us queer believers, the Church would be a safer and more inclusive space.


[1] J. Coburn, Homosexuality and the Invalidation of Marriages, The Jurist 20 (1960): 441-459.

[2] W. Kenny, Homosexuality and Nullity – Developing Jurisprudence, Catholic Lawyer 17 (1971): 110-122.

[3] for the bible verses

Cover Image: “Lista de listas de homossexuais lésbicas gays famosos fora do armário gay celebridades lésbicas famosos cantores armário de entretenimento Atores de TV Artistas Artistas Dançarinos” by Raphael Perez Israeli Artist is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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