DignityUSA National Conference - Las Vegas, Nevada, August 8, 2003
A Theological Reflection in Three Acts
Or The Vegas Show Girl, God, Popeye and
Where the Church Went Wrong
Keynote Address
By A. W. Richard Sipe

I consider it a great honor to be here with you. I do know something about being a 'voice in the desert.' And I know something about being shunned because of my opinions about sexuality. In 1990 I published a book that was the product of a 25-year ethnographic study of sex and celibacy in the Catholic priesthood.

Many people in the Church labeled it an attack, and anti-Catholic. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. I simply reported what I found. I estimated that at any one time only 50% of priests practice celibacy and 6% of priests involve themselves sexually with minors.

But I failed to realize just how isolated I had been until after January 2002 when the Boston Globe began printing its investigation on sexual abuse. Three of my long time friends called me. Each of them apologized. They had not believed me, but were afraid to say so until they read the Globe's accounts of abuse. None of them now thinks I was exaggerating.

The isolated spot, the desert, is historically a place where one can be comfortably out of pace with culture; a place to be safely ahead of history. The desert provides a time and place to speak freely. This is a time to disregard what others think of our experience and judgment. In the ancient tradition of the early Christian hermits the desert is a place to stand by convictions, willingly waiting for validation from the Church we treasure. This is a time and place to speak truth to power. We will give voice to what we know in order to educate and serve our Church. We cannot help it if we are not heard beyond the desert. Our job is to say what we know.

None of my remarks are political or militant. I have no agenda. What I have to offer is a theological reflection about love, grace, and human sexuality.

This little drama is my theological reflection in three acts. I call it THE VEGAS SHOWGIRL, GOD,  POPEYE & WHERE THE CHURCH WENT WRONG.

ACT ONE: The Vegas Showgirl

Setting a large meeting of victims of sexual abuse, Feb. 2003

Last February I met Sister Julie in Minnesota. She is a stately, attractive woman. She exudes a warmth and joy that is infectious; a laugh as memorable as her presence. And although I know it is dangerous to guess at a woman's age I estimated that she is in her mid 50s or 60s. She has been a Franciscan nun for 24 years, especially dedicated to the poor and underprivileged. By everyone's testimony she has provided exemplary service in the true spirit of St. Francis.

When she introduced herself she said that she had once been a Las Vegas showgirl. Then making hand gestures acknowledging her present physical figure--more matronly than girlish--she said, "You were expecting Rachel Welsh, maybe?

Well, you're getting Shelly Winters!" And so we did.

Sister Julie was literally kicked out of her convent in January. Several other sisters left with her to establish another convent to continue their mission. There was no question about the quality of her ministry or her dedication.

There was no question about her belief in the Catholic Church or her adherence to all Church laws of faith and morals.

Nonetheless the letter came from Rome to Sr. Julie's superior ordering that Julie be dismissed. (One priest cried when he read the letter of dismissal. One bishop offered Julie a spiritual home if she needed one.) In fact 2 letters came. One a general letter sent to every religious superior in the world and another directed specifically about Sr. Julie. Secret documents. Recipients were urged not to divulge the contents owing to "the delicacy and complexity of the situation."

Sister Julie, with obvious emotion, related the story of her life--what led her from her small Minnesota hometown to Las Vegas and from Vegas to a Wisconsin Convent. It was a spiritual quest, still in progress. She had found herself long ago; and has since been seeking her God in the loving and joyful service of others.

One could never guess that Julie was a shy and awkward youth from the obvious grace, poise, and confident presence she now commands. But she says that is exactly, in youth, what she suffered--excruciating timidity and wrenching self-consciousness.

In spite of being a good student and trying her best to fit in with the activities of her local parish and community she was teased mercilessly for her lack of coordination and her small scrawny stature. The social rejection and ridicule only made her more determined to fit in. She joined the Boy Scouts at 12, a group for which she was eligible at the time. Unfortunately the acceptance she hoped for among kids her own age was not only absent, she now became a focus for the group--the butt of jokes and tricks. If it had ended there perhaps it would have been tolerable.

But the abuse escalated to a pitch that culminated in a life-changing trauma. The gang spirit of the group took form in an exercise that the boys said, "would make a man out of" her. They trapped her, like a frightened animal and formed a "circle Jerk," ejaculating on her. The Scout Master participated. All avenues of social support seemed severed. If this was masculinity she wanted no part of it.

Julie isolated herself, concentrated on her studies and found a modicum of understanding from priests in counseling and in the confessional. By chance she had the opportunity to meet Christine Jorgensen. In her she found a kindred spirit and a path to redemption out of her personal hell. She consulted her confessor as she began the process of healing herself. He backed up her decision completely; he comforted, encouraged, and supported her during every medical and psychological procedure.

Both of them could enjoy the triumph of her being able to qualify as a Vegas dancer. Later they could both rejoice in her vocation to the convent. The Vatican has now made a judgment that "transexuality is a serious and irreversible pathology." On this basis they pronounced that superiors are forbidden to allow any such people entrance to religious life or the priesthood "since the candidate is missing a full and clear eligibility." Any such people already in religious life should be summarily expelled because they all "suffer from mental pathologies."

It is no surprise that the Vatican wants its directives kept secret. There is a lot to discuss here. Better for them that it is kept from rational scrutiny and open dialogue. What strikes me most is the absence of any consideration or discussion of rational, moral, and spiritual elements involved with real people. Authority is hiding behind a very dubious--a faux medical--rationale.

Neither Sr. Julie--nor any one else--can be stuffed into the waste bin of humanity by some label. In Christ there are no labels. Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, neither male nor female counts any more. We are all one in Christ. And indeed, when Julie is finally judged, as we all must be, there is not one sexual label, restriction or qualification that will come into question. (Matt: 25: 31-46) Only what did we do for love? When I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, homeless and lonely or in prison where were you? Julie has all the right answers. She will stand free of all labels, except being herself. We all very easily fall into the trap of labeling people, pigeonholing ourselves, reducing people to an aspect of ourselves (smart or dumb, beautiful or unattractive) or some external attribute (rich or poor) or even a moral perception (good or bad). But the wonder and mystery of humanity--and especially sexuality--is that it is dazzling, energizing, sanctifying beyond easy categories. Before the divine, all labels fail.

And this is my first point. We must fight the game of labeling others or ourselves. Somehow a myth persists that if we can name something we know it, control it. This is not true of God, our humanity or the essence of our sexuality.

ACT TWO: God & Popeye

Scene One: a small theological colloquium, 1978:

I promised that I would offer you a theological reflection on love, grace and human sexuality. I have already started. To begin our next step lets take a look into the theoretical. Theology is defined as "the study of God and [the] relation to [humans] and the world."

Some years ago I was invited to participate in a multi-year colloquium entitled "God on Our Mind." As one of 15 participants around a table for one week each of 5 successive summers I listened to what other clergy thought about God.

One of the ministers spoke firmly and frequently in terms "God wills this."

"God condemns that." There was no trace of uncertainty in his voice when he addressed any subject related to the divine "He", but he was especially clear and forceful when he spoke of God's ideas about sex.

I finally said in impolite frustration, "You talk as if you have God in your back pocket." The group did not take kindly to my confrontation. I was accused of being "just a humanist." I was not invited back; my antagonist even currently is a frequent visitor to the same site. [I take a certain pride in being labeled a humanist. According to my thinking Christ was the preeminent humanist, "Being God, but not disdaining to take human form."] But, who can show us how to study God?

Moses was a fascinating guy. He approached his study directly. We know he had a speech impediment along with his remarkable leadership ability. He had a monumental mission and is immortalized by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But he had his problems. Paramount among them were his restless and rebellious followers.

They walked to safety through the Red Sea. They saw the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led them through the desert. They tasted fresh water sprung from a rock. They ate manna when they were hungry. Moses gave all the credit to "God." But they had no image of this god--no golden calf. No name for their god, like Baal.

So under severe social pressure Moses approached the divine presence and haltingly asked, "Who are you?" And he got an answer. Well, of sorts. "I Am What Am." (I Am Who Am.) [Ex 3:13-14]. Yahweh aser Yahweh. " Cf. also Jesus: Jn. 8:21-30 "I AM." You will realize "I AM."] God is the nameless, the uncontainable and even the unimaginable. And most certainly God is not sexed. No He, No She is God. God is. God is love. We inventive humans have given God a sex, a beard, flowing robes, a personality, anything we like for our own comfort and amusement. It is a kind of 'god abuse.' Such theological games are tolerable to the degree that they help us toward understanding and eventual clarification. Something to grow out of. But we can't allow ourselves, without repercussions, to indulge in too much God talk. Theologian Deitrich Bonnhoeffer once said that theologians ought to put a 25-year moratorium on the word god in order to learn more about the reality. It is so easy to think that we speak for God who is safely in our pocket. One thing is certain, God is not that measly.

Theology is also defined as "the rational interpretation of religious faith, practice and experience." How must, we approach a study of God, love and human sexuality? Rationally. We are rational beings and are negligent if we approach God, love or our sexuality in a less than rational way. And yet what subjects are more vulnerable to myth, magic, manipulation, distortion, deceit, and delusion? I say none. And religion, so capable of good has a rich history of imposing every one of those negative qualities.

In my theological search I have always kept a sharp distinction between discovery and projection. Only spiritual discovery leads to spiritual growth. Our first reasonable step in the study of God is a rational discussion of the existence of God, not an assumption or acquiescence to others' judgments, but a personal search. As good a place as any to begin discussion is with the reality "I am what I am." because it is related to the experience of us, and has the possibility of leading to a discovery of "I Am What Am," the Other.

ACT TWO: God & Popeye

Scene Two: the Sunday comics, 1985.

Some of you long ago guessed how Popeye fits into my thinking. I choose a cartoon character rather than some hero-like human example to make my point, because I think that we humans looked at in any broad perspective, appear pretty laughable. And as an old friend of mine use to say, "If there is a God, [he] has to have a good sense of humor."

The essence of love and sex is in relationship. And Popeye was all relationships. Remember his world of stress and strain, good and evil. There was Olive Oil. She was steady in love and constantly in need of being saved. But her love seemed to be ever conflicted, ever available, and ever promising. Wimpy, their good friend was the imperturbable and not very helpful friend; over-weight and with an inexhaustible appetite for hamburgers; but always there, dependable. I still cannot figure out where Sweet Pea came from or how he/she fit into the picture. I chalk it up to some dysfunctional family dynamic. And then there was Bluto (Brutus) the ever-present threat. Always scheming and up to no good.

Popeye himself was none too bright, or at least it seems that he was usually slow to catch on. He had to be at short odds in any fight before he collected his composure, gathered his strength (partly from a can or two of spinach) and triumphed in the challenge.

As far as I can tell Popeye was always inspired by love and dependent on his special grace (spinach) rather than motivated by material gain or over confidence in his own prowess, no matter how many fights he won. Popeye always muddled through. His real strength, and to me his great attraction, lies in his lack of pretense, his disparagement of any labels, his pride and self confidence expressed in his essential refrain: I Am What I Am, or more accurately, "I yam what I yam."

To me this is the spark of the Divine. And this is my second point. We come close to God by claiming our existence, without apology, without labels, but with gratitude and humility. We pursue our relationships with respect for the rational nature given us. "I am what I am." As a community we can accept the crest of the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, Minnesota whose motto is, Sumus quod Sumus, (we are what we are).

ACT THREE: Where the Church Went Wrong

Scene One: A Vatican: Hall with Pope John Paul II, 1992.

How dare we say the church has been wrong?

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his De revolutionibus. He dedicated the treatise to the reigning Pope. He reverently proposed that the sun, not the earth is the center of our universe. In spite of the fact that he was a canon lawyer, trained in medicine, mathematics, theology and astronomy he was cautious since most Church men still held that the earth was the center around which the sun revolved. His writing was labeled "false" and finally relegated to the Index of Forbidden Books by the Inquisition.

Giordano Bruno was neither as diplomatic nor so lucky. A priest and scientist he was burned at the stake for heresy (2/17/1600). Among his violations; teaching that the sun is the center of our universe.

The heresy trial of Galileo in 1633 found him guilty also on the basis of his contention that the earth moved, not the sun. He spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest. (The trial was rigged with a false 1616 document.) And the Vatican issued a decree that any one who held that the earth was not the center of our universe should be "anathema."

That ecclesiastical judgment was, in fact, in effect until 1992 when Pope John Paul II effectively repudiated it in a roundabout way by praising Galileo's philosophy. Galileo's famous statement is: the "Book of Nature is written in mathematical characters." The Pope belatedly noted how, "intelligibility, attested to by the marvelous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial thought imprinted on all things."

It comes as no surprise to the modern world that Galileo was correct in his judgment. The fundamental fight at the time of Galileo's trial was the conflict between scripture and science. How can science displace statements in the bible? Scripture said "the sun raises; the sun sets." It must move because there were witnesses to fact that "God made the sun stand still."

Most of us agree that, inspired as it is, the bible is not a textbook of science. It is not a guide to astronomy, cosmology, or astrophysics.

Quite simply, the bible is not a text on the nature of human sexuality any more than it is a text on cosmology. There have been excellent scholarly efforts (notably John McNeill, John Boswell, and Andrew Sullivan, Charles Curran, Bernard Hering among others) to explain the biblical tradition of sexuality in a broader and more reasonable context than usually acknowledged by the Church. Many church scholars, indeed, have moved to a more rational and scientifically open stance regarding sexuality. But even now many theologians support the idea that there is "the tradition underlying the Church's official teaching on sexual ethics, that there is a biblical norm for the ethical use of sexuality according to God's will".

I say this as respectfully as I can. The Church's official teaching on human sexuality does not stand the test of reason or science. They don't have God in their back pocket on this one either. The Pope's own admission of mistakes gives us the courage to speak out.

ACT THREE: Where the Church Went Wrong

Scene Two: The Vatican, March 2000. Pope John Paul II releases "The Church and the Mistakes of the Past."

This is a stirring 50-page apology for 2000 years of violence and persecution by the Catholic Church. Its conclusion, "Even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel." (Card. Ratzinger) Today in the light of the complicity of Cardinals and Bishops in the sexual abuse of minors this admission is an understatement.

This document is a clear admission that the Church was wrong in its championing the Crusades, in fostering the Inquisition, in persecuting the Jews, in killing men and women who disagreed with its teaching, etc.

This admission may seem noble and historic. And it is. But it is insufficient and ineffective (dare I say a sham) unless it is translated into a new policy. It is clear that dissenters in the past were excommunicated, persecuted, and killed. The Pope clearly says the Church was mistaken--history shows that the Church was wrong. The Pope apologized.

The tragic mistake the Church has made repeatedly was the refusal to dialogue. It is repeating the same destructive pattern today by refusing to discuss the whole sexual/celibate agenda clogging up the progress of religion. The consequences of the Church's intransigence are monumentally destructive. What of dissenters today, who on solid scientific and rational grounds, with respect for tradition and legitimate authority say, "I disagree?" Can the Church of today listen and dialogue?

I do not hesitate to say that the Church's teaching on human sexuality is not correct. It exists on a pre Copernican level of understanding. Its basis of biblical revelation and interpretation is insufficient to account for the realities we already know. I will discuss only two of its basic misjudgments: on sexual sin and homosexuality.

The official teaching of the Church on sexuality, known to every Catholic schoolchild is: "every sexual thought, word, desire and action outside of marriage is mortally sinful and there can be no paucity of matter."

This criterion is not credible or livable. I believe that it is a standard established and acceptable for an adult choice of a religious celibate existence. Even that group of Christians however, only rarely achieves it. I do not understand why there is not more dialogue about a teaching that is so patently incredible.

Human growth and healthy sexual development is dependent on measured experience and reasonable, responsible experimentation. (This is one reason why the sexual abuse of a minor by an adult is so devastating. It disrupts and often destroys the healthy process of sexual development.)

Although to say so surely 'rankles the hackles' (it really does rankle and raise the hackles) of many self-righteous souls, it is true that masturbation is a normal and necessary activity for humans, boys and girls, women and men. The psychological roots of good object relationships are laid down with the ability of the infant to self-comfort. The psychological sciences are as certain of this as Galileo was about the disposition of the skies. Likewise, sufficient sexual experimentation with another human being is needed to establish one's identity and capacity for love. It is against reason to presume that sexual life and development is divided into two segments: one from infancy to marriage when no sexual activity is tolerated and the second in marriage where sex is good, glorious, and holy. (Of course only if the couple does not use contraception, which relegates sex back to the realm of sin.)

The fundamental fallacy is the assumption that the Church's teaching about sex is based on "natural law." It simply is not so. The book of nature is neither written in biblical terms, nor in the philosophical terms of that the Church uses in its apologetics. (This takes nothing away from the glory and meanings of scripture.)

The Catholic Church currently has a specific sexual problem. The Church names the problem homosexuality. But the real problem is named "church." I know of no expert within the Church that would argue with the statement that "there is a larger proportion of homosexually oriented men in the priesthood than in the general population." This has always been so. The history of the Catholic priesthood is studded with saints, scholars, cardinals, and popes as well as scoundrels and sinners who clearly had what we today call a homosexual orientation. (Don't forget that that label has a history of only a few more that 100 years.)

But the Church is incorrect in its 1986 statement that holds that people with a homosexual orientation have an "objective disorder" or that the expression of their love is an "intrinsic" malady of some sort.

At base sexual orientation is genetically determined. Same sex orientation is just as natural (and valuable in its own way to the preservation of the species) as heterosexual orientation. (Cf. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002; p.244, 2555-258.) His point is that the acceptance of gays is an indication of the level of tolerance in a society, which is essential for wellbeing of development. Progress is not made in a closed society.) If one holds theologically that sex is from the Creator-God, he must also consider that all sex is from God.

Many people forget just how natural same sex orientation is. There is a stage of development that each of us passes through, where same sex association is natural and necessary for adult relationships. Some psychologists use the fact that this experience is universal, and heterosexuals move beyond it and incorporate it into their sexual adjustment, to see gay adjustment as arrested development. This is not so. Gay psychosexual development is just different. That does not make it inferior or defective. Gays too move beyond the "gang age" to develop adult, mature, loving, stable relationships. And I hold that gays can achieve this maturity in equal proportions to straights only with greater social obstacles to overcome in the process. Also the division between "heterosexual" and "homosexual" is a semi-permeable membrane that can be transcended by circumstance and temporal pressures. (The experience of many military men, prisoners, and priests among others give ample testimony to this reality.)

The Church disdains (condemns) honest, open, responsible, sexual relationships between men or between women, at the same that it countenances liaisons that are secret and clerical. This is the witness of one Vatican official:

In some Vatican circles, the phenomenon of homosexuality--a state of being that today is regarded with clemency and understanding--can help a hopeful candidate advance more quickly and cause a rival to lose the desire to present himself for promotion. The intrigues are cruel, and the protagonists are even more so. In the list of hopefuls for promotion, the one who gives himself from the waist down has a better chance than the one who gives his heart and mind to the service of God and his brothers. In those cases, charm is worth more than merit. (Millenari, 2000, p110)

A lesbian friend of mine, a lawyer who has done landmark work in holding the Church accountable for its duplicity said to me: "The priesthood promotes a demented form of homosexuality. They give homosexuals a bad name." This hypocrisy and duplicity is exactly what she had in mind: the Vatican's proclamation that an "inclination to homosexuality is an intrinsic disorder" at the same time as it fosters and tolerates this sexual behavior on the highest levels of its organization.

The Church condemns same-sex love in the context of an open, stable, loving and dedicated relationship as if it were against nature and a threat to the stability of marriage and the family. Not so! A theologian once claimed that masturbation had to be a mortal sin "otherwise who would get married?" This exact distorted thinking is at the base of the Church's inadequate understanding of sexuality, love, and human relationships.

This is my third point: reason is the final arbitrator of truth in sexual matters. We say this with great reverence for the divinely inspired institution that has nurtured us. The book of nature is basic to the Bible, not the other way round. The clear reading of the book of nature is necessary for a sound theology.

ACT THREE: Where the Church Went Wrong

Scene Three: Here and Now

We make our contribution to the theology of sexuality by refusing the constrictions and misrepresentations of labels, by claiming our God-likeness in our being, and by tirelessly pursuing reason in our quest for relationships, love, and the Truth that "Am What Am."

There is no real conclusion to my drama. It is ongoing and vital. Your organization is playing an important part in educating the Church. The lessons you teach are monumental, and not merely of passing interest. The issues you raise and champion are beyond politics and partisanship. Because you are reading from the book of nature, just as Galileo did, what you stand for will triumph in general understanding.

We relate to God through our humanity. And we are humanized in the series of relationships that foster our life, from the primary others (father and mother) through significant others, to the Ultimate Other. The only label that comes close to having any meaning in this realm is love. And we are not it. (Only God is love.) We can participate in it.

What is spoken in the desert, if it is true, will someday be shouted from steeples. Or at least it has a chance of engaging in meaningful dialogue. We can't ask for more.