Sunday, January 30, 2011

Der heilige Schein (The Holy Illusion) - A Review

A brief preface to the reader:

I am aware that writing a review in English of Der heilige Schein,(1) a book available until now only in German, may strike some as premature. And the fact that many sources referred to are in German as well may also add frustration to the experience. But I trust English readers will share my appreciation of the timeliness of the topic, and join me in pressing for a translation at the earliest possible date. The book is a window into the current struggle going on in the German Catholic church over homosexuality and church policy, with implications for the church world wide. Its relevance to the gay liberation struggle is unmistakable and its challenge to organized religion argues for debate and discussion of its content even before all the details are made available beyond the German-speaking world.


David Berger is a German Roman Catholic theologian who is gay. Until April of last year, he lived his life according to the church’s policy of silence in regard to its gay and homosexually inclined members, a policy not unlike the U.S. military’s policy of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.” His devotion to the church awakened in him an interest in its guiding moral philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, and his scholarship on Thomas Aquinas was sufficiently well received that he was offered the job as editor of the journal Theologisches (Theological Issues), a forum from which he articulated his support for conservative catholicism. This put him in good standing even with arch conservative organizations such as the Pius Brotherhood and gave him entrée into conservative circles in Germany and abroad.

All this came to an end last April 11 when Berger turned on his television to hear Bishop Overbeck of Essen say on a talk show that being homosexual is a sin because “homosexuality is contrary to nature.”(2) As a theologian, Berger understood that the church’s official position was to “hate the sin but love the sinner,” to split being from doing, make sexual acts sinful, but speak of gays themselves with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”(3) Two days later, Tarcisio Bertone, second in command in the Vatican after the Pope, announced that there was no connection between celibacy and child abuse in the church but that the abuse was a result of homosexuality.(4) In rapid succession, others were coming to the defense of the church and its decision to protect itself above all other goals and its insistence that the church, not the state, had priority in dealing with child abusers.

The deflection of the problem onto homosexuality was especially galling. Archbishop Grings of Brazil urged the criminalization of homosexuality, and Tuscan Bishop Scatizzi claimed homosexuality was responsible for making the church effeminate.(5) Bothered by the discrepancy he saw between statements of this nature and indications that homosexuals in the priesthood might make up as many as 50% of the priesthood, possibly even more, Berger published an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau on April 23, entitled "Ich darf nicht länger schweigen (I can stay silent no longer.)"(6) That article has now been expanded into a book, published by Ullstein, entitled The Holy Illusion.(7)

How one reads Illusion depends on whether one identifies with the Catholic Church and, if so, how one understands its authority. Non-catholic gays’ first reaction is apt to be “told you so,” or “so what else is new?” And at the other end of the spectrum, arch conservative Catholics are calling the book a revenge work by a disturbed sinner. One does find oneself wondering at times whether there isn’t a bit too much made of the reinstatement of holocaust denier Williamson, the apparitions of Mary, and the influence of radical right organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Tradition, Family and Private Property (TFP), the Servants of Jesus and Mary, the Pius Brotherhood.

But that begs the question of whether Berger is right in claiming the church has moved so far to the right that it is beginning to resemble the fundamentalists of North America.(8) In any case, even a cursory look at the discourse on the book in two online German catholic websites, and, would suggest Berger has touched a very raw nerve indeed., a privately funded conservative catholic website based in Austria, continues to call him a liar(9) – and they have church support.(10), another privately funded German language conservative catholic website based in California, has referred to him as a “narcissistic sodomist.”(11) To be sure, the church has actually distanced itself from, no doubt because it frequently goes off the deep end, suggesting Berger may be planning a suicide attempt on the pope, for example. But with the pope’s decision to take a “big tent” approach by returning to the fold not only Williamson but previously excommunicated followers of French Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the radical-right Society of St. Pius,(12) Berger’s view of the church as in thrall to the right can’t be too far off the mark.

The church mirrors the polarized political situation in the United States, with a far left, as represented by the liberation theologists of Latin America and others who focus on pastoral care and social welfare, and a right wing focused on authority and disciplined adherence to tradition.(13) Any discussion such as Berger’s in which a change of heart lifts one out of one camp and into the other opens up the question of who speaks for the church and what its role is across time.

Some of Berger’s claims – that the church has a problem with sexuality, that its antimodernist stance is self-destructive, that its decision to circle the wagons rather than accept responsibility for the priest abuse scandal has been a total disaster – are not controversial. What is raising eyebrows is his claim that up to half of all priests are gay, that the church welcomes them because they can be controlled by guilt and – his central point, and hence the book’s title – that the reason the church functions at all is because it has prioritized the appearance of things over reality.

One needs to distinguish between “gay” priests and priests who are “homosexually inclined.” (And this applies not just to priests, obviously.) “Gay” implies an embraced identity, “homosexually inclined” almost invariably suggests a rejection of that identity. Although gay activists often lay claim to the homosexually inclined (“he’s gay but doesn’t want to admit it”), Berger’s book cannot be understood outside a framework in which one makes a clear distinction between the two.

Berger embraced his sexuality early on, entered into a lifetime partnership with another man and took full advantage of the fact that as long as he didn’t do it in the road and scare the horses the church would leave him alone, once he had established his conservative credentials. Progressives, he says, might have bugged him until he came out. Conservatives were masters at don’t ask/don’t tell. While willing to hide the relationship in order to build a career as a theologian and make a name for himself as a Thomas Aquinas scholar and member of the Papal Academy, he was not willing to relinquish that relationship or deny it officially, which he would have had to do if he had become a priest. As it was, Berger’s use of the don’t ask/don’t tell policy gave him more than a decade as a rising young star within the church until his outing.

His detractors would have it that he was “exposed” when his association with gays was revealed on his Facebook page. Berger’s own version of the story is that such association was manufactured by those who were becoming concerned over his apparent slipping away from loyalty to an archconservative ideology, and that it was his disgust with the failure of Overbeck and Bertone to live up to the church’s own policy of “respect, compassion and sensitivity” that drove him to come out. Wherever the truth lies, Berger’s outing, forced or voluntary, exposes the polarization within the church between those who stand behind John XXIII and his policy of “aggiornamento” (updating) as expressed in Vatican II, and virtually all of his successors to some degree or other, who would return the church to where it was before.

Vatican II, or “The Second Vatican Council”(14) ran from 1962 to 1965 with the express purpose of “bringing in fresh air.” Translated into concrete policy, this involved seeking greater unity with other Christians (ecumenism), righting the wrongs of the past (particularly anti-semitism), stressing the entire “ecclesia” (all catholic believers) as the heart of the church and not the church hierarchy, a move marked by saying mass in local languages and abandoning Latin, and moving the altar out so that the priest faces the congregation and the ceremony becomes more like a feast around a table than a mystical ritual mumbled by a priest in which members have little part to play. The church hierarchy was arguably weakened as the emphasis moved from giving and taking instruction to negotiation of meaning through dialogue.

Opponents wasted no time trying to restore the authority of the papacy to where it was when Pius IX declared himself “infallible” when speaking “ex cathedra” (officially). One group at the extremes, the “sedevacantists” (from sede vacantis – “empty seat,” i.e., there is no pope on the throne), even denies the authority of the current popes.

Berger devotes much of his book to discussions of various traditionalist groups of which he was once a part, a move which can’t help but add to the suggestion this is a “work of revenge.” What suggests otherwise is his claim, widely shared by others in the church, that it is not homosexuality that is disordered, but the church’s irrationality when it comes to sexual issues – premarital sex, adultery, abortion, and birth control – as well as divorce and euthanasia. Berger notes that a conservative stance on these issues is virtually always taken by those who also take a conservative stance on to the Tridentine (Latin) mass, and those persuaded by the apparitions of Mary and other phenomena that tie the church to a bygone prescientific age.

Like many who take this view, Berger paints a picture of an institution where “the pious are dumb and the intelligent are not pious.” Beyond the claim that homosexuality and the church’s manipulation of it is a big part of what makes the church go round, there is a richness of detail in his argument that the church would lose nothing and gain much by embracing its progressive side and surrendering its blind faith in its own power.

Especially irksome to his distractors is the fact that in leaving the conservative camp, Berger, the neo-Thomist, wants to take Thomas Aquinas with him. He points out that Thomas was a man of forward looking ideas, not a blind follower of authority, that he stressed “the thing (itself) must speak, not the person.” A non-literalist reading of Thomas, Berger insists, would enable one to appreciate his original contributions while also recognizing his limitations as a man from a prescientific age.

Over and over again whether in dealing with the details involving the priest scandal in the German-speaking world, at St. Pölten, the prestigious Canisius-Kolleg prep school in Berlin, Ettal and elsewhere, or with reasons homosexually inclined men enter the church in large numbers, Berger attempts to show how a lack of openness is dishonesty plain and simple, and how that dishonesty is eating the church out from inside.

Many homosexually inclined men are drawn into the institution because it provides a place where the vow of chastity relieves them of the burden of explaining their sexuality to themselves and others. Others come seeking the benefits of a warm and welcoming brotherhood and the status it provides those who have lived their lives in a Catholic culture. Still others are drawn in because of a love of the traditionalist esthetic, the art, the ritual, the costumes, the pageantry. The church may like to think that its priests have “given their (hetero)sexuality” to God, but there is ample evidence, says Berger, that that narrative is more imagined than real and the motivations more complex. Once in, they discover there is a don’t ask/don’t tell policy in place and as long as they play along, they will get along. Many project their shame onto others and become the church’s strongest defenders of its homophobic policies.

Berger has been criticized for lack of evidence. speaks of “numbers he made up” and calls his analysis “pure projection.”(15) All he has to offer is anecdotal evidence, a priest who gazed longingly here, spoke too vehemently there. He provides no statistical data to support his claim. also throws back in his face that the lies he attributes to the church are lies he himself participated in. But such criticism is unfair. First of all, of course he participated in the lies. That’s the point of the book, that one day the lies became too much. As for evidence, how is evidence ever possible of closetedness, when closetedness is all about suppressing evidence? How can one reveal the discrepancy between what the church says and does when the church is committed to secrecy? Berger has stated his case. It remains for others to confirm or deny. Or at least provide additional perspectives. As with all qualitative research findings, the book’s strength is its suggestive power as well as the internal consistency of Berger’s examples. As pieces to be assembled at some future time with other accounts, they will become part of a greater whole. Whether its claims pan out, its validity as a tale of one man’s journey of discovery will hold.

Another criticism of the book is that Berger’s main point can be made in a chapter or two, and that Berger has padded the book with extraneous material. He has made the book more about himself, and the details and consequences of his coming out. Not that these details aren’t worth reading. On the contrary, the description of the stress of working around secrecy and having to lie by omission is thought-provoking. It’s just that it does appear to be two books in one: the first an indictment of the church’s homophobic stance, the second a tale of self-discovery, maturation, and moral development.

Berger’s right to teach at the Papal Academy has been taken away,(16) he is routinely savaged in such lay catholic websites as and, and many consider his breaking of the taboo of discussing sexuality within the church unforgivable treason. But Berger maintains sufficient humility to come across sympathetically. Progressives within the church and outside will have no trouble interpreting his efforts as merely shifting seats from the right side of the institution, where the traditionalists sit, and taking a seat on the left. On the right are those who favor the Latin mass, those who oppose admitting women to the clergy and many of the “homosexually inclined.”

On the left side of the institution are those, including partially or totally out gays, who are urging the church to modernize, take on a more ecumenical stance, and make pastoral care central focus rather than which robes to wear for which ceremony and season. One who reads The Holy Illusion to find support for bashing the church will be disappointed. Berger’s position is that of insider reformer, not iconoclast, or cynic. Just as some American political conservatives worry that any move toward the left leads directly to socialism, church conservatives often claim that any move in the liberal direction toward ecumenism starts one on the path to Protestantism and eventually secularism.(17) Both are misinformed. The pope, especially the current one, Benedict XVI, may have nudged the church back in the direction of Vatican I, but the large majority of church members themselves, like Berger, take their cue from Vatican II.

Benedict claimed his reinstatement of the followers of Lefebvre, including Williamson was done in the interests of church unity. But if increasing the size of the tent were really his goal, he might consider reinstating members from the left as well. Instead, he continues to reject much of the work of so-called liberation theologists, and has made no moves to reinstate theologians like Küng. There is no way for Berger to take on the homophobia of the right without denying the right of the pope and the curia to speak for the entire church. To the arch conservatives, that makes Berger not a reformer (and who needs reform anyway?), but a traitor.

Berger may simply want to clean house. But he has opened Pandora’s Box. If he is wrong about the percentage of potential gays within the church, the book will have little impact. And even if he is right, things could go on as they have before, with gays pressed by their own guilt into silence and homophobic complicity. But one has to assume there is at least a kernel of truth (and possibly much more than a kernel) to what he is saying, that without the homosexually inclined the church could not function. And that raises the question of how, if its “homosexually inclined” do follow Berger’s path and embrace their “gay” identity, the church will survive in its present form. Berger mentions only in passing the church’s decision to work harder to “weed out” gays before they join, but if he is right about the numbers, this will only drive gays underground further or diminish the applicant pool considerably.

Moreover, with homosexuality becoming more widely accepted in society at large, fewer and fewer men will seek out the priesthood as a place to hide. And those who do find their way in will not be as easily manipulated by guilt and shame. Something will have to give. Will the church change its attitude toward non-reproductive sexuality and its position on the role women have to play within the church? And, if not, where will the priests come from?


(1) Berger, David, Der heilige Schein: Als schwuler Theologe in der katholischen Kirche (The Holy Illusion: A Gay Theologian in the Catholic Church), Ullstein: 2010

(2) The popular television talk show hosted by Anne Will brought Bishop Overbeck together with filmmaker, and one of Germany's most articulate voices for gay liberation, Rosa von Praunheim. It is available on YouTube here.

The following exchange ensued at minute 2:04-2:10:

[German original] Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexualität ist keine Sünde.

Bischof Overbeck: Das ist eine Sünde. Wissen Sie ganz klar und deutlich dass es das ist. Das widerspricht der Natur. Die Natur des Menschens ist angelegt auf das Miteinander von Mann und Frau.

RvP: Völliger Quatsch. Das glauben Sie doch selbst nicht.

[English translation] Rosa von Praunheim: Homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Bishop Overbeck: It is a sin. We know with absolute certainty that it is a sin. It goes against nature. The nature of man is based on a man and a woman being together.

RvP: Total nonsense. You don’t even believe that yourself.

(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church: With modifications from the Editio Typica, Art. 2358, NY: Doubleday, 1995


(5) cited in Vorwort (Foreword), p. 14


(7) I am using the title translation from a Spiegel article,,1518,730520,00.html, the only one I have been able to find on the book in English so far.

(8) a point Berger reiterates elsewhere – see, for example,, ca. minute 2:20


(10) from the likes of Kurt Krenn, at least, former bishop of St. Pölten



(13) Besides the Liberation Theologists, for whom there is considerable sympathy in Germany, as elsewhere, there is the IKVU, for example, the Initiative Kirche von unten (Initiative of the Church from Below) – on the left, theologians like Hans Küng and Eberhard Schockenhoff, perhaps Germany's leading moral theologian (both men have lost their authority to speak for the church, incidentally). On the right, besides the Pius Brotherhood, the Sedevacantists, the TFP groups already mentioned, there is Opus Dei. Besides and, there is, the internet TV version of This list is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but to illustrate the range of thought even within the German catholic church. A separate issue is the degree to which the current pope has moved to the right.

(14) the first, where “papal infallibility” was proclaimed, was called by Pius IX in 1869-70



(17) See the Pius Brotherhood’s description of Vatican II, ecumenism and the shedding of the Latin mass as “protestantization,” for example:



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