Monday, January 9, 2017

David has second thoughts about Goliath

I. A little history, to start with:

In the beginning, there was guilt and shame.  Somebody back in the day when the Hebrews were a subjugated people, possibly when they were slogging away at building the pyramids, one of the more imaginative slaves must have asked himself, “How did we get into this mess?  What the hell did we do to deserve this, anyway?”  Not “this isn’t fair,” but “we must have messed up.”  That’s guilt talking.

The answer he came up with was the great abrahamic creation myth, in which the origin of life is set in a garden paradise.  The Hebrew God (he later becomes the only god) tells Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, not to lust after knowledge but simply obey his orders.  With the help of a fallen angel called Satan who took the form of a snake who walked upright, Eve was tempted to disobey God’s order.  She then got her man to do the same and that was all she wrote.  First thing that happened was they noticed they were naked, and that, for some curious reason, made them feel shame.

God got pissed off, cut the snake’s legs off and made him and his descendants grovel in the dust, cursed Eve and all women after her with the pain of childbirth. And withheld all benefits from Adam so that he had to go earn a living by the sweat of his brow.

This disobedience to authority goes back to the beginning of it all and has a name.  It comes to be known as “the sin of Adam.”  And this sin, along with the notion that shame comes from nakedness (i.e., from showing your private parts), becomes a curse not laid on Adam and Eve alone but on all their descendants.  God punishes not just the sinner, but the sinner’s children as well.  And sexuality is at the heart of morality from the very beginning of Christian time.

People have conceived of life after expulsion from paradise in all sorts of ways over the years.  Some worry it means you go to hell to live with Satan and burn in a fiery furnace.  In more modern times, people are more likely to claim only that it means living another life after death, apart from the presence of God.  A lonely eternity, given that God is the only thing that really counts.

At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. After many years, God relents, takes the form of a human being and is born as his own Son in order to become a human sacrifice to placate his angry self.  This human being is known as Jesus.  Originally described as “the anointed one” (Khristós in Greek), the title has since become part of his name.

Christians argue amongst themselves over what we should make of this story.  Some say the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has “saved” us all, (i.e., released – or “redeemed” – us from the sin of Adam and given us access to God once more, and there is nothing more we need to do about it. Others say the salvation works only if you believe the story.  Still others insist you have to behave a certain way, as well, and show your devotion to God through “good works.”

Jesus was born a Jew and into a cultural world that differed from much of its surroundings in that they believed in a single god who looked out for them, provided they did as he directed.  Problem is, they didn't, and as a result they lived in constant subjugation – by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and at the time of the birth of Christ by the Romans.  Failing to credit their lot as appropriate punishment, for some reason, they then convinced themselves that one day God would send a “messiah” to lead them out of subjugation.  A number of Jews came to believe that Jesus was that messiah and became his followers.  Most Jews, however, rejected his claims that “salvation” meant not earthly salvation but a life with God after death.  The Jesus cult would thus have likely died out were it not for his followers, chief of whom were Peter and Paul, who went on to found Christian communities in the Greek and Roman world after Jesus’s death.

II. Christians grew rapidly in number and have spread all over the world by now and morphed into many subgroups, each with their own myths and legends and truth claims.  Thanks to the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who forced his subjects to convert, the power center of early Christianity soon centered on Rome, whose bishop came to be known as the Pope.

Papal Christianity soon claimed it had the credentials to speak for God on earth, quoting Jesus’s play on words to Peter, “Thou art Peter (Greek: Petros; Greek petra = rock), and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18). [Latin (see St. Peter's dome, right): Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.”]

The strength of this claim to speak for God soon grew into the power to control access to God (via the hierarchy down to and including ordinary priests), and the power to forgive sins (by means of confession to a priest).  By the 14th Century, the church was even selling forgiveness for sins not yet committed.

This profiteering off the longing of the masses for forgiveness and belonging led to the Reformation and a return to a focus on the non-material by a number of different protestant groups, each putting focus on parts of the corruption most in need of correction.  But the power of the papacy-directed centralized church was sufficiently strong to withstand such opposition and the Roman church went on claiming the authority to speak for the divine.

One of the most effective tools for control was the ability to persuade the masses that at the heart of the question of morality was sexuality.   Sex, it was proclaimed, was to be restricted to reproduction.  That meant there would be no pre-marital sex, no prostitution, no homosexuality – no sex at all outside of the church-run institution of marriage, which they had made into a sacrament at the Council of Trent in 1547. Women must subordinate any personal desires to the male-directed church.  There must be no regulation of birth, no abortion, no infanticide.  So basic to papacy-centered church authority was this notion of the purpose of sex that to this day, despite many revisions in practice, it is for all intents and purposes as essential to being a catholic as the belief in original sin, the resurrection of a crucified son of god, the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth.  Take any of those away, many fear, and the church’s authority would collapse in on itself.

Because sex became so central to the concept of sin, celibacy and virginity became important virtues.  Christ had to be born not to just any woman, but to an actual virgin.  Mary was then elevated above all other women.  She gave birth to God’s son while remaining a virgin.  And it was proclaimed (in the doctrine of “immaculate conception” in 1854 – immaculate suggesting “unsoiled”) that when Mary herself was conceived, she, unlike other human beings, did not inherit the sin of Adam.

Priests and nuns commit themselves to celibacy, elevating the state of sexual denial to the category of a “gift” they give to God.  Divorce is forbidden; marriage is forever; and while one may divorce civilly, to remarry is to engage in adultery.

And that brings us to the gap between the church’s notion of the way things ought to be and modern reality.  In Europe and in countries like Cuba and the United States where the majority of people look to Europe as the locus of their cultural origins, divorce is not only frequent; the majority of marriages end in divorce.  In Belgium, Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic, two-thirds or more of them do (71, 68, 67 and 66% respectively), Spain is next at 61%, then Luxembourg at 60%, and another eight countries around the world have rates above 50%.[1]  Another twenty range between 40-49%.

The majority of people who divorce remarry.  That figure in the United States approaches 80%, and there is no reason to suspect the figures aren’t similar elsewhere.  Premarital sex is the norm in most places.  Polygamy is illegal and a general acceptance of equality of the sexes probably explains why there is no interest in ever legalizing it, but with most people marrying more than once, our cultural practice might be described as serial monogamy.  Most Americans today believe living together before marriage is a good idea.  

Nowadays there is broad acceptance of trial marriages, practice marriages (as many people with more life experience come to view their first marriages), marriages for companionship and same-sex marriage.  In fact, same-sex marriage is now legal in nineteen countries, and tellingly, almost all of those countries have a Christian heritage.

The church continues to grow outside its European cultural home.  But in Europe and America churches are closing down by the dozens.  And not just because of the no longer tenable insistence on keeping sexuality, and not compassion, at the heart of the Christian message.  Arguably, the child abuse scandals that have rocked the world brought home the message that the church itself never had a handle on sexuality to start with.  When it comes to celibacy and the restriction of sex to church-sanctioned marriage, as Hamlet says of his drunken uncle Claudius's revelry, "it is a custom more (i.e. "better") honor'd in the breach than the observance."  

So what is a pope to do?  Benedict threw up his hands in defeat and left the challenge to his successor, Francis.  And Francis the Jesuit has taken the only reasonable course of action.  Following the advice of his Jesuit forerunner, Claudio Aquaviva, whose motto was “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (Strongly in deed, gently in manner.)” Francis has chosen to make the church bend like a willow and not topple in the storm like an oak. Rather than issue absolute decrees, he has urged his church to be a big tent, open to a wide range of opinions.  And he has urged his followers to talk with each other, those who plod on insisting on celibacy, sexual denial, and those seeking substantial change.  He has struck a posture of flexibility.  That’s the “gently in manner” part.  If pressed for his personal view, of course, he remains a hardliner.

Not that the church’s hardest of hardliners seem to be persuaded by this two-pronged approach. Unfortunately, flexibility has no appeal when you are convinced not only that you are right and doing God’s bidding and that past truth must remain present truth.   Pope Benedict actually once even suggested that perhaps the church should give up its goal of being all things to all people and become instead a smaller organization of right-minded righteous souls, a kind of “holy remnant.”  But large powerful institutions are never likely to dismantle themselves.

So what is it going to be?  There are two possibilities.  The church can go on as it has before, in what some like to call the Italian approach – say one thing and do another, keep up the illusion that things are going according to plan, and allow people to actually do what they want as long as they are discreet about it.  Hold firm and damn the torpedoes. The second possibility is to reform the church in a way that brings it in line with the actual values of the 21st century, remove the hypocrisies, and justify the changes as being part of a larger historical move toward enlightenment and universal justice. 

The church has for years been able to turn a blind eye to the fact that the rules on sexual behavior are openly flaunted.  Occasionally, an occasional hypocrisy is exposed and efforts are made to address the discrepancies.   But there has been a sea change in the loss of respect for clerical authority, and it’s clear that the first approach has not worked and that the pope has to address the new reality.  Since the middle of the last century 120,000 priests have left the church worldwide, 25,000 in the United States alone.   27% of U.S. parishes don’t have a priest anymore, and that’s true for 58,000 parishes worldwide.  Half of U.S. citizens raised Catholic leave the church in adulthood. 

On April 8, 2016, Francis came up with a concrete plan and issued a lengthy document under the Latin title of Amoris Laetitia (English: The Joy of Love), hoping to clear up ambiguities related to sexual morality and church practices.  By “lengthy” I mean 250 pages and nearly 400 footnotes.  Specifically, it addressed the question of whether a person living in sin (someone who had divorced and remarried, for example) was entitled to partake of communion.

Predictably, the blowback from conservatives has been considerable, and in June, two months after Amoris Laetitia was issued, 45 catholic scholars asked the pope to repudiate the contents of the document.  Four cardinals followed up with a letter to the pope containing five questions (known as “dubia”) asking for more clarification.  Diplomatically phrased, the questions reinforced the problems the scholars had with the document, in effect challenging the pope’s opinions and asking him to roll back the reforms. 

The pope, so far, has chosen not to respond. People should read the document, he has let it be known, and discuss the ideas contained.  The authoritarian members of the church, of course, don’t want discussion; they want to be told by their leader what’s what and that’s that.

It’s one particular paragraph, #305, that is causing all the ruckus.  It reads:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.
In plain English, it is possible for a person to sin and still live in the grace of God.  Hardly a radical notion, within the Christian tradition.  But it’s the footnote to that paragraph which raised authoritarian hackles.  Footnote #351 reads:
In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
Here, in a nutshell, is the division between what you might call the Vatican I Church (the traditionalists who lean toward fundamentalist and authoritarian notions such as papal infallibility) and the Vatican II Church.  Vatican II brought a number of changes including a switch from Latin to the modern languages spoken and understood by the congregation, and bringing the altar out so the priest can get behind it and create a sense with the congregation of getting around a table.  An important symbolism, because it changes the priest’s role from that of a magician, back to the crowd, uttering mystical words in an unknown language to that of a first-among-equals leader leading a congregation in communal prayer and devotion.   

It addresses what progressives see as the heart of political corruption in the church, the question of clericalism, the view that the clergy is and must remain an elite group apart, not subject to the will of the masses but in authority over the masses.  The child abuse scandal, for example, was not so much that individual priests had used their power to harm children, bad as that was.  It was that they prioritized keeping the problem hidden from view in order to protect the image of clerical authority, even at the expense of relief and justice for the abused children.

Vatican I, 1869-70, was the occasion where the pope was declared to be infallible and the church became a kind of do-as-I-say policeman; Vatican II, in sharp contrast, in the 1960s, led by John XXIII was ecumenical in approach.  It encouraged interaction with non-Catholics.  It saw the church as a big tent, focused less on doctrine and more on spiritual renewal, on pastoral care and compassion in imitation of Christ.  To refuse communion to a sinner is a Vatican I notion.  To allow a sinner to take communion is a Vatican II notion.  It puts the focus on forgiveness and God’s grace, and turns away from (if not “brushes aside”) the notion of “living in sin.”

Vatican II had a short shelf life.  The church doors which were opened a bit by John XXIII, were firmly shut again by his successor and kept shut by every pope since until Francis came along.  He’s doing his bit to further the goals of Vatican II, but he’s up against powerful opposition.

The struggle is laid bare in Amoris Laetitiae.  How is one to “reform” an organization that lays claim to infallibility and inerrant truth?  How does one match the openness Francis expresses here with previous statements by Pope John Paul II?  John Paul II had argued that remarried divorcees must not have sex, that they must live as brother and sister, in order to be entitled to take communion.

This raises an interesting paradox.  Here you have the pope, Francis, issuing a kind of guideline (and it’s important to remember he’s not speaking “ex cathedra” or even issuing any sort of legal document, but rather an invitation to restructure one’s thinking.) In trying to find a moderate middle-of-the-road position, he fails both sides, as compromisers commonly do.  Parts of it leave progressives frustrated and unsatisfied.  He supports gender equality in principle, but does not change his opposition to women acting as priests.  He staunchly continues to oppose abortion.  He urges compassion toward gays and lesbians but remains adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. He remains adamantly opposed to sex-change operations, or even the concept of gender fluidity.

So much for pleasing the progressives.  And he fares even worse with the conservatives.  He leaves traditionalists up in the air with his suggestion that they should not treat communion as a reward for good behavior.  And just what is a traditionalist authoritarian to do with all this?  The rules you live by say the pope is always right.  And here’s the paradox: how can you oppose him on anything he says here and still see yourself as a loyal Catholic when what’s called for by party-line orthodoxy is obedience?

Catholics are thus divided into one of four camps.
1. Progressives, who celebrate the changes hinted at by Francis, but are holding out for more (specifically more gender equality and less rigidity in sexual matters, lifting injunctions against homosexuality and birth control);
2. Supporters, who like the way Francis moves cautiously and encourages dialogue;
3. Conservatives who see their loyalty to the church and its traditional teachings (the magisterium) and define the pope as fallible (except when speaking ex cathedra) and subordinate to tradition; and
4. Hard-liners, who see the pope and the church as synonymous, and consider their primary duty to be loyalty to the person of the pope.  Currently hard-liners seem to have the Rota (The Vatican Supreme Court) on their side.[2]

III.The case of David Berger

David Berger, the German theologian, and, for a time, professor at the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas in Rome, became a hero to many fighters for gay liberation in the German-speaking world with the publication of his book, Der heilige Schein (The Sacred Illusion) in 2010 and his subsequent career as editor of and frequent contributor to several gay publications.  In Der heilige Schein, he charges that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy puts the appearance of things over and above matching their deeds with their words.  Berger's act of rebellion came to be seen as driving a stake directly into the heart of the beast.  And by the beast, not to mince words, I mean the papacy-based (Vatican I)  Roman Catholic Church as one of the main sources of homophobia in Western Civilization.  [See my review of Der heilige Schein from January 2011 here.]

In listing in Part II above what I see as four ideological camps within the Catholic Church, I trust I captured the confusion that has arisen out of the church’s clash with modernity.  David Berger is a case study in how that confusion can manifest itself in a single catholic individual and how the church’s hostility to homosexuality can cause a tug-of-war to rage within an individual gay but simultaneously loyal catholic soul.

Berger remains a conservative Roman Catholic theologian and fits into the third category I have outlined above.  His loyalty is to the church as an institution and not to any given individual who may happen to become pope.  Paradoxically, he remains a gay man who celebrates his homosexual nature.  But to add paradox to paradox, after pounding away at the church’s unwillingness to grant greater dignity to LGBT people for many years, he has now backed off from his previous view to the degree that he is arguing the church’s stand against same-sex marriage must be supported on the grounds that not to do so would split the church in half.  He has gone so far as to come out in support of his former nemesis, Cardinal Meissner, who had withdrawn his right to teach at Catholic institutions, and the other writers of the five dubia.  In doing so, some are suggesting he be welcomed with open arms as a prodigal son.  How that might be accomplished given the fact that he remains an ardent proponent of most other gay rights, remains to be seen.

Berger’s story reminds me of that quote variously associated with Aristotle and St. Francis Xavier, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Meaning if you can indoctrinate a child adequately, you will have his loyalty to a cause or an ideology (including a religious faith) forever.  Berger fell off that wagon for a time when his frustration with the church’s hypocrisy over homosexuality became too much for him.  But he has now climbed back on and is home once more in the conservative fold.  Or so the media suggest.

To go back a bit for some context, Berger’s dissatisfaction with the homophobia in the church had been building for some time when he happened upon a TV show featuring Franz-Josef Overbeck, the Catholic bishop of Essen, debating homosexuality with Rosa von Praunheim, one of Germany’s most outspoken gay activists in modern times.  Overbeck insisted that homosexuality was a sin against nature, and that God intended for sex to be something for men and women to use when producing children.  (Practicing to do so, is acceptable as well, so long as no birth control means are used to prevent conception.)  Berger knew his catechism and understood that the official version was that a homosexual nature was not part of any sin, that only homosexual behavior was.  To outsiders, this is both hair-splitting and counterintuitive.  Does God grant you a nature and then command that you resist that nature?  But to someone like Berger, evidently trying to find ways to hold on to the church despite everything it had done to put him down, Berger decided the time had come to speak out for himself and his gay brothers and sisters.

In his book, Der heilige Schein, (Holy Illusion), and elsewhere, Berger makes the claim that between 25 and 40% of the priests in the church are gay, and that many were, as he was, drawn to the church as much for aesthetic reasons – its pageantry, jewels, silks and satins – as for doctrine, thus furthering a gay stereotype of gays as theatrical and glamour-obsessed.  The veracity of his claims I leave open to empirical research on the topic.

What followed was a number of years in which David Berger became a public figure who made the rounds in the German-speaking world and occasionally beyond, defending his thesis and speaking out in favor of gay rights, right up to and including the right to marriage. In this video from 2013, you can see Berger still making the talk show rounds in defense of same-sex marriage,  here calling out fellow panelists Hedwig von Beverfoerde of the “Family Protection Initiative” and CDU politician Erika Steinbach for their church-based, man-and-woman-only, position on the family.  “You’re talking about raising chickens!” Berger says to Steinbach.  Marriage and the family should not be reduced to the biological.  We are not farm animals.

To get back to the question hanging here, which is what is to come of Francis’ urging of dialogue and of furthering the policy of aggiornamento behind John XXIII’s work with Vatican II.  We know what Francis wants, but how is the church to reconcile the conflicting wishes of its various factions?

One wonders how Berger reconciles the conflict he has between the church’s claim that his sexual activity is sinful, on the one hand – he has what in Germany is called a “registered partnership” with his life partner (Germany does not permit same-sex marriage) – and, on the other hand, his need to come to the defense of the church as the mainstay in Western Civilization, particularly against the modern-day in-migration of Muslims. I also find it hard to understand his defense of Roman Catholic orthodoxy in light of the fact he has chosen to call his blog Philosophia Perennis, perennialism being the view that all religions share a greater truth, that all religions are different paths to that truth.  Obviously I am missing something important here.  Berger appears, ironically, to be advocating a mixed message.  Allow me to go on sinning, he seems to be saying, and I will support your need to survive as an institution.  So much for putting an end to the “holy illusion.”

In fairness, Berger makes no secret of his apparent contradictions.  On the webpage introduction to “Schubladenfrei” (outside the drawer),  the column he writes in The European, one reads:

 Liberal and conservative, gay and culturally Catholic, traditional theologian and gay activist, alternating in his private life between extreme hedonism in the bacchanalian jungle and a total longing for Apollonian clarity.  Schizophrenic?  A Felix Krull?  May be.  Out of the drawer, uncertain, provocative and seeking thereby to provoke fruitful debate. [3]

He regularly includes articles by Jürgen Fritz who makes the case that it’s time for a Hegelian synthesis of conservative and progressive thought, that they should not be seen in opposition.  Fritz shares Berger’s view that it’s the values of Western Civilization (Rousseau and Kant) and not those of Mohammed that must be preserved.

Berger had two critical moments that altered his relationship with the church and his political orientation.  The first was that moment when he encountered Bishop Overbeck’s ignorance of church doctrine and it spurred him into coming out.  That then led to the church's revoking of his right to teach at Catholic institutions. For four years he turned his back on the church and headed for the bright lights and the big city, for “heathen” Berlin. This second voice on the road to Damascus he connects with the issue of so-called political correctness.  He attributes his “conversion,” his break with the left, as it were, to the radical islamist attack in Nice, to which he was a witness.  

He now expouses the view, shared by other intellectuals such as the German secular Muslim Hamed Abdel-Samad and the American spokesman for the new atheists, Sam Harris, that it’s not merely radical Muslims that are a danger to Western Civilization, but Islam itself as an ideology.  This anti-Islam camp finds the defense of Muslims by most people on the left, including one's gay brothers and sisters, to be unacceptable and self-destructive.  Berger will now tell you he no longer wants his gay identity to be central.  He has swung sharply to the right, joined the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Party) (although he remains opposed to its head, Angela Merkel), attacks the leftist Green Party, accusing it of becoming an enabler of the rightwing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party.  He has also become a supporter of Donald Trump and a defender of another radical gay rightist, the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, editor of Breitbart News, notorious for its white supremacist and anti-feminist sympathies.  One wonders if he really knows who he is in bed with.

Berger's boomeranging back to conservative causes makes plain he is fighting a personal battle on a number of fronts, juggling his no doubt sincere interest in clearing LGBT people of the guilt and shame of religious condemnation with his political interest in building a solid front of Christians and gays to resist what he sees as a dangerous incursion by Muslims into his European cultural home.

At one point, in 2012, he charged Benedict with being gay himself, leaving many to assume the former pope was just one of many gay clerics whose homophobia stemmed from self-loathing. Berger later withdrew that charge and apologized to the pope for getting it wrong. His apology appeared on his blog on August 26, 2016, along with a reminder of the danger of the islamicization of Europe.  Which, in turn, reinforces the suspicion Berger may be acting more on political impulses than on anything else. He does, however, describe himself in the apology as a "ungrateful disloyal son."  Pretty abject.  Barring the ability to peer into Berger's soul, one can only wonder how much he's using the church and how much he's in the grip of the church's age-old tools of guilt and shame and it is using him.

In any case, his reassumption of the conservative stance is consistent.  He also now praises Benedict for having reinstated the Latin mass in 2007 as an option, for example, thus maintaining some of the church’s richest traditions.

There has been much public discussion in Germany over whether Islam “belongs” in Germany for quite a while now.  Most people on the left argue that Islam should not be the focal point, but rather the rights of Muslim citizens.  The common view of progressives is that the question of whether or not Islam “belongs” is a trivial one.  Muslim German citizens’ rights, on the other hand, are not trivial, and there there should be no argument.  Of course Muslims should have the same rights as Christians, atheists or any other German citizen.  Berger, however, maintains that in defending the rights of Muslims, the left has gone too far.  He looks, for example, at the example of a church in Amsterdam that has been converted to a mosque as a sign of things to come if Europeans don’t wake up and smell the coffee.  There is a threat to Europe from Islam, he claims.  The Catholic Church belongs to Europe and Islam does not.  And this touchy-feely stance by lefty liberals has now grown so strong, Berger insists, that a new monster has been created.  “Gutmenschen” they are called, in German.  A word formerly understood to refer to goody-goody types, it now has the connotation of a naive and rigid person whose overbearing left-liberal ideology threatens free discussion.  Gutmenschen now demonize anyone on the right who disagrees with them, Berger says, and soften up the nation for the invasion.

A third gay Catholic conservative, Andrew Sullivan, comes to mind.  Sullivan might be added to this collective but for the fact that he was drawn to the left out of disgust with George W. Bush's conduct of the Iraq war, which Sullivan initially supported, and the policy of torture at Abu Ghraib.  Sullivan also remains an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage.  What ties the three men, Sullivan, Berger and Milo Yiannopoulos, together is their ongoing identification as Roman Catholics, despite the church’s homophobic stance, men who have changed places and passed by each other like ships in the night.  They serve as a useful example of the impossibility of drawing too many conclusions from the category "gay conservative Catholic," since Sullivan is more accurately described as a "progressive conservative," Berger as a "conservative with considerable reservations," and Yiannopoulos as a "conservative for pay," a gadfly provocateur of the Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh sort.   

Berger’s views are available in an English-language version of Der Spiegel here.   His website and his blog are filled with articles such as this one, complaining that the police are allowing serious criminals to get away with murder while focusing all their efforts on hate speech.  It's the same distain for political correctness that catapulted Trump into office.
The attack on the gay bar in Orlando led Berger to a renewed effort to warn of the danger from left-leaning apologists of Islam, a move with led Facebook to shut down his profile page for a month.  Berger is upset by the welcoming remarks by clerics to Muslim immigrants.  “Do they not see the homophobia in their religion, the anti-semitism?” he asks.

Which raises the question of why Berger cannot make the distinction others make between the culturally retrograde and culturally progressive Muslims, both religious and secular, but must take an essentialist view of Islam instead of seeing it as covering no less broad a spectrum of believers than any other world religion.  He parts company here with religious folk of an ecumenical bent who make the argument that joining forces with religious immigrants can lead to the greater good of protecting the status of religion in the West generally.  We religionists have to stick together against the secular foe, they maintain. None of that for Berger.  It's Catholic Church as the mainstay of Western Civilization.  All other religious step aside.

Here he joins forces with orthodox, conservative, or authoritarian religionists, generally, who believe their particular religion has a monopoly on truth and argue that any acceptance of other faiths, and specifically Islam, is sure to backfire when those retrograde forces become rooted in German society.  Rather, his argument continues, Catholics (in this case) should become bedfellows with gay folk seeking to hold back the power of what is an even more homophobic religion than Christianity.  Don't you see, he asks the clerical church, that you have an ally in gay people?  And that you are squandering their support? 

All this discussion begs the question, of course, of what one means by religion.  Is it doctrine? Those who prioritize doctrine argue over whether it’s a set of beliefs or a set of practices that makes one religious.  Besides those drawn to a particular religion for its doctrine are those who affiliate with an institutional religion for sentimental or aesthetic reasons, go to church because “our people have always gone to this church” or because of a love of Bach or Mozart or stained-glass windows.  Or, for the reason Berger claims most gays are attracted, for the pageantry and the drag.  Berger once referred to the Tridentine (Latin) Mass as a “gateway drug.”  He takes this yet a step further and claims the majority of gays in the church are to be found in the most traditional liturgical circles.

And, finally, one can affiliate with the church for practical political reasons.  The church remains strong in the African-American community because it was once the only place blacks could find solace, and they haven’t forgotten their history.  Poles used the Catholic Church as an acceptable way to express their opposition to an oppressive communism.  And it is only the Church, with its claims to be in exclusive possession of truth, Berger believes, that can hold civilization together against both atheism and rival ideologies like Islam.

It is surprising, frankly, to find this over-simplification of two complicated religious ideologies, Christianity and Islam, in one so grounded in theology, but barring the opportunity to discuss Berger’s views with him personally, I can only reveal the limits of my own understanding of Berger’s line of thought. It is possible there is a logic in his thinking that has eluded me.  I do have to wonder, though, about a chicken-and-egg proposition.  Is it Berger's aversion to Islam that is driving him back into the arms of the church, as he claims?  Or is it the church, which he sees as best represented by its arch conservatives who insist they alone have godly truth, that is the real source of his hostility to Islam?  Was it nature - a predisposition to authoritarianism?  Or nurture - a careful inculcation of South German conservative Catholicism - that formed the views he holds today?

Is he deliberately closing his eyes to the fact that most victims of terrorism are Muslims, and that closing ranks with Muslims would probably be a more effective strategy for fighting radical Islam than closing ranks with separatist-oriented Catholics?   That joining with clericalist Catholics, in the mistaken belief that they are the church, even though they are outnumbered by Catholics seeking reform, is counter-productive?

Whether Berger sees the irony in his instrumentalization of the church for political purposes after having criticized it for encouraging hypocrisy through the mechanism of illusion, remains an open question.  To instrumentalize religion, and make it serve any purpose other than to spread the message of the gospel, according to the pious, is to pervert the faith.

But then one person's bundle of contradictions is another person's courage to embrace their own complexity.  To see David Berger as merely another case of what looks like a world-wide move to the right and a return to conservatism so clearly in the zeitgeist, is speculative.  It may also just be evidence that the mainstreaming of gay rights and gay identity is all but complete, and we will now be encountering more and more right-wing gays free to disassociate themselves from progressive causes.  Or, to put it in a framework conservatives are likely to be more comfortable with, to shun the excesses of those in the ideological camp of the so-called politically correct, where women, LGBT people, people of color and other minorities once found shelter, encouragement, and relief.  A kind of self-correction, a balancing out.

"Self-correction" sounds for all the world like justification.  This is not the stock market; this is a culture war over values.  I part company with David Berger.  I find his willingness (or need, as the case may be) to join forces with what is clearly one of the major generators of homophobia in the world, the clericalist branch of the Roman Catholic Church, to be self-destructive and unworthy. And his loathsome embrace of Breitbart America only makes one further question his judgment.

I remain committed, despite recent events, to the hope that this conservative backlash we are experiencing world-wide will turn out to be no more than a hiccup in history, that the values we have embraced in the West of justice, equality and universal human rights, without regard to race, creed, gender or national origin, will out in the long run. 


[1] Estonia – 58%; Cuba – 56%; France – 55%; Lithuania – 53%; Latvia – 52%; the US – 53%; Switzerland – 51%; Russia  - 51%  source
[2] The Rota Romana is the Supreme Court of the Vatican, and has been for 845 years.  It functions as an appellate court, although it can take on original cases in some circumstances.  Its decisions can be overridden by the pope, but normally its decisions stand.  Justices on the court are called auditors, and they are under the direction of a dean.  The current dean, Pio Vito Pinto, was appointed by Pope Benedict in September 2012. 

The Rota (rota for “wheel” since they sit in a circle) has, in fact, stepped into the kerfluffle over Pope Francis’ attempt to lighten the restriction against divorced and remarried catholics taking communion.  I blogged about this on Wednesday.

It’s clear the Rota is in the hands of the arch conservatives.  While Francis suggests that his “guidelines” on marriage and the family should lead to discussion, Pio Vito Pinto has issued a warning to the four cardinals that their jobs might just be on the line.  According to, a catholic website, at a conference in Spain, Pinto reminded the cardinals that it is he, not the pope, who gets to decide who gets to remain a cardinal. This would seem to indicate the the Supreme Court of the Vatican falls in Category 4, the “hardliner camp,” – obey the pope’s will, or else, whether he’s speaking ex cathedra or not.

[3] (original: Liberal und konservativ, schwul und Kultur-Katholik, traditioneller Theologe und Homo-Aktivist, im Privatleben wechselnd exzessiver Hedonist in bacchantischem Dschungel und dann wieder voll Sehnsucht nach der Apollinischen Klarheit. Schizophren? Ein Felix Krull? Vielleicht auch. Den Schubladen entsprungen verunsichernd, provozierend und dadurch hoffentlich fruchtbare Debatten auslösend.)   

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