Norbert Reck. Catholic, gay and “independent” theologian
Interview with Silvia Lanzi, October 4, 2012
Norbert Reck is a theologian well known to the readers Gionata, which dedicated him several articles. It is absolutely an “unconventional” theologian and reading the interview he granted me, you’ll understand why. What struck me is that by accepting willingly to answer my questions, he wrote that he is a Catholic, gay and “independent” theologian. It sounded quite strange to me, so I decided to learn more.
You mentioned yourself as a “gay theologian”. How can a theologian work without the Church? Or, for you, “Church” means only the hierarchy?
How can a theologian work without the Church? I might just as well ask the counterquestion: How can a theologian work within the Church? I hear from many colleagues who have positions in ecclesial institutions or in Catholic faculties that they find it increasingly difficult to speak openly about their views or to publish their scholarly findings, in brief: to tell the truth.
Ask Jon Sobrino, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Roger Haight or Ivone Gebara: As soon as you touch the critical issues, you are in trouble with your local bishop or with the Congregation of Faith in Rome. So many brilliant theologians today are faced with the threat that they might lose their jobs or be censored or blackmailed. Surely, many of them still do excellent work, and I admire them for their energy and their good nerves. But every once in a while a Church theologian says to me: „Well, I cannot write about this – maybe you can do it?“
So there is obviously a need for non-church-affiliated theologians, not only in the field of lesbian and gay matters. And of course, theology was never a mere Church enterprise. There are many great Jewish theologians whose works have become important for understanding the early Christianity, and they obviously work very well without the Church! And let’s not forget biblical theology! We are all depending on biblical theology, but none of the biblical authors was a Church member – not even the apostle Paul – because the Church simply did not exist in their time.
So I am not arguing for or against the Catholic Church. I am arguing for an independence of mind which is necessary for all of us. In the end, it will not be the Church which judge about our lives – it will be God. Or, as Jesus himself put it: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”. (Mt 7:21)
I think your activities are extremely important. Do you think that your work, with those of one like you (maybe mine too) can change the point of view about homosexuality?
A couple of years ago, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, was interviewed about the situation in the Middle East. The interviewer seemed to have the conviction that the core of the problem there lies in the violent nature of human beings. And if people are violent by their very nature, there would be no hope for peace. So he asked Peres: „Do human beings ever change?“ And Peres answered: „Human beings don’t change. But their thinking changes.“
That’s exactly the point, that’s my hope. We have all witnessed such changes in thinking. In many areas we think differently today than twenty years ago. Changes are possible. And it was not one big social movement or a great campaign that caused these changes. It was the interaction of many articles, good books, conferences, discussions and so on. I am a writer. I believe in the power of words, of reason. I want to be part of these efforts for change.
And that’s also why I support the Gionata website: It contains elements of new thinking, available to everybody who can use a computer. I think such information is more important than petitions or demonstrations. Demonstrations can be necessary sometimes, but one good, clear thought may be more sustainable and powerful in the long run.
Gays and lesbians have seen many changes in the past twenty years. Above all, they have become more visible in society. That’s important. But the majority of the people in the Western world still believe that lesbians and gays are „homosexuals“ – which suggests that they are a genetically or hormonally deviant group of people, a different „sort“ of human beings. This idea has its orgins in the racist and biologist discourses of the 19th century (see my articles „Da Sodoma alla sodomia all’omosessualità“), and I think it is really dangerous. On two levels: societal and personal. For a society to allow a group of citizens to be defined as „different“ or „other“ – by race, class, sex or sexual perference – opens the gate for marginalization and exclusion.
In prosperous, liberal times it does not seem to mean much to be categorized by the state or the media, but in a time of crisis these categories will serve as an instrument to channel people’s aggressions against minorities, and all the so-called „progress“ of yesterday will be forgotten. On a personal level: To build your identity on being genetically different will turn you from a self-determined person to a victim of your hormones.
The difference is important. If you believe that it is something alien inside you that makes you lust after people of the same sex, then you are some kind of a freak that can only ask for pity and understanding. It will prevent you from ever reaching some kind of emancipation (besides that, it is just a sick idea from the 19th century).
Instead, if you believe that you like some people of the same sex just because this is your personal taste, grounded in your personal experience, then your preference is not something alien inside you, but it is you yourself as a person who wants this (and it is in accordance with modern psychoanalysis which sees the origins of all sexual preferences in early childhood experiences). But in this case you have to avow for your wishes, you need to stand up for your rights. You can no longer say „I’m sorry, I can’t help it, please tolerate me with this fault“. You can only say: „Hey, this is my damn human right! Accept it or get lost!“ Only this attitude will be the beginning of personal emancipation.
I believe, it will be an important future task to work on a shift from 19th century views to 21st century views. It is not so much a question of campaigning but of bringing new images into people’s minds. I will be part of such efforts. It gives me hope that especially young lesbians and gays are becoming more and more allergic against the category of „homosexuality“.
As you know, pope Benedict XVI is German and he is extremly traditional. He also said that gay men are not good as a priest. What do you think about this?
Benedict doesn’t understand many things about human sexuality. And he does not understand much about God. His theology shows an extremely narrow gauge. It is not worthwhile to waste time on his thinking. Better spend time on learning how to love other people (which is complicated enough sometimes).
You are well known as a theologian, you write for Concilium, you speak and do lecture. But you act in a very small circle. What do you think that the christian-gay-next-door can do for reforming the cliché of homosexuality?
The first thing is to start with yourself. Learn to feel good with yourself. Learn to say: „This is me. And it is good. Respect me.“ Such an attitude will change the world much more than the victim-like lamentations which I still find in some Christian gay groups: „Please understand us; it’s not our fault, it’s in our genes.“ But how can you get from A to B? I have no recipes; self-help groups can do good for many, psychotherapy can also be helpful if you feel dirty and guilty. For me, a great help was meditation which I do on a daily base. One day while meditating I discovered that I still associated a good Christian life with sexual abstinence or restraint. So I started meditating about God’s gift of sexuality. And I learned that God is not a sadist. God did not create sex to plague people. Sexuality is God’s gift of joy. It is a way of communicating with other people and a way of sharing love. It is there to be used, not to be refused. When you pray or meditate about this, it will change your stand in the world. And it will eventually change people’s clichés about „homosexuals“.
Recently, as you certainly know, cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Berlin told “I believe we should agree and indeed we do agree on the fact that in judging this type of relation or relationship there is a big difference in judgement when people take responsibility for one another, when engaged in a long-term relationship as couples do in heterosexual relationships.” Do you think that these words can have an echo in the “Church of hierarchy”?
For me, this question is far too obsessed with authority. It can seduce you to measure your degree of freedom by the statements of Church officials. This is dangerous because you will end up thinking more about people like Woelki or Ratzinger instead of thinking about God. Life is too short to do that. Jacques Gaillot, the ex-bishop of Évreux and now bishop of Partenia, said in a meeting a couple of years ago that as Christians we should put our energy into a life according to the Gospel and not into Church reform.
It is just not worth the trouble. The fixation to Church authorities – what do they do? what do they say? – can only steel time that we need for our spiritual development, for our unification with all humankind. If you really feel that it is important whether the Church says yes or no to your lesbian or gay life then you are still in the position of a child begging for the approval of some oedipal authority. Growing up is about freeing yourself from the judgment of your parents (or parent-like authorities). As an adult, you decide for yourself.
Everybody has to go through that conflict at least once in his or her life. As long as you hope for an ecclesial acknowledgement of your sexuality, you are still not at peace with yourself. Of course, you can become a „Church critic“ then and feel very „critical“ by commenting on Woelki or Bertone or whoever, but it might be better for you to work on your inner conflicts instead.
Germany is a country almost protestant, and Protestantism has opened its doors to gays and lesbians. Do you think that the proximity with the Catholic Church could help this one to open someone’s important minds?
Again: Whose mind is important? For God, it only counts what YOU believe, not what your bishop believes. Why is it so important what happens with the Church? The Church will change or will not. In the meantime YOU have to live your life.
In Germany, there are 29.3% Protestants and 29.2% Catholics (and, by the way, 37.2% without religious affiliation). The more liberal attitude of most Protestant churches towards gays and lesbians has had the interesting effect, that Catholic representatives sometimes say: „If you like the Protestant attitude better, then you should become a Protestant. We will not change, we remain Catholic.“ So it rather stabilizes the Catholic position.
Of course I would like to see a more enlightened attitude in the Catholic Church. But something else is of much higher importance for me: to help people becoming independent from the Church’s judgments. In my eyes, this should be the main task for Christian lesbian & gay groups. I am deeply concerned about what we communicate towards young lesbians and gays in their years of puberty. The activities of many Christian groups of gays and lesbians seem to communicate that it is of utmost significance that the Church says yes to being gay or lesbian. If not, our lives seem not worth living. Is this really the message we want to communicate to young people? While the figures of gay and lesbian youth suicides are still shockingly high? No.
Our message can only be: No, it is not important at all what some fanatic Church men think about you. They are full of resentment. They have no idea what being Christian really means. Being Christian is a wonderful way of living in this world with love and empathy, with our bodies and minds, with our hands and lips. To be gay or lesbian or straight are just different ways of conveying God’s love to other people. God wants you to feel good about yourselves, and God needs you, just the way you are, to bring more love into this world.
I was stunned by his answers. I never expected such a freedom of thought. Too much? I do not know. Some cultural and anthropological aspects (such as the idea that “homosexuality” does not exist) would merit serious study, certain judgments are (maybe) too caustic. Surely, if there isn’t complete identity of views, there is still much to ponder and certain questions are enlighten in a quite new, unusual and positive way.
Original text: Norbert Reck. Un teologo cattolico gay