Note from Pray Tell Editorial Committee: The convergence of sex, politics, and liturgy certainly makes for interesting – and sometimes explosive – reading. A recent book published by theologian David Berger has been gaining international attention along these lines.
Berger’s book Der heilige Schein. Als schwuler Theologe in der katholischen Kirche. (“The Holy Illusion. Being a Gay Theologian in the Catholic Church”) presents a first-person account of his experiences within inner circles of highly placed European Catholic traditionalists, from which he was ejected when it became known that he was openly gay. The world and experience which he describes combines homosexuality with homophobia in a particularly manipulative, punitive and toxic way. All of these matters, finally, are linked to liturgy in his account.
True problems frankly and courageously exposed? An exercise in pique from a theologian who lost his job? Pray Tell will be inviting a liturgical scholar to review the book and put it into perspective for our readers. In the meantime, to give you an idea of what people are talking about, here is our translation of “Die parfümierten Traditionalisten,” which appeared in the December 7, 2010 issue of Der Tages-Anzieger in Zurich, Switzerland. Stay tuned.
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The Perfumed Traditionalists
By Michael Meier
Theologian David Berger describes the Latin Mass as a homosexual subculture. His book Der heilige Schein strikes a raw nerve in the clerical establishment and the Ratzinger pontificate.
The conservative turn under Pope Benedict XVI is seen especially clearly in the return to the old liturgy and in sharpened homophobia. In his book, German theologian David Berger explains what the one has to do with the other. Der heilige Schein (“The Holy Illusion”) may well disturb church officials more than they will ever admit.
Until recently David Berger was the theologian on the pedestal in traditionalist circles: publisher and chief editor of Theologisches, the most important conservative theological journal in Germany; professor at the Papal Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas; reader for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and member of the order of knights of Jasna Gora. The theologian, born in 1968, had access to the ultraconservative networks of the St. Pius society, the Legionaries of Christ, and Opus Dei. He owed his rapid career rise in the Roman male-only church establishment to his intelligence. And his athletic youthfulness.
Bound by Tender Kisses
As his homosexuality and his life with a partner at his side became public, his career ended abruptly. He resigned from the journal in April in anticipation of being thrown out. His outing in the Frankfurtuer Rundschau newspaper under the title “I cannot keep silence any longer” led to his expulsion from the Papal Academy of St. Thomas and attracted international attention.
Everything began with his fascination for the old Mass, a gateway drug for so many gay men who are magically attracted to a religious fairy tale world. Today Berger sees the Latin liturgy, which presents the sacred in an overemphasis on the aesthetic, as essentially a “product of homosexual sublimation.”
Undisturbed by Women
No feminine creature sullies the image of this pure male-only world. Tradition-oriented clergy are tenderly joined to one another by hand kissing, foot kissing, or ritual foot washing. Here they can live out their passion for brocade, Belgian lace, tassels, and cloth trains. According to Berger, the market trade for ecclesiastical vestments is firmly in homosexual hands. He learned from the “finely perfumed traditionalism” of writer Martin Mosebach that the old Mass is really about aesthetics, art for its own sake, such as was cultivated by the homoerotically shaded literati Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, or Stefan George. All this, like homoerotic love itself, has found a home outside the realm of morality, in the uselessly beautiful. But the Church condemns its inconsequence in the form of childlessness.
Homosexual priests who cannot live out their sexuality “succeed in sublimating their erotic feelings through the aesthetic of the traditional male-only liturgy.” Forbidden drives and desires are diverted in cultically recognized ways of acting. Berger thus explains the militant homophobia of aesthetes in traditionalist quarters.
The Key to the Ratzinger Pontificate
The promise in the book’s blurb to offer the key to the scandals of the Roman Church is almost an understatement. It offers the key to the Ratzinger pontificate as a whole. Under Benedict, who has readmitted the old Latin Mass, “a new haute couture wind is blowing.” The Pope is restoring the aesthetic always cultivated by the St. Pius society through pontifical delight in expensive vestments from Moiréseide, damask, and ermine. And in the tow of its holy façade he brings into the church its right-wing ideology, namely its anti-Semitism. Catchword: restored petitions for the conversion of the Jews, or the rehabilitation of the Holocaust denier Richard Williamson.
It is also symptomatic that Benedict, shortly after his assumption of office in 2005, blocked admission of homosexuals to the priesthood. For Berger, sharpened homophobia is the expression of subtle strategies of repression and projection: the most militant gay foes are oftentimes themselves homosexual and fight their own dark shadows in other people. Oftentimes a bad conscience is behind a theologian especially loyal to the Pope: gay priests who don’t fully succeed at renouncing their sexuality compensate for their “misdeeds” by becoming combatants, with arch-Catholic positions, for the axis of the good.
Very Subtle Blackmail
The theologian illustrates this most convincingly with the example of the sex scandals in St. Pölten, Austria. One of the photos which went round the world in 2004 showed the vice rector of the seminary there giving a tongue kiss to another priest. The seminary was closed, the guilty clergymen were suspended from office. But the vice rector, a good friend and doctoral student of the canon lawyer and private secretary to Ratzinger, Georg Gänswein, denied the accusations as a conspiracy of liberal princes of the Church. After he transformed himself into a convinced devotee of the traditionalist liturgy, the Church quietly lifted his suspension and allowed him to return to do pastoral work. Another example: The chief editor of the Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire, Dino Boffo, was a stalwart defender of papal sexual morality. Until he was outed as a homosexual by the newspaper Il Giornale and dismissed.
Discrete knowledge of the (homo)sexual lapses of its personnel somehow seems to come to the Church at just the right time. According to Berger, the Church willingly uses this knowledge as an instrument of subtle blackmail and exertion of power in order to make evildoers compliant. “The more reprehensible the misconduct, the greater the offering of obedience one can expect from the subordinate, right up to self-abandonment.”
For Berger himself the lapse was minor. The traditionalist website Kreuz.net, which proclaims without reserve its passion for the old Mass and its hatred of homosexuals, found a link to the Gay Games in Cologne in Berger’s Facebook profile and sought to play off his homosexuality against him. What the traditionalist milieu didn’t reckon with: David Berger outed himself and shined a light behind the pious illusions of the Church. With the cult of holy illusion, the Church would cast a mantel over its large proportion of gay clergy, and also over its many cases of sexual abuse. According to Berger, the Latin liturgy is a symptom of the divergence between fact and facade, and consequently for the façade of holiness, that is, the hypocrisy, of the Roman Church.