Jesus Had a Penis

SpotlightJonathan and I recently saw “Spotlight,” the film about how the Boston Globe exposed the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. It is a magnificently done film, a strong reminder of the absolute necessity of a free and responsible press, and a powerful indictment of secrecy in church and society.

Indeed, it is the push I needed to begin this new blog.

As I sat in the theater watching the film and talking about it with Jonathan later, I realized that I had been treading water about my desire to write and publish this blog about sex, bodies, and spirit–mostly out of fear of what “people” (church people, professional colleagues, family members and some more traditional or conservative friends, perhaps even neighbors, maybe others) would think.  I had been keeping my own secret in deference to unspoken social pressure–exactly the combination that had caused the Boston Globe and community leaders, as well as the church hierarchy and ordinary members, to keep for many years what really was an open secret in Boston.

Fr. Michael Shanahan
Fr. Michael Shanahan churchmilitant.com

So, here I am today, out in the open, feeling the fresh air and sunshine of telling the truth as I see it. And hoping others will respond as they feel moved, disagreeing or agreeing or simply sharing information. We just need to talk more about sex, bodies, and spirit!

Two days ago, Fr. Michael Shanahan joined the conversation in a very public way. On February 1, Fr. Shanahan, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Chicago, came out as a gay man in an article in The Washington Post (click here to read the article).

He is not the first Catholic priest to come out, far from it, but for me his courage is an important affirmation of what the Boston Globe and its work did earlier–breaking open the dangerous silence in the church about things sexual.

Homosexuality and Social Justice by Kevin Gordon
The author of this 1986 book, the late Kevin Gordon, was my neighbor and friend at Union Theological Seminary, and he, along with the late Fr. John McNeill, showed me and many others about the presence and beauty of gay and lesbian people within the Roman Catholic Church.

The truth is that there are many gay priests (and at least one Bishop) in the Roman Catholic Church (I have known personally quite a few over the years). No one knows for sure how many, but studies indicate it could be as high as 50%. Others say 10%, but either way it seems the priesthood may be one of those vocational homes known to be especially “gay” (like hair stylists and florists, etc., at least so goes the conventional wisdom).

As more and more priests, and sisters, too, come out, it may be hard for the Vatican to maintain the official teaching that homosexuality is an “intrinsically disordered” condition.

Of course, I believe the disorder lies with the church and its teaching, and not just about homosexuality but about sexuality in general. And this is true of more than the Roman Catholic Church. So much of Christian doctrine about sex seems intent on locking it up in tight boxes, compartments that deny that our spirituality is intimately connected with our bodies and sexuality, indeed that we can learn about God and from God through our bodies and sexuality.

According to the Washington Post, Fr. Shanahan “doesn’t disregard” the church’s teaching on sexuality, but he thinks most important is the teaching that sexuality is an expression of the divine. He wants people to pray and discern how to express that divine part of themselves, for themselves.

That sounds a lot like Jesus to me, not much interested in rules handed down by those who think they have been called to run things (and other peoples’ lives), and much more concerned with helping people open up to the divine inside each and every one of God’s offspring (us).

The church wants people to open up, but only to the approved, standard, versions of the divine. And one of those versions is of a sexless Jesus–the Jesus who was born without the messiness of human intercourse (and how often have we heard about Mary’s labor?), the Jesus who (although fully human and divine) appears not to have had body parts, or sexual or romantic interest in anyone, male or female.

Crucifixion wooden Michelangelo in Naples
Michelangelo, wooden Jesus on the cross. naplesldm.com

But Jesus had a penis and a scrotum–we do know he was circumcised–and may well have had erotic feelings for the “beloved disciple” or Lazarus or Martha or Mary or Mary Magdalene. Or maybe all of them. He was a young man, after all!

And most likely, because the Romans wanted not only to kill those on the cross but also to shame them as a form of torture–grisly sexual abuse and violence–as a reminder to the public to stay in line, Jesus and his two cross-mates were naked for all to see.

It may be considered in bad taste to show Jesus naked on the cross, but that has more to do with our notions of what people, including children, should see than it does with what actually happened on Calvary. And do we really think children would be harmed by seeing a naked Jesus? I think they might like it–and it surely would help them know he was a real, flesh and blood, breathing, human being.

And it could help us confront and overcome sexual abuse and violence. As the Rev. Wil Gafney says, “The reason the Church has such a hard time thinking critically and talking about sexual violence is because it has a hard time thinking critically and talking about sex.”

Crucifixion of Chrsit Max Klinger centrosangiorgio com
Crucifixion of Christ, Max Klinger centrosangiorgio.com

Michelangelo did not shy away from the truth of Jesus’ embodied humanity, nor did the late 19th-early 2oth Century German Symbolist painter Max Klinger. What of course neither showed was the horror that would have been visible on the bodies after having hung for a few hours (most likely at least grotesque swelling of the arms from hanging with body weight pulling on them). If they had, we would know more about the horrors of sexualized violence.

It might even be that if we, as a culture in general, were less uptight, less secretive, about bodies, including naked bodies, our society might be far healthier about sex, and more open to talking about not only the beauty of our bodies but also the truths they can help us learn.

Then, we might stop keeping priests, and many others, in tight boxes, we might even do more to stop sexual abuse, and oh my, we might even begin to claim the full joy and power of sex as God intends it for all.