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Priest’s revelation helps me recognise my homophobia

Fr Bryan Massingale’s recent testimony as a “black, gay priest and theologian” has caused Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya to reflect on his own attitude towards LGBTI people. In particular, he considers his need to categorise people based on their gender identity and why it ultimately should not matter.

My first reaction when I read Fr Bryan Massingale’s personal testimony as a “black, gay priest and theologian” was to ask myself: Is he really coming out or is he just trying to be controversial?

Of course, it will draw attention — positive and negative — when a Catholic priest says: “I come to this conversation as a Black, gay priest and theologian. I am informed not only by my sexuality, my faith, and my study of the Church’s ethical beliefs, but also by the traditions of Black freedom struggles in the US, struggles which, at their core, are matters of the soul and the spirit” is guaranteed some attention. 

The question I asked myself was: Is he really gay? In my mental image, I “know” what homosexual people look like and how they behave. Fr Massingale, whom I met when he was in South Africa for the Winter Living Theology Series last year, did not look or behave like my mental image of gay people.

But soon, I found myself thinking: why am I even asking that question? What is it to me that Fr Massingale or anyone else in the world, is straight or gay?”

The uncomfortable answer is that it really is none of my business. The answer only serves to satisfy my base instinct to box human beings and validate them according to my own subjective prism of worthiness.

Until his declaration, I knew Fr Massingale as a thought-provocative black priest who is not shy to call out whiteness and white privilege in society and in the church.

For that reason, as a black male who grew up in apartheid South Africa, I resonated with him. He understood and articulated my struggle. As a Catholic priest and theologian, he spoke of how I hope my own life will unfold.

I resonated with him. He understood and articulated my struggle.

When he spoke about racial justice, it didn’t occur to me to question his motives because I am part of the “victimhood” he speaks and writes about. Until now.

From victim to perpetrator

Yet the moment I asked myself that first question, I transitioned from sharing his “victimhood” and became part of the “perpetratorhood.” I questioned Fr Massingale’s motives. So much for thinking of  myself as open-minded and a proud product of the liberation and contextual theologies that informed my politics for most of my life. 

I do not assume to speak on behalf of anyone other than myself. Fr Massingale’s declaration of who he is asks me to look at who I am.

Fr Massingale’s declaration of who he is asks me to look at who I am.

My hope is that at the end of my self-reflection, I am as liberated about my own bigotries around sexual orientation, as I suspected Fr Massingale has been by owning his own truth. The truth, specifically knowing it, shall set us free, Jesus told us (John 8: 32).

I wish I could say that the question I asked of Fr Massingale’s sexual orientation arises only some of the time. It probably happens every time that individuals do not fit into neat boxes of how straight men and women ought to be, as though there is a prescribed way of being man or woman.

Unhappily, I do not always have the presence of mind to call myself to task when I ask this question and continue the heteronormative account of being human.

The net effect of what I wish I could put down to simple curiosity or voyeurism, but the truth, is harsh even for me to accept: I am a homophobe. If I were not a homophobe, another person’s sexual orientation would be as irrelevant as the shape of their ears or their star sign.

A vow of celibacy irrespective of sexual orientation

I can imagine that questions about his being a priest will arise. Again, I do not see how this is critical for two reasons. The first is that as that priests have taken a vow to be celibate and therefore forsake their sexual inclinations – whatever they might be.

… priests have taken a vow to be celibate and therefore forsake their sexual inclinations – whatever they might be.

Secondly, the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, speaking at the SACBC’s bi-annual plenary session in Marianhill, KwaZulu-Natal in July, Bishop Sipuka called out “the issue of priests with children, which unlike the rape of Sisters is something that often surface[s] in our Conference”.

Bishop Sipuka also expressed concern for “a lot of talk about the active homosexual and lesbian relationships occurring among priests and nuns respectively”.

I cannot see how any religious person who takes vows of chastity but does not keep them can argue that they are better or worse based on who they break those vows with.

Fr Massingale has started a conversation that will go on for a long time. Nobody can know for sure how the story will end. For me and my homophobia, I hope to live out Pope Francis’ simple yet powerful five words: Who am I to judge?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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