Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Was Michelangelo a Homosexual?

I was sitting in a little Italian bistro with my longtime friend, a Retired Big Shot in the NYPD whose marriage I witnessed and whose kids I baptized into the Body of Christ. While enjoying s bit of pasta and glass of Chianti, I found myself defending those historic figures (like Michelangelo ) who, for one reason or another chose not to marry. The assumption, in the mind of my friend, was that “non-married” translates into homosexual. Starting with Jesus, through Paul and the long line of saints, I argued that, while marriage is the right and ordered pathway for the overwhelming majority of the human race, celibacy can be a healthy option for some people. Being unmarried does not, ipso facto, necessarily indicate a same sex proclivity. It, in fact, might mean something else. But in certain walled off bubble cultures, it is thought that the Catholic priesthood, for example, means homosexual, and that the majority of priests have the same-sex orientation. “They simply are not interested in women, they have no feeling for marriage and hence they become priests.” This is so absurd that I would belly laugh if it weren’t so damaging. I know there are homosexuals in the Catholic priesthood. I know that most of the hurt from the scandals came from the repulsive behavior of homosexual priests. But I also know that the overwhelming majority of priests is striving for holiness with a sexuality attuned to God’s Will. My observations are confined largely to this slice of the population. So, these observations are basically to challenge the facile notion that “unmarried equals homosexual.”

When I responded to my buddy, I did not argue that all unmarried and celibate people are healthy, peaceful and enjoying life exceedingly. However, I related a story about one of my students from a large eastern major seminary. As he was nearing ordination and wrestling with the reality that he was about to promise publicly that he would never marry, he began to feel nagging doubts. Was this pattern-style for all candidates for the celibate life? Does every one go through such a soul searching process? My young student friend was fearful lest he might be unable to “handle” celibacy and perhaps would forever be regretful of his choice. In effect, he asked “Will celibacy hurt me?” His very question signaled his vibrant attraction toward females. This was a full blooded young American with a full supply of testosterone as well as a mature appreciation of female beauty. He had, in lay life, practiced as a lawyer, dated attractive women and lived the free life style of so many young people in New York City. Today he is the Pastor of a flourishing parish and continually delighting in his choice to be a priest.

The real underlying notion of the doubt can be both psychological and spiritual. Will a life of celibacy “hurt me?”—“will it make me unhappy?” As a reasonably experienced psychologist, I had to reply: “It might.” The reason for my caution centered on his (or anyone’s) state of legitimate self regard---how did this young man view himself? This is basic. If he viewed himself as significantly inadequate on the profound level of “Can I find a mate who would deeply love me”, he would probably have interpersonal trouble, homosexual or otherwise. He would have the underlying inferiority feeling that no woman would want him! He would constantly be using the privileges of the priesthood to assure himself that he is lovable and worthy. His insatiable needs of assurance could be so great that he would “use” others, young or old, not for spiritual motivation but for selfishness. This unfortunate tendency can, of course, occur in the psyches of heterosexual as well as homosexual people. They all should be discouraged from entering the priesthood. However, on the other hand, if the candidate for priesthood (even unconsciously) knows and accepts his own personal gifts, particularly his confidence that he could certainly find and mate with a wonderful woman, he can make a healthy choice for not marrying. He makes the Promise or Vow of celibacy sure of himself. He chooses to be a chaste celibate. The fearful, insecure person makes, not a choice, but fearfully backs into a way of life which does not really suit his psychological structure. Since he, on his own, doesn’t usually “Make it” with others, (given his personality and character) he enlists in a structure which does it for him! His low self esteem does reduce his freedom but which, at the same time, might seek some kind of sexual satisfaction. In a sense he is unable to do otherwise. In this case, my friend is right. The man who fearfully becomes a priest because of his own sense of inadequacy, particularly with interpersonal relationships with women, does contribute to this distorted perception of the ‘unmarried.”

And of course there is a high possibility (in this case) that such a Priest will be same sex oriented. Yet, it must be insisted. Celibacy can be a healthy and joyful way of life—for some! The late Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, psychiatrist, of the Identity Clinic of New York Hospital made this point again and again. From a psychological point of view, there was no argument!

How many priests I have known who become priests with strong attractions to females! How many of them value the innocence of children which they desire to protect! How many of them believe in their own physical possibility of grandchildren and the delight of owning one’s own home! It is not fear of women which induced them to become priests but rather an overwhelming sense of God which gradually clarifies and strengthens as time goes on. This is a free choice between two goods! This is not homosexuality. This is a huge expression of love for the beautiful God. Whom he senses but cannot see. Such men are not homosexuals. They are in Love with God. But probably unless one has been there such a statement is incomprehensible.

Persons making vows of celibacy and chastity (there is a difference) believe that this donation of self is by invitation from a Higher Power (God). They believe they have a “call” or vocation to the celibate state. Implicit in this belief is the conviction that God will help them, with His powerful Grace, to fulfill their vows with generosity and joy. There is Grace for every life call for all of us, regardless of the type of call. Holy men and women live in different times and places and speak different languages. Each found his “home” in a place suited to his desires. Mother Teresa once advised a candidate to seek “your own Calcutta.” You don’t need to come to India to be holy! We don’t have to be like any one else. We have to be who God intended us to be. We believe that the Lord made us in His image and clearly He demands chastity from us all. If God expects us to be chaste (and we believe that homosexual practice is unchaste) then chaste is what we must be.

Certainly, such a call is not fully answered solely by one’s own strength. It is with the power of Grace that one “does it.” The clenched white fist approach generally and understandably fails. There are two basic points at issue here: a) authentic celibacy can be healthy[2] and b) authentic celibacy flourishes with the help of God’s grace. The history of the priesthood, for example, is replete with data. In the scandals of the early 21st century, it is interesting to note that over a 60 year period, the data suggest that of all the outrageous behaviors of delinquent priests, over 80% were from homosexual priests. Obviously, some infidelities were from heterosexual priests. Whether these falls came from sexual orientation or not, is difficult to discover and may be moot. However, despite the unhappy and crushing reality of these infidelities, the dominant history of the priesthood has been one of love, fidelity and respect.

Dr. Freud significantly pointed out that the sexual drives of the human psyche can be healthily and productively redirected in ways other than genital discharge. This is called the mental mechanism of Sublimation. The non-use of the genital power does not, in itself, demonstrate that same sex attraction exists in any given person. Such an assumption would be a monocular view. In fact, some authors suggest that Freud himself, some time after his fortieth year, became celibate in order to invest himself totally in his work. In my own work as chaplain of the Retired Detectives of the NYPD I met more than a few men who, totally dedicated to law enforcement, were unmarried. These men were so involved in the fascinating work of investigating crime (getting huge emotional and spiritual reward thereby) that, in a sense, there was little room for the “goods” we associate with marriage. These were masculine males with minimal self centeredness but with strong outgoing dynamics for the social good (and often spiritual development). Deficiency of testosterone and fear of women simply do not apply here. Their basic fulfillment was elsewhere.

But much of real discovery and understanding depends on securing authentic data. While jumping to conclusions might be fodder for late night comedians twitting exercise, serious students of human behavior know that no one has X-ray vision. Much of what drives human behavior is not easily available for scrutiny. It is risky to say (especially when said with supreme confidence) that artists such as Michelangelo were homosexuals not only because they were unmarried but also because many of their male models were handsome and lean while their females models were muscular and masculine. It might be true—maybe these people are same-sex attracted! But for reasonable certainty more factual evidence is needed to justify such “shooting from the hip.” If we believe we argue from a scientific point of view, it is essential that we know the difference between correlation and causation! Even a casual knowledge of history shows that often “apprentices” lodged with a Master of a specific Genre---Paint, stone, sound, architecture---- in order to gain as much expertise as possible. To assume that it meant more easy access to sexual deviance is really “drawing on the long Bow” as is said in County Cork to describe the process of reaching conclusions beyond premises.

Answering the question opening this essay requires some serious thought. And some modest caution. While, one can honestly argue about the complex nature of homosexuality, there is no other side to the implication of my friend. Non-marriage, per se, does not equal homosexual. To insist on such an awkward conclusion is not only intellectually cloudy but is basically academically dishonest.

[1] Michelangelo may possibly have been SSA but that is as now speculation. However my point is to challenge the immediate assumption that Unmarried means homosexual.
[2] It is the Catholic contention that, regardless of the 1973 APA statement, the homosexual or same sex attracted person has an intrinsic disorder.


bill bannon said...

I agree with your main point but it could be that Rome has carried the celibate thing further than it need go. It is critical to those in vows in the religious life per se....but as with Peter, it is not critical to the diocesan clergy. Christ picked Peter (whose mother in law is mentioned) not the celibate beloved disciple John to be Pope. We manage to not talk about that.

Anonymous said...

Hi there Father,

I agree with your remarks regarding the questioned status of the unmarried, since my divorce people have questioned my status. And I agree with you that being married or not is not a predicate for those assumptions which are ridiculous.

I am an artist and student of Art History and to my knowledge it is unequivocably thought that Michaelangelo was a homosexual from the abundant letters and love poems that he wrote as well as the models that he used for the Sistine Chapel as Michaelangelo used male models exclusively in his art.
Libyan Sibyl - holding the Book of Life
Delphic Sibyl

As you can see it is quite apparent that the modes used for these females were men, indeed, all the models for the Sistine Chapel were men which he transformed through the wonder of art into women where necessary.

He wrote many letters to his assistants who actually lived with him. It is not known that he was ever in a long standing relationship. In the end his sexuality is not important he remains a master for all time who has never had an equal with his virtuoso sculpture, painting or architecture.