John Heard: Black legends, new light

06 Aug 2008

By The Record

I pause when someone asks me, as people regularly do, why it is that I persist with my faith, why I bother – as a same sex attracted man – with the popes and the Catholic Church.


John Heard


I flick my eyes in that meaningful way men sometimes do when they’re caught off guard, and then I launch into something like an apology. 
I should return the question, of course, and ask: Why does the Church still bother with me?
Even better, I could ask why the person thinks I do not love Christ, and love Him with such a power of devotion that I love whatever is His, including His most holy Church?
That’s rather too much for most settings, however, so I usually just say that the church that some people call homophobic (or worse) is not the Catholic Church I serve.
Because so much of what people claim to reject is not even recognisable as Catholic teaching.
Certainly, solid blocs of Catholics – even some experts – consistently get the wider teaching on human sexuality wrong. Sex is for procreation, right? But that is only part of the story. The Church teaches about the “sexual and affective complementarity” of the sexes.
By the same measure, many people in the Church (and most people outside it) are unaware of the more specific, key distinction between homosexual acts (condemned outright), and the treatment of those who experience same sex attractions (loved, without limit).
Misinformed critics reject something, therefore, but it is not the Catholic Church. 
Surprisingly, most people respond very favourably to an engagement along these lines. I’m sure now it’s because where they are not pure inventions; most of the more shocking claims made against the Church (rather than against individual Catholics) are black legends.
Those who trade in black legends take real situations, and exaggerate the negatives. They simultaneously obscure any positive connotations, so that a powerful lie works itself into popular memory.
Under the influence of a black legend, some disputed period of Catholic history – the era of the Spanish Empire, for instance – takes on a new life. Associated characters, such as the Grand Inquisitor (Fr. Tomas de Torquemada) who was called “the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order”, are transformed in later readings, emerging eventually as archetypal villains.
Repeated many times, by various interested parties, a black legend with all its negative associations eventually comes to stand in for the Church herself. The idea really takes hold when every Catholic is seen to be guilty by association, and the Church is viewed as always only the sum of its worst parts.
During the World Youth Day visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Sydney, for instance, some media outlets juxtaposed images of Catholic worship, and papal symbols, with headlines and images referring to child sex abuse, and other crimes.
One Australian television station, indeed, devoted airtime in the lead up to, and during the event, to lengthy reports on an unrelated, decades old case of sexual impropriety between a long-defrocked priest, and an adult male. Many good people couldn’t help but view this as an attempt to introduce a negative narrative, a black counter to the flood of hugely positive, joyful reports coming out of Sydney.
It didn’t work, but the attempt was instructive.
In the case of the Spanish Inquisition, it is helpful to tell people that many of the most outrageous claims, and most of the more gruesome images of torture and stake-burnings, derive from Northern European, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon propaganda. Echoes of this original context survive into our own times, and ideological / political narratives that paint Catholic Spain as dark, cruel, and unenlightened are clearly discernible in the two Elizabeth films starring Cate Blanchett.
When one learns that the same individuals who would not have hesitated to burn a Catholic for “Popish superstitions” often also wrote anti-Inquisition propaganda, otherwise intractable critics are moved. 
Certainly, when one reveals the real source of a black legend, and tells an interlocutor that the Church is not really like the thing they’ve been encouraged to fear and revile, new space opens up.
If Catholics are humble enough to admit our failings, both believer and critic can enter into love.
When a Catholic can stand, in solidarity, with someone who moments before took him for an evildoer, or a promoter of lies, and recognise the same evil, and show the lie as it applies to the Church, some impairment is removed.
Truth is served, and everyone gains.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.