Wednesday 26 August 2009

Hunks and monks

On Monday the ‘Faith’ section of the Times website carried a feature on Mexican hunk and Hollywood star Eduardo Verastegui, who ‘chose to sacrifice a glittering film career after rediscovering his Catholic faith.’ It seems the actor whose ‘brooding looks and aquamarine eyes’ once ‘attracted thousands of (invariably screaming) female fans’ decided to give it all up after an encounter with an English language coach who was a committed Catholic.

The moment of truth came, apparently, when the coach asked if Verastegui believed his body was ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’. When the actor said 'yes', the coach challenged him with 'why are you living in a way that breaks the Commandments and offends God?' Tears and confession followed. (Incidentally you can take a peek at the pre-conversion Eduardo displaying his 'temple' to the world here.)

We’re told that Verastegui is now a changed man:

Today, the 35-year-old actor is a daily Mass-goer, committed to abstaining from sex before marriage, who flies to Darfur to help the starving, provides financial help for women considering abortions and organises house-building missions in Mexico.

All very worthy, I'm sure. But what the Times article omits to tell us, for some reason, is that the re-born Verastegui has also become a prominent campaigner in support of plans to outlaw gay marriage in California. Now, the perfectly-formed Verastegui is welcome to his new-found traditionalist views on sex and marriage, but he has no business seeking to impose them on others, and as a recent immigrant (from Mexico, of all places) he should have greater respect for the long-established separation of church and state in his adopted country.

I came across the piece on Verastegui shortly after reading the very different thoughts of another Catholic convert (and political conservative), Eve Tushnet, who happens to be gay. In an article wonderfully entitled 'Romoeroticism', Eve writes about same sex friendships in traditional religious cultures, and describes the sensual attraction of Catholicism for some gay Victorian religious seekers. She also draws on Catholic author Alan Bray's classic study of same-sex friendships in England from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

Reading Tushnet reminded me of the visit we made, while in Tuscany the other week, to the abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, in whose great cloister is displayed a series of beautiful frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict, by Giovanni Antonio Batsi - better known as Il Sodoma. Commentators differ on whether his nickname is a corruption of a family name, or a reflection of his sexual preferences. Many of the paintings certainly have an erotic charge, including the depiction of a beautiful young man at the right-hand edge of this fresco.

One of Sodoma's panels at Monte Oliveto shows two monks in bed together (interestingly, this is the only fresco missing from the abbey's website). The official interpretation is that this was a way of keeping warm on winter nights, while unofficially it's well known that many same-sex couples entered monasteries together as a way of pursuing their relationship away from the public gaze.

There's evidence, then, that the Catholic Church has, at times in its history, found ways of tolerating and even (Alan Bray argues) blessing and celebrating faithful same-sex relationships. Someone should tell Eduardo Verastegui.


Anonymous said...

A quick google search on the study and reading the article by Catholic and gay Eve Tushnet, who advocates what the Church teaches: chastity! You missed the point of her article and missed the opportunity to truly understand what the Church is trying to say.

From her article: "Doubtless no matter how many models of chaste same-sex love the Church offers, many contemporary gay people will still reject its hard teachings. But it couldn't hurt to try. So often I'm asked questions that boil down to the angry or anguished plea, "Is there anything in my love and desire that the Catholic Church can respect?" I'd be shocked if as much as five percent of gay people who grew up Catholic even know that there's precedent for their lives, and faithfully Catholic beauty available to them. I'd be shocked if anyone had ever even suggested a vision of a world where God, Church, family, and community could celebrate their love while still requiring that this love express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.

In a world of Gay Pride, the Catholic Church offers a unique opportunity to celebrate gay humility. Maybe we should start telling people about it."

Martin said...

Fair point. Maybe I glossed over the more 'orthodox' or conformist aspects of what Eve was saying. I know this struggle between her sexuality and her faith - both deeply felt - is a constant theme of her writing. I just wish the Church wouldn't impose this burden on its gay members.

My central point stands, I think: that Catholics in positions of influence have no business using that power to impose their faith-derived notions on others who don't share their views. Let Catholics keep Christian marriage as a heterosexual institution, if they wish, but why work so hard to prevent others from having access to civil (i.e. non-church) blessing on their partnerships? To me, it shows a lack of understanding of the necessary separation of church and state, and perhaps also a weakness and defensiveness that feels threatened by different ideas and practices , even when these don't affect Catholics or the Church.