The Politics of Sainthood, Marriage Equality and The Evolution of the Catholic Church

By contemporary terms, Cristina Traina is an enigma.

A driven Roman Catholic and professor of religion at Northwestern University, Traina is a prolific writer on religious ethics and social issues—including why she thinks the church should support marriage equality.

At the same time, Traina identifies herself as lesbian and remains married to her husband, a Lutheran minister and father to their three grown children.

In this first live episode of “The Big Questions Podcast,” we tackle all of these questions, plus the politics of sainthood and the evolution of the Catholic Church.

Recorded before a live audience at Northwestern University’s Shiel Catholic Center, “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via iTunes and SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube.

Q: What are the spiritual and the political functions of sainthood?
Traina: Well, the spiritual function of sainthood is pretty easy. It’s to lift up people as examples, whether they are examples of prayer, examples of activity in the world, examples of leadership, examples of scholarship—for the faithful to follow.

Q: And the political function? Traditionally, one of the ways that the church would gain a foothold in a culture would be to canonize or make saints of local figures. Is that a fair assessment?
Traina: I think that’s true and it is still going on today. Right? Because for a long time, most of the saints of the church were somehow attached to Europe or the ancient Middle East. Right? And when John Paul II came to the pontificate, one of the things that he did was canonize a lot of saints who were from outside of Europe.

That is continuing in the present. Right? We are having saints canonized who are Native Americans; we’re having saints canonized who were from Asia. Right? So the idea is to represent the global spread of the church, the global presence of the church and the global presence of holy people in the church.

Q: So coming back to the political function, what was Pope Francis signaling by canonizing two very different popes—Pope John Paul II and John XXIII —at the same time?
Traina: Well, that is an interesting question, and it’s one that keeps us both in work. Right? Because the Vatican never tells you, exactly.

I’m going to backtrack a minute and say interestingly when John Paul II beatified John XXIII, that it raised him to the level just below sainthood. On that very same day, he beatified Pious IX, who was a pope known for things like kidnapping little Jewish children who might have been baptized to ensure that they would be raised by Christians. So we had a very conservative pope beatified at the same time that we had what was seen as a very liberal pope, beatified.

So I think that, in some way, Francis is following John Paul II’s example, and beatifying or canonizing two people who are seen as diametrically opposed theologically. One thing that you might say that he is insuring that the conservative wing of the church and its interpretation of the Second Vatican Council is kept on the podium with John XXIII. More charitably you might say, but what he is trying to do is make room in the church for very diverse voices.

Q: Each saint is a patron saint of something. You have a very interesting job suggestion for John Paul II—namely that he should be the patron saint of sex.
Traina: I think really he should because he wrote one of the most flowery accounts of sex that you could possibly imagine. He wrote several short pieces that were accumulated into a very long book on sexuality and the body. So, yes, in fact, he should be the patron saint of sex.

Q: And what are the complications there, though?
Traina: He has an interesting theology in which masculinity and femininity are complimentary in a very abstract kind of a way. Right? So that all women represent eternal—the eternal feminine; all men represent the eternal masculine. And they can unite in complete self-gift, which is openness to procreation.

And that doesn’t necessarily encompass all the kinds of sexual experiences, and all the kinds of sexual impulses that human beings have and need to make some kind of religious meaning out of.

Q: Regarding homosexuality, Pope Francis was recently reported as saying, “Who am I to judge?” What is your take on that? What is the direction we are going?
Traina: Well, we have to remember that when we are talking about the Roman Catholic Church’s direction, we need to take our vitamins and think in terms of centuries.

Roman Catholicism has expanded its understanding of human rights, significantly, over a long period of time. Right? And the right to marry is one of the civil rights that we are talking about and it is also begun to understand sexuality differently over time.

And so it is pretty likely that very soon Roman Catholics will be able to accept and deal with the idea of same sex marriage, because same sex marriage, is after all, being proposed as a civil function, not a religious one. It’s going to take Roman Catholics a very long time to get to the point of accepting same sex marriage as a sacrament.

Q: You have a very interesting household: Your husband is a Lutheran minister and you have grown children who’ve wandered over into the Methodist church, right?
Traina: I have three children, all of whom wandered over to the Methodists, which they don’t really understand is extremely funny, given Methodist history and how strict Methodists were: no cards, no drinking, no dancing. And that’s where my children went to be rebellious, was to the Methodists.

Q: You identify as gay—how did your struggle with sexuality overlap with your struggle with religion? Because especially the Roman Catholic Church has very strong opinions about being gay.
Traina: Interestingly, I didn’t have a big religious struggle about it. One of the reasons is that I grew up in a very strangely wonderful Catholic community as a child…

In my opinion, the church was the community. The church was the people that were gathered around, celebrating mass, interested in each other’s lives, helping each others children grow up, dealing with each other’s griefs. So, when I decided to come out, my church was still my community.

Q: But you remain married and your husband is very involved in the religious community as well. How does that work?
Traina: How does that work? That is an interesting question. Well, one of the important elements to how this works for me is that I somehow went and became a Roman Catholic Ethicist. Right? So I got all kinds of tools for analyzing the church’s teaching and other theologians and so I had all kinds of equipment for thinking about how you could be gay and Catholic at the same time that most other people don’t have.

Q: Right. But, how can you be gay, Catholic and married to a man? I think that’s my essential question.
Traina: Ah. Well, gay, Catholic and married to a man …It’s because we had a long, wonderful relationship all the way along. We’ve raised children together, we’re very close to each other, and we’re big promoters of each other’s worlds and activities. And there’s no way that I ever wanted to be separated from him.

It wasn’t the question of, “Oh gee, I want a divorce.” It is how do I manage to be a lesbian and be married to a man? Right? And that has been the journey, but it has been important for me to surround myself with really wonderful women who are of various sexual orientations. And who are wonderful supports. And that has been just key.

Q: But then why stay in the Roman Catholic Church? Because there are plenty of other denominations who are more understanding.
Traina: That is what my kids wonder as well. “Mom, why are you Catholic?” Right? This is the question.

After a certain point, you look around, and you say, “Well, they don’t really need an ethicist who thinks it’s okay to be gay in the Episcopalian Church. Well they might in Nigeria, but they don’t in the United States. So I hang out here, for that reason.

Q: So is it changed from within? Is that what you are advocating?
Traina: Yes, I am advocating change from within. Because, change from without generally ends up being fracture. Right? And there are a lot of things that I really value about my religious tradition, which I wouldn’t want to lose.

To hear the full interview visit us on iTunes.

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