Wednesday, December 10, 2014
"My church is the world": An interview with Padre Beto
December 3, 2014
Padre Beto (Roberto Francisco Daniel), native of Bauru, was born in 1965. He was trained in radio broadcasting (Senac-SP), in law at the Instituição Toledo in Ensino (Bauru), in history at the Universidade do Sagrado Coração (Bauru) and in theology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. He worked in priestly ministry in the Diocese of Bauru for 14 years and in April 2013 was excommunicated by the diocese for having freely reflected on the Church's sexual morality. He taught high school and prep school philosophy classes at D'Incao and Infinito schools (Bauru). For five years, he was host of the "Conexão 96" program on 96 FM and for nine years he was a columnist for Jornal da Cidade (Bauru), he was host of "Mensagem do Dia" on 94 FM and host of "Tema Livre" on 94 FM (second Wednesdays from 11 PM to 1 AM). He is the author of several books including two in German, Erinnerung als ethisches Projekt and Befreiungstheologie im Film, and his latest published book is the controversial Jesus e a sexualidade – Revelações da Bíblia que você nunca viu ["Jesus and sexuality - Revelations of the Bible that you have never seen']. For the portal Panorama Mercantil, he says, "I no longer believe that the Church is a beneficial path for humanity. Churches create division; they create prejudice and exclusion."
Padre Beto, whenever we begin an interview, we always ask about the early life of our interviewees. How was your early life before getting into the priesthood?
I was born in Bauru, in a lower middle class and essentially Catholic home. As long as I can remember, my parents have always been involved in a parish and I always saw them concerned with helping people with difficulties. My parents raised me with a lot of freedom and always encouraged me to commit myself to others and to the life of society. I can't say my parents were pious traditionalists. On the contrary, they were very critical of the Catholic Church. I remember my father as an active layman used to refer to priests as "the black capes," with a certain irony and good humor. Even as a teenager, I was active in the youth ministry of my diocese and, even at the end of the military dictatorship, relating the message of Jesus Christ to citizenship, democracy, political and economic power. I can say that I learned to do politics in the Christian community. After all, I was living in a Church of the 70s and 80s that reflected liberation theology and had as examples men such as Dom Oscar Romero, Dom Arns, Pedro Casaldáliga, Dom Mauro Morelli and Dom Luciano Mendes de Almeida. Also being a young Christian at that time was not being a pious young man worried about being chaste as is common today. We were concerned with the well-being of everyone, but when it came to relationships and sexuality, we all lived very freely. I entered seminary at 27, but I didn't enter as a virgin. I had girlfriends, various relationship experiences and different sexual experiences that have taught me a lot about human life. I'm also grateful for that part of my life. Before entering seminary, I finished two college courses -- Law and a degree in History. Anyway, my life before seminary was very active, with a lot of freedom of thought and action.
In your History course, you were very influenced by Karl Marx. How was your mind working in those days, knowing that the previous popes condemned Marxism?
First, it's necessary to understand that in the History course, thanks to Marx, we learned to see historical events within a political and economic context. Seeing history this way, without falling into determinism, didn't conflict with what we were discussing within the Christian community, as this was much influenced by liberation theology. We did see Pope John Paul II as a conservative who was retreating from the whole process initiated by the Second Vatican Council. I was fully aware that the Church was a human institution that had conservative and progressive forces. But, as I lived in Brazil, I felt reassured by the CNBB (National Conference of Bishops of Brazil) we had at the time. I wasn't influenced by Marx to the point of becoming a Communist, I never believed in the Socialist models or in Marx's vision of the future. But through Marx, I learned that nothing is fragmented, the mode of production influences our mentality, and that we should be agents of our history to give meaning to our passage through this existence.
You've said you had several opportunities to not become a priest, but you've reiterated that this is your vocation. When your vocation was stronger, did you know you might have a problem because of your worldview?
The discovery of my vocation was a process. I never dreamed of a particular life plan, in the sense of having my profession, my family, my children, my retirement and my grave. I was led from early on to think about society, about the well-being of all, about politics and economics. The ongoing discovery of Jesus Christ led me more and more to think of my life as integrated into a whole. Added to this I had an experience of death in the family, which made me reflect on our very ephemeral passage through this existence. And the question I always asked myself was what I would like to see when looking back on my history at the time of my death. During my whole discernment, I made retreats at ITAICI [Centro de Espiritualidade Inaciana Vila Kostka Itaici] with the Jesuits, which helped me a lot in my self-discovery. I got to a certain point where I didn't fit in a profession anymore, whether being a professor or a legal professional, but the priesthood seemed a way through which I could help people individually, socially, and even unite all this with the message of Jesus Christ. It seems a joke, but the final "push" towards a radical decision for the priesthood came through a film I watched five times at the cinema, "Dead Poets Society".
Pope Francis says celibacy is a gift that the Holy Spirit gave the Church. For you, is celibacy a gift the Holy Spirit has given the Church?
I wouldn't say celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I can't see sexuality as a sin. On the contrary, I see it as a way to liberation from many neuroses. I remember when I was a priest and celebrated Mass for a group from the Youth Ministry of my diocese. In that Mass, we were reflecting about purity and I made it clear to the young people that purity has nothing to do with chastity. On the contrary, a good sexual relationship can purify us. Purity is transparency, honesty in any human relationship. I think a gift of the Holy Spirit is the intelligence to understand oneself, thus being able to choose the lifestyle I should assume to be a person in harmony with myself and others. Sexual life can't be demonized or standardized. It's an individual construct and depends on my awareness about my sexual orientation and lifestyle through which I can quietly fulfill myself as a human being.
Do you believe Pope Francis is in fact a reformer?
I think that as a good Jesuit, Pope Francis understands that the Catholic Church needs changes. However, he knows he can't make them quickly. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI created a clergy and a huge group of conservative, moralistic faithful during their papacies. As the institution is, the Pope must act carefully and slowly. One sees Pope Francis' efforts to have personal attitudes that make the clergy and the faithful reflect better, such as simplicity, a more political discourse and a personal approach to excluded people. Aside from these personal attitudes, I don't believe the Pope will achieve significant changes, as shown by the Synod of Bishops on the Family. What Pope Francis can do is prepare the ground for the next Pope to come along and carry out reforms that bring the institution closer in practice to the life of Jesus Christ.
Why don't you like the Catholic Church's assistentialist policy?
Because assistentialism only serves for the state to sit back and not return our paid taxes in benefits for the population and at the same time it politically anesthetizes the consciences of the faithful. If a parish, for example, maintains a day care center, it ends up performing the role of the state (which is being paid by all of us to build and maintain day care centers in Brazil) and makes the faithful collaborate twice towards assistance to the poorest. The faithful have paid their taxes and, at the same time, they're working with the church to maintain the day care center. The church should be an ethical force in society, raising the consciousness of its faithful about health policy, education, employment, retirement, etc., as it should also put pressure on governments for everyone's basic needs to be met. The Church is against abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, but the church never goes head to head with the state demanding an effective health care system, education that truly gives a future to young people, a good retirement for our seniors, or better wages for our police. Anyway, assistentialism is a hidden way of creating a parish island for ourselves and not dealing with the real issues that affect the children of God.
In your interviews, you always say you like the book A cama na varanda ["The bed on the porch"] by psychoanalyst Regina Navarro Lins. In this book, apart from other things, she talks about polyamory. What is your view on polyamory?
I've been able to hear the confessions of the faithful for 15 years. I can say that priests hear two main themes in confessions basically -- sexuality and relationships. Listening to people for so long, I can also say that simultaneous love for more than one person is a fact of human life. Hardly anyone, married or not, will love only one person in their life. Given this fact, I believe that the best way to live out these relationships would be specifying them through polyamory. If the love between two people enables us to develop our sensitivity and our ability to be more human, polyamory is a richer path to this development and perhaps closer to the message of Jesus Christ. Christ, in the Gospels, doesn't consider the traditional family we have today important, but the quality of the relationships we cultivate. Polyamory might be the healthiest way to live out these feelings. Many Christian couples are living a great hypocrisy. They hide their feelings and maintain the traditional argument about valuing the family institution. This is very sad, because behind a "politically perfect" facade hides a meaningless life and an inability to deal with relationships.
You were excommunicated by the Catholic Church in April 2013 for supporting homosexuals. How did that happen?
I've always been very open with all Christians, whether priests or laypeople. I believe the Church matures when we all reflect together. When those at the top decide and the majority obeys, we aren't living out the love Jesus preached and we are infantilizing the majority of the faithful. Since coming back to Brazil (2001), I've been reflecting openly on social networks about various topics around the Church's sexual morality (including homosexuality), but I've always made it clear that these were simple personal reflections and have never omitted official Church morality. My way of being never bothered my previous bishops. But in April 2013, the leadership of the Bauru Diocese deemed that these actions were unacceptable. Thus on April 23rd, my bishop demanded that I withdraw all materials from the social networks and ask forgiveness. Even though I made it clear to him that I had no reason to apologize, the bishop gave me until the April 29th deadline to think about it. Irrespective of the time, on April 24th, the bishop was already being interviewed about the ultimatum on a local television network. I thought a lot about it and decided to resign from priestly ministry since I could no longer exercise freedom of thought and freedom of expression in the Church.
At 10 a.m. on April 29th, I went to deliver my letter of resignation. At the diocesan curia, the bishop received me cordially and led me without any warning at all into a room. There, I was surprised to see a table made up of five priests from the council of presbyters and a stranger who was sitting at the head of the table. I was then led to an empty chair and the bishop withdrew. After a few seconds, I realized I was in a courtroom and sitting in the defendant's chair. Realizing this, I left the room after an argument and the fury of the stranger who was the investigating judge appointed by the Bishop of Bauru. The same morning, the Diocese of Bauru publicly declared my excommunication. Interestingly, the investigating judge, who we later found out was Father Tiago Wenceslau from the Campo Limpo Diocese, seeing the repercussions of the case, quickly spoke out, saying that I had not been excommunicated for defending gays, but for disobedience to my superiors. The Church never loses its covert ways of escaping clashes. Now, the disobedience was due to the content posted on social networks which pertained to the defense of homosexuals. If I had been talking about the virginity of Our Lady, my superiors, of course, would not have been bothered.
Recently, the Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church backed down on acceptance of homosexuals by the Church. How does the lobby work specifically for that matter?
Frankly, I don't know how that kind of lobby works. What I think is more serious in the Church is the lack of transparency in its structure. As well as power still being in the hands of the clergy -- very old men -- thus leaving laypeople, women and young people simply as faithful who must follow blindly what's established. This type of structure is no longer useful for the 21st century. It's precisely the lack of transparency and the concentration of power in the Church that enables the formation of lobbies that act in the so-called wings of Church.
What's the main message you want to pass on to the reader who will peruse your latest book "Jesus e a Sexualidade – Revelações da Bíblia que você nunca viu"?
I would say that the book has two big messages. The first is that the current sexual morality of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations does more harm than good. This sexual morality has no basis in Scripture, much less in Jesus Christ. It's the fruit of philosophical lines that are far from the biblical universe and the message of Jesus. Being based on the philosophies of Antiquity and not on the practice of universal love preached in the Gospels, Christian morality closes its eyes to the knowledge we have today of genetics, sexuality, human structure. The second big message is that human sexuality is something very good. The experience of sexuality can only be within the message of Jesus -- in the end, love (agape) and love (eros) aren't opposed but complement each other in a wonderful way. God made us sexual beings and it isn't active sexuality that leads us away from God. What separates us from God is lack of love in any dimension of human life.
Do you expect to return to pursuing your activities in the Church at some point?
No. I no longer believe that the Church is a beneficial path for humanity. Churches create division; they create prejudice and exclusion. Jesus sees humanity as our family. The latter should be united in what we have in common, the simple fact of being human. So, I have no intention of going back to being a priest in the Catholic Church, much less create a church. Brazil is a great example of how churches don't solve our problems and don't create the Kingdom of God. Brazil is full of churches and we officially declare ourselves a Christian country. Now, how can a Christian country be the seventh power in the world and leave the majority excluded from that reality? How can a Christian country have a very high crime rate, poor education for the majority, contempt for retirees, racism and homophobia and other very clearly anti-Christian problems? Brazil has churches, Brazilians praise God, but we are not a Christian country. I prefer to continue my mission in the world. My church is the world and my family, humanity.
Eder Fonseca is a journalist. He founded and is currently executive director of Panorama Mercantil, one of the main interview portals in Brazil.