by Chuck Colbert
What’s it going to take for the Vatican to change its hardline doctrine against homosexuality?
Whomever the College of Cardinals selects as pope to succeed Benedict XVI, the new Holy Father would do well to consider the case of a 39-year old Italian writer and ex-seminarian from a small town in Sicily, who set himself on fire in St. Peter’s Square.
Alfredo Ormando’s suicide in January 1998 was purposeful as his correspondence made clear. “I hope they’ll understand the message I want to leave,” he wrote to a friend beforehand. “It’s a protest against the Church that demonizes homosexuality, and at the same time all of nature, because homosexuality is her offspring.”
And yet the Vatican was emphatic in its denial that Ormando’s suicide had anything to do with the Church’s harsh condemnation of homosexuality.
“In the letter found on Alfredo Ormando,” a Vatican spokesperson said, “he doesn’t affirm in any way that his actions were prompted by his presumed homosexuality or as a protest against the Church,” adding, “He tried to kill himself for no better explanation than family motives.”
Not to be forgotten, however, Ormando’s heroic act or mad gesture, his self-immolation on January 13, 1998, is now the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary, Alfredo’s Fire, by Andy Abrahams Wilson, founder and president of Sausalito, California-based Open Eye Pictures.
The film explores the clash between faith and homosexuality and a struggle common among many gay people — reconciling sexuality and faith or spirituality.
The documentary, mostly in Italian with English subtitles, opens a window into the interior life of Alfredo, relying on unpublished writings, correspondence, and interviews with family members, friends, and an intimate companion.
Wilson speaks Italian, lived in Italy for a short period of time, and is quite familiar with the Catholic tradition there.
In the midst of a crowd funding campaign to finish the film http://bit.ly/kickstartfire, Wilson discussed his motivation for producing the documentary and the importance of its message.
“Really, it was the fire that I was drawn to,” said Wilson over the telephone. “The symbolism of fire as it relates to LGBT people. Fire represents self-annihilation and annihilation by others, recalling the burnings at the stakes of homosexuals during the Middle Ages.”
“Fire,” he went on to say, “is an expression of pent up passion and rage, communion with God, purification, liberation, and a dramatic coming out. Self-immolation, historically, is a powerful protest, specifically as it relates to the LGBT population.
“What I like about (the fire) is that it’s not just one thing. It doesn’t just represent an expression of a life force, it’s also the expression of the extinguishing of a life force. As gay people, we have these two divergent paths that face us. As Alfredo said: ‘You either accept being gay or you kill yourself.'”
Alfredo Ormando’s suicide by fire defies easy explanation. “You cannot say anyone does what he does for any one reason,” said Wilson, raising key questions about Alfredo’s desperate act: “Was Alfredo a little off balance? Yes. Why was he off balance? Can you blame just the Church? Probably not.
“Clearly, he’s an extreme example of what people endure everyday all over the world by an anti-gay Church and an anti-gay society.
“Even in becoming a human torch, he wasn’t seen. There’s a terrible injustice there.”
Indeed Catholic hostility to gays dates back centuries, when during the Inquisition the Church executed gay men — or sodomites — by burning at the stake and other dreadful means.
Modern day animus towards gays persists as official church teaching speaks of “objective disordered” to describe the “homosexual inclination” and “intrinsic moral evil” to explain “homosexual acts.”
In fact, two years after Alfredo’s suicide, overlooking the spot where Alfredo set himself on fire, then Pope John Paul II, said, “Homosexual acts are against the laws of nature.”
More recently, Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus said, “[Homosexuality] is a concept of human nature that has proven defective.”
Increasingly, Catholic hierarchical leadership stateside and globally has stepped up its rhetoric in the secular, political arena, too. One of the major forces, if not the major force against civil rights or equal rights for LGBT people, is the Church, especially its adamant opposition to same-sex marriage.
While Wilson hesitates to draw a straight line between Alfredo’s suicide and Vatican anti-gay rhetoric and politics, the documentary highlights a trickle-down effect from Church pronouncements to society and family life.
One of eight children from a poor family in Palermo, Aflredo’s homosexuality was not well received by the two bothers to whom he came out, one of whom physically assaulted him.
Alfredo felt societal pressure to keep his gayness secret in order to protect family honor, a strong Sicilian value.
“Think about that in the context of a gay person,” said Wilson, “the need to honor the family. You don’t want to hurt the family, and yet you resent it at the same time.
“The Church is the ultimate family, and the Pope is the patriarch of the family. That’s strongly ingrained in many Italians.”
Alfredo’s struggle, then, is a common thread and tension in the life experience of many gay people: How to come terms and find peace when religious authority, Catholic or otherwise, says being gay and living openly is outside the natural order devoid of any true spiritual life or sanctified relationships.
“You cannot say that Alfredo was not religious, that he did not care about God or his Church,” said Wilson. Still, “he had conflicted feelings.”
Wilson readily acknowledges LGBT people have every reason to reject any kind of religious tradition, given its vehement anti-gay teachings. But outright rejection, he said, “is problematic,” adding “I think we’re just hurting ourselves further. While orthodox religious traditions may deny us access to the divine, we can claim a full spiritual life. We don’t need to buy into our own marginalization.”
Although Jewish, Wilson hopes “for a more open and inclusive Church. I want the film to be part of that change,” he said. “Alfredo is just one example of a life destroyed in large part by teachings of the Catholic Church.”
To facilitate dialogue and change, Wilson said the documentary’s engagement campaign includes outreach to faith-based organizations and LGBT groups around the world.
Alfredo’s Fire’s engagement campaign also features an open and interactive “Sparks of Fire” transmedia project, which includes a new map-based app that allows users worldwide to share their personal stories at “the combustible place where faith and homosexuality clash.”