Benedict XVI on Homosexuality: A Creative Interpretation by James Alison

Benedict XVI on Homosexuality: A Creative Interpretation by James Alison May 16, 2011

Joseph Ratzinger and James Alison are two of my favorite living theologians.  Both are men of towering intellect whose profound creativity and lucid exposition are capable of making Christian doctrine come alive to the contemporary reader.  Both are ecclesially-minded and deeply traditional at heart while at the same time being capable of new articulations that keep the tradition fresh and meaningful.

Besides their similar gifts and temperment, Alison (the younger of the two by almost two generations) seems to have been profoundly influenced by Ratzinger.  In his doctoral thesis, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Though Easter Eyes, no theologian appears in the footnotes as often as Ratzinger, and this is not in the form of critique.  Indeed the attentive reader will note marked similarities between Alison and Ratzinger on the most basic Christian doctrines, especially those connected with theological anthropology and soteriology

Many, however, upon hearing that Alison is a gay man, will be suspicious of all this.  And when, digging a little more, such folk discover that Alison does not believe that every gay person is ipso facto called to celibacy, those suspicions will certainly deepen.  Surely, despite broad agreement in Christian anthropology and soteriology, and despite affinities of temperment and style, Ratzinger and Alison must part ways on the question of homosexuality.  At least that is what would be assumed by both conservatives who celebrate Ratzinger as a bastion of traditional orthodoxy and progressives who denounce him as, well, a bastion of traditional orthodoxy.

But Papa Ratzi, as Alison affectionately calls the Pontiff, has been a bit of a Pope of surprises.  Indeed, in the awkward annual Christianity-on-the-cover-of-mainstream-magazines Week (also known as Holy Week), Canada’s news weekly, Maclean’s, asked “Is the Pope Catholic?”  And they hadn’t even heard Alison’s thesis!

His thesis is this:  Ratzinger is carefully and consistently paving the way for a  Christian interpretation of human sexuality that will allow the Church to recognize the non-pathological nature of homosexuality and acknowledge the value of committed homosexual relationships.

As you can imagine, given the Catholic blogosphere’s constantly demonstrated inability to talk about this issue like grown-ups, I was hesitant to bring this story to you.  On the other hand, I simply found it too fascinating to avoid, and I was shocked that the video on Youtube where I discovered this thesis had so few hits.  It struck me as something of which Catholics would at least like to be made aware.

Let me set the context for you.  In February 2006, a group at the University of San Francisco invited Alison to present this talk at an event titled “Is it ethical to be Catholic? – Queer Perspectives.”  (The full event can be watched on Youtube in 15 sections.)  In the first paragraph of Alison’s contribution, he notes his approval of the current Pope, to the surprise of his audience.

I think the full text of Alison’s talk is worth your while, though I was much less impressed by the other contributors.  In any case, though you may read the text of his prepared comments on his website, some of the most interesting things Alison has to say emerge during question period when his audience understandably asks him how he can be so sanguine about the current successor of Peter, so often presented as a bogeyman in such circles.  I present those comments for your consideration here:

I do not present these views as an endorsement or a condemnation of them.  I present them because they are fascinating for the life of the Church and because they are put forth by one of the most profound and creative theological intellects of our time and not some crackpot.  I am of the opinion that they warrant our consideration.  I am interested in hearing what strikes you in Alison’s comments, whether you find them prima facie plausible or implausible, and how they accord with your views of Ratzinger heretofore held.

I am not interested in debating Father Alison’s character, nor am I interested in the attack of those with whom we disagree on this sensitive subject.  I also intend to keep the discussion strictly on topic.  If you find that your comment is not approved within a reasonable amount of time, try saying a quick prayer and reformulating.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.


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