Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part I

Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part I March 14, 2012

As some of you are already aware, I was recently granted the privilege of e-interviewing Father James Alison.  Father Alison had sent me a very kind note expressing his appreciation for the way in which I (and the readers here at Vox Nova) had handled a post I had written about Father James’ suggestion that Pope Benedict is preparing the way for a change in the Church’s official stance on issues relating to homosexuality.  That note turned into an extensive correspondence that culminated in our decision to publish an interview here at Vox Nova.  The basic impetus was that I wanted to find out more about Father James’ views concerning the Church and homosexuality.  That basic curiousity was combined with the fact that both of us felt that honest questions from someone sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics, but unconvinced by arguments that the Church should alter its stance on homosexual activity, would have the potential to move the conversation forward much more helpfully than other ways that this issue is often addressed in the Church (by both those for and those against a change).  The interview is quite lengthy.  I plan to publish it in 3 or 4 installments here at Vox Nova.  Today I present Part I, which is mostly a getting-to-kn0w-James Alison segment.  The following installments will delve more deeply into the ethical issues at hand.  For the record, my questions appear in Italics;  Father James’ responses follow in a normal font.  Finally, I want to express my gratitude to Father James for sharing with us here.  Enjoy! – Brett Salkeld

1. So, who is James Alison? What aspects of your life do you consider most central to your identity? What should people who are curious about you know?

James Alison is English, and therefore ontologically incapable of answering a question of this sort about himself.

2. You were not born a Catholic. What drew you into the Catholic faith? What drew you to religious life? What drew you to academic life?

I was brought up in a hard line Evangelical Anglican family – the sort of ambience that would be familiar to US readers as “The Religious Right. For those to whom such names mean something, I was baptised as an infant by John Stott, while family friends included Billy Graham, Chuck Colson and Doug Coe. I wrote about what drew me into the Catholic faith in my most recent book, Broken Hearts & New Creations:

What brought me into the church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to university. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the church.¹

I’m not sure, at this stage, what led me to attempt to join a religious order. On the positive side: the lucidity, intelligence, and serenity of the Dominicans I encountered, the legacy of St Thomas, the lack of fussy piety – all these gave me some hope that maybe I could emerge from the sense of annihilation which came with my background. On the negative side, I’ve come to see that in my case, joining a religious order was a decorous way by which someone who considered himself worthless could throw himself away without in fact committing suicide. I had come very close to doing just that while an undergraduate in the late 1970’s.

I’m also not sure that I’ve ever been drawn to the Academic life as such. Theology has been a matter of survival for me. If I have a carapace of academic presentability, it is thanks to the wonderful teachers I had, both among the Dominicans in England and the Jesuits in Brazil. Even more than these, it is the thought of René Girard and that of some of his closest followers and friends which has given me, and continues to give me, something big to gnaw on, something organic from which to work out an intelligence of Faith.

3. You live in Brazil. How has Brazil come to be your home?

I did my theological studies here in the 1980’s, and spent long enough in the country to be given a permanent resident visa. When, in 2008, I was given a fellowship grant which set me free to choose where I might live, I opted to return here, knowing that I could do so with no visa hassle, and hoping that I would be able to get involved in helping to set up some sort of Catholic LGBT Pastoral work as well as disseminating the thought of René Girard by writing and teaching. Little by little, these things seem to be developing.

4. You are a theologian, and a fairly influential one at that. Can you tell us a little about your work in theology? What excites you? What questions do you pursue?

Thank you for the “fairly influential” – you must know more than I do! As to my work… what has excited me ever since I came across his thought has been the fecundity for theology of René Girard’s mimetic insight concerning desire and violence. The bulk of my work has been an exploration of Girard’s view that we desire according to the desire of another, a small insight with formidable consequences both for theology (of God and of grace) and for theological anthropology. Thanks to Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism at work throughout human culture it has also become possible to make sense of Jesus’ death as being salvific for us in a way which is entirely orthodox and takes us away from imputing any vengeance or retribution to God. Girard has also opened up for me a very rich hermeneutic for Scripture, one which avoids the temptations to Marcionism on the one hand and Fundamentalism on the other. These three areas: God, Salvation and Scripture are the areas which I pursue most relentlessly. The paradigm shift which Girard enabled for me has led me to develop an Adult Introduction to the Christian Faith, a course of twelve sessions that some friends are working to make available to a wider public. I hope this will be a contribution to the New Evangelisation to which we are called. One that is genuinely Good News and not bogged down in moralism.

In addition to these matters, I’ve been trying, for some time, to make a case for why the Church can indeed, from within its own resources, move out of a false, and often a hateful, characterization of, and set of attitudes towards, gay and lesbian people. I’m convinced that no new evangelisation will get very far while its principal proponents, apparently unaware of the power of the Gospel they preach, remain hobbled by this sacralised taboo. More and more young people seem to pick this up very quickly.

5. What is your current canonical status? What does that mean in practical terms? How does this relate to your status as an “out” homosexual? How does it relate to your public views about homosexuality?

My current canonical status is anomalous. I am a validly ordained priest in good standing, with no penalties or disciplinary matters hanging over me. Although it is many years since I have been associated with the Dominicans, I have not been laicized. So I am not attached to any religious order, and I am not incardinated into any diocese, though I am in principle available to be so incardinated, should a Bishop want to have me. Apparently this is a legal situation which, like limbo, doesn’t exist. But yet, I’m in it (and with the paper trail to show how the situation arose)! It leaves me without an Ordinary. And it’s not clear to me (and it was not clear to an experienced Cardinal with whom I recently spent 90 minutes analysing my status) what can be done to rectify this anomaly.

As I understand it, the situation is as follows: I have made public a reasoned disagreement with the current third order teaching of the Roman Congregations concerning the “objectively disordered” nature of the “homosexual inclination”. The logical consequences of my view are many, but include the consequence for me personally that my religious vows (since dissolved by the appropriate authority at the conclusion of an amicable process) and my public commitment to celibacy are null. This is because, at the time of my ordination – whose validity a Roman Congregation has confirmed to me – I still believed the Church’s characterisation of who I am (a defective heterosexual with an automatic non-negotiable obligation to celibacy) to be true. Thus I made a public commitment while under what I later discovered to be a falsely bound conscience. Such a commitment would be null, in the same way as a forced marriage is null.

Well, either my publicly stated position is false, and my consequent claim of the nullity of my vows is simply the self-deceived convenient thinking of a bad man, in which case, why would any Ordinary want to have me on his books? Or my publicly stated position is true. In which case it is also true that I have no valid vow or promise of celibacy.

In other words, any Ordinary who took me on would not only be accepting that my public position on matters gay is at least defensible by a priest in good standing without any demand for retraction. He would also be taking on board, with full knowledge of what he was doing, someone whose public commitment to celibacy is null, since taken under a false conscience. Indeed, he would be taking on board someone for whom such a commitment could not validly be made for as long as the Church’s current characterisation is in force. It’s not clear to me how any Ordinary could do this unless he received some sort of dispensation to do so from the highest authorities in the Church. For, were he to take the responsibility on his own shoulders, he would pretty quickly be liable to reprisals.

I should say, in case it is of interest to your readers, that at no stage since I exposed my conscience in this area to a Roman Congregation in 1996, has any Church authority made any attempt to persuade me of the falsity of my position.

In practical terms, with no one responsible for me, I have to work out for myself how to exercise a priestly ministry without any juridical backing. So I only preside at sacraments when invited to do so by the appropriate authority (which does happen from time to time), or when those present are in a situation of some irregularity themselves (e.g. when I’m leading retreats for gay priests or laity), or know about, and are not scandalised by, the anomaly of my own situation.

6. Most theologians work in a university setting, but you do not. Can you tell us a bit about where and how you work? What factors have lead to this situation?

I have been honoured, on two occasions, by being offered Chairs in Universities in the USA. In both cases, the plan fell through owing to factors outside my control. And I should say here that in neither case was the falling through the result of ecclesiastical interference. I work from home, in São Paulo, very much “to order” – planning the next talk, paper or retreat. As to the factors leading to this situation, I would guess that the sort of places which would welcome an openly gay religious teacher would not be much interested in so obviously and straightforwardly Catholic a theologian as myself; while the sort of places which would like a straightforwardly Catholic theologian would find it difficult to contemplate having an openly gay one.

7. Would you prefer to work in a university? What are some practical (social, economic, etc.) implications of not working in a university? What is life like as a kind of freelance academic openly gay Catholic priest?

At this stage, I’m not sure. In one sense, yes I would. I enjoy teaching, and would love to have colleagues, and a sense of belonging to something. I’m also finding myself approached by people who tell me that they would like to study with me, or be supervised by me, and am ashamed that I’m unable to offer them any sort of institutional cover. Some sort of pension plan would be nice too! On the other hand, little that I have seen of my life so far encourages me to think that I would have the staying power to be a responsible faculty member over time – I’m not much of a multi-tasker, and when I’m in productive mode, organisational things suffer. Amongst the implications of not working in a university is that of living with the realisation of the worthlessness of my discipline in raw economic terms. Trying not to run away from the precariousness that ensues has been quite an ascesis. As my publisher once pointed out to me: “Theology is only for those who have nothing else to fall back on. Those who have something else to fall back on, do”. At the moment, and thanks to the generous, no-strings-attached fellowship I have been receiving for the last several years from Imitatio, the organisation set up by the Thiel Foundation to help disseminate the thought of René Girard, life is good!

Endnotes

[1] Chapter 14 of Undergoing God and www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng23.html.

 


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.  He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating and the author of Can Catholics Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment?

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  • Bravo on a brilliant interview Brett and many thanks to Fr. Alison for sharing so much and in such a refreshing way.

  • Bravo on a brilliant interview Brett and many thanks to Fr. Alison for sharing so much and in such a refreshing way.

  • Jordan

    Excellent, Brett! Thanks for publishing this interview. Fr. Alison is a singularly important theologian because his is not afraid to highlight the theological impact of an undifferentated humanity. If I have read Fr. Alison correctly over the years, the crucifixion is the culmination and resolution of human crisis. Violence, in the passion of Christ, the suffering of gay people, and the relentless inhumanity of life in general, must either take place within a society such as the Church or be projected outside of it.

    Fr. Alison’s own “irregular status” as a priest of the Church is his own Girardian scapegoating, a passion in miniature. It’s as if Alison must be trapped within a contrived state of suspension in order for the convoluted Vatican pseudo-clinical, pseudo-theological “definition” of gay people to remain viable. Unlike his closeted clerical brethren, Alison lives his theological model. His integrity only bolsters the plausibility of his theology.

  • Jordan

    Excellent, Brett! Thanks for publishing this interview. Fr. Alison is a singularly important theologian because his is not afraid to highlight the theological impact of an undifferentated humanity. If I have read Fr. Alison correctly over the years, the crucifixion is the culmination and resolution of human crisis. Violence, in the passion of Christ, the suffering of gay people, and the relentless inhumanity of life in general, must either take place within a society such as the Church or be projected outside of it.

    Fr. Alison’s own “irregular status” as a priest of the Church is his own Girardian scapegoating, a passion in miniature. It’s as if Alison must be trapped within a contrived state of suspension in order for the convoluted Vatican pseudo-clinical, pseudo-theological “definition” of gay people to remain viable. Unlike his closeted clerical brethren, Alison lives his theological model. His integrity only bolsters the plausibility of his theology.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I certainly with him well. But I confess I don’t get something ontologically about the whole matter. That in itself reminded me the mysterious implication of something he said and I loved the line: ” Apparently this is a legal situation which, like limbo, doesn’t exist. ” Apparently they don’t EWTN in Sao Paolo. According to that source there are as many unbaptised babies there as, we might add, there are gay priests in the Catholic priesthood.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    I certainly with him well. But I confess I don’t get something ontologically about the whole matter. That in itself reminded me the mysterious implication of something he said and I loved the line: ” Apparently this is a legal situation which, like limbo, doesn’t exist. ” Apparently they don’t EWTN in Sao Paolo. According to that source there are as many unbaptised babies there as, we might add, there are gay priests in the Catholic priesthood.

  • Thales

    Brett,

    Thanks for the interview. Fr. Alison seems very thoughtful in his answers, and I look forward to hearing more from him. I really appreciate hearing his thoughts about this topic.

    I have one question, and it’s sincere, and I hope it’s not offensive (though I don’t know why it would be.) He describes himself, and you describe him, as “openly gay.” What does that mean? Or better yet, what does Fr. Alison mean by that? Being in a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex, or being open to the possibility of having a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex, or something entirely different (as it is very possible that I’m entirely on the wrong path of thinking)?

    • brettsalkeld

      I take it to mean that he is not closeted. I don’t know anything more than that.

      • Thales

        Brett, “not closeted” is just as puzzling to me.

        • brettsalkeld

          Hmmm? He publically says that he is gay rather than not gay. He identifies as a homosexual person.

      • Thales

        Brett,

        Heh, that’s not helpful either.

        Let me be clear that I’m in no way trying to be critical of Fr. Alison. I truly value him as a person deserving of full dignity and respect, and thus I’m truly interested in having a better understanding of where he’s coming from. I’m really enjoying the interview, and I’m really appreciating the opportunity to get to know him as a person and the opportunity to get to know more about his perspective. I know that this is a highly personal subject, so I fully realize that any criticism is improper and out of place.

        So let me try to explain where I’m coming from. To me, someone who is “openly gay” or “not closeted” could mean any of the following:
        A. someone who currently has a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex;
        B. regardless of relationship status, someone who happens to have homosexual inclinations, but doesn’t see them as part of his identity as a person;
        C. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees his homosexual inclinations as being a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person;
        D. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, and thus believes that a meaningful sexual relationship with a person of the same sex supports (but isn’t required for) his fulfillment as a person;
        E. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, and thus believes that a meaningful sexual relationship with a person of the same sex is required for his fulfillment as a person;
        F. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, but believes that his fulfillment as a person can happen without a meaningful sexual relationship, if the circumstances are such that he never finds himself in a meaningful and fulfilling sexual relationship with another person;
        G. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, but believes that his fulfillment as a person can happen with a knowing and free choice of celibacy that necessarily gives up any possibility of a meaningful and fulfilling sexual relationship with another person;
        H. or something entirely different.

        I’m not making any criticisms or judgments about any of these statuses. I guess I’m particularly curious about Fr. Alison’s perspective on this question because he’s a Catholic priest. I myself am a heterosexual male who once thought about becoming a Catholic priest with its vow of celibacy, and applied to the seminary; but later I discerned a call to marriage and am now married. So I’ve thought about these topics of sexuality and celibacy and personal fulfillment being found in God’s call for my life — but obviously from my heterosexual perspective. Because of his experience as a priest, I suspect that Fr. Alison has a more developed and nuanced perspective than the average homosexual person on the topics of sexuality and a person’s identity, and the possibility/impossibility/suitability/unsuitability of celibacy in general and the possibility/impossibility/suitability/unsuitability of celibacy for a particular person (with the understanding that what is suitable for one person might not be for another; what God is calling one person for might not be what He’s calling another for). And so I’m interested in learning more of where Fr. Alison is coming from.

    • Thales,

      I am quite sure Fr. Alison takes gay to mean “being open to the possibility of having a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex,” although that does not necessarily mean that every person who identifies as gay is—given his or her personal circumstances—open to having a same-sex relationship. For example, a gay man or woman, just as a straight man or woman, can join a religious order and take a vow of chastity. That does not make a person “not gay” or “not straight,” but it does mean that under their particular circumstances they would not be open to a sexual relationship, while if their circumstances changed, they would be.

      Going back to our previous discussion, I would say Fr. Alison uses the word gay in the sense that I used it—having a same-sex orientation, accepting it and embracing it in the same way as someone with an opposite-sex orientation, not considering it “intrinsically disordered,” and under the right circumstances, feeling it would not be immoral to have a same-sex partner.

      • Thales

        David,
        I just posted a longer comment above explaining myself more.

  • Thales

    Brett,

    Thanks for the interview. Fr. Alison seems very thoughtful in his answers, and I look forward to hearing more from him. I really appreciate hearing his thoughts about this topic.

    I have one question, and it’s sincere, and I hope it’s not offensive (though I don’t know why it would be.) He describes himself, and you describe him, as “openly gay.” What does that mean? Or better yet, what does Fr. Alison mean by that? Being in a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex, or being open to the possibility of having a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex, or something entirely different (as it is very possible that I’m entirely on the wrong path of thinking)?

    • brettsalkeld

      I take it to mean that he is not closeted. I don’t know anything more than that.

      • Thales

        Brett, “not closeted” is just as puzzling to me.

        • brettsalkeld

          Hmmm? He publically says that he is gay rather than not gay. He identifies as a homosexual person.

      • Thales

        Brett,

        Heh, that’s not helpful either.

        Let me be clear that I’m in no way trying to be critical of Fr. Alison. I truly value him as a person deserving of full dignity and respect, and thus I’m truly interested in having a better understanding of where he’s coming from. I’m really enjoying the interview, and I’m really appreciating the opportunity to get to know him as a person and the opportunity to get to know more about his perspective. I know that this is a highly personal subject, so I fully realize that any criticism is improper and out of place.

        So let me try to explain where I’m coming from. To me, someone who is “openly gay” or “not closeted” could mean any of the following:
        A. someone who currently has a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex;
        B. regardless of relationship status, someone who happens to have homosexual inclinations, but doesn’t see them as part of his identity as a person;
        C. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees his homosexual inclinations as being a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person;
        D. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, and thus believes that a meaningful sexual relationship with a person of the same sex supports (but isn’t required for) his fulfillment as a person;
        E. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, and thus believes that a meaningful sexual relationship with a person of the same sex is required for his fulfillment as a person;
        F. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, but believes that his fulfillment as a person can happen without a meaningful sexual relationship, if the circumstances are such that he never finds himself in a meaningful and fulfilling sexual relationship with another person;
        G. regardless of relationship status, someone who sees that his homosexual inclinations are a part of his identity, a part of who he is as a person, but believes that his fulfillment as a person can happen with a knowing and free choice of celibacy that necessarily gives up any possibility of a meaningful and fulfilling sexual relationship with another person;
        H. or something entirely different.

        I’m not making any criticisms or judgments about any of these statuses. I guess I’m particularly curious about Fr. Alison’s perspective on this question because he’s a Catholic priest. I myself am a heterosexual male who once thought about becoming a Catholic priest with its vow of celibacy, and applied to the seminary; but later I discerned a call to marriage and am now married. So I’ve thought about these topics of sexuality and celibacy and personal fulfillment being found in God’s call for my life — but obviously from my heterosexual perspective. Because of his experience as a priest, I suspect that Fr. Alison has a more developed and nuanced perspective than the average homosexual person on the topics of sexuality and a person’s identity, and the possibility/impossibility/suitability/unsuitability of celibacy in general and the possibility/impossibility/suitability/unsuitability of celibacy for a particular person (with the understanding that what is suitable for one person might not be for another; what God is calling one person for might not be what He’s calling another for). And so I’m interested in learning more of where Fr. Alison is coming from.

    • Thales,

      I am quite sure Fr. Alison takes gay to mean “being open to the possibility of having a sexual relationship with another individual of the same sex,” although that does not necessarily mean that every person who identifies as gay is—given his or her personal circumstances—open to having a same-sex relationship. For example, a gay man or woman, just as a straight man or woman, can join a religious order and take a vow of chastity. That does not make a person “not gay” or “not straight,” but it does mean that under their particular circumstances they would not be open to a sexual relationship, while if their circumstances changed, they would be.

      Going back to our previous discussion, I would say Fr. Alison uses the word gay in the sense that I used it—having a same-sex orientation, accepting it and embracing it in the same way as someone with an opposite-sex orientation, not considering it “intrinsically disordered,” and under the right circumstances, feeling it would not be immoral to have a same-sex partner.

      • Thales

        David,
        I just posted a longer comment above explaining myself more.

      • Mark Gordon

        I agree that this is the sense in which Fr. Alison uses the term “gay,” and in fact no further elaboration of his personal situation is necessary (or desirable).

        But because of that, I thought the interview would have been more illuminating had Brett challenged Fr. Alison’s disagreement with the Church on the question of whether homosexual attraction is “objectively disordered.”

      • Mark Gordon,

        Fr. Alison does not believe homosexual attraction is objectively disordered. He says, in the course of answering question 5 above: “I have made public a reasoned disagreement with the current third order teaching of the Roman Congregations concerning the ‘objectively disordered’ nature of the ‘homosexual inclination.”

        • Mark Gordon

          David Nickol,

          Uh, yeah. I read that. And I think it would have been interesting for him to elaborate on that “reasoned disagreement.”

      • Mark Gordon,

        Apologies for my dumb reply. I somehow got it into my head that you were asking if Alison agreed that homosexuality was intrinsically disordered, although that was not what you said.

        I read a version of the interview on Commonweal, and I think Alison comments further on the issue, although I think basically he asserts that we have realized that a homosexual orientation is a normal variation (like left-handedness) rather than a disorder.

        Since this is labeled as Part I of the interview, there’s clearly more to come.

      • Mark Gordon

        … basically he asserts that we have realized that a homosexual orientation is a normal variation (like left-handedness) rather than a disorder.

        Yes, that’s what I’m interested in hearing more about. First, who is the “we” that have had such a realization; second, how did that realization come about, including the question of what equipped us late moderns to make such a discovery in the first place; and third, why “we” have realized that homosexual orientation is a benign variant like left-handedness and not a malignant one like alcoholism.

      • Mark,

        I agree entirely. This is they key question. I may have further thoughts, but I will withhold them until Brett gets around to writing his redux.

      • Mark Gordon

        Me too.

  • wj

    Why would the public commitment to celibacy be null? I know I’m missing something. But it seems that whether or not Alison openly identifies as gay in the manner that the hierarchy thinks problematic, he is still an ordained priest, and so committed to celibacy–which just means no sexual acts of any kind. So why does his coming out as gay affect his vow here?

  • wj

    Why would the public commitment to celibacy be null? I know I’m missing something. But it seems that whether or not Alison openly identifies as gay in the manner that the hierarchy thinks problematic, he is still an ordained priest, and so committed to celibacy–which just means no sexual acts of any kind. So why does his coming out as gay affect his vow here?

  • Julia Smucker

    This is impressive in a number of ways. First of all, Brett, when you refer in your introduction to “someone sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics, but unconvinced by arguments that the Church should alter its stance on homosexual activity,” I recognize myself in this description. And it’s only because you are legitimating this position that I can even feel remotely comfortable claiming it here. Most of the time I feel I’m in the middle on a subject where very little room is being made for a middle, and consequently I usually feel alienated whenever the subject arises. Because of this I really appreciate that you and Fr. Alison are making room for people like me – so thank you.

    My only prior familiarity with Fr. Alison is that he was recommended to me as a sort of antidote for Anselmian atonement models, and I read an essay of his along those lines which I found very theologically rich. I am also very intrigued by his position as a freelance academic. I personally consider myself a scholar rather than a teacher, so to see someone make that sort of thing work is oddly encouraging.

  • Julia Smucker

    This is impressive in a number of ways. First of all, Brett, when you refer in your introduction to “someone sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics, but unconvinced by arguments that the Church should alter its stance on homosexual activity,” I recognize myself in this description. And it’s only because you are legitimating this position that I can even feel remotely comfortable claiming it here. Most of the time I feel I’m in the middle on a subject where very little room is being made for a middle, and consequently I usually feel alienated whenever the subject arises. Because of this I really appreciate that you and Fr. Alison are making room for people like me – so thank you.

    My only prior familiarity with Fr. Alison is that he was recommended to me as a sort of antidote for Anselmian atonement models, and I read an essay of his along those lines which I found very theologically rich. I am also very intrigued by his position as a freelance academic. I personally consider myself a scholar rather than a teacher, so to see someone make that sort of thing work is oddly encouraging.

  • Like Peter Paul above, I wish James Alison well, but I am left a little puzzled by his responses. (OK, likely for different reasons than PPF!) I was particularly puzzled by the following:

    The logical consequences of my view are many, but include the consequence for me personally that my religious vows (since dissolved by the appropriate authority at the conclusion of an amicable process) and my public commitment to celibacy are null. This is because, at the time of my ordination – whose validity a Roman Congregation has confirmed to me – I still believed the Church’s characterisation of who I am (a defective heterosexual with an automatic non-negotiable obligation to celibacy) to be true. Thus I made a public commitment while under what I later discovered to be a falsely bound conscience. Such a commitment would be null, in the same way as a forced marriage is null.

    Now, Alison is clearly a careful thinker, so I presume he means precisely what he says. Yet, that’s where the trouble starts. How is it, e.g. that it was a “logical consequence of his view” that his public commitment to celibacy is null? As he notes, his commitment arising from his vow of obedience in religious life (and with obedience, the life of the evangelical counsels) was not nullified by his view; he was, rather, dispensed from his vows by competent authority, which I would presume here to be the Master of the Order of Preachers.

    What about the public promise of celibacy made at his diaconal ordination? Alison suggests that, believing then the “Church’s characterization” of who he was, his conscience was “falsely bound.” I don’t see why he should think so. A man in his situation could envision a series of responses: (a) simply avoiding any act of unchastity, (b) a private commitment never to partner with a man or woman, (c) marry a woman (however inadvisable that might be in such a case), (d) make a public promise to celibacy (i.e. as an ordained deacon or priest), or (e) bind himself to the evangelical counsels through the consecrated life. A careful theologian should hardly reduce all of these to the same option and characterize such an option as “coerced.” They do not even all share the fact of requiring “an automatic non-negotiable obligation to celibacy” since (1) what they can at best be said to require is not celibacy but continence, and (2) he might (albeit not be well advised to do so) have been married, and so not even be bound to continence.

    My point is this. I fail to see how he sees his decision as coerced since it was surely made in freedom. If it was not made in freedom, one might rightly question the validity of his ordination, but I see no reason to question either. If he thought that being a gay man required that he make a public profession of vows and promises of chastity in the religious state and in Holy Orders, I would admit that would be unfree, but I don’t think this is the case here.

    All the same, I will withhold judgment. I’ve heard some of his lectures (not yet read his books) and think he deserves a hearing. I don’t suspect he is a “bad man” as he worries to be the only option for not accepting his account of his status. For my part, I am much more sanguine that I can receive him under terms much more generous than the binary he poses above!

    Thank you, Brett, for posting this!

  • Like Peter Paul above, I wish James Alison well, but I am left a little puzzled by his responses. (OK, likely for different reasons than PPF!) I was particularly puzzled by the following:

    The logical consequences of my view are many, but include the consequence for me personally that my religious vows (since dissolved by the appropriate authority at the conclusion of an amicable process) and my public commitment to celibacy are null. This is because, at the time of my ordination – whose validity a Roman Congregation has confirmed to me – I still believed the Church’s characterisation of who I am (a defective heterosexual with an automatic non-negotiable obligation to celibacy) to be true. Thus I made a public commitment while under what I later discovered to be a falsely bound conscience. Such a commitment would be null, in the same way as a forced marriage is null.

    Now, Alison is clearly a careful thinker, so I presume he means precisely what he says. Yet, that’s where the trouble starts. How is it, e.g. that it was a “logical consequence of his view” that his public commitment to celibacy is null? As he notes, his commitment arising from his vow of obedience in religious life (and with obedience, the life of the evangelical counsels) was not nullified by his view; he was, rather, dispensed from his vows by competent authority, which I would presume here to be the Master of the Order of Preachers.

    What about the public promise of celibacy made at his diaconal ordination? Alison suggests that, believing then the “Church’s characterization” of who he was, his conscience was “falsely bound.” I don’t see why he should think so. A man in his situation could envision a series of responses: (a) simply avoiding any act of unchastity, (b) a private commitment never to partner with a man or woman, (c) marry a woman (however inadvisable that might be in such a case), (d) make a public promise to celibacy (i.e. as an ordained deacon or priest), or (e) bind himself to the evangelical counsels through the consecrated life. A careful theologian should hardly reduce all of these to the same option and characterize such an option as “coerced.” They do not even all share the fact of requiring “an automatic non-negotiable obligation to celibacy” since (1) what they can at best be said to require is not celibacy but continence, and (2) he might (albeit not be well advised to do so) have been married, and so not even be bound to continence.

    My point is this. I fail to see how he sees his decision as coerced since it was surely made in freedom. If it was not made in freedom, one might rightly question the validity of his ordination, but I see no reason to question either. If he thought that being a gay man required that he make a public profession of vows and promises of chastity in the religious state and in Holy Orders, I would admit that would be unfree, but I don’t think this is the case here.

    All the same, I will withhold judgment. I’ve heard some of his lectures (not yet read his books) and think he deserves a hearing. I don’t suspect he is a “bad man” as he worries to be the only option for not accepting his account of his status. For my part, I am much more sanguine that I can receive him under terms much more generous than the binary he poses above!

    Thank you, Brett, for posting this!

  • To me, someone who is “openly gay” or “not closeted” could mean any of the following

    Thales,

    I think the simplest answer (as I understand Fr. Alison), is that he perceives his homosexuality exactly the way you perceive your heterosexuality. The difference is that his sexuality is oriented to males while yours is oriented to females. Otherwise, they are the same.

    • Thales

      I think the simplest answer (as I understand Fr. Alison), is that he perceives his homosexuality exactly the way you perceive your heterosexuality. The difference is that his sexuality is oriented to males while yours is oriented to females. Otherwise, they are the same.

      David,

      I’m fairly positive that’s not the case at all. And your comment touches on where I’m coming from, and why I’m interested in learning more about where Fr. Alison is coming from. Let me explain.

      My above list of 7+ ways a person can perceive one’s identity and fulfillment as a person can be shifted to a heterosexual. For me, I think that I’m a mix of B and G. In other words, if I said “I’m openly heterosexual,” I think I would mean that I happen to have heterosexual inclinations, that I see them as a part of me as a person but not a fundamental part, and that even though I’m married now, when I wasn’t married (and God forbid, should my wife die) I didn’t see that it was necessary for me to have a sexual relationship in order to fulfill myself as a person. What’s more, I believe that a heterosexual sexual relationship outside of marriage would have been (and would be) detrimental and stunting to me as a person.

      Now that’s a minority view, one shared by few heterosexuals, never mind homosexuals. Many heterosexuals believe that a non-marital sexual relationship is necessary for their fulfillment as a person — I couldn’t disagree with them more as I think it is actually severely stunting to them as a person rather than fulfilling. Similarly, many homosexuals who say “I’m openly gay” believe that a non-marital sexual relationship is necessary for their fulfillment as a person, and again, I happen to disagree. Apparently, from what I read on the Commonweal article, Fr. Alison sees some possibility of a pseudo-marital relationship for homosexuals (which is a whole other discussion), but even if we were to grant the possibility of such a relationship, thinking that a sexual relationship is appropriate in a pseudo-marital homosexual relationship is far different from the belief of most homosexuals who believe that a non-pseudo-marital sexual relationship is necessary for their fulfillment.

      I think that most people in our society, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, believe that engaging in a sexual act is necessary for their fulfillment as a person. The Catholic Church thinks radically otherwise, with the notions of chastity and celibacy. Most people in our society, whether heterosexual or homosexual, have a very limited, very cursory, and uneducated understanding of these notions. I suspect that Fr. Alison has a much more developed understanding these notions because of his background and education, which is I’m why I’m interested in learning more about his thoughts on this topic.

      • Thales,

        It is rare for me to say this about anything, but I wonder if you are not over-intellectualizing. People have sexual orientations that are either innate or at least are experienced as if they were. I imagine very few people say to themselves, “I must seek someone to have sex with because engaging in a sexual act is necessary for my fulfillment as a person.” We’re into the realm of emotions and feelings when we are dealing with sexual orientation. Men and women don’t fall in love (and/or engage in sexual relationships) because they think it is necessary for their fulfillment. They do it because biologically, psychologically, and culturally, it’s what they are motivated to do without the need of deep philosophical thought.

        Also, I think every person of whatever orientation defines himself or herself more broadly than just “a heterosexual” or “a homosexual.” Most of what people do is nonsexual, and although I think a person’s orientation colors a great many personal interactions, when a person is eating in a fine restaurant, skiing, playing the piano, studying biochemistry, flying an airplane, or whatever, his or her sexual orientation is irrelevant a great deal of the time.

      • Thales

        I imagine very few people say to themselves, “I must seek someone to have sex with because engaging in a sexual act is necessary for my fulfillment as a person.”

        David,

        I’m glad you think so. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people criticize the Catholic Church because it doesn’t approve of their sexual acts outside of marriage.

  • brettsalkeld

    I thought the interview would have been more illuminating had Brett challenged Fr. Alison’s disagreement with the Church on the question of whether homosexual attraction is “objectively disordered.”

    Yes, one of the problems with an e-interview is that the questions are formulated beforehand and there isn’t a tonne of room for elaborating on answers unless both participants have a tonne of time on their hands. And, even if they do, the thing can soon get unwieldy. It is my plan to write a little James Alison Redux once everything has been posted and thoroughly discussed giving my take on certain things that I was not able to pursue once they had been raised in Father Alison’s answers. Father Alison has an open invitation to reply to such a post, but he is not obligated to or this thing might never end. He’ll have to decide once he has seen it whether or not pursuing things further is a good use of his time.

    • I look forward to that Brett.

      Thanks for this. It is thought provoking.

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