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!
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?