Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part II

Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part II March 16, 2012

I am pleased to present the second part of my interview with Father James Alison here on Vox Nova.  If inquiring minds are wondering, there will be four parts.  (Part I is available here.)  Part I was a kind of introduction to James Alison as a person and a theologian.  Here, in Part II, we begin our discussion of questions relating to homosexuality and the Catholic Church.  It may be worth noting, for readers who have not seen Part I, where I myself stand on these questions.  I consider myself to be sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics and interested in hearing their stories and concerns, but am not convinced by arguments that Church teaching on homosexual acts should be changed.  I plan to write a summary piece detailing my own views once this series has run its course.  Again, my questions are in italics.  Father Alison’s responses are in normal text.

1. In reading you, I find you to be a very traditional theologian. You remind me of Joseph Ratzinger because both of you manage to say very traditional things in very fresh ways. But on the question of homosexual acts, you disagree with the teaching of the Church. Can you tell us what you believe about the morality of homosexual acts?

Thanks for the flattering comparison! But, to the area of our difference: I think you are mistaking me for a moral theologian, or someone who is professionally interested in sexual ethics. I’m honestly not sure that I’ve ever tried to talk as a theologian about “homosexual acts” per se. My disagreement with the current teaching of the Roman Congregations is about what I consider to be their fundamentally flawed premise of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination. I don’t think it’s even worth beginning to talk about what acts might be appropriate before there is a recognition that we are talking about people whose way of being cannot properly be deduced negatively from other people’s way of being. To do so would be like discussing different moves within a game of rugby while agreeing to hold the discussion under an enforced misapprehension that those moves are somehow defective forms of soccer playing.

2. As a traditionally-minded theologian, how do you think your views line up with the tradition on this question? Do you see your views as radically different from the tradition or as a slight modification that maintains the basic principles of Catholic sexual ethics?

Again, you will have to ask someone else about the sexual ethics angle. I think that my views on Original Sin, Grace, and the real, but difficult nature of we humans actually being able to learn something true about being human that we didn’t know before, are very traditional. And yet the consequences of this traditional view are really quite radical, in that they oblige us to face up to a question for which we have no precedent in the tradition. Given the most traditional Catholic understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, I wonder whether it is genuinely possible to defend the following thesis: “The comparatively recent human realization that there is no objective psychological or physiological disorder that is intrinsic to people who we now call gay, makes no difference to our understanding of the forms of flourishing to which such people are called by virtue of being what they are”. But that seems to me to be the real question here: is it compatible with Catholic faith to claim that an authentic human discovery of this sort makes no difference to the shape of the flourishing of the people involved?

3. How do questions about homosexuality and homosexual acts relate to other issues in Catholic sexual ethics? In your mind would it be possible, for example, to change Church teaching about homosexual acts while maintaining Church teaching regarding contraception?

The question about acts I’ll leave to those whose field of expertise it is, for reasons already mentioned. But as an interested outsider to straight issues, it would seem to me that the recognition of the non-pathological nature of the minority variant in the human condition which you call homosexuality (I dislike the word myself) does inevitably have knock-on effects on the self-understanding of those of the majority condition, and on how they understand the relationship between the unitive and the procreative dimensions of their loving. It would be very interesting indeed to hear a defence of it making no difference at all.

4. Many Catholics who would be interested to hear more about how the Church could accommodate homosexual persons get nervous because advocates of same-sex relationships and activity tend to have dissenting views on many other questions in sexual ethics. How do you feel about Church teaching on questions like pornography, cohabitation and extra-(including pre-)marital sex, masturbation, contraception and abortion? What are the implications of the fact that many who support a change in Church teaching on homosexual acts would also support change in these other areas?

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to step outside the framing of this question, since it seems to me that to indulge it would be unhealthy. There is an underlying question here, however, which seems to me a very important one, and I’m going to have a shot at saying something about it. This is about the relationship between Catholics, our Teacher, and our teachers. More and more, I sense a need for us, as Catholics, to be able to spell out some of the dimensions of this relationship.

Spending time, as I do, with people on both sides of the Reformation divide, I find strict parallels between the temptations to which either side is prone. Protestantism is tempted to Bibliolatry, and Catholicism is tempted to Ecclesiolatry. Both are forms of idolatry which involve some sort of grasping of security where it is not to be found. This grasping ends up by evacuating the object grasped (whether the Bible, or the Church) of meaning, turning it instead into a projection of the one grasping. The non-idolatrous approach is when we allow ourselves to be reached and held by a living act of communication from One who is not on the same level as either Bible or Church, but of whose self-disclosure those realities can most certainly become signs, of varying degrees of subtlety, and complex normativity. In both the Protestant and the Catholic cases, a sure sign of a pattern of desire locked in grasping is the speed with which we collapse into invidious comparisons such that we acquire our identities over against others in our own group, rather than receiving them together patiently from the one calling us into being.

As a Catholic I am fully committed to the notion that, the Word having become flesh, then the living act of communication is an ecclesial one, made available through bodily signs. In addition, I take it for granted that the Church is prior to me, and that if something is Church teaching, it is true. The presumption is on there being some sort of truthfulness at work in the stated teaching until it becomes clear that this is not the case. The real question for me, as a Catholic trying to think towards the future is this: we know that we have only one Magister, the Incarnate Word of God, and that the authentic teaching office in the Church is not above, but serves, this Living Word. Furthermore, this Living Word has chosen to address us at a level of fraternal equality, making of us his brothers and sisters who have only one Father, God, and are not to call anyone else our father. So as Catholics we are all, at the fraternal level, undergoing the act of communication of the Incarnate word of God, teaching us immediately and in a voice which we know and love. While this teaching is immediate, from the Holy Spirit which has been poured into our hearts, we do have, strictly at the fraternal level, alongside us, not from above us, and as a gift of service to us, prompts from that teaching, and more or less time-sensitive verbal framings of it, mediated to us through those who have been consecrated sacramental signs as Bishops, with a special place in that prompting for Peter’s successor as Bishop of Rome. This is a highly sensitive eco-system of communication, one whose salvific flow can very easily be distorted by idolatry.

And here the shocking reality of the last decades intrudes. How do we hold fast to the long, slow, rich experience of Jesus teaching us in and as Church as we become aware of how often the consecrated sacramental signs seem to be, if anything, even more riven by the spirit of this age than we? Even more liable to allowing the richness of the faith to become secondary to culture war imperatives, institutional self-interest and the search for corporate approval? And please notice that this observation is independent of which side of the culture wars anyone is on! One of the things that is coming upon us, and which I don’t see us being happy to take on board, is the realization that teaching in the Church is a very rare and wonderful gift in which a person who knows him or herself approved by the only One whose approval counts, is able to induct people into living out what is true starting from the teacher’s own path of having been illuminated, converted, and convinced by the One who is True. More often than this, we get instead those whose sense of approval seems limited to the juridical, scrambling to keep at least that juridical approval alive by repeating, and demanding consent to, a priori positions, while constantly looking over their shoulder. The reason that I say that I don’t see us being happy to take this on board is that it leads to the uncomfortable realization that there is no such thing as being taught, and thus being faithful to the Church’s teaching, that does not include our resting for ourselves, quietly, in the presence of the One who loves us and gave himself for us, and from that non-invidious and non-rivalrous space, making the effort to test all things, and to hold fast to what is good. I think that re-imagining the ecclesial shape of Christ teaching in our midst, exploring the sort of act of communication genuine Divine teaching is, and understanding better the relationship between the Teacher, those taught, and those charged to be signs of truthfulness, is going to be one of the real challenges of the next generation.

5. Are there any things that the Catholics who support your view on homosexuality do that drive you crazy? Do you think that some efforts towards change are counterproductive? What do you recommend instead?

Yes. The silence of those in positions of influence in the Church who know, or have a strong suspicion, that being gay is a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition drives me crazy, far crazier than I am driven by any loud-mouthed purveyor of hateful nonsense. Of course I also think that many of the kinds of protests, demonstrations, kiss-ins and so on that we see surrounding Church events in this sphere are counterproductive (though these are only rarely organized and carried out by gay Catholics). Such things feed ecclesiastical delusions of holy victimhood. They effectively give Church leaders an excuse to put off the slow, humble task of beginning to imagine forms of truthfulness of speech. Few people on either side of such rows seem to have enough faith to be able to imagine receiving an identity peacefully, rather than grabbing one through mutually convenient provocation. I don’t really have any recommendations instead, at the tactical level. Only prayer and the Holy Spirit can lead those who are afraid to tell the truth into the awkward path of learning to do so.


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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