Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part IV

Brett Interviews Father James Alison: Part IV March 29, 2012

I am happy to present the fourth and final part of my interview with Father James Alison. (Find Part I, Part II, and Part III at these links.)  The interview is available in its entirety at Father James’s own website here.  In this section Father James answers my questions about his views of Pope Benedict’s attitudes towards Church teaching on homosexuality.  It was this issue that first caught my attention (and then caused me to catch Father James’s attention) long ago.  As I have already mentioned, it is my intention to write a kind of summary making my own views clear, though I cannot currently commit to a timeline for such a piece given certain family and professional obligations.  In any case, I want to offer my thanks to Father James once again for generously sharing his time and energy with me and with the readership here at Vox Nova.  Enjoy!

10. You have expressed the belief that Pope Benedict is slowly preparing the way for change in this area. What do you expect such change actually would look like? Before giving such an interpretation, do you consider whether or not “blowing his cover” helps or hinders the Pope’s aims in this area?

As you request: to your last point first. Talk of “blowing his cover” might be thought to impute a certain deviousness of aims to the one whose cover is at risk of being blown. Now there certainly are, and have been, highly devious ecclesiastics of all stripes, but I have no particular reason to think Pope Benedict is one such. Subtlety and deviousness are not the same thing. And the sort of change that might be made in this area is one which could only be made by allowing a variety of apparently unrelated things to come into the open. Each step of bringing something into the open is an honest step, defensible on its own terms, and not necessarily, though maybe, tied to a particular overall “aim” by a particular individual. Yet in any institution, especially one with a juridical self-understanding, small changes towards openness in apparently unrelated fields can have the effect of together producing rather unexpected changes whose true dimensions are perhaps only understood thereafter.

Let me have a shot at explaining a little why I take the view that you mention. And let me start by saying that I have never met Benedict in person, and am not the recipient of privileged information about him. It is as a long-time reader of his books and a distant outsider to the inner counsels of those involved in the governance of our Church that I attempt to understand what’s happening, from a mixture of prayer, hope, and gut. I’m moved in these by the conviction that since the Church is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and since everything that is true, whatever its apparent source, comes from the Holy Spirit, therefore there must be a way in which the Church can find its way into truthfulness in this area. This, despite the formidable fears and anger which come to the surface as authentic new knowledge emerges in whose light it becomes clear that previous views were based on taboo, and thus are not from God.

There is, however, a personal element to this for me. Since I first read it, many years ago, something from the CDF’s document “Donum Veritatis”, has resonated deeply with me. I’ve emboldened the part which most touched me:

It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail. (On the Ecclesial vocation of the Theologian, para 31)

I take it that Ratzinger was the author of this, and, if you will forgive the perhaps delusional subjectivity, I have always felt since then, as I have tried wrestling with the gay issue in the Church, no doubt in bungling ways, that I was somehow in spiritual communion with him by remembering this formulation.

Nevertheless, my starting point in my reading of Benedict is hypothetical. I take it that part of any Pope’s job description is enabling the Church to remain in and indeed advance in, the route to ever-greater truthfulness, and to do so in a way that maintains the unity of the Church and doesn’t scandalize the faith of the weaker brethren. From what I have read by him, I consider Benedict to be particularly well suited to the subtleties and complexities of this task. Though this is, maybe, a theologian’s pleasure at that comparative rarity: a theologian on the Papal throne! Given the job description, and supposing, as I do, that we are currently hobbled by an area of untruthfulness in matters gay, with a range of consequences for the lives of all of us, then what “route to truthfulness” in this sphere might be imaginable as being congruent with the life of the Church? Let us remember that there is absolutely no mechanism obviously available to the Church by which it can move on here. Anyone who thinks that a Pope might just get up and announce a change of teaching of this sort gives too much credit to the mirror delusions of Protestant or Ultramontane polemic. So a first consideration might be “what sort of change are we talking about?” It seems to me that we are talking not about a change of doctrine, but about a changed understanding of the anthropological field in which the traditional doctrine has incidence. My claim would be that the strict maintenance of existing doctrine concerning grace, nature, faith and reason leads us to absorb without fear the full dimensions of authentic new learning about being human. This has inevitable consequences for our understanding of what forms of living are capable of bearing witness to God’s glory.

A second consideration might be this: any real change in this area is going to be voluntary. It’s only going to take place if we want it to. By which I mean that those who want to hold on to an entirely negative view of gay people and their lives will always be able to, and they will always be able to use Jewish and Christian sources, both Scriptural, and historical, as back-ups for their positions. The question is not whether it is legitimate for Christians to hold to such positions. The question is whether Christians have to hold to such positions as intrinsic to being Christian. And the answer to that question is going to be found in a journey of discovering for ourselves what is true, one where that which is true is attractive to us, draws us in, because it is true, so that we end up wanting to be able to live truly, and are prepared to undergo the hard work of wading through the debris of what seemed to be true but isn’t. The One who loves us desires in us, and strengthens our desire to want to live truthfully, so that our aliveness is His glory. The end result will not be our simply knowing something true, but our enjoying the greater richness of life which loving being truthful brings.

The most that Church authority can do, in such circumstances, it seems to me, is gradually to allow the contingent elements of Church teaching in this area to come to be seen for what they are: contingent. If you suddenly tell some one, as if from a position of authority, that a belief they used to hold as in some sense sacred, is wrong, and they are no longer to hold it, you run a grave risk of scandalizing them. It is both much kinder, and a much richer exercise in persuasion when new knowledge is socialized for us in such a way that it gradually becomes clear to us that we can, without loss of faith or integrity, move into the new understanding. A positive demonstration of what things look like “now that you don’t have to hold that view any more” is a much better exercise in teaching than the negative instruction “You must no longer hold that view”.

Let me give you an example: It has been traditional, at least in the last millennium, to read Romans 1 as referring negatively to what the CDF now calls “homosexual acts”. Curiously, I think that the verses often read as to do with “homosexual acts” have had less of a stranglehold on the ecclesiastical psyche than the very last verse of Romans 1 where the text says:

Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them, but approve those who practise them.

If you see how often the notion of “approval” comes up in ecclesiastical discussions about anything gay, you get a sense of how this verse haunts, with a charge of emotional blackmail, those who might want to have honest discussion. The blackmail works by making a huge distinction: between on the one hand the doing of “such things” (understood to be “homosexual acts”), about which ecclesiastical culture prefers, and is capable of, considerable discretion; and, on the other hand, any attempt to talk about this matter with other than condemnation. The result is that any attempt to verbalise that maybe there are legitimate forms of relationship in this sphere is considered automatically to fall foul of a clear stricture of the Apostle, which is beyond appeal.

Well, for us, and especially for our hierarchs, to be able to move on here, it would have to become clear that while you can read Romans in this way if you want to, you are not obliged to. And there are two ways in which an apparent obligation to read a passage in a certain way can be undone. One is positively, by showing that the passage can entirely convincingly be read in such a way that gives a rather different take on what is being described. And one negatively, by refusing, for good reasons, to allow certain categories in ancient texts to be read as strictly equivalent to modern realities. As it happens, we have permission to make both of these moves with Romans 1, if we want to, in documents which have appeared under the signature of Joseph Ratzinger. As prefect of the CDF he signed the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document on the interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In this admirable document’s section on fundamentalism we are told that the Catholic reader of Scripture should reject any attempt at “actualisation” of the text in a direction contrary to justice and charity, and a non-exhaustive list of examples is provided. So, no easy homologization of ancient and modern realities.

Then, in his first encyclical, Benedict gives a very fine reading of Romans 1 which models for us a way of talking about the realities described: as functions of the falsely eroticized and idolatrous ancient pagan world. This reading makes no necessary linkage to any understanding of “homosexual acts as such”. It is entirely compatible with the following observation: the fact that some, or many, of the falsely eroticized and idolatrous behaviours in question may have included sexual acts between people of the same sex, has no more relevance to a discussion of “homosexual acts as such” than a disapproving description of the mass rapes in the recent war in Bosnia has to a discussion of “heterosexual acts as such”.

Now, no one I know is saying that these two recent Church texts, separately or together, force us no longer to read Romans 1 as it has been read. However, taken together, they do offer the person who is looking for it, the chance to break out of what seemed like a form of ecclesiastical emotional blackmail – the watertight link between “homosexual acts” and the “horror at approval”.

Let us imagine a Bishop, called to Rome to answer for an “overly benign” LGBT pastoral work in his diocese, and from whom is demanded a public “disapproval” of “homosexual acts”. This Bishop can now, in good conscience, and with no fear that he is stepping outside the Catholic Faith, indicate, following on from Benedict’s encyclical, that he disapproves of all the things that Paul disapproved of in the relevant passage. The Bishop can acknowledge that while a reading of this passage as referring to “homosexual acts as such” is compatible with tradition, it can no longer be obligatory to read it in this way. For a conscience formed by Catholic teaching about how to read the Bible can no longer regard it as obligatory to “actualise” ancient categories in such a way as to have an impact contrary to justice and charity on the lives of real modern people. Thus it must be perfectly possible, in good conscience, and with firm support from Catholic sources, to refuse the link between the things “never to be approved” and “homosexual acts as such” which has been a structuring element of that haunting ecclesiastical emotional blackmail.

The Bishop in question can now go on to say, in good conscience, and with the reasonable expectation of being appreciated for saying it, that the question of the approval, or disapproval of the acts in question need no longer depend on sources extrinsic to the matter at hand (like a possible, but no longer a mandatory, reading of Romans 1). Instead, the evaluation can properly be derived from what turns out to be true about the people and the acts in question. In other words, the way has been opened for Catholic ecclesiastics to do two things which up until now have been held to be incompatible. On the one hand, to talk about what forms of same-sex relationship might or might not be appropriate given what we are learning about the non-pathological minority variant status of such people. And on the other, completely and honestly to go along with the traditional attribution to the Apostle of a horror of people “approving” the things he had in mind when he wrote Romans 1.

I should say, for the record, that I myself have a rather different take on what is being said by Paul in the Romans passage, and his reasons for saying it. I would like to make clear here that I am not trying to push my particular reading of Romans 1. I’m trying to indicate the consequences for ecclesiastical life of an approach to a traditional reading. This approach has been made available by two modern teaching documents of irreproachable Catholicity, both of which appear under one man’s signature.

Well this is just one example of two small, separate, openings, each one true and honest in its own terms, creating ecclesiastical space if someone wants to go through it. We could go on in this vein, but I’ve already gone on far too long!

11. One reason that many people find such a reading of Benedict implausible is because of his stance on not ordaining gay men to the priesthood. What is your take on Vatican arguments against ordaining gay men? What role do you think Benedict himself plays here? How does your own status as a gay priest impact your reading of this?

I think Church authority is probably right, for the moment, to warn honest gay men away from entering priestly life, though my reasons for thinking this are far from those publicly put forward by the Vatican. I do not think that the Church is able, at this time, to offer an honest gay man a limpid context for vows or promises; it will require him to maintain in public and as being in some sense from God, a characterisation of who he is that he very probably knows to be false. Should he fail to maintain that façade, he will find himself vulnerable to violence of different sorts from seriously disturbed closet cases. The pathology of such people can only rarely be faced down by diocesan or religious superiors, since all involved are beholden to a “Church teaching” which plays to just that pathology. Furthermore, until such a time as the Church can recognise publicly that it is not true that all gay people are obligated, by virtue of being who they are, to celibacy, then there will always be a question mark over the genuinely voluntary nature of their promises or vows. A genuine promise of celibacy involves leaving a good (the possibility of marriage) for a good (celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom), but current ecclesiastical wisdom has it that a gay man would be leaving an evil (a possible same-sex partnership) for a good (celibacy) which it is his obligation to pursue anyhow.

I found it interesting that while the Letter sent to Bishops accompanying the 2005 document did not put into question the validity of ordination of gay men in the past, it did allow it to be understood that there is considerable room for uncertainty regarding the validity of their vows or promises of celibacy (hence the very gentle request to such men that they should “remember” their promises or vows). Naturally, the uncertainty was the result, in the Congregation’s eyes, of the objectively disordered nature of these men’s inclinations, a disorder rendering the fulfilment of the vows too heavy a burden for such people. My view is that the genuine room for uncertainty as to the validity of the vows is more properly related to the ecclesiastical culture kept alive by the false characterisation at the root of the teaching. Nevertheless, as to the uncertainty, we are in agreement.

As to the relationship of Benedict to the document, here I was told by a CDF insider that the document which left the CDF, after its then Prefect’s editing, was very considerably toned down by comparison with the draft that arrived at the CDF from its authors in Catholic Education. This feeds into my oft-stated sense that Benedict is by instinct a temperature-lowerer in this area. I interpret the document as one of the last blasts of the previous pontificate, a particularly sad period in the Church’s dealing with gay people.

As to my own take on all this, talking as a priest who is an out gay man, well, I commented publicly on the matter at the time, and it’s “in the record” as it were [1]. What I noted at the time of the 2005 document, and continue to think to be true, is that the issue to be dealt with here, is in the first place a truth issue about being human, and only way down the line is it an issue about the clergy. Only when, as a normal part of Church life, we have got used to what is true about being gay and lesbian, what relationships are good, and so forth, will it make sense to revisit the issue of the clergy. Since only then will there be a limpid context for promises or vows; will there be a proper presumption of the validity of free choice in pursuing a particular lifestyle; and will the priest in question be able to live transparently, with that stable characteristic which is sexual orientation being of little significance. Except it be noted as part of that particular person’s giftedness for serving Christ’s people.

Until all this is resolved, people like me find ourselves, I guess, muddling along through a messy transitional period in the life of the Church, resting in Our Lord’s good cheer!


[1] Chapter 14 of Undergoing God and

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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