James Alison: Discovery of “Gay” = Good News for the Church

Wherever the Catholic sun does shine,
there’s love and laughter
and red red wine
at least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino*

– Hillaire Belloc.

Matisse Dancers
Not many people today would readily associate the above words with the modern Catholic Church, especially not lesbian gay, transgendered and other sexual minorities – i.e. in the eyes of the church, most of us.  But James Alison is one who clearly would agree with the sentiment.  In a fascinating and stimulating new article, James argues that thee “discovery” in recent decades of homosexuality as an orientation, part of the natural order of things rather than a lifestyle choice or pathology, should rightly be seen as Good News for heterosexuals and for the Catholic Church as a  whole.  For lesbigaytrans Catholics, this is likewise obviously good news – but it is much more.  It is an opportunity, he argues exuberantly, for fun and delight in the Church.
What I would like to share with you is a sense of fun. I think being Catholic is huge fun. A huge roller-coaster ride into reality propelled by God, borne up on safe wings, gestated by the loving self-giving of Our Lord in his crucifixion, watched and smiled over by his Holy Mother, played into being like a virtuoso first performance of an unknown masterpiece by the adventurous coaxing of God’s Holy Spirit.
 
And right now one of the best places from where we can get a rich sense of how much fun this adventure is, is by looking at matters gay and their incidence in the life of the Church. 
james-alisonThis will be a novel and unexpected perspective for most of us, so used to seeing (and experiencing) our position in the Church in terms of accusations, lack of welcome or even outright rejection, often leading us to question our own inner selves.  This will be a hard sell for James, we think reading these introductory words, but James Alison is on his familiar ground of “delight”, and well up to the task.  In his previous writing, he has frequently emphasised the joy and delight of being catholic, and of being gay as well as Catholic.  Part of the key in retaining that joy, he believes, is to avoid the trap of responding to the Church opposition to us with an antagonistic relationship to the hiearchy.  Rather, he argued, it is healthier to approach the Church with an attitude of Ignatian indifference (an attitude I now aspire to of, but cannot always achieve) .  In this article, he expands on what others, notably John McNeill, have described as an emerging Kairos moment in the church, here thinking specifically of an impending transformation of the theology of sexuality, with gay sexuality at the centre.  (Kairos Moment:  from the Greek for a “an appropriate time, an opportune moment.”)
First, though he needs to prepare the way by establishing a frame of reference, and an analogy.
The frame of reference he applies is the “discovery” of sexual orientation as innate and natural.
So, to my first point. In the last fifty years or so we have undergone a genuine human discovery of the sort that we, the human race, don’t make all that often. A genuine anthropological discovery: one that is not a matter of fashion, or wishful thinking; not the result of a decline in morals or a collapse of family values. We now know something objectively true about humans that we didn’t know before: that there is a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, independent of culture, habitat, religion, education, or customs, which we currently call “being gay”. This minority variant is not, of course, lived in a way that is independent of culture, habitat, religion, education and customs. It is lived, as is every other human reality, in an entirely culture-laden way, which is one of the reasons why it has in the past been so easy to mistake it as merely a function of culture, psychology, religion or morality: something to get worked up about rather than something that is just there.

The analogy he draws is with the impact on human consciousness following the discovery of America at the end of the 15th century, and specifically the impact on map making.

And a richer example still: just think of the hugeness of what happened when Europeans made landfall in theAmericas in the late fifteenth century. The sheer vastness, otherness, of what they had stumbled across by mistake, while looking for a fast trade route to China and Japan, would take decades, even centuries, to sink in. Every single feature of the way Europeans saw themselves underwent a radical shift of perspective in the light of the geological, anthropological, botanical, zoological and cultural “thereness” of something that had of course “always” been there, but of which Europeans had previously had no knowledge at all. But that shift of perspective didn’t happen immediately.

So why is this Good News, and for whom?

Well, first of all, obviously, for us as lesbian and gay people.  Recognising that we are an entirely “natural” part of creation, albeit a minority part, frees us from any sense of guilt or shame at being who we are.  We are clearly part of god’s creation, just as God intended us to be.  An important  corollary follows:

Each person finds their good by adherence to God’s plan for them, in order to realise it fully: in this plan, each one finds their truth, and through adherence to this truth, becomes free (cf John 8,22). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity.”

Following this train of thought, the above words logically lead to the conclusion that gay people have not just a right to defend themselves, but an obligation to come out, to bear witness to their truth and to articulate it.  These are positions I have frequently publicised and argued here on QTC.  So which radical gay or lesbian theologian produced those words?  Benedict XVI himself, in the recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”.  Of course,  in writing them, he wasn’t thinking specifically of the dreaded “homosexuals”, but that is precisely the point.

In the years immediately following Columbus’ voyage, it took a while for the knowledge of this new world to sink into consciousness, and for people to begin to understand the implications.  Alison is arguing here that at the time of writing the infamous Hallowe’en letter on the “fundamentally disordered” nature of a homosexual orientation, the understanding of the discoveries by scientists and anthropologists had not yet sunk it.  The church at that time was still working with maps that had not yet been redrawn accurately to show the full extent of the discovery.  As it becomes better understood, as the maps improve, the number of people who benefit will expand.  After the LGBT community itself, the next to benefit will be their families, but later also all straights.

Again, the discovery is rather obviously good news for the parents and families of those who are gay and lesbian, since it means that the false guilt trips which have been laid on them can be shrugged off……………..


We are only now beginning to be able to tell what are some of the knock-on effects of having discovered that what we call being “straight” or “heterosexual” is not the normative human condition, but a majority human condition. ……And this has important consequences for understanding the relation between the emotional, the sexual, and the reproductive lives of those who are heterosexual. If there are some humans in whom, as a normal and non-pathological minority variant, the emotional and the sexual elements of their lives are not linked to any possible reproductive element, then the link between the possible reproductive element and the emotional and sexual element in those in whom these elements are linked is of a somewhat different sort than was previously imagined. We are talking about something within the sphere of the free, the intentional and the deliberate rather than the mechanical and the fated. The relationship between that which is simply “biological” and that which is available to be humanised has changed.

Alison argues from this that the “discovery of gay” thus creates circumstances of greater freedom for the straights as well as for the rest of us, by offering more choices, and removing the fear of being considered “gay”. Bit the really interesting and exciting part is where he goes on to spell out the implications for the church as a whole, and for gay Catholics in particular.

Where I would like to take this further is in the really very interesting field of how this is affecting, and going to affect, the Church. So, let’s look at the alterations in the map of the world which the discovery is producing.


There was a time, in the not too distant past, when loud voices from Rome, along with their local amplifiers, would tell people like us that the only acceptable form of discussion about, or pastoral work with, gay and lesbian people was one that was strictly in accordance with the truth, and that truth was properly set forth in the teaching of the Roman Congregations. This truth, as it turned out, was that “although the homosexual inclination is not itself a sin, it constitutes a more or less strong tendency towards behaviour which is intrinsically evil, and thus the inclination itself must be considered objectively disordered”


But curiously, the very Church whose apparent “truth” in this area I’ve just recited for you, teaches very strongly ……that there is such a thing as something that is true independently of the perspective and wish list of any of us, and that that truth in some sense imposes itself on us. In other words, the same authorities who told us that we have to go along with their understanding of the homosexual inclination because it is true, are also, thank heaven,insisting that the truth doesn’t depend on them, and that they and their teaching are receptive to that which is discovered to be objectively true in whatever field it should emerge.

And the objective truth that is emerging is the discovery that homosexuality is in every sense natural, and not disordered at all.   By its own logic and teaching, the Church will have to redraw its maps of human sexuality to take account of this discovery.

Well, what has emerged with ever-greater clarity over the last twenty or so years is that the claim underlying the teaching of the Roman Congregations in this sphere is not true. It is not true that all humans are intrinsically heterosexual, and that those who appear not to be heterosexual are in fact defective heterosexuals. There is no longer any reputable scientific evidence of any sort: psychological, biological, genetic, medical, neurological – to back up the claim. The discovery that I talked about earlier, backed with abundant evidence, is that there is a small but regular proportion of human beings – somewhere between three and four percent – across all cultures who are hardwired to be principally attracted to members of their own sex. Furthermore there is no pathology of any psychological or physiological sort that is invariably associated with this sort of hardwiring. It is not a vice or a sickness. It is simply a regularly occurring minority variant in the human species.

In developing this new map, those responsible for drawing it will have to take account of one rather surprising phenomenon.  It is not simply the case, says Alison, that the official teaching on same gender relationships is flawed: rather, he claims:

It is properly speaking true to say that, appearances aside, the Catholic Church has no teaching at all about homosexuality.

This is because up to now, the theologians have not been writing about homosexuality as it is now known to be, but as something that previously existed primarily in their imaginations, based only on distorted reports – rather as medieval Europeans might have interpreted reports of a large, four egged mammal with a horn as a mythological unicorn, not as a rhinoceros.  This creates for us the opportunity to develop from the ground up, an entire new body of theology.

So here is a splendid, splendid opportunity for us to be able to say “yippee”! “Just in time”! Just as it was becoming clear that the whole way of talking about being human which has sustained official Church teaching for much of the time between the apostolic period and now is in deep trouble, here at last we have an objective fulcrum from which to be working out what it is to be Catholic. ……We find ourselves facing up to the fact that we have discovered something objectively true about being human which is going to re-write our maps.


Now, I would say the fun lies in the challenge to discover Catholicity from within this process of learning, which is as it should be. ……We can relax into the discovery that God did something very big a long time ago, and is continuing to do exactly that thing, and that we are surfing the very big waves which are continuing to flow out from this in hugely creative ways.

But in doing so, we must resist the temptation to do it in opposition to the church, in argumentative or squabbling fashion.

Here we are dealing with something that is true independently of the positions and the authority of those speaking. Which means: its truth doesn’t depend on us, so we needn’t be in rivalry about it. And there is something marvellously freeing about this.


Now if we look at these officials not as people with whom we must be in rivalry, but as people who have a difficult job to do in the face of emerging truth, we can also learn to be much more sympathetic to them, without going along with their falsehoods………There is quite genuinely no firm tradition of Catholic discussion or teaching about human love and partnering other than that which is derived from the presupposition of universal heterosexuality and the goodness of marriage.


This is where we all come in. …..This seems to me to be the challenge for us now, and as I say continually, it seems to me to be a fun challenge: are we going to dare to be Catholics, not in rivalry with our office holders, grateful that they’re there, aware that they’re pretty stuck, but delighted to be beginning to take on board the contours of the new discovery about being human that goes with the term “gay”? Are we going to allow ourselves to be empowered to discover ways in which God is much morefor us than we had imagined, that God really does want us to be free and to be happy, and to rejoice in what is true as we are stretched toward and stand alongside the weakest and most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers wherever we may find them? Are we going to allow ourselves to discover the potential for Catholicity that is opening up alongside the discovery of the new richness in Creation that shimmers within the little word “gay”?

Conclusions

What this is saying, is clear in its implications for gay and lesbian Catholics:

  • Catholic tradition, and Benedict XVI in particular, insists on reason as a complement to faith.
  • Reason dictates that the Church must and will recognise the implications of the “recent” discovery that sexual orientation is innate, natural and not remotely disordered.
  • This will force a corresponding recognition that we, all of us together, need to create a brand new theology of sexuality. This will represent Good News for all in the Church, gay and straight alike.
  • We have the opportunity at this critical point in history, thisKairos moment, to participate in this exciting, even fun-filled, adventure.

Read the full text at  The Fulcrum of Discovery: how the “gay thing” is good news for the Catholic Church (Footnote: Years before I became involved with Jesuit thinking and Ignatian spirituality, back as a first year student in 1970 at the University of Cape Town, I developed a soft spot for the several Dominicans I met through the Catholic student chaplaincies at SA universities. This admiration grew further in later years as I began to learn of the sterling work done by Dominicans of the calibre of Albert Nolan in adapting Liberation Theology to the South African context.     So I was delighted to see that one of the occasions for presenting a version of this paper was a conference at the Dominican Priory in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. ) Further Reading: James Alison Website Brokeheart Mountain: Reflections on monotheism, idolatry and the Kingdom Letter to a young, gay Catholic. See also: Mary Hunt on Dignity at 40: Faithful & Fabulous

James Alison’s  Books:

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

 

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