Theologian James Alison on "Objectively Disordered" and What Drives Him Crazy

James Alison

When an article by or about James Alison is in the news, I always plan to devote at least double or triple the amount of time that I would spend with an article of similar length by or about someone else.  The time is always richly rewarded.

James Alison, a gay Catholic theologian, born in Britain, currently living in Brazil, writes some of the most profound observations about Catholic teaching on lesbian and gay people.  Because he approaches the topics from perspectives that most people do not readily assume, his work requires some careful reading.  When done, however, you are sure to go away thinking in new ways yourself.

Commonweal magazine has posted on their website (exclusively; it will not appear in print) an interview with Alison, “Theology as Survival,” conducted by Brett Salkeld, who introduces the interview by stating that he and Alison:

” . . .thought it would be interesting for him to be interviewed by someone like me—sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics, but unconvinced by arguments for changes in church teaching on related questions. More interesting, at least, than a lot of the material covering this subject matter. We leave it to you to decide whether we were right.”

Salkeld also notes that the entire interview will eventually be at Vox Nova and

I offer here some “excerpts from the excerpts” to give you a sample of why I think you should read the entire set of excerpts, and eventually the entire interview, yourself.

Alison on labeling lesbian and gay people “objectively disordered”:

“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 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.”

Alison on the distinction in church teaching between homosexual persons and homosexual acts:

“This does seem to me somewhat of a Ptolemaic discussion in a Copernican universe. Of course there is a notional distinction between talking about what someone is, and talking about what someone does. The question is not “Does the notional distinction exist?” but “What use is being made of the fact that such a distinction can be formulated?” When the distinction is made in the discussion of gay people to which you refer, it is subservient to a conviction brought in from elsewhere—that of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination.

“Think of it this way. There is a distinction between left-handedness and the act of writing left-handedly. For most of us the distinction remains exactly that, and has no moral consequences. We would understand that a left-handed person forced to write right-handedly owing, say, to having their left arm in a plaster cast, or a right-handed person forced to write left-handedly for analogous reasons, would, with some difficulty, be able to learn to do so. These people would in some sense be acting contra natura. But the use of the hand appropriate to their handedness would be entirely unremarkable. Now, imagine that, involved in a Catholic discussion, you find yourself addressing a left-handed person. You say: ‘Any left-handed writing you do is intrinsically wrong; and in fact the inclination we call left-handedness must be considered objectively disordered.’ The only justification for using the distinctions in this way is if you have received, from quite other sources, the sure knowledge that right-handedness is normative to the human condition, anything else being some sort of defect from that norm, and yet you don’t want entirely to condemn the person who has a strong tendency to left-handed writing.

“No, it seems to me quite patent that here we have an unwieldy bid to fit a reality into an acceptable framework, rather than learning from reality how to adjust a now unreliable framework.”

Alison on what drives him crazy:

“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. 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.”

Alison on whether he would “advocate for church recognition of same-sex marriage”:

“I’m not sure this is a discussion that is even worth having until the basic parameters can be agreed upon. Those who are committed to the notion that the people about whom they are talking are indulging an objective disorder, are impenitent practitioners of grave sin, and thus would be seeking to sanctify something that can never be approved, are not useful conversation partners if we are in fact dealing with people who are acting appropriately in seeking a form of flourishing that is an entirely legitimate option given who they have found themselves to be. Once we’ve agreed that we can talk at all, then I would say that from my perspective, the appropriate liturgical shape by which we bless God for the gift of the love between two same-sex spouses, and beseech God’s blessing to incarnate itself in their lives for us as Church, is something for which we have little jurisprudence as yet! And the same is true for our understanding of the analogies and differences between the relationships of same-sex married couples, and those opposite-sex couples who choose to live out the sacrament of matrimony (with its concomitant implications of the munus of the mater). It is the protagonists of these relationships who will, by lives lived publicly over time, yield for us knowledge of their essence. No sense trying to hurry what is necessarily going to be a process of learning over several generations.

“What is certainly true is that no purpose at all is served by seeing these realities as in principle in rivalry with each other, as though same-sex marriage somehow cheapens opposite-sex marriage. Likewise, should it indeed turn out that marriage between two baptized persons of the same sex is not sacramental in exactly the same sense as opposite-sex marriage, then whatever form of sacramentality does turn out to be proper to same-sex couples would certainly not be “second best” to the sacrament of marriage. God’s summons to flourishing involves people being called in tailor-made ways, not forced to endure invidious comparisons. There are many mansions in God’s house, and he invites each of us to discover what is his plan for each one of us—we are called by name, not by category.”

Read the rest of the excerpts for yourself online, including why he believes “there must be a way the church can find its way into truthfulness in this area.”  Prepare to be richly rewarded!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

11 replies
  1. Lorna Horishny
    Lorna Horishny says:

    One of the problems of confining James Alison to an online venue is just exactly what the author of this blog points out about James’ writings; it gets really complicated! I find I read and reread, and get more and more information with each reading, anything he writes. That is patently one of the advantages of printed media that the Internet, so far, cannot provide. I wish this was available in a “handy” format. It’s wonderful, as his thoughts always are. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Brother Benilde Montgomery, O.S.F.
    Brother Benilde Montgomery, O.S.F. says:

    Thanks for reminding us of James Alison. I have heard him speak twice and have read most of his books and highly agree that he is sometimes quite demanding of our attention– sometimes even a dictionary. He is, however, usually not focusing on homosexuality but on a great many assumptions we tend to make about the Scripture, Catholic tradition, moral theology in general. Because he is less enclined than most to depend less on metaphysics than on human experience, the standard and familiar get broken wide open and we’re given brand new ways to think about what we have been taught and sometimes too easily accept. He does this all while remaining a good faithful Catholic teacher and preacher. A great, honorable man; a real gift from God to us all, gay and straight alike.

  3. Matthew J. Myers
    Matthew J. Myers says:

    I think Alison’s money quote from this interview is:
    “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.”

    I often wonder how we can move otherwise good people within the leadership structure of the Church to break their silence about lesbian/gay issues. These silent leaders are often “supportive” of lesbian/gay persons, but avoid demonstrating their support for fear of repercussions within the institution.

    Sure, it drives Alison crazy — and the rest of us too!

  4. Phil Ewing
    Phil Ewing says:

    Thanks for spreading James Alison’s views.
    I too have posted the Commonweal article and this weekend I shall be posting on it again and linking it to the pastoral letter from Archbishop Nichols to be read out in the UK at all masses as a reasoned argument for why as a Catholic I will NOT be signing the petition against gay marriage.


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