SYNOD: James Alison Explains a Role for LGBT Catholics

Saluti da Roma!  Greetings from Rome!  As you may know,  New Ways Ministry’s Sister Jeannine Gramick and I are in the Eternal City for several events surrounding the extraordinary synod of bishops on marriage and the family which runs from October 5th-19th.

Yesterday, we attended an amazing international theological conference entitled,  The Ways of Love: Pastoral Care with Homosexual and Transgender People.   Close to 200 people from at least 14 nations attended the meeting. The conference was sponsored by the European Forum for Lesbian/Gay Christians,’ and New Ways Ministry was one of the co-sponsors.

James Alison at the Rome conference, "Ways of Love"

James Alison at the Rome conference, “Ways of Love”

The conference website will soon post the texts of the major speakers, and I will post about their talks when the texts are online so that you can link to the entire manuscript.  America magazine has already posted the text of theologian James Alison’s talk, and I will try to summarize it here, but strongly encourage you to read the entire text here.

Alison used as his Scripture text, Acts 10-11, a section which describes Peter baptizing the first Gentiles, who had been scorned by others in the early Christian community.  He analogized this story to the experience of LGBT people in the modern Church.  After summarizing the Scripture story, he stated:

“But this has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken.  We were characterized as somehow defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called “same-sex attraction.” That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. And that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are.”

Because the characterization of LGBT people by many, including church leaders, has been incorrect, it cannot be truly Catholic, Alison asserts:

“. . . . the only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.”

This reality has an important effect on what it means to be a church, particularly a Catholic church:

“But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God’s sign of God’s longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out. . . .

“So please, I beg you, don’t, out of some misguided courtesy, think that such people define what Catholicity is. Catholicity is defined by God alone, as God shocks us by breaking down all our socially and culturally constructed barriers, by leading us into truth about our being Jesus’ brothers and sisters, creating equal-heartedly a way of being human together that doesn’t call for any form of comparison, one that flows from the Crucified One who forgives us.”

Alison had strong words for religious leaders who are not defending the human rights of LGBT people in countries around the globe which are enacting repressive laws against them:

“One of the things people say is: ‘“All this about LGBT people is a decadent Western value and we should defend ourselves against it.’ But the people they are defending themselves against are not decadent westerners, but their own brothers and sisters, Ugandans, Nigerians, Iranians, Russians, Saudis, Jamaicans. These are our sisters and brothers who have discovered something true about themselves, and about their capacity for love, and know that what is true makes sense to them. And here is what is remarkable: this discovering of something that is true is working in exactly the way that the Gospel said it would, and following just the dynamic of the Spirit that flows upon us from Jesus. And yet bizarrely, Christian leaders of all denominations are joining together with leaders of other religious organisations, ones that not only do not know of the Holy Spirit, but are in some cases adamantly opposed to the existence and enlivening effect of any such thing.”

He also pointed out the potential harm of the Church’s teaching of mandatory celibacy for lesbian and gay people.  It is no surprise, he points out that such a blanket recommendation can actually lead to promiscuous sexual behavior:

“[T]he debilitating effect of the taboo, as of any infection by idolatry, is that it damages the imagination, making it impossible to imagine the good. When our concupiscence was falsely defined as an objectively disordered form of heterosexual desire, then of course all of our acts were as bad as each other, and we had no incentive to humanize them. ‘No snacking between meals’ might be a useful instruction if it teaches people to prepare for enjoying the next meal better. But “no snacking between meals, and in your case, no meal either” is a sure recipe for binge-snacking.”

Alison also identified a unique and particular role for LGBT Catholics in the Church.  They have a special mission to conduct because they have been treated as outsiders:

“We have found ourselves prepared to be bearers of the Gospel precisely because of this most Catholic of things: we have been intimately part of the process of self-critical correction of culture which is how the Spirit keeps the church faithful and alive. So in each culture in which we live we are thus in a great position to help our sisters and brothers undo the quite local and particular taboos, violence, and structures which masquerade as being of God, but are in fact the work of idols. Who would have thought that it would be LGBT Catholics who could bear witness to the freshness of the Gospel, the way it brings creation alive, even the value of natural law, not as a trap but as an adventure? Talk about the stone that the builders rejected!”

As with much of Alison’s writing, every sentence holds a gem.  Moreover, so much of his richness is in his expansive exegesis of a particular Scripture text.   I have given you some highlights, above, from his talk. If your appetite has been whetted, I highly encourage you to read the entire text by clicking here.

Stay tuned for other “Ways of Love” conference news and other Synod-related events.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


5 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    Absolutely dazzling! I believe every one of us wishes that he or she could write like that…LOL! The even better news is that I believe Pope Francis, in his own heart of hearts, agrees with such an exegesis. The question then becomes: does Pope Francis have the personal courage to lead the entire Church toward an implementation of this core understanding? His “Who am I to judge?” observation was an impressive beginning. What is sorely needed now is the courage and the wisdom to follow through with doctrinal reformation and rectification.

    • Bill Freeman
      Bill Freeman says:

      While what is written is, of course great, the lived reality is the demonizing and public shunning of gays and lesbian Roman Catholics. That is the scandal that needs repair and reparation.

      • Friends
        Friends says:

        Absolutely correct, Bill. It’s now down on Pope Francis himself — to strengthen and to confirm the promise of a “New Reformation” within the Roman Catholic Church. Pope St. John XXIII showed us how such a daunting mission can be accomplished, through his Papal example of charismatic leadership. But the problem is that his direct successors — exempting Pope John Paul I, who lasted only 30 days, and who died under very suspicious circumstances — have aggressively ROLLED BACK 50% to 75/% of what Pope St. John XXIII had accomplished at Vatican II. As long as our Church maintains this attitude of “One Step Forward, Three Steps Back”, the prognosis for necessary reform is troubled, to put it mildly.


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