Laity Key to Releasing Gay Priests from “Lying Trap,” Writes Theologian James Alison

Fr. James Alison

YesterdayBondings 2.0 outlined the first column in Fr. James Alison’s two-part series on homosexuality and the priesthood. Today’s post summarizes the second column in The Tablet, which you can read in full here.  [Editor’s note:  If you are blocked by The Tablet’s pay wall, you can access the articles on James Alison’s personal website by clicking here, though it has a different headline than The Tablet.]

The clerical closet, four dimensions of which Alison named in his first column, has created a trap for gay priests. His second column explored the origins of this trap and how it might be overcome. First, Alison surveyed the changing discourse beginning in the 19th century of how homosexuality was understood and then a century later, in the 1990s, how common lesbian and gay acceptance had become. But the theologian continued by looking at the Church’s development on the issue:

“Meanwhile, the clerical safe space with its (comparatively) soft, informal ‘hypocrisy’ was, by comparison, becoming an ever more unsafe space. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not particularly cruel when it is just the way things are for the whole of society. But when it shifts into becoming an ever more explicit imposition on a small group in the midst of a growing ease around them, you are heading for an artificially constructed trap, not least because those on the outside can see ever more clearly what those on the inside have to pretend isn’t there. Think of the politically inspired imposition of an already socially moribund ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on our militaries in the 1990s. The result was an increase in persecution, dismissals, fearfulness, vindictiveness, loss of talent and power to the zealots.

“However, the biggest threat to the old safe space came as science caught up with the evidence of people’s lives: that a same-sex orientation is a more or less stable, regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. What must it have been like for a gay cleric of the generation of Paul VI? You have lived through the social and psychological changes of the century, and you rejoice, as the second Vatican Council did, at all that was positive in the post-war years. And yet at the same time the previous world’s ‘underside’ (identification with which you might have been at some level fleeing for decades, and for good moral reasons) was about to creep not only into the open, in the carnavalesque sense of Stonewall and subsequent Pride movements, but into the soul, as something that you just are.”

But magisterial teachings beginning in the 1970s would reject a non-pathologized, non-clinical understanding of sexual orientation by drawing distinctions between acts and being. Alison explained the situation that arose for gay men entering the priesthood in this post-Vatican II period:

“Thus you have the bizarre situation in which a teaching that, in context, originally helped genuinely pious gay men who wanted to live chastely (and I imagine that at least a couple of recent Holy Fathers were of this sort) has become converted by ‘facts on the ground’ (and the theological attempt to resist them) into a trap. Those who become relatively healthy through their experience with others like themselves in their ecclesial belonging learn discreetly to ignore both a teaching based on a falsehood about who they are, and the formal commitments made while under the illusion of that false teaching, and it becomes functional for everyone to turn a blind eye. The same teaching is functional for those who are extremely unhealthy (reinforcing their refusal to accept who they are) and for opportunistic careerists, enabling these latter types to become the most vociferous allies of the genuinely pious, but frightened, senior celibates in the maintenance of the appearance of the old world. Doesn’t that look like much of the senior clergy from, say, 1965 to 2013?”

Alison proposed actions which rely heavily on the laity to address an untenable situation . First, LGBT-affirming lay Catholics must “be encouraged in their fast-growing acceptance that being gay is a normal part of life.” Pope Francis’ words to Juan Carlos Cruz, a gay man to whom the pope said “God made you like this,” set an example to follow:

“Nevertheless, it is only when straightforward, and obviously true, Christian messaging like Francis’ becomes normal among the laity that honesty can become the norm among the clergy. Otherwise we will continue with the absurd and pharisaical situation in which there is one rule for the clergy (‘Doesn’t matter what you do so long as you don’t say so in public or challenge the teaching’) and another for the laity, passed off as ‘the teaching of the Church’ and brutally enforced, for instance among employees of schools, parish organists, sports coaches and the like.”

Alison commented as well on reports that Pope Francis told Italian bishops they should not accept gay men in the priesthood. Francis’ reported words when asked about the question were, “If you are in any doubt [about gay men], no.” Unlike many observers, Alison did not believe this was a prohibition but a merciful statement:

“I read the remark differently: that of a wise and merciful man addressing a group of men, a significant proportion of whom are gay, and telling them, in effect, that only those among them who are capable of honesty in dealing with their future charges should induct people like themselves into the clergy: ‘Are you yourself going to vacillate in standing up publicly for the honesty of the young man? If so, don’t make his future dependent on your cowardice.'”

In summary, changes in rules for clergy hinge on changes in rules for the laity. Acceptance among the latter is already “beginning to pierce the clerical closet in the shape of a firm, but gently upheld, demand for penitential first-person truthfulness as we are painfully let go from the systemic trap.” Alison’s charge is for the laity to keep working for acceptance, even against resistance, a call we would all do well to heed. To read Alison’s full column, click here. [Editor’s note:  If you are blocked by The Tablet’s pay wall, you can access the articles on James Alison’s personal website by clicking here, though it has a different headline than The Tablet.]

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 19, 2018

3 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Is Allison saying that Francis’ comment about not accepting gay men into seminary was really saying that if they cannot be honest about themselves that will only cause serious problems for themselves and their future charges? I’m confused.

  2. Kris
    Kris says:

    Alison is naive in his benign (and highly fanciful) interpretation of Pope Francis’ ban on gay candidates for seminary. Far from being merciful, the pope’s reported statement on seminary admission to a gathering of Italian bishops (‘If in doubt …about a candidate’s sexuality…then no.’), is the antithesis of mercy, I should have thought; more than this, it’s a thesis of deep injustice.

    Francis is quite prepared to ban from seminary even candidates who may be straight, in order to avoid the accidental admission of anyone who is gay. His words to these bishops could be reduced to this (Meme?): ‘Err on the side of caution, my brother bishops. Better that heterosexual candidates be denied the opportunity to fulfill their God-given vocations to priesthood, than that we should have even one known queer about the place.’ An end-justifies-the-means homophobia cloaked as moral argument.

    Ideologically, there really isn’t a world of difference between this pope and Caiaphas, when the latter proclaimed it better that one man (Jesus) should die than that the Jewish people should suffer death from Roman reprisal.

  3. Laura Elise T Blais
    Laura Elise T Blais says:

    Thank-you for introducing me to Fr. James Alison . His writing style approaches the subject directly and simply , however difficult and multi-faceted the issue is . The comment made by Pope Francis regarding gay men entering seminary was addressed exquisitely .
    How often do we speak in a language the person we are speaking with does not understand?
    What a valuable service you provide ! THANK-YOU


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