Fr. James Alison: Support for Civil Unions Reveals Deeper Truth About Pope Francis

Fr. James Alison

Today’s post is part of Bondings 2.0‘s ongoing coverage of Pope Francis’ support for civil unions that recognize same-gender couples and reactions to it. For previous reports and commentaries, see the bottom of this post.

In a commentary, theologian and openly gay priest Fr. James Alison described Pope Francis’ support for civil unions as “something not especially new, and yet genuinely ‘a big deal’.”

What is the “big deal” for Alison, who was restored to priestly ministry by Pope Francis last year in a personal phone call from the pontiff? Alison offers the following reflection on his website (an edited version of which was also published in The Guardian):

“[It is a big deal] In part because the Holy Father is clearly representing such civil unions as a good and desirable thing, to be actively promoted, rather than a lesser evil. And second because he affirms the rightness of same-sex couples forming a family and being part of the family of the Church. This will evidently create waves in countries where homosexuality is illegal, as well as cause heartache to rigorist Americans who have sought legal exemption from employing same-sex couples who have entered into legal unions. While only apparently a tiny shift with regards the ‘lesser evil’ view, Francis’ position is inconceivable for someone who believes same-sex acts of the sort usually involved in the lives of such couples to be mortal sins, leading those involved to go to hell. If you believed those things, you would seek to break up such couples, not stabilize them.”

Alison’s opines that “Pope Francis does not believe those things,” and critiques the English-speaking world’s treatment of Catholic LGBTQ issues as questions of dogma or biblical interpretation. Rather, the theologian suggests, the question is specifically anthropological and “fairly simple”:

“[E]ither it is true that being gay or lesbian is a vicious or pathological form of a humanity which is only authentically heterosexual; or it is true that being gay or lesbian is simply something that is: a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. If the former, then ‘giving in’ to being gay or lesbian is to follow the path of your objective disorder, and ultimately to exclude yourself from grace. If the latter, then becoming who you are starts from who you find yourself to be, including your sexual orientation, and the appropriate humanization of your sexual desire will be worked out in appropriate relationships over time.”

In his conclusion, Alison notes “the speed with which, over the last thirty years or so, Catholic majority populations have generally worked out for themselves that it is the latter which is true.” Alison does not gloss over the real problems in the church and harm being done by some church leaders, but he suggests that critics of Francis’ attempts to differentiate between civil unions and marriage is “a bit of a canard” given the fluctuating history of marriage in the church. Alison concludes:

“As a priest who has been privileged to be a witness at several same-sex ceremonies, where on each occasion the couple gave their own title to what they were doing, I would say this: let the cake rise before you put on the icing. The cake in question is our shared culture and knowledge concerning publicly lived and legal same-sex couplings. The important thing has been the achievement of legal guarantees for stable living. Soon the first generation in history of gay and lesbian kids will reach marriageable age for whom civil marriage was never an impossibility. As their forms of socialization and family witness become clearer we will learn what sort of sacramentality inheres in their unions, and thus what forms of blessing are warranted. No rush to legislate where we have such little jurisprudence. That we have the cake, and the Pope’s affirmation that we should have it, is wonderful. The discussion about the shape and colour of the icing will no doubt be all that and more.”

To read Fr. Alison’s piece in full, click here. To read Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of his writings and work, click here.

Bondings 2.0’s Coverage of Pope Francis & Civil Unions

October 21, 2020: “New Ways Ministry Praises Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, Seeks Same Recognition in Church

October 22, 2020: “In New Film, Pope Francis Declares Support for Civil Unions to Protect LGBTQ Families

October 22, 2020: “The Good and the Bad of Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

October 23, 2020: “LGBTQ and Catholic Advocates Worldwide Praise Pope Francis’ Support for Civil Unions

October 24, 2020: “Exuberant Praise for Pope Francis from One Bishop, But from Others, Not So Much

October 26, 2020: “While Some Continue to Laud Pope’s Support for Civil Unions, Others Have a Different View

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 27, 2020

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