Friday, September 18, 2009

James Alison on “Navigating Scandal in Confusing Times”

Back in 2007, the Diocese of Westminster, in the interest of “pastoral care,” began offering a bi-monthly Mass for “homosexual Catholics,” their parents, families and friends at Our Lady of the Assumption in the Soho district of London.

As could be expected, some Catholics were unhappy with this arrangement. John Haldane, for instance, writing in the March 2007 issue of The Tablet, expressed concern that such a pastoral initiative would not only be a source of confusion and scandal to the faithful, but a way by which some (i.e., Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on homosexuality) would exploit the “gift of the Mass.”

Gay Catholic theologian James Alison had a counter-point commentary in the same issue of The Tablet. Following are excerpts from Alison’s piece that I find particularly helpful and hopeful. Perhaps you will too.


New understandings emerge; some are authentic, some are not. The process of discernment is difficult; during the process of discernment, confusion does arise among the faithful, and this does have consequences for spreading the Gospel. We should not be afraid of pursuing truth, because ultimately whatever is true will be shown to have come from God.

. . . Church authority has become aware that the advent of “matters gay” in recent years may not primarily centre on sexual ethics at all. Rather it concerns an emerging anthropological truth about a regular, normal and non-pathological variant within the human condition. In other words, it is not so much that the Church’s teaching about sexual ethics is being challenged by insufficiently heroic people, but the field of application of that teaching is being redefined by emerging reality. And of course it is proper to the Catholic faith, where Creation and Salvation are never to be completely separated, that it takes very seriously “what is” as informing “what should be” rather than trying to force “what is” to fit into an understanding of “what should be” derived from other sources.

. . . Mercifully, the Catholic faith does offer us the possibility of living through the working out of whether being gay is to be characterised as either a form of viciousness or a pathology as has traditionally been taught, or as a normal and non-pathological variant in nature. The distinction between orders of teaching such that “third order” teachings are not Communion breakers is not purely an intellectual tool, but an ecclesial one as well. Because of it, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, can in good faith both put forward the traditional teaching and invite a group of people many of whom do not agree with it to take an active part in the construction of the life of the Church as long as they agree not to make of the sacraments an ideological issue. He offers cover to the consciences of those for whom the lens of the pathological characterisation of the homosexual condition is vital for their faith not to be scandalised, and yet signals that the belief of some that they are dealing with a non-pathological way of being may turn out to be true over time.

. . . For me, this ecclesial fleshing out of a third-order teaching offers a challenge to two equal and opposed forms of Donatism: those who do not wish to be in communion with impure self-professed sodomites, and those who do not wish to be in communion with a Church whose official teaching goes counter to what they are finding to be the truth concerning being gay, and yet so many of whose clergy are closeted gay men. Both these forms of ideological purity have roiled other ecclesial communities throughout the world, precisely because those communities do not seem to have a way of ecclesially enfleshing living together while we work out what is true over time.

Professor Haldane’s tone of constructive suggestion suggests that like me, he is fighting any temptation to Donatism. Unlike him, I think it was right that the cardinal should not mention . . . Courage or any of the other groups that may have been involved in discussions with diocesan representatives. Where none is mentioned, all can fit in on their own terms. Of course there will always be a place in any Catholic structure for a group of people who wish to encourage each other in the pursuit of a celibate lifestyle. Such a group can flourish better only if that pursuit is a matter of a gift to them, rather than an obligation derived from an erroneous characterisation of their starting point. But what is true, the reality of Our Lord’s giving himself to us through the Mass, and building us up as Church, is more important than these matters, and to be rejoiced in by all.

At last, the Catholic Church in London will have the opportunity to evangelise in the midst of a central part of modern urban culture, one that attracts many gay and lesbian people from abroad. That this opportunity should have been so carefully worked out by the diocese in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in such a way as to enable us all to navigate scandal in confusing times is not of purely local ecclesial significance. I am grateful for the bravery of all those who faced the fears and pains of establishing this initiative and ask for the prayers of those who are dismayed.


The following is excerpted from a story posted on in September 2008:

In December 2007, a statement and media release had confirmed that there would be no more Masses for “special groups” in the country’s leading archdiocese. But the Soho Masses Pastoral Council (SMPC), the organisation that negotiated the regular bi-monthly Masses for the “LGBTQ” (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and queer) community in London, confirms that the Masses continue in the Soho district of the city in a Catholic parish. Indeed, eyewitnesses have reported that the Masses continue and, despite the public promise by the archdiocese, were never in abeyance even for one Sunday.

If anyone has any more recent news about the situation in the Westminster diocese, please feel free to share it.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Faith, Gays and Chastity – John Haldane (The Tablet, March 3, 2007).
On Helping the Faithful Negotiate Confusion – James Alison (The Tablet, March 3, 2007).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Will We See a Change?
James B. Nelson on “Sexual Rules” and “Openness to Life”
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Gifts of Homosexuality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Making Love, Giving Life
What Is It That Ails You?
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
The “Ratzinger Letter” of 1986 as “Theological Pornography”
Holding the Courage Apostolate Accountable

Image: James Alison at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN - July 2008. (Photo: Michael J. Bayly)


gionatanews said...

A bit of news about the Soho Masses . . . read on . . . :-)

Greeting from Italy

London Catholics celebrate 10 years of gay-affirming Masses

Proudly gay and proudly Catholic

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks so much for providing these links.



Mareczku said...

Great articles all. I actually e-mailed "Proudly gay and proudly Catholic" to my friends at Courage. That story was especially heartwarming.

martin said...

Dear friends

The Soho Masses community in London, England, is very much alive and well! See our website: The Sunday evening congregation numbers around 120, including some straight
members of the wider parish community. The new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, used his homily at the 10th Anniversary Memorial Mass for Cardinal Basil Hume, in June 2009,to highlight the late Cardinal's teaching around sexual orientation. The homily may be found at The Aerchbishoop has also let it be known that he is content with the present arrangements at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory. That won't be good news to the ragged gaggle of protesters who still demomnstrate outside the Church at our Masses.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for the update, Martin. It's greatly appreciated.

I'm glad to hear that the Masses in Soho are alive and well, and I look forward to regularly visiting your website. I'll also add it to The Wild Reed's list of "Recommended Websites."



jamie hill said...

hello there i stumbled upon your article about the masses for gays in westminster sadly i was not as a gay man able to attend those gay masses but still attend mass at my local church its sad the bigots are still about in the church ive lost fingers and toes to count the number of gay,lesbian and transexual catholics in london over the years. the church first needs to gut out the priests still identifying as being gay or accept them it doesnt help when a majority are performing sick and lewd act against children loke in ireland. Quest is, also, a good place for catholics to contact in england quite a few of the people ive met over the years have left the catholic church and joined the metropolitan community church keep up the good work on changing catholic attitudes perhaps you should contact premier christian radio to tell them about your work